Marx or Jefferson?

Du Bois’s relationship to Marxism has become a focus of considerable debate in US sociology; the stakes are at once intellectual and crypto-political. Some want to enroll Du Bois into the ranks of ‘intersectional theory’, a notion which holds that everything has exactly three causes (race, class, and gender), somewhat analogous to the way certain Weberians are dogmatically attached to a fixed set of ‘factors’ (ideological, economic, military, political). Others want to incorporate him into the tradition of Western Marxism and its signature problem of failed revolution. Broadly speaking, the first group tends to emphasize Du Bois’s earlier writings, thereby downplaying the influence of Marxism, while the second focuses on his later work, with its critiques of capitalism and imperialism and its reflections on the Soviet experiment.

But Du Bois’s masterwork, Black Reconstruction (1935), doesn’t fit either of these interpretations. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ appears nowhere, and there is no evidence that DuBois thought in these terms. Nor is Du Bois’s proletariat, or at least its most politically important part, the industrial working class; it is rather the family farmer, both in the West and the South, both black and white. Accordingly, his political ideal was ‘agrarian democracy’. He sometimes refers to those supporting this programme rather misleadingly as ‘peasant farmers’ or ‘peasant proprietors’, which might lead one to think that he is closer to ‘Populism’ in the Russian sense than to Marxism. But that too would be a misreading, for in his understanding the social foundation of democracy does not consist in a pre-capitalist village structure with collective ownership of land, but in a stratum of independent small holders (one that failed fully to appear in the South after the Civil War because of ferocious resistance by the plantocracy, which produced the amphibious figure of the share-cropper).

In contrast to Du Bois, most European Marxists have been wary of calling for the redistribution of large landed estates, on account of the political and economic consequences of establishing a small holding peasantry. Dividing up land can be both politically liberatory and economically regressive, as the French Revolution demonstrated most clearly. Remember too that Gramsci’s The Southern Question (1926), a text which bears a resemblance to Black Reconstruction, was written partially as a defence against the accusation that the nascent Italian communist party demanded the breakup of the southern latifundia.

It may be, after all, that Du Bois is best understood neither as a theorist of intersectionality avant la lettre, nor as a Marxist, but rather as a radical and consistent democrat. His ideal political subject was the independent family farmer, able to withdraw from labour and commodity markets to some extent, or at least to engage with them on favourable and independent terms. In this Du Bois is a deeply American thinker whose critique of capitalism is more republican than socialist. For Du Bois’s concern was not really the failure of a socialist revolution, but rather the missed opportunity of a Jeffersonian Arcadia.

Read On: John-Baptiste Oduor, ‘Segregations Sequiturs’, NLR 136.