“Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”
– Karl Marx, Das Kapital
“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found
incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”
– Publius, Federalist No. 10
Published in 1920, “Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil” by W.E.B. Du Bois, stands as an omniscient work of profound and widespread pertinence. Constituting Du Bois’ first autobiographical effort, “Darkwater” moves beyond the traditional memoir to include essays, spirituals, and poems. The work at large addresses the social, political, and economic forces at play in American and global government, all from the impetus of Du Bois’ lived experience.
Of note, “Darkwater” features a historical discursive style rooted in the writing of “Publius,” the anonymous political architect of “The Federalist Papers.” In typical aristocratic fashion, Publius, a pseudonym, was used by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to anonymously publish essays for the ratification of an American constitution. Highly abstract, the Publius treatises pose philosophical questions of Democratic government, with sharp focus on the Enlightenment ideals of Universalism and Rationalism. Publius uses these Western European tenets to construct a potential American federal system that is formed through hierarchies and inter-governmental structural delineation. In Parts IV and VI of “Darkwater,” Du Bois appropriates these two significant features of Publius’ discussions: most forthrightly, Du Bois adopts the question-answer method for shaping the discourse and the idealized systemic response, and, most consequentially, Du Bois engages the philosophical ideas and ideals of eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy that predominantly concern Publius’ tract. In using this rhetorical method, Du Bois elucidates his own treatise of government: his own “Federalist.” Chiefly concerned with questions of race and political economy, “Darkwater” delineates the ills of the Industrial capitalist order and the merits of Marxism and pure Democracy in saving Hamilton’s America.
In Part IV, “Of Work and Wealth,” Du Bois contextualizes his political economic theory within the Great Migration. This mass movement of African-Americans, manifested in a transition from southern rural living to northern industrial contractual
labor, created the conditions for inter-upper class white strife. Du Bois finds this jostling in increased competition among the bourgeois for lower class laborers. He
elaborates, “a scream of rage went up from the cotton monopolists and industrial barons of the new South. Who was this who dared to ‘interfere’ with their labor? Who sought to own their black slaves but they? Who honored and loved ‘niggers’ as they did?” Du Bois’ language demands a recognition of the rhetoric employed by fin de siècle whites. The use of ownership and paternalistic motives speak to Du Bois’ experience of a continued black subjugation in white language and philosophy unhaltered by abolition. Du Bois traces the consequence of these white reactions to the “machinery of modern oppression,” which includes the “taxes… wholesale police arrests and, of course, the peculiarly Southern method of the mob and the lyncher.” The author’s ironic tone should not lessen the severity of these tactics to the reader.
The utilization of literary ability, paramount throughout the book, comes to the fore in “the stage for the tragedy,” in which Du Bois plays the Greek chorus: “the armored might of the modern world urged by the bloody needs of the world wants, fevered today by a fabulous vision of gain and needing only hands, hands, hands!” In more grounded words, the psychological effects of the Industrial Revolution and modern global capitalism engender a searing desire for material prosperity and the need for the lowest classes to labor to fulfill these demands. Therefore, the need for their labor renders the lowest classes in power. Later, Du Bois reasserts this reversal of the power rich/poor dichotomy: “The vision of industrial supremacy… can never be realized unless the laborers are here to do work.” Similar to Marxian theory, it is the power intrinsic in the lowest classes that serves as the foundation of Du Bois’ political economic reimagining.
In ushering a post-inequality global socio-economic order, Du Bois finds his revolutionary protagonist in the American Negro. In delineating the lower class laborers’ power, Du Bois displays a relation to black exceptionalism: “…the American Negro stand today as the greatest strategic group in the world. Their services are indispensable… and their souls have seen a vision more beautiful than any other mass of workers.” Here, Du Bois establishes a potential tension with his previously racially non-determinative categorization of the proletariat class’ leverage. Would not a race group with a purview grander than the others render them superior, and therefore unequal? Too, the language and narratives of “Darkwater”’s first three parts lend significant evidence to this accusation of Du Boisian exceptionalism and separatism. Nevertheless, the given excerpt’s first sentence suggests Du Bois’ rationale for black exceptionalism. It is the American Negroes’ strategic position that most excites Du Bois. The unrealized potential of “12,000,000 strong” offers Du Bois human agency for his revolution . One could argue that the theory’s allocation of human capital is not dissimilar to the industrialists and their use of labor in their own revolution. The discourse on elitism, which often views Du Bois in the context of African-American paternalism over nascent African states, would benefit from interrogating Du Bois from a political economic perspective. Regardless, it is the potential in African-American solidarity that Du Bois sees that should be noted from the passage.
Having placated the essential questions of race and racism, and inverted the traditional influence and subordination paradigm, Du Bois delineates his political economic theory. Heavily grounded in Marxist rhetoric and strategies, Du Bois explicates the systemic changes needed to suppress Bourgeois economic, social, and political control. He frames the debate around two fundamental questions for a utopian egalitarian government: “How to furnish goods and services for the wants of men,” and “how equitably and sufficiently to satisfy these wants.” First, Du Bois dismisses the instinctive responses of race hatred and jealousy as true answers to these questions. And in line with Alain Locke’s work, Dubois labels these responses as “surface disturbances, sprung from ancient habit more than from present reason.” He also refutes those who view gross wealth inequality as the natural “reward of Thrift and Sacrifice”. Du Bois writes, “the disproportion between wealth and poverty today cannot be adequately accounted for by the Thrift and Ignorance of the rich and the poor.” Thus, with liberal and racial responses shown incorrect, Du Bois turns to a Marxian distribution of material and notions of ownership and property rights from which to ground his answer. While the private ownership of industry “may at one stage of economic development be a method of stimulating production,” the socio-economic order contemporary to Du Bois constitutes an untenable wealth monopoly, which proliferates and augments economic disparity. To equitize this injustice, Du Bois envisions an imminent restructuring of the public/private dichotomy: “we are rapidly approaching the day when we shall repudiate all private property in raw materials and tools and demand that distribution hinge, not on the power of those who monopolize the materials, but on the needs of the mass of men.” Du Bois envisions the state as the facilitator of a utopian economic democracy, and assigns it the pseudonym “Somebody.” Unlike Publius’ weak federal system, it is an omniscient Somebody that guarantees the production of goods, and decides the just distribution of these goods to those deemed worthy.
To combat critiques of consolidation and socialization, Du Bois presages an increase in the production of individual systems within this drastically more powerful Leviathan. He writes, rather academically, “the amount and kind of human ability necessary need not be decreased.” And in anticipation of those who profess the ambition spurred by Capitalism, Du Bois champions “proper encouragement and awards,” namely non-material incentives, as sufficient. He too claims the immoral desire for profit and interest will be subsided. Du Bois concludes his theory with a hopeful vision (again reminiscent of Locke,) that in this future egalitarian society and economy, humanity’s innate appreciation for art will come forth and maintain justice. He optimistically asks “ Shall we all be artists and all serve?”
Part VI continues Du Bois exposition of a new political economic order. In “Of the Ruling of Men,” Du Bois indicts eighteenth-century Liberalism and its inegalitarian realization in America’s current capitalist economic order. To Du Bois, eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy en masse culminated in “Universal Expression.” This notion is pared by Du Bois down to, “if All ruled they would rule for All and thus Universal Good was sought through Universal Suffrage.” Du Bois then critiques the actual realization of this just abstract tenet. Unfortunately, the high minded ideal was ignored by the ruling men, whose “widespread ignorance” only applied universal rights to “the things they knew or knew partially.” Du Bois sees the regulation of public taxes and the freeing of trade, among other aspects of the Western socio-economic order, as manifestations of this fault. Here, Du Bois argues that the White Western governmental purveyors of Enlightenment philosophy, like the writers of “The Federalist,” did not think vastly enough in terms of liberalization. While the aristocrats freed the processes they participated in and the human beings who looked and held social stature as themselves, they did not consider the freeing of production or material. Here, Du Bois’ calls for the socialization of economy for the liberation of human potential, the key to his political economic argument, is ignored by the fruitioneers of Enlightenment thought.
Nevertheless, Du Bois binds his theory to the grand egalitarian and Democratic notions of liberty and freedom. He begins by connecting the failed fruition of Enlightened ideals to the unjust political economy of his own time. Within the broad confines of a pro-market pseudo-Universalist Liberalism, the nineteenth century capitalists found space to amass wealth. Du Bois continues, “the suddenness of this ‘Industrial Revolution’… [was] largely the determination of powerful and intelligent individuals to secure the benefits of privileged persons.” Thereby, the economic order of Industrial America stood in stark tension with the true political and ethical foundations of Western democracy, the Universal “Freedom” that Du Bois is drawn to. The unfortunate result, a society that “sneered” at Democracy and found grounding in new, vastly different ideals. These ideals, “Fate which gave divine right to rule to the Captains of Industry,” and “Philanthropy [,] which organized vast schemes of relief to stop at least the flow of blood in the vaster wounds which industry was making.” However, subsequent the abolition of slavery, a contradictory force challenged this paradigm. Against what would at surface be their economic interest, the philanthropists, themselves giants of industry, attempted the Democratization of the freed African-American.
Through federal law (the 14th and 15th Amendments,) cross-class suffrage, and education, among more radical redistributive measures, some philanthropists sought to diminish inequality. Nevertheless, these efforts did not prevail: the negro was separated through Jim Crow and disenfranchised, the Universalist notions of the Enlightenment were cemented the right of only the white races, and, the natural revolutionary “rise of a mass of black and white laborers” was halted. This is the America, and world, from which Du Bois writes, the surrounding milieu which catalyzes his need for a new order.
Du Bois concludes Part VI by returning to the abstract notion of Democracy. He posits,
“Who may be excluded from a share in the ruling of men?
Time and time again the world has answered:
Du Bois finds fault in this status quo. How can a government that prides itself on promoting a philosophy of equality for All accept the exclusion of so many? The answers lies in the “self interest of the present real rulers,” the Bourgeois hold on government and institutions. In one of the work’s most powerful criticisms, Du Bois challenges the very Democratic nature of America, with a searing tone particularly insulting to the genteel aristocratic class: “no state is civilized which has citizens too ignorant to help it rule.” He continues, “education is not a prerequisite to political control – political control is the cause of popular education.” Du Bois illuminates what is too often unsaid: political participation means the spread of high Democratic ideals, and breaks the system of hereditary political power, of class, race, and caste, that has marred human potential for eternity.
To right social and political economic injustices, Du Bois demands the suffrage of all races, classes, and sexes. He perorates, “We must remember that if the theory of democracy is correct, the right to vote is not merely a privilege, not simply a method of meeting the needs of a particular group… Democracy is a method of realizing the broadest measure of justice to all human beings.” Furthermore, it is this human right, this justice inherent in political agency, that allows Du Bois’ Somebody to gain its greatest governing wisdom: “In the people we have the source of that endless life and unbounded wisdom which the rulers of men must have… if democracy tries to exclude women or Negroes or the poor or any class… then that democracy cripples itself and belies its name.”
There is a hope, an urgency in the tone Du Bois takes on Democracy that harkens to the aspirations of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. It is a hope that is challenged in the voter suppression tactics of the contemporary American Right. And while our system cannot be compared to Du Bois’ utopia, his argument for the participation in and hearing of All by government stands a beacon of humanism and egalitarianism. As I write, hours before the presidential election results are counted and a new head of Publius’ America is anointed, I hear the calls for a less Democratic America from those of all ideological persuasions. Like Du Bois, I hope they are in vain.
Sam Rubin is a senior year Bachelor of Arts candidate in Music, with minors in Politics and English, at Ithaca College. In addition to his performing engagements, Sam is interested in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, music of the Polish Avant-Garde, and American government. Sam has interned with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. He hopes to pursue graduate work in law, political science, musicology, or some combination of the three.