Marx or Jefferson?

Image: George Grosz


In Du Bois's understanding, the social foundation of democracy lies not in a pre-capitalist village structure with collective land ownership, but in a stratum of independent small landowners.

WEB Du Bois's relationship with Marxism has become the focus of considerable debate in American sociology; What is at stake are issues that are both intellectual and crypto-political. Some want to include Du Bois in the list of “intersectional theory”, a notion that maintains that everything has exactly three causes (race, class and gender), an idea somewhat analogous to the way that Weberians are dogmatically attached to a fixed set of “factors ” (ideological, economic, military, political).

Others want to incorporate it into the tradition of Western Marxism and its characteristic problem, the failed revolution. In general terms, the first group tends to emphasize Du Bois's early writings, thus relativizing the influence of Marxism, while the second group focuses on his later work, with his criticisms of capitalism and imperialism and reflections on the experiment Soviet.

But Du Bois' masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America, does not fit into any of these interpretations. The concept of “intersectionality” appears nowhere, and there is no evidence that Du Bois thought in these terms. Just as Du Bois's proletariat, or at least its most important political part, is not the industrial working class; is, in fact, the family farmer, both in the West and in the South, black and white.

Consequently, his political ideal was an “agrarian democracy”. He sometimes refers, somewhat misleadingly, to those who support this program as “peasant farmers” or “peasant landowners,” which might lead one to think that he is closer to “populism” in the Russian sense than to Marxism. But this would also be a misreading, since, in Du Bois's understanding, the social foundation of democracy is not to be found in a pre-capitalist village structure with collective land ownership, but in a stratum of independent small landowners (which failed completely in appearing in the South after the Civil War, due to the fierce resistance of the plantocracy, which produced the amphibious figure of the tenant farmer).

In contrast to Du Bois, most European Marxists have been cautious in advocating the redistribution of large rural properties, because of the political and economic consequences of establishing a peasantry of small landowners. Land division can be politically liberating and economically regressive, as the French Revolution clearly demonstrated. Let us also remember that The southern question by Antonio Gramsci, a text that resembles the Black Reconstruction, was partly written as a defense against the charge that the nascent Italian Communist Party demanded the break-up of southern latifundia.

It may be that, in the end, the best way to understand Du Bois is not as an intersectional theorist before la lettre and not even as a Marxist, but as a radical and consistent democrat. Its ideal political subject was the independent farming family, capable of, to some extent, withdrawing from the market, or at least participating in it on favorable and independent terms.

In this, Du Bois shows what a profoundly American thinker he is, with a critique of capitalism that is more republican than socialist. Because Du Bois's concern was not the failure of a socialist revolution, but the missed opportunity of a Jeffersonian Arcadia.

*Dylan Riley is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Author, among other books, of Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present (To).

Translation: Julio Tude d'Avila

Originally published on New Left Review.

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