The Right to Work (1933)

The Right to Work (1933)

We have been taught to regard the industrial system today as fixed and permanent. Our problem has been locked upon as the static one of adjusting ourselves to American industry and entering it on its own terms. Our first awakening came when we found that the technique of industry changes so fast and the machine displaces and modifies human labor in so many ways, that it is practically impossible for our Negro industrial schools to equip themselves so as to train youth for current work, while the actual shops and apprentice systems are largely closed to us.

Our second lesson is to realize that the whole industrial system in the United States and in the world is changing and will change radically, either by swift evolution or here and there by revolution; and instead of our sitting like dumb and patient fools awaiting the salvation of the white industrial Lord, it is our duty now to prepare for a new organization and a new status, new modes of making a living, and a new organization of industry.

It is immaterial to us whether this change in the surrounding white world comes in ten, twenty-five or one hundred years. The fact is that the change is inevitable. No system of human culture can stand world war and industrial cataclysm repeatedly, without radical reorganization, either by reasoned reform or irrational collapse.


What, then, shall we do? What can we do? Parties of reform, of socialism and communism beckon us. None of these offers us anything concrete or dependable. From Brook Farm down to the L.I.P.A., the face of reform has been set to lift the white producer and consumer, leaving the black man and his peculiar problems severely alone, with the fond hope that better white men will hate Negroes less and better white conditions make race contact more human and respectable. This has sometimes happened, but more often it has not.

Socialists and Communists assume that state control of industry by a majority of citizens or by a dictatorship of laborers, is going in some magic way to abolish race prejudice of its own accord without special effort or special study or special plan; and they want us Negroes to assume on faith that this will be the result.

Yet nothing in the history of American socialism gives us the slightest assurance on this point, and with American communism led by a group of pitiable mental equipment, who give no thought to the intricacies of the American situation, the vertical and horizontal divisions of the American working classes; and who plan simply to raise hell on any and all occasions, with Negroes as shock troops,—these offer in reality nothing to us except social equality in jail.

On the other hand, we would be idiots not to recognize the imminence of industrial change along socialistic and even communistic lines, which the American revolution sooner or later is bound to take. If we simply mill contentedly after the streaming herd, with no clear idea of our own solutions of our problem, what can we expect but the contempt of reformers and slavery to a white proletariat? If we expect to enter present or future industry upon our own terms, we must have terms; we must have power; we must learn the secret of economic organization; we must submit to leadership, not of words but of ideas; we must weld the civilized part of these 12 millions of our race into an industrial phalanx that cannot be ignored, and which America and the world will come to regard as a strong asset under any system and not merely as a weak and despicable liability.


What, then, shall we do? We cannot use the power of a State because we do not form a State. We cannot dictate as a proletariat, because we are a minority, and not as Marxism and Socialism usually assume an overwhelming majority with power in the reach of its outstretched arms.

On the contrary, we are a despised minority, whose social chains are not loosed, and who have the contempt of the white workers, even more than of capitalists and investors. Despite this, we are strong. Our unrealized strength is so enormous that the world wonders at our stupid apathy. We are physically able to survive slavery, lynching, debauchery, mob-rule, cheating and poverty, and yet remain the most prolific, original element in America, with good health and strength. We have brains, energy, and even taste and genius. From our depths of poverty, we have amassed some wealth. Out of charity, our schools, colleges and universities are growing to be real centers of learning, and Negro literature and art has been distilled from our blood and sweat. There is no way of keeping us in continued industrial slavery, unless we continue to enslave ourselves, and remain content to work as servants for white folk and dumb driven laborers for nothing.


What can we do? We can work for ourselves. We can consume mainly what we ourselves produce, and produce as large a proportion as possible of that which we consume.

Going back to the preaching of Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, we can by consumers and producers cooperation, by phalanstéres and garden cities, establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.

I am aware of the gale of laughter which such a proposal produces, not only from fools, but from serious students of economics, Of course, we are told, that 1848 scotched socialism; that “labor exchanges” failed; that New Harmony died; that Proudhon’s Bank of Exchange became a joke; and much else in this line. But the basic idea beneath all this did not fail, as thousands of successful co-operatives throughout the world testify; as Denmark and Russia are living witnesses; as the working men’s homes of Vienna prove. Remember production is already gone co-operative with technocratic control, oligarchic ownership and built on Democratic stupidity under a plutocracy. Consumption in all America is disorganized, blind and bamboozled by lying advertising and “high-powered” selling. Why may not Negroes begin consumers’ co-operation under intelligent democratic control and expand at least to the productive and consuming energy of this one group? There would be white monopoly and privilege to fight, but only stupidity and disloyalty could actually stop progress. Expell both unflinchingly.

Moreover, our strength in Negro America lies in many respects precisely where the weaknesses of former cooperation and association lurked. We have a motive such as they never had. We are fleeing, not simply from poverty, but from insult and murder and social death. We have an instinct of race and a bond of color, in place of a protective tariff for our infant industry. We have, as police power, social ostracism within to coerce a race thrown back upon itself by ostracism without; and behind us, if we will survive, is Must, not May.


Negro American consumer’s cooperation will cost us something. It will mean inner subordination and obedience. It will call for inflexible discipline. It will mean years of poverty and sacrifice, but not aimless, rather to one great End. It will invite ridicule, retaliation and discrimination. All this and more. But if we succeed, we have conquered a world. No future revolution can ignore us. No nation, here or elsewhere, can oppress us. No capital can enslave us. We open the gates, not only to our own twelve millions, but to five million West Indians, and eight million black South Americans, and one hundred and fifty million and more Africans. We stretch hands and hands of strength and sinew and understanding to India and China, and all Asia. We become in truth, free.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1933. “The Right to Work.” The Crisis. 40(4):93–94.