du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

A group can accomplish more than an individual can—whether for good or evil—as long as it holds together. To form and maintain a functioning group is an achievement, requiring individuals to coordinate their behaviors and often to sacrifice for the whole. Only once you have a group can you ask the citizen’s question, which is: “What should we do?”

Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal groups in order to maintain them for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the amount and type of sacrifice is usually unequal. Therefore, crucial democratic practices include recognizing, acknowledging, and trying to reciprocate sacrifices. This is true at the scale of a nation-state but at least as true at smaller scales.

I recently found a three-word sentence by W.E.B Du Bois that sums it up: “Organization is sacrifice.”

The context is an article in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, that you can read in its original format online. Du Bois is responding to charges that the NAACP is too strongly influenced by Whites. He mentions the 8-to-1 predominance of Blacks in the NAACP’s membership as a whole and in its leading offices. He defends the value of “a few forward looking white Americans” to the organization. And then he suggests that the “real animus back of this veiled and half articulate criticism is the fact that a large organization must make enemies—must create dissatisfaction in many quarters , no matter what it does”

This is where he posits a general principle: “Organization is sacrifice.” And he elaborates:

You cannot have absolutely your own way–you cannot be a free lance; you cannot be strongly and fiercely individual if you belong to an organization. For this reason some folk hunt and work alone. It is their nature. But the world’s greatest work must be done by team work. This demands organization, and that is the sacrifice of some individual will and wish to the good of all.

W.E.B. DuBois, “White Co-Workers,” The Crisis, vol. 20, no 1 (May 1920), p. 8

For someone as fiercely principled and intellectually independent as Du Bois was, this realization must have come hard; but he was right. To be able to ask the question, “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” that acts together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high (Du Bois ultimately resigned from the NAACP over a fairly subtle matter of principle), but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

See also the question of sacrifice in politics; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; and “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.”

This entry was posted in civic theory, Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.