W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the twentieth century’s great scientific minds. His intellect was impressive for its scope, discipline, rigor, creative and heroic imagination . His accomplishments in the battles to end racism and colonialism, and in the struggles for world peace and against nuclear weapons and for socialism are as impressive. Ultimately his scientific discoveries and predictions concerning race, civilization, world and African history have significantly altered world ideological relationships; extending, as it were, scientific foundations for global working class and peoples unity and deepening the ideological foundations of social progress. Moreover, the modern civil rights and African liberation movements owe more to him than any other single person. As the leader of the Pan African Movement between 1919 and 1945 his impact upon African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Namdi Azikwe, Almicar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane and Sekou Toure, to name a few, was immense. He was a founder of the World Peace Council and fighter against the Cold War. He fought in the early part of this century for the rights of women, including the vote for Black and white women.
Du Bois was born three years after the end of the Civil War, at the beginning of Reconstruction, on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Burghardt DuBois. He passed away gently in the West African nation of Ghana on August 27, 1963 where he had gone at the invitation of President Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah to restart work on a project he first proposed in 1909, the Encyclopedia of Africa. Nkrumah, speaking over Ghanaian radio, summed up Du Bois’ life with simplicity and eloquence. “Dr. Du Bois”, he said, “is a phenomenon. May he rest in peace.”
The world’s democratic and revolutionary forces over the next days would bid farewell to Du Bois as a comrade in arms, an internationalist and communist. Gus Hall, General Secretary of the CPUSA, Chief Awolo, leader of Nigeria’s independence movement, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria’s National Liberation Front, President Kim Il Sung of The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, and Walter Ulbricht of the German Democratic Republic paid the highest tribute to his life and work. Ulbricht wished that “the memory of Dr. DuBois–an outstanding fighter for the liberation and prosperity of Africans–continues to live in our hearts.” Chou En-lai, head of state of China, insisted that DuBois’s life was “one devoted to struggles and truth seeking for which he finally took the road of thorough revolution.” Nikita Kruschev, General Secretary of the CPSU wrote to Du Bois’ wife Shirley Graham Du Bois that her husband’s “shining memory” would remain forever “in the hearts of the Soviet people.”
Paul Robeson said of him, “His is a rich life of complete dedication to the advancement of his own people and all the oppressed and injured.” He continued,
let us not forget that he is one of the greatest masters of our language: the language of Shakespeare and of Milton on the one hand; and on the other, of the strange beauty of the folk speech– the people’s speech– of the American Negro…For Dr. Du Bois gives us proof that the great art of the Negro has come from the inner life of the Afro-American people themselves….and that the roots stretch back to the African land whence they came.
Du Bois, however, wrote his own last will and testament some years earlier. In his posthumously published Autobiography, subtitled “A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century” he wrote, “I have studied communism long and carefully in lands where they are practiced and in conversation with their adherents, and with wide reading. I now state my conclusion frankly and clearly: I believe in communism.” He declared, “I shall therefore hereafter help the triumph of communism in every honest way that I can…I know well that the triumph of communism will be a slow and difficult task, involving mistakes of every sort. It will call for progressive change in human nature and a better type of manhood than is common today. I believe this possible, or otherwise we will continue to lie, steal and kill as we are doing today.”
The path he traveled to arrive at this conclusion was complex, often contradictory, yet filled with profound meaning. Du Bois’ scientific and scholarly work were organically intertwined with his life and revolutionary activity. The profound importance of his scientific achievements were that they laid a materialist foundation for the study of race and racial oppression. He established that racism and colonialism were central organizing mechanisms of the modern world. That they stood along side and were in dialectical relationship to the system of capitalist exploitation. In the end, the world could not be understood or changed without grasping this central dynamic.
THE PATHS OF HIS SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENT
The ultimate form of Du Bois’ scientific work is inseparable from his humble and working class beginnings.These social and class roots as well his early contact in the South with ordinary peasants inspired his imagination and anchored his sensibilities to art, beauty and social transformation. His family was one of an estimated thirty five African Americans families living in the Berkshires of Western Massachuettes at the time of his birth. While race prejudice was not unknown to whites or Blacks in Great Barrington, it in no way took on the violence and brutality of the South’s Jim Crow segregation. By the time he was a teenage he knew he was racially different than his classmates, however, he overcame the affects of prejudice through becoming an academic overachiever and a superior athlete to most of his buddies. And he could in this racially ambiguous environment fall back upon the fact that while the blood of Africa flooded his veins, there was as he said a “strain of French, a bit of Dutch”. His racial identity, however, would only achieve its permanent anchorage when he began college in Nashville Tennessee at the historically African American Fisk University. Still, it was his humble roots and his experience with racial prejudice, albeit considerably milder than the bulk of African Americans were experiencing in the South, that shaped within him a democratic sensibility early on. At the age of fourteen in his first published articles appearing in The New York Globe, an African American newspaper published by the radical T. Thomas Fortune, Du Bois evidenced a moral rejection of racism. A moral sensibility which would assert itself throughout his life, finding intellectual expression in his greatest works.
At Fisk University his general democratic leanings were deepened. As he would put it, it was during this period that he “learned to be a Negro.” The summer after his sophomore year was spent in the poverty ridden Black Belt of rural Tennessee. He later wrote, he “touched the very shadow of slavery.” Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis writes of this period, ” Wilson County, Tennessee, would remain in his memory bank for a lifetime, influencing a prose to which he was beginning to give a mythic spin, his conception of what he would later call the black proletariat, and most profoundly, his gestating, romantic idea about African American `racial traits’.”
This early experience with the Black Belt proletariat would germinate throughout his life finding theoretical and social scientific expression in among other works The Souls of Black Folk(1903),”The African Roots of the War” (1915) and eventually in his monumental Black Reconstruction in America (1935).
In the Fall of 1888 after graduating from Fisk he entered Harvard to pursue an undergraduate degree in philosophy. He found his Harvard professors no more qualified than those at Fisk, only better known. He would at Harvard come in contact with the philosophy of G.W.F Hegel, the theories of American liberalism and philosophical pragmatism. The intellectual high point of Du Bois’ Harvard years was a fifty-two page handwritten essay entitled “The Renaissance of Ethics: A Critical Comparison of Scholastic and Modern Ethics”, prepared for a course taught by the American pragmatist William James. Pragmatism as articulated by James and later John Dewey held that human knowledge was severely limited to immediate experience. As such the possibilities for changing the world were restricted to the limitations upon human knowledge. Human beings had to, more or less, with reforms in existing societies. Capitalism, racism and colonialism, in this rendering, were, therefore, almost immutable and some suggested expressions of human nature and the natural order. There were, as a consequence, no revolutionary alternatives to poverty, exploitation and racism.
Pragmatism’s roots must be traced to British empiricism and skepticism, and because of its subjective idealist substance shares a similar philosophical zone with philosophical positivism. Both positivism and pragmatism were viewed by their proponents as alternatives to dialectical and historical materialism. For the young Du Bois pragmatist’s limitations on knowledge and transforming the world were intellectually unacceptable, but more rang untrue.
In his paper Du Bois proposed an elemental materialist alternative to pragmatism. In fact, he proposed answers to pragmatism, which in their larger significance, were allied to the alternatives to idealist philosophy posited by Marx in Capital and Engels in Anti-Duhring and The Dialectics of Nature. He , however, from the standpoint of ethics. What Du Bois essentially argued was that the ethical and moral imperatives were determined by the actions they led to. In certain respects this stance anticpates Sartre’s concept of good faith which would appear in his ground breaking Being and Nothingness. While it cannot be said that Du Bois at this stage of his intellectual development had discovered a consistent philosophical position, he gravitated away from idealism and towards an action focused materialism. In this regard, his term paper for William James was a harbinger of his future intellectual and ideological materialism. At the root of his argument was the idea that morality and ethics rather than being issues of pure reflection, as Kant and following him most of German philosophy, were to the contrary matters decided in life and through praxis. After receiving his undergraduate degree and being accepted to Harvard’s graduate program in the social sciences he expressed the view that he would apply the principles of the social sciences “to the social and economic rise of the Negro people.”
At the very moment that Du Bois was deciding upon his life’s vocation the US ruling class was facing the specter of a rising working class which was challenging the citadels of capital. The Haymarket riots and repression and the wave of railroad strikes in 1886 was the beginning, followed by the Pinkerton carnage at the Homestead Steelworks outside Pittsburgh and the massacre of copper miners at Coeur d’Alene, Colorado in 1892. The assault upon the rights of labor in the late 1880’s and throughout the 1890’s coincided with the wave of lynchings and KKK terrorism against Blacks in the South and the Supreme Court’s legalization of racism in its Plessy v Ferguson decision in 1896.
New economic theories were hatched that reflected the time and were used to justify both class exploitation and racial oppression.Du Bois was confronted by the new economic doctrine which claimed to answer the Marxian formulation that capitalist profits flow from the exploitation of labor. In a 158 page critique and analysis of this new economics entitled “A Constructive Critique of Wage Theory” he argued, in social democratic fashion, for restrictions upon the unfettered maximization of profit. While this paper fails as a theoretical reformulation, it proposed that from a ethical standpoint society was obligated to moderate profits in the interests of a fair distribution of incomes and wealth. The significance of the paper in terms of Du Bois’ later intellectual trajectories is a two page examination of Marx’s labor theory of value. This is the first evidence of Du Bois’ interest in Marxian economics. A interest more fully explored in Black Reconstruction in America (1935).
Upon the completion of the course work for his Harvard doctorate Du Bois applied for and received a fellowship to do graduate studies at the University of Berlin. His intention was to study philosophy and economics. He studied German philosophy, especially Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind, as well as Marxian social theory. He also studied the innovative historical research methods than in vogue in the German academy. He, as well, attended meetings in the working class Pankow district of Berlin of the German Social Democratic Party. He later said that his interest in socialism at this time was exploratory and that he did not grasp the differences between Marxism and the revisionism of Lasalle, Bebel and Karl Kautsky. These issues, he said, were “too complicated for a student like myself to understand.” He blamed his student status for inhibiting “close personal acquaintanceship with workers, which in his Autobiography he felt he needed for a full understanding of socialism.
While in Berlin Du Bois spent much of his time alone, and between classes he often reflected upon the world and his possible contribution to changing it. Many of these reflections were entered in his diary. One particularly significant entry made on his twenty fifth birthday. A stream of conscious consideration upon his life tells us much about his consciousness and his mental processes, which combined imagination and poeticism. He declared in his diary, “The hot dark blood of a black forefather–born king of men– is beating at my heart, and I know that I am either a genius or a fool. O I wonder what I am– I wonder what the world is– I wonder if live is worth striving…I do know: be the truth what it may, I will seek it on the pure assumption that it is worth seeking–and Heaven nor Hell, God nor Devil shall turn me from my purpose till I die… there is a grandeur in the very hopelessness of such a life–? and is life all?” He then conclude, “These are my plans: to make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race. ” And then, “I wonder what will be the outcome? Who knows?… and if I perish–I PERISH.”
The historical methodology of both Marx and Hegel, and contemporary German academicians, along with reflections upon the race question, helped to convince him that racial oppression must be understood as part and parcel of the world system of economic relations and thus its elimination would have world historic meaning. He became further convinced that only the most advanced scientific and philosophical methods could advance understanding of this system. In this regard he sought to do for the issue of racial oppression what Marx had achieved for class exploitation.
In respect to his intellectual development his work began to combine social scientific data and analysis with historical studies. He began what he hoped would be his doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin (which if successful would have become the first of two Ph.D.’s), a study of the land tenure system in the US south. We glimpse what that dissertation might have looked like from a term paper entitled “The Large and Small Scale System of Agriculture in the Southern United States 1840–1890”. It presented his research, using the materialist methods than popular among German historians, looking at social and economic phenomena from the standpoint of peasants and proletariat, that is from the bottom up. This evidenced his further move towards methodological materialism and its application to historical, economic and sociological inquiry.
The world would never see that dissertation, because the semester before he was to complete his courses his fellowship was ended. David Levering Lewis suggests DuBois’ failure to win a German doctorate resulted from a combination of circumstance and the sinister. DuBois’ German professors were effusive in their support of his academic work. They were prepared to trim off a semester of work so as to allow him to get started on writing his thesis. Johns Hopkins President Daniel Gilman a trustee of the Slater Fund, from which DuBois was receiving his scholarship, however, expressed the view that `Negro education’ should be more practical and that DuBois’ program of study had become too rarefied. This was an expression in DuBois’ early life of white liberal racism which was now throwing its support to Booker T. Washington and the gospel that Blacks should “put your buckets down where you are”, and of the pedagogy which came to be known as the Hampton-Tuskegee model. Blacks with doctorates from prestigious German universities were not a priority in the new Jim Crow atmospher.
Returning to Harvard, and what he called “nigger hating America”, he completed his dissertation in 1896, entitled, “The
Suppression of the Slave Trade to the United States of america 1638–1870”, which
a few years later was published as the first volume in the prestigious Harvard
Historical Series. In spite of the achievement in the his dissertation six decades later
when a new edition was being prepared for publication DuBois included an
“Apologia”. He criticized the book, asserting that what was needed was “to add to
my terribly conscientious search into the facts…the clear concept of Marx on the
class struggle for income and power…” After receiving his Ph.D. DuBois was offered a teaching position at Wilberforce
College, a small African American college in Ohio. After a year of teaching at
Wilberforce he was contacted by a group of upper class Philadelphia Quaker women, involved in social welfare and with the poor, to
conduct a study of the African American community in Philadelphia. They felt that
such a study could embarrass the corrupt city administration, leading to possible reform. Du Bois was offered
an ‘assistantship’ at the University of Pennsylvania, which meant the University
would pay his salary, but he was neither allowed to live on its racially segregated
campus or to teach in its all white classrooms. For almost two years Du Bois and his new wife
Nina Gomer Du Bois lived in the 7th Ward in the heart of the Black ghetto near the
corner of 6th and Lombard (across from Bethel African Methodist
Episcopal Church founded by the anti-racist radical Richard Allen) where he
worked on what became the Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study.While his sponsors had no idea
that such a major study would be produced, Du Bois wrote a book that initiated the
field of urban sociology and advanced empirical sociology itself.
What The Philadelphia Negro achieved, in spite of an overdose of stern Victorian moralizing and a preaching to poor African Americans to conduct themselves in culturally acceptable ways, was to empirically verify the social and class origins of poverty and racial inequality. He substantially showed that the Black ghetto was a creation of poverty and racism, rather than the so-called innate inferiority, intellectual deficets and supposed criminal tendencies of African Americans.
Upon the completion of his research in Philadelphia he took a teaching position at Atlanta University, an historically African American institution. For twelve years he not only taught, but became the prime mover of the annual Atlanta University Conferences which drew scholars from around the world to examine the social, economic, historical and cultural roots of Black life. He led researchers who produced a series of monograms and papers known as the Atlanta University Studies, the most significant bodies of scientific research on Black folk at the beginning of the twentieth century.
AFRICA ROOTS OF WAR AND BLACK RECONSTRUCTION
Landmarks of DuBois’ scientific praxis are found in his Atlantic Monthly article “The African Roots of the War” (1915) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Together they demonstrate Du Bois’ full intellectual powers and his encounters with, revisions of and verifications of Marxism and radical thought. “The African Roots of the War” parallels Lenin’s Imperialism The Highest Stage of Capitalism and in several formulations anticipates it by at least a years. Like Lenin, he viewed world economic relationships as being now dominated by finance capital–a new situation where banks controlled industrial and merchant capital. A position already conceptualized by the German social democrat Rudolph Hilferding in his book Finance Capital (1910). The merger of industrial and bank capital under the hegemony of big bank capital he called finance capital. The nation itself, as Lenin and Du Bois saw it, was now under the heal of the financiers, who through the export of capital were carving out economic spheres throughout the world. Du Bois makes his argument from the standpoint that a new epoch in world history had arrived. What Lenin would define as the imperialist stage of capitalism, which made capitalism overripe for revolution. Du Bois saw Africa as the weakest link in the imperialist chain. It is worth commenting upon Du Bois’ support of President Woodrow Wilson’s call for the US to enter WWI in 1918. Du Bois’ stance in support of Wilson was conditioned by two facts; first he viewed Germany , the aggressor in WWI and the nation seeking to extend its colonial possessions in Africa, as an immediate threat to the possibility of African decolonization. Wilson claimed he was interested in a democratic peace, which for Du Bois meant the possibility of decolonization: the second point was Du Bois mistaken notion that patriotism might lead to civil rights concessions from the US government. His political stance in support of Woodrow Wilson was a tactical maneuver on his part and was an attempt to play US against German imperialism in the interest of gaining time for and strengthening the position of the anti-colonial forces in Africa and the anti-racists in the US. Furthermore, Du Bois’ stance after the war at the Versailles Peace Conference is significant. Again his stance was a consistently anti-colonial position, geared to use the contradictions between European colonial powers and their weakened position after the war to advance the cause of African freedom. At this stage he indeed harbored illusions about the possible role of the US as an ally of the African struggle. And it should be remembered in evaluating Du Bois’ position that right at the moment of the Versailles Conference he called the First Pan African Congress in Paris, dedicated to the joint struggle and liberation of Africans and their descendants in the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean.
David Levering Lewis evaluates DuBois’ “African Roots” as “one of the analytical triumphs of the early twentieth century.” He goes on to contextualize the work in the following manner:
Du Bois poured into it his mature ideas about capitalism, class and race…The essay opened with a novel proposition–that, ‘in a very real sense’ Africa was the prime cause of the World War. Using a quotation from Pliny as his text–‘Semper novi quid ex Africa’ (‘Africa is always producing something new’)–DuBois passed in kaleidoscopic review the ravages of African history from earliest times to the European Renaissance, Stanely’s two-year charge from the source of the Congo River to its mouth in 1879, the partition five years later of the continent at the Berlin Conference, and the miasma of Christianity and commerce suffocating indigenous cultures and kingdoms. European hegemony based on technological superiority had produced the ‘color line’, which became ‘in the world’s thought synonymous with inferiority…Africa was another name for bestiality and barbarism.’ The color line paid huge dividends, and DuBois described the ‘lying treaties , rivers of rum, murder, assassination, rape and torture’ excused in the name of racial superiority with his staple power and imagery.
Du Bois posited that finance capital had produced mutually exclusive and competing economic spheres controlled by differing imperialist nations for the sake of exploiting peoples and natural resources. A situation which would inevitably cause world war. He makes a crucial discovery concerning the nation, bourgeois nationalism and white supremacy. He argued that bourgeois democracy, big power nationalism and imperialism went hand in glove. And that the democracy of the imperialist bourgeoisie was but a mechanism for its expansion and a cover for its barbarity. Bourgeois rhetoric about democracy and the so-called common interests of workers and capitalists was but a ploy Du Bois argued, to win labor to the so-called national interest as defined by imperialism. Du Bois put it bluntly, “it is the nation, a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor,” where “[t]he white workingman has been asked to share the spoils of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers’.” Even though labor’s percentage of the gross was minimal, its ‘equity is recognized.’ What Lenin proposed, however, and which was not present in Du Bois’s analysis, was the concept of a labor aristocracy, a bought off section of labor leaders who actually did share in the spoils, at the expense of the interests of the labor movement.Du Bois in Black Reconstruction put forward the idea of a psychological wage for being white, that often compensated the white working man for not benefitting directly from colonialism and racis. He called this “a wage for whitenesss”.
More, the nation, its political, economic and cultural resources were transformed into a mechanism of imperialist expansion and war. However, as a result the nation itself is spoiled, corrupted and destroyed as monopolies become transnational corporation. The working class is for the imperialist bourgeoisie nothing by fodder for its wars to control the world. In this sense Lenin’s concept of capitalist social relations being overripe for revolution carries with it Marx’s warning made with respect to the class struggle in France, that when a revolutionary situation is in place and neither of the major classes is able to win a circumstance leading to the `destruction of all classes’ is possible. It is this ruin of nations and classes by imperialism that Du Bois saw. World Wars are but its most horrific expression.
The lasting strength of Du Bois’ analysis , however, was how he understood the `scramble for Africa’ as the central cause of World War I. And how this scramble imparted an irreversible and overriding racist nature to the colonial system and imperialism in general. Therefore, World War I had a racist imprint. Du Bois’ understanding of the historical evolution of European bourgeois nationalism and his recognition that it in substance had become a racist nationalism is of lasting significance as well. This feature would take on its most extreme forms with the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Black Reconstruction which appeared almost twenty years after “The African Roots of the War” in essence is an extension of the Du Boisian understanding of the class-race dialectic, and thus a fundamental contribution to the development of Marxism and Black radical thought. It was conceived not only as a scholarly study, but as a theoretical justification of the possibilities of socialism, and what he called the “dictatorship of the black proletariat” in several southern states. The study is an examination of the period after the Civil War when the forces of democracy were hegemonic in the former states of the Confederacy. Du Bois suggests this was the most democratic period not only in the history of the South, but of the nation. He insists under the right conditions the democratic remaking of the South could have possibly gone over to the dictatorship of the proletariat. He felt that this could have sparked a socialist revolution throughout the nation. He, thus, saw the Civil War, the overturning of slavery and the period of Reconstruction as a single revolutionary period, with Reconstruction constituting a revolutionary democratic situation pregnant with deeper revolutionary possibilities.
A crucial feature of his thesis was the centrality of the African American question to democracy and the class struggle. While Black Reconstruction focused upon the pre-imperialist stage of capitalist development in the US, when combined with the earlier “The African Roots of the War” a single logic is apparent. That logic is based upon Du Bois’ notion of the fundamental nature of the unity of the labor movement and class struggle and the struggles against racial oppression and colonialism. The political conclusions from these two basic works are first, that the labor movement and the struggles against racism and colonialism share similar interests and are central to the struggles for democracy and socialism; second, the imperialist stage of capitalist development ushers in a new epoch where the anti-colonial struggle assumes a larger role in the fight for peace, democracy and socialism; and third, that Great Power nationalism leads to the ruin of nations and peoples and to war. These ideas would be further developed in Color And Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945) and The World and Africa (1947).
Du Bois’ scientific work presents a single line of philosophical-theoretical-ideological development, albeit with zig-zags. Nonetheless, Du Bois’ radicalism is congealed by the end of the second decade of the 20th century in a radical theoretical-ideological stance. His radicalism theorizing was creative, empirically and historically grounded, taking into account the specific conditions of US capitalism. Perhaps more than any thinker of his time he saw the profound significance of racism and colonial oppression in the development of capitalism and how the struggles against racism and colonialism are central to the fight for democracy and revolution.
THE NIAGARA MOVEMENT
Du Bois was an initiator, participant in and leader of many organizations, magazines, journals and mass movements. The Niagara Movement, the NAACP, Pan Africanism, and the Council on African Affairs, the Stockholm Peace Appeal and the World Peace Council are high points of his organizational activity. Besides which he founded, published and edited any number of journals and magazines, The Moon, The Horizon, Phylon, and the most successful of his publishing and editing careers The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, which he founded and edited for over twenty five years. What is crucial in understanding DuBois as a leader of mass movements is how his ideological positions animated and interacted with his organizational activity. From this standpoint the major debates and polemics he waged with leaders within the African American struggle, such as the ones with Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, are central.
The DuBois-Booker T. Washington debate which begins at the start of the 20th century, rages until Washington’s death in 1915, defined the terms of the African
American struggle. Washington assumed the mantle of “leader of the race” after the
death of Frederick Douglass in 1895. Washington became known as the `Great
Accommodator’, because of his willingness to accommodate the aspirations of
Black folk to the reemergence to power of the former slave owners. The terms of the great compromise was expressed in the slogan “Duty without
Rights”. Rather than fight for the right to vote and other civil rights, the obligation
of Blacks was to serve whites and subordinate themselves to the Southern ruling class.
Eventually whites would reward our service by granting us rights. In the
meantime, Washington urged Blacks to `put your buckets down where you are’.
Washington’s deal was a Faustian Bargain–an agreement with the devil. Du Bois’
The Souls of Black Folk answered the liberal and conservative racists and Booker T.
Washington’s accommodation to them.. It is here that Du Bois proclaimed that `The
Problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line’.
Its historical context is the defeat of Reconstruction and the pushing of Blacks back towards a new form of enslavement and the crisis for liberal democracy occasioned by the failure to resolve the race problem. The two main targets were neo-racism, the so-called liberal racism of monopoly capitalism, and Booker T. Washington accomodationist line. The two were political ideological bedfellows; each cross fertilized the other.
The Souls of Black Folk was for the struggle of the African American people what The Communist Manifesto was for the class struggle in Europe in the mid 19th century and the Declaration of Independence was for the American revolutionaries. It, however, suffered from a failure to address the class question. A problem addressed head on by Du Bois a year after its publication. At a public speech on Des Moines Iowa he insisted that the color line “was but the sign of growing class privilege and caste distinction in America, and not, as some fondly imagine, the cause of it. (quote taken from Lewis: 313)” Having said this the overriding question for DuBois remained the color line and Booker T. Washington’s accommodation to it.
The Souls of Black Folk and the color line is further illuminated by placing alongside DuBois’ John Brown. By the turn of the century DuBois had certainly concluded that to overturn the new system of segregation and racism would require a renewed revolutionary struggle and certainly the loss of blood. In this respect DuBois saw himself continuing the line of struggle of Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, Harriet Tubman, Soujouner Truth and Frederick Douglass. The Souls his then a call to arms, not a call to vote, even if Black folk had the franchise. Its essence is revolutionary and democratic, not as some contend cultural nationalist. As with the anti-slavery struggle DuBois understood that Black people would need white allies. Hence the example of John Brown. As he put it in the opening of the book:
John Brown worked not simply for Black Men– he worked with them; and he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot. The story of John Brown , then , cannot be complete unless due emphasis is given this. And then Du Bois observed, “He came to them on a plane of perfect equality..”
John Brown became an archetype of the white ally, the anti-racist, the white revolutionary. It appears at the very time the NAACP was being formed and can be considered a guidepost for what the Blacks in the Niagara Movement would expect of their white allies in the NAACP.
By the summer of 1905 a cadre of radical African American democrats, many college educated and professionals, arrived at the conclusion that it now rested upon their shoulders to strike the first blow on behalf of the freedom of their people. A Call for the convening of a conference to begin “organized determination and aggressive action on the part of men who believe in Negro freedom and growth”, to open July 10 in Canada (on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls). The conference began what became known as the Niagara Movement. Thirty nine men made up the first conference. Journalist Monroe Trotter and Du Bois drafted the Declaration of Principles. It declared, “we refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro American assents to inferiority…that he is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults. Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust.” They called for an all-sided assault upon racism and inequality where ever it was to be found, including the policies of the Samuel Gompers led American Federation of Labor for the practice of “proscribing and boycotting and oppressing thousands of their fellow-toilers, simply because they are black.” Proclaiming the beginning of a new era of protest they spoke in words that resonated throughout the century. “The Negro race in America stolen, ravished and degraded, struggling up through difficulties and oppression, needs sympathy and receives criticism; needs help and is given hinderance, needs protection and is given mob-violence, needs justice and is given charity, needs leadership and is given cowardice and apology, needs bread and is given a stone. This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed.”
Symbolic of the identification of the Niagara Movement with the nation’s revolutionary and abolitionist past was the holding of the second conference in Harper’s Ferry West Virginia to celebrate “the 100th anniversary of John Brown’s birth, and the 50th jubilee of the battle of Osawatomie.” The sharpening repression against African Americans which was dramatically demonstrated in the Atlanta riots of 1906, deepened Du Bois’ radicalism. In 1907 he assumed the editorship of a new magazine named The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. In its second issue Du Bois declared his faith in socialism. He was, as he put it, a “socialist-of -the-path”. The natural allies of Black folk were, he declared, not “the rich, but the poor, not the great, but the masses, not the employer, but the employees.” He believed that America was approaching a time when railroads, coal mines, and many factories can and ought be run by the public for the public.” And he asserted, “the one great hope of the Negro American” is socialism. The Niagara movement would convene annually until 1910, when it was superseded by the more broadly based civil rights organization the NAACP. Most of those in the Niagara Movement joined the new organization, with Du Bois becoming a member of its executive board and editor of it monthly journal The Crisis. The Niagara Movement is the predecessor to the NAACP. The origins of the NAACP, therefore, are in the 1905 Niagara Conference. Monroe Trotter and Ida Welles Barnett, radicals from the Niagara Movement and socialist like DuBois and Mary White Ovington joined with liberal anti-racist like Joel A. Spingarn and Oswald Villard to form a broader and larger organization. Nevertheless the Niagara Movement left an indelible mark on future struggles. Its most important achievement was that it gave an organized form to the left and socialist forces within the African community, who were prepared to take on Booker T. Washington and his backers. By so doing they laid the basis for a new level of unity against racism. By rekindling the fires of protest they established that freedom would only be achieved through struggle; realizing in life the dictum of the great Frederick Douglass, “Without struggle there is no progress, there never has been and there never will be.”
As the executive secretary of the Niagara Movement Du Bois proved himself an able organizer. Added to his proven skills as a scholar, journalist, propagandist, editor and publisher, he stood as a potent force and invaluable resource in his peoples struggle and a force which would have to be reckoned with by all sides.
As the first decade of the century moved to a close Du Bois’ concept of the alliance between the African American people and labor , between racism and class exploitation deepened. In the interest of advancing this strategic notion and while keeping heat on Booker T. Washington he attacked the “color-blindness” of certain left liberals and socialists. The philosopher John Dewey, for instance, held that racism deprived society of social capital. This instrumentalist explanation made no mention of the denial of the vote and other civil rights to Blacks. Eugene V. Debs, the nation’s leading socialist, articulated the view that the Socialist Party could not “make separate appeals to all races…” “There is,” he stated, “no `Negro problem’ apart from the general labor problem.” After the 1912 presidential election, where Debs got over 1 million votes, Du Bois would declare, `the magnificent Debs’, as he called him, wrong. “The Negro problem, then, is the great test of the American socialists.”
As Booker Washington became more reactionary Du Bois and his allies became more merciless in their attacks upon his program. Washington, he insisted, was the past, the Niagara Movement the future. He tied the `Great Accommodator’ to monopoly capital. Accommodationism, Du Bois argued, was submission pure and simple. “The vested interest”, DuBois wrote in May 1910, “who so largely support Mr. Washington’s program are to a large extent men who wish to raise in the South a body of black laboring men who can be used as clubs to keep white laborers from demanding too much.”
With helping found the NAACP Du Bois for the first time became a full time employee of an organization other than a college or university. As Levering Lewis put it, “The problem of the twentieth century impelled him from mobilizing racial data to becoming the prime mobilizer of a race.(408)” Du Bois’ imprint was considerable upon the organization from its outset. The name itself bares the imprint of DuBois’s worldview. Rather than having Negro or black in its name the new organization used the term colored, because as Du Bois saw things the Association should fight the color line on a world scale and thus fight for the rights of all peoples of color and all victims of racism and colonialism. Du Bois would became the editor of the NAACP’s journal, named (and once again reflecting his ideological impact on the new organization) The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. No one could have predicted the success and impact of the journal. It eventually would reach over 150,000 African American households, becoming the main instrument for forming Black opinion. It manifested Du Bois’ militant brand of journalism. The Crisis, according to Levering Lewis, traced its roots from Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator back to North America’s first newspaper published by person’s of African descent, Samuel Eli Cornish and John Russwurm’s Freedom Journal.
However, while the terrain of struggle had shifted the essence had not. The decline of Booker Washington had shifted the terms of the fight. On the horizon was World War, President Woodrow Wilson’s drive to make the world safe for imperialism with a democratic face, the rise of the nationalist Marcus Garvey, whose aim was to extend the program of Booker Washington to Africa and the Caribbean, the appearance of the `New Negro’–a movement of militant Black artists and intellectuals– and significantly for the development of Du Bois’ world view,the Russian Revolution and the rise of the world communist and national liberation movements. In the face of these events, pregnant with danger and enormous possibilities, Du Bois’ direction was clear–everything to the front of struggle for African American freedom.
His greatest battles within the NAACP were with white and Black liberals who preached caution and compromise. DuBois’ militant anti-imperialism and Pan Africanism and support for the Russian Revolution made the liberals uncomfortable. He became after 1919 the central figure in the rise of the Pan African Movement which linked the struggle for African American rights to the struggle for African independence. This movement became another way of fighting the `color line’ on a world scale. He used the The Crisis to assail lynchings, police brutality, the rise of the KKK and pogroms against African Americans. In one editorial he excoriated Jim Crow mob`justice’, where Black men were regularly lynched in the North and South on trumped up charges of raping white women. DuBois declared the crime of Black men was their blackness. “Blackness” he said, “is the crime of crimes… It is therefore necessary, as every white scoundrel in the nation knows, to let slip no opportunity of punishing this crime of crimes.” Reflecting the rising spirit of resistance, Du Bois would editorially declare in The Crisis, “But let every black American gird his loins. The great day is coming. We have crawled and pleaded for justice and we have been cheerfully spit upon and murdered and burned. We will not endure it forever.” And than the words that would inspire Claude McKay’s revolutionary poem, DuBois demanded, “If we must die, in God’s name let us perish like men and not like bales of hay.”
Going beyond what liberals, pro-capitalists and `respectable’ civil rights leaders could stomach, Du Bois linked his calls for militant, even armed, resistance, to racist violence to anti-imperialism and internationalism. His Pan Africanism was, therefore, qualitatively different from Garvey’s pro-imperialist big business oriented version. Garvey was mainly interested in business contacts and relationships with Africa and was at best only inconsistently anti-colonial. Yet, for millions of African Americans who faced the rise of racism in the late teens, for whom the North, rather than the promised land, was more of the same old Jim Crow, now occurring in large city ghettos, Garvey’s calls for self improvement and self uplift through hard work were appealing. For Du Bois after the rhetoric was swept aside Garvey was proposing more submission and acceptance of oppression here in the US and in Africa.
THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND IMPERIALIST WAR
The World War and the Russian Revolution were united as part of a single cloth in DuBois’s world view. The War represented the fact that the greed of the capitalist class had plunged Europe into chaos, occasioning a profound European civilizational crisis, with more long term meaning than the War itself or the economic depression which followed it. As he put it, Western civilization had met its Waterloo. He lectured the US ruling class concerning its racist double standard. ” The civilization by which America insists on measuring us and to which we must conform our natural tastes and inclinations” he insisted, “is the daughter of that European civilization which is now rushing furiously to its doom.” And he impatiently proclaimed that as soon as the stinking edifices of racism and class exploitation crumble, the sooner the world would be bathed “in a golden hue that harks back to the heritage of Africa and the tropics.” Imperialism, he demanded, had consumed European civilization transforming it into its opposite and demeaning its humanity. Civilization was looking more and more like barbarism.
As Woodrow Wilson was proclaimed his `Fourteen Freedoms’ which under US tutelage was to make the `world safe for democracy’, African Americans were being lynched and massacred from the Black Belt South, to East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago. Once again Du Bois warned the nation, and the ruling class in particular, “We are perfectly well aware that the outlook for us is not encouraging…We, the American Negroes, are the acid test for occidental civilization. If we perish we perish.” And in the most stern language he warned, “But when we fall, we shall fall like Samson, dragging inevitably with us the pillars of a nation’s democracy.” Racism, thus, could not, and he would not, view it as a `Negro problem’, if not solved it would destroy the nation.
Du Bois increasingly viewed the Russian Revolution as the opposite of racism, exploitation, war and the civilizational crisis they propelled. He viewed the Russian Revolution as creating the material bases to create a global emancipatory alliance of Russia and the darker races. A position not that far from the strategic thinking of Lenin who urged the Communist to support the revolutions in the Third World because here was imperialism’s weak link. Lenin highlighted India and China and foresaw an alliance of Soviet Russia, India and China as constituting the majority of the planet’s population and thus main specific weight of the world revolutionary process. Du Bois would propose that a belief in humanity “means a belief in colored men.” and that “The future world will, in all reasonable probability, be what colored men make it.” His position on the civilizational dimensions of racism began to take form in an article published in 1919 entitled “The Souls of White Folk”. He argued that “Those in whose minds the paleness of their bodily skins is fraught with tremendous and eternal significance” had foisted a unique racial perversion upon humankind. He insisted, as he challenged the racist view of history, that in the sweep of history the achievements of white folk were as recent as yesterday. He condemned as tragicomic arrogance, a joke were its consequences not so horrible, the presumption that “whiteness alone is candy to the world child.” This tragicomic view of world history undergird both liberal and conservative racists and was part of the ideological arsenal of Presidents and KKKers.
The Russian Revolution for Du Bois was contextualized within broad civilizational terms. He embraced after his first visit there in 1926. Upon his return from his first trip to the Soviet Union he declared, “If what I have seen is Bolshevism than I am a Bolshevik.” The fate of humankind rested with the success or failure of the Communist in Russia to consolidate their revolution. In this endeavor they deserved the support of all fighters against the color line. This stance he maintained until his death.
DU BOIS AND THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF THE UNITED STATES
Gerald Horne indicates that Du Bois’ relationships with the CPUSA was of long standing and thoroughly principled. Du Bois was friendly with James W. Ford the African American Communist who ran for Vice President of the United States in 1932 on the ticket with party chairman William Z. Foster. He was also friendly with Foster whom he lent books to, as Horne tells us, one on Haiti, for Foster’s ‘complex historical studies” which Du Bois praised highly. “But the comrade to whom Du Bois probably had the closest relationship was Foster’s ideological compatriot, the Amherst and Harvard-trained lawyer, Ben Davis. (306)” It was this close relationship that naturally brought Du Bois to the forefront in the struggle to defend Communist during the Cold War and Mc Carthyism. In fact, there are few who did more than Du Bois to campaign against the imprisonment and political harassment of Eugene Dennis , Ben Davis, Gus Hall, Henry Winston, George Meyer, William L. Patterson, James Jackson and others. George Meyers’ wife, for example, was highly appreciative of how positively Du Bois’ writings had affected her jailed husband (Horne:302). According to Horne, “Du Bois’ formal casting of his lot with the Communist was not an aberration(296). Neither was it an aberration or a radical departure from logic of his ideological and political trajectories.
US imperialism’s drive to turn the twentieth century into the `American Century’ did not cause Du Bois to retreat, but “to deepen his study of Marxism-Leninism”–even though he was than in his eighties (Horne:289). And while Du Bois had done a thorough study of Marx in the 1930’s and produced one of the great Marxist classics by 1935, by 1954 he was “reading again Lenin’s Imperialism” and searching for the “best logical follow-up of his argument (Horne:ibid).”
In his letter to Gus Hall requesting membership in the Communist Party of the USA, “on this first day of October” 1961, he openly acknowledged past differences with the Party on “tactics in the case of the Scottsboro boys and their advocacy of a Negro state”. That aside he declared, “Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction. Communism…this is the only way of human life. It is a difficult and hard end to reach–it has and will make mistakes. On this first day of October 1961, I am applying for admission to membership in the Communist Party of the United States.”
THE LEGACY AND MESSAGE
Dr. James E. Jackson, close friend of DuBois and former leader and theoretician of the Communist Party, summarized the life of Du Bois thusly, “W.E.B. DuBois, the scholar and scientist, was equally a man of action. He chose to keep the banners and goals of full equal rights flying from the halyard of principle, no matter the difficulties and hardships.” Of Du Bois’ “lasting testament” Jackson declares, “His last historic deed was to dramatize his firm conviction that `capitalist society is altogether evil.’ He concluded that to finally solve the problem of racism, to really solve the problem of poverty, and to secure peace to the world’s peoples, humankind must, sooner or later, come to the conclusion that this old structure is beyond effective reform.” ” W.E.B Du Bois”, he continued, ” was a great fighter for the people, a true scientist, thinker and humanist. He held aloft a bright torch of poetic inspiration that lightens the way and illuminates the path of all who struggle for freedom. The questions that Du Bois posed and dealt with along the way of a long and arduous life of unceasing service and dedication to the cause of people’s progress will find resolution on the path that he chose, the route of the great humanists and social scientists,the Marxists. (Political Affairs, July ,1989,5)
W.E.B Du Bois is our future. To understand his life and legacy is to take hold of and understand our future. To be indifferent to it is to considerably weaken our ability to fight for and realize humanity’s, and Black folk’s, democratic, peaceful and socialist future.
“History cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois,”
Martin Luther King insisted. In the end we are called on to heed the words of Dr. King who in celebrating
the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth in February 1968 declared,
” We cannot talk of Dr Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed th support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires.”
At the close of the 20th century the radical and scientific legacies of W.E.B Du Bois are strategic as we with all of humanity attempt to resolve the problems and crises of humanity and the modern age.