A new window on the radicalism of W. E. B. Du Bois

UnAmerican:

W. E. B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution

W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. Over the course of his long life, he produced a number of crucial historical texts on Black American history, helped lead movements for Pan-Africanism and civil rights, and edited one of the central intellectual journals of Black political life, The Crisis. When he wasn’t engaged in these endeavors, he wrote novels and helped invent the discipline of sociology.

This list of achievements is well known and recognized in the official plaudits Du Bois received. Du Bois even received our society’s secular equivalent to canonization: his picture on a postage stamp in the late 1990s. Official appreciation for Du Bois’ achievements has not, however, been extended to his politics. 

For most of his life, Du Bois was deeply interested in socialist and communist thought, and maintained a deep engagement with the Russian Revolution and the USSR from 1917 until the end of his life. Bill Mullen’s new book Un-American explores this aspect of Du Bois’ thought more thoroughly than any previous work.

While every commentator on Du Bois has acknowledged his politics, Mullen shows us how central revolutionary thought was to Du Bois’ entire intellectual trajectory in the twentieth century.

One of the threads throughout Mullen’s book is a reconstruction of the intellectual milieu in which Du Bois lived, worked, and thought. As in previous studies of Du Bois, he includes a familiar cast of characters—philosophers like Hegel and William James, Du Bois’ friends Arthur Spingarn and later, Herbert Aptheker. What Mullen demonstrates is that Du Bois was in dialogue with a far, far wider political milieu than most of his biographers have noticed. 

In particular, Mullen pays close attention to Du Bois’ relationship with Indian revolutionaries like the nationalists Jawaharlal Nehru and Lajpat Rai. Du Bois followed the Indian independence movement with fascination, drawing inspiration from that struggle and seeing in Nehru’s plan for an “Indian socialism” an echo of his own conception of a Black cooperatives-based alternative to American capitalism. Du Bois was also deeply invested in the Chinese Revolution of 1949, which freed China from imperialist rule and brought Mao Tse-Tung’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to power. 

Since his earliest writings, Du Bois had been interested in the possibility of nonwhite nations growing powerful enough to challenge European imperialism on a global scale. For a time, his hopes were invested in Japan, whose modernization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century seemed to portend a coming upheaval of the international order. As the Japanese state consolidated its militaristic development in the years leading up to World War II, however, Du Bois was forced to abandon his hopes there, and instead turned to China. By the mid-1930s, inspired by the Popular Front strategy of the CCP, Du Bois was looking to China as the next stage in world revolution.

Du Bois’ interest in the Chinese Revolution affords Mullen an opportunity to investigate Du Bois’ complicated relationship with Stalinism. While most other studies either ignore his affinity with Stalinism, or treat it as an embarrassing late-life mistake with little importance for his thought as a whole, Mullen shows that Du Bois had an evolving relationship with the Stalinized USSR and the Comintern. Never warm to utopianism in his thinking, and suspicious of democracy, as so many educated Black Americans in the early twentieth century were, Du Bois was always resistant to the critiques of the direction of the USSR coming from Trotskyists. He welcomed the proclamation of “socialism in one country” as a step along the way to global revolution, passing over in silence Stalinism’s sabotage of revolutionary movements in other countries.

For Mullen, Du Bois’ receptivity to Stalinism was part of a larger, eclectic engagement with Marxist theory. This is demonstrated most thoroughly in the chapter on Du Bois’ masterpiece, Black Reconstruction. There, Mullen argues that Du Bois’ history is best understood as an American “rewriting” of the Russian Revolution. When the revolution broke out, Du Bois was initially skeptical, accustomed as he was to look to the most advanced countries as the vanguards of progress. 

But he was fascinated by the Soviet experiment, and in particular by the revolutionary role of the peasantry in Russia. For Du Bois, as for a whole host of observers in this period, a fruitful analogy could be seen between the situation of Russian peasants and African Americans. Both toiled in agriculture under an oppressive regime, denied the most basic political rights. For Du Bois, the revolutionary fire that animated them also joined the two groups. In attempting to excavate “The Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America,” Du Bois consciously applied the model of the Russian Revolution, culminating in his famous declaration that slavery was ended by a “general strike” of the bonded people.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book concerns Du Bois’ relationship with Black radical women, who often receive short shrift as sources of intellectual influence. Mullen demonstrates that the milieu of Black Marxist women around the Communist Party—which included women like Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, and Esther Cooper Jackson—was a vital source of intellectual inspiration and political comradeship for Du Bois during the difficult years of the 1950s, when the octogenarian activist became the target of intense governmental repression. These women helped Du Bois articulate the linkage he saw between the brutality of white supremacy in the American South and the violence of American imperialism across the world.

The summary here only skims the surface of Mullen’s deep archival scholarship on Du Bois’ life and politics. For those with some familiarity with Du Bois, this book will open an entirely new window on the radical politics that animated most of his life’s work. It should be noted, however, that Un-American is not an introduction to Du Bois—it is written as an academic intervention into debates around Black radicalism, and its style may be challenging for readers unaccustomed to academic debates. Mullen’s intervention will surely be felt in these debates for years to come and deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in Black politics and the history of American socialism.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Reviews

  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz
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