Across the Color Line

Scott McLemee interviews the author of a new book about the pre-eminent author and political thinker W. E. B. Du Bois, whose legacy remains highly relevant today.

October 12, 2016

Across almost a century of American social and political change, W. E. B. Du Bois was the pre-eminent African-American author and thinker, bar none. He was born three years after the end of the Civil War and died just one day before the March on Washington in 1963. He was the first black scholar to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University. The German sociologist Max Weber admired his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and tried to arrange its translation. And his place as founding editor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's magazine, The Crisis, gave him not just an agenda-setting role in the history of the civil rights movement but also an international influence.

W. E. B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line by Bill V. Mullen (published by Pluto Press, with distribution in the United States by the University of Chicago Press) serves as a timely introduction to this impressive and somewhat imposing figure, while also reframing Du Bois’s life and work beyond the boundaries of the American context. Mullen is a professor of English and American studies at Purdue University and the author of two previous studies of Du Bois: Afro-Orientalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and Un-American: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Temple University Press, 2015). I interviewed him by email about his most recent book.

Q: Du Bois said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. We heard a lot about the United States becoming a “postracial” society when President Obama was first elected on the assumption that the problem had been solved, which is not a perspective often championed these days. What do you think counts as the most pertinent aspect of Du Bois’s legacy now, after eight years of an African-American president and several of civic unrest on a scale we haven't seen for decades?

A: I think the most pertinent aspect of Du Bois’s legacy to today’s protest movements -- against police violence, for Black Lives Matter and the movement for Palestinian civil rights, for example -- was his insistence that only mass protest could bring about meaningful social change. Du Bois was eventually weaned away from the idea that capitalism and racism could be reformed from above. His view of democracy was that it was a living thing animated by ordinary people engaged in self-activity for equality.

All of the major social justice organizations he was involved with -- the Pan-African movement, the Socialist Party, the NAACP, the Peace Information Center against atomic weapons, the Communist Party -- were interracial or international movements that challenged institutions of power and authority. An especially relevant example to our time is the work Du Bois did to create the “We Charge Genocide” petition delivered to the United Nations in 1951. He wrote the first drafts of that petition, which charged the U.S. state with disproportionately causing black death through poverty, poor schooling, social and police violence. After Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, a group of young Chicago activists formed the group We Charge Genocide to document police shootings of African-Americans in Chicago and to honor that earlier effort. Du Bois’s legacy to our time was made very real and direct in that moment.

Q: You write that biographers and scholars have neglected or underestimated the significance of Du Bois’s long-term political development, and at one point, you suggest there’s a tendency to overemphasize his early book The Souls of Black Folk (1903) almost as if that’s his single major work. David Levering Lewis’s two-volume biography of Du Bois seems very broad in scope and deep in detail, so I’m wondering if there are particular discussions of Du Bois, or perspectives on him, that you’re challenging.

A: There are two parts to this exclusion tendency. Levering Lewis’s biography of Du Bois is magnificent. But he dedicates only 16 out of almost 1,400 pages to the last eight years of Du Bois’s life. In that time, Du Bois traveled to the Soviet Union and China, joined the Communist Party, published his autobiography in the Soviet Union, and moved to Ghana. The effect of downplaying those events is to diminish them as late-in-life mistakes of someone who has taken a bad political turn or has simply lost his bearings in old age. I argue instead that that those culminating events of Du Bois’s life can only be explained by tracing them back to points of origins far earlier. I dedicate a whole chapter to Du Bois’s writings on Asia, for example, which begin in 1905, because they explain why he later supported Maoism so strongly and why he said in the 1940s that the future of the world depended upon events in Asia.

Second, there is still a tendency to ignore Du Bois’s lifelong interest in Marxism so that he remains an avuncular “race man” figure for scholars in the academy. To give an example, Du Bois wrote a 300-page manuscript called “Russia and America” in 1950. His publisher, Henry Giroux, wouldn’t bring it out during the Cold War, saying it was too pro-Soviet and anti-American. To this day, it has never been published. I spend a good deal of time talking about the book because it explains better than any other single Du Bois text why he sympathized with the Russian revolution. The book is also important for showing how Du Bois saw the Russian revolution as a sequel to African-American self-emancipation from slavery, an event he called an “experiment of Marxism.” My tendency then is to show that Marxism was always central to Du Bois’s political development -- not a detour, diversion or mistake.

Q: Arguably Du Bois’s life and work are too large, too far-flung, even for Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “Black Atlantic,” since the Indian independence struggle (among other Asian developments) was so important for him. You discuss him as a “transnational” figure. Please say more on that.

A: Du Bois was most accurately described as an internationalist. His worldview was framed by 19th-century nationalisms, the Pan-Africanist movement, Communist internationalism and the anticolonial movement of the 20th century. His political orientation was to see in all directions simultaneously the interdependence of the advanced and underdeveloped worlds, as well as the historical movements of people between nations and territories. He called Japan’s defeat of Russia in their 1905 war the first “crossing of the color line” in world history, and India’s independence in 1947 the greatest event of the 20th century. He first used his famous coinage “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” in the 1900 Pan-African Congress address to refer to the relationship of nonwhite peoples across the world to their colonial masters.

Intellectually, his influences ran from Hegel to Alexander Crummell, Bismarck to Nehru. His 1928 anticolonial novel, Dark Princess, is a rewriting of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For me, communism and socialism provided the intellectual synthesis of this global perspective: he understood what the Communist International called “world revolution” as the drawing together of modern humanity into a single project, or totality, of global unity and emancipation. That is the main theme of my book, and the through line for my account of his lifelong political development.

Q: Would publishing the manuscript of Du Bois’s “Russia and America” be worthwhile now? It's certainly odd to think of a book-length work by a figure of such significance languishing in the archives.

A: “Russia and America” should absolutely be published. Vaughn Rasberry’s important new book, Race and the Totalitarian Century, also puts “Russia and America” at the center of Du Bois’s Cold War writing. The problem is the Du Bois scholarship industry. Most Du Bois scholars haven’t read the manuscript and therefore don’t understand its importance. Others who have read it dismiss it because Du Bois is full throated in his praise of the Soviet Union at a time when many of Stalinism’s worst errors were becoming well-known.

In other words, the manuscript still lives in the shadow of Cold War thinking that should be long past by now. Too many scholars would prefer to preserve a hagiographic image of Du Bois as a benign humanist or saint rather than comprehend both the depth of his commitment to Communism and the reasons he oftentimes looked past problems with Stalin’s Russia. It’s a kind of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to scholarship, which does a disservice to students and scholars who want to comprehend Du Bois and socialism in the 20th century -- problems and all.

Q: Your book follows a difficult line with respect to some of Du Bois’s political commitments. You seem understanding, or at least nonpolemical, with regard to his support for the regimes of Stalin and Mao, but a number of remarks make clear you reject those politics. How do you manage to balance those perspectives?

A: Du Bois’s political evaluations of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were consistent with those of many of the people whom we consider to be the most important radicals of the 20th century, including the majority of anticolonial leaders from Asia and Africa. His strong desire for decolonization led him to trust the Soviet Union and China and their promises of aid to that project well past the time their revolutions had become corrupted. To be for world revolution and decolonization in the 20th century, in other words, was to sign up for Communist internationalism with all of its faults. Du Bois signed up early and never fully recanted.

On the other hand, he misapprehended the meaning of Marxism and socialism in ways that we should not forgive or forget. He confused state capitalism -- Stalin’s system of socialism in one country and bureaucratic rule from above -- with the real meaning of socialism as working-class self-emancipation. His thin understanding of Japanese and Chinese history caused him to perceive Japanese imperialism and expansionism in China as a viable alternative to capitalism for nonwhite workers of the world. Du Bois was both brilliant and fallible.

But he was always, as I try to make clear, vying to find a way that ordinary people could fashion their own liberation and self-emancipation. He found this match of political will and human self-activity in his most brilliant book, Black Reconstruction in America (1935). If he had written nothing else in his life, Black Reconstruction would have cemented his place as one of the most original scholars and political theorists of human freedom. So his life and his work demand a judicious and balanced approach that is well grounded in the theories of revolution and human liberation he was trying to advance. I try to provide that approach, and as you say, walk that line, in my book.

Q: Du Bois’s early worldview reflects a belief in elite leadership -- “the talented tenth.” Your book stresses his move toward a more democratic perspective, an emphasis on agency and power from below. But isn’t there a lot of continuity in his thinking? Aren’t traces of the young Du Bois who admired Bismarck still discernable in the octogenarian who wrote a glowing tribute following Stalin’s death in 1953?

A: There are two kinds of continuity in Du Bois’s political thought across the course of his long life. One is the quest cited above for human emancipation carried out by ordinary people. In 1956, only seven years before his death, Du Bois wrote an essay in tribute to one of his heroes, the socialist militant labor leader Eugene Debs. At a time in which he was well aware of problems in the socialist models of both Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, Du Bois wrote, “A state socialism planned by the rich for their own survival is quite possible, but it is far from the state where the rule rests in the hands of those who produce wealth and services and whose aim is the welfare of the mass of the people.” That is the Du Bois who fought for what we can call “socialism from below.”

On the other hand, Du Bois never quite gave up the idea that a “great man” -- a Bismarck or a Stalin -- could redirect human history. The socialist William Gorman put this very well in an essay in the 1950s. About Du Bois’s defense of Stalinism, Gorman wrote, “There he can find embodied … in his life work in regard to the negroes: the conception of the talented tenth and the urge toward international revolt. Stalinism … approaches and manipulates the masses like an elite convinced of their backwardness and incapacity; hence the necessity to dictate, plan and administer for them from the heights of superior knowledge and wisdom.”

My final assessment is that Du Bois was a contradictory figure, but one who made the struggle for black freedom central to the 20th-century struggle for human emancipation in all its forms. We should not blame Du Bois that history didn’t solve the problem of the color line. We should celebrate the fact that he was one of the few people in American history to try to use every tool at his disposal to develop a theory and practice of human emancipation. He was a dangerous figure in the very best and most radical sense of that word.


Back to Top