W E B Du Bois: Revolutionary across the colour line

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W E B Du Bois was a pioneer of the civil rights movement in the US and helped to found the National Association for the Advancement Colored People. He was the author of many works on the real experience of black people in the US, most notably his seminal Marxist-influenced work, Black Reconstruction in America.

This little books charts Du Bois’s journey from bourgeois reformer to socialist. With support from his family and community, he had benefited from a good education. This influenced his early view that a “talented tenth” of African-Americans needed to educate themselves and lead their people to equality.

Du Bois refused to “kiss the hands that smite us”. Blacks needed to confront the Jim Crow laws and fight for civil rights.

As the First World War approached Du Bois moved to the left. He briefly joined the Socialist Party of America but remained sceptical about the prospects of working class unity. He was clear that the war was about control of the resources of the developing world and that the US was an imperialist power.

He was among the first black Americans to hail the Russian Revolution and recognise its implications for black liberation in the US and anti-colonial movements across the world. On visits to the USSR Du Bois was impressed by the apparent absence of racism.

In Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, he presented a class of analysis of what he regarded as the revolution and counter-revolution in the South that followed the Civil War. He argued that black and white workers had temporarily united, implying that this could happen again. The book was one of the first Marxist analyses of racism in America.

Du Bois also looked to nationalism in the developing world as the force that could challenge white imperialism. He played a key role in establishing the Pan-African movement, campaigning against colonialism. But he warned of the danger of rising nationalist elites in newly independent countries.

During the Cold War Du Bois spoke out against US imperialism and racism despite being blacklisted and marginalised. In contrast he was welcomed on visits to Moscow and Beijing as an official guest. He uncritically supported Stalin and Mao’s China, which he saw as an example for Africa to follow. He died in Ghana in 1963, a prophet without honour in his native land.

This is a fascinating introduction to a key figure in the struggle for black liberation. The author brings out both Du Bois’s achievements and his political weaknesses. Mullen argues that Du Bois’s vision of socialism was distorted by Stalinist Russia, so that he saw state capitalism as equivalent to workers’ power. Despite that, Mullen shows that there is much to learn from Du Bois’s life and work.