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Another Look at W.E.B. DuBois

In a recent article posted on Counterpunch entitled “When Capitalists Get a Free Ride” (November 3-4, 2007) I made reference to W.E.B. Du Bois having joined and left the Communist Party in the mid-20th century due to his frustration over the lack of inclusion of a racial analysis or understanding. It is true that Du Bois spent considerable effort attempting to educate the white communists about racial oppression and became disenchanted with the party’s organizing tactics, but I need to make a correction. A fairer assessment is that his views on communism and economic thought fluctuated and evolved over time. Du Bois, who was a profound student and proponent of Marxian thought and who was accused of being a communist, did not actually officially join the Communist Party until 1961 long after his trials in America on the issue. He was 93 years old at the time and leaving America to live in Ghana at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah. He died there in 1963. In this article I wanted to make that important correction and share some of his thoughts on Blacks and communism, and on economics. His views on economics are lessons many of us can look to today to grasp the meaning of exploitive capitalism and ideas to counter it.

Du Bois had received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895. He was one of the founders of the NAACP, the publisher and editor of the Crisis Magazine, and a prolific writer of essays and books including “The Souls of Black Folk” and “Black Reconstruction in America.”

In David Levering Lewis’s book “W.E.B. Du Bois: the fight for equality and the American century 1919-1963” he notes that in the early 1920’s Du Bois was of the opinion that the Black community should not give up its struggles for justice in the American system for communist-based revolutionary changes if it was not inclusive of Blacks. He said that Blacks might look like proletariats and he agreed that they were part of the world proletariat community. However, racial discrimination within the Communist Party and a serious lack of understanding of how race and white supremacy played a role in economic greed did not allow for Blacks to fully participate. Why, in fact, should black workers be trustful of white workers? Why, he asked, should Blacks assume that among the “unlettered and suppressed” white masses there would be “a clearness of thought, a sense of human brotherhood, (that was) sadly lacking in the most educated classes?”

Levering continues that it was in 1931 that Du Bois “decided to undertake both a thorough immersion in the theory of Marxism and a methodical assessment of real-world implications of communism in the United States.” This decision was largely made after the controversy surrounding the “Scottsboro Boys” highly profiled trial in Alabama in 1931 in which nine black men were alleged to have raped two white women. Du Bois was angry at the Communist Party’s tactics in the case which was to recruit southern Blacks, such as sharecroppers, to demonstrate against the trial. Du Bois said, “American Negroes do not propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution, driven out in front to death, cruelty and humiliation in order to win victories for white workers.”

Du Bois’ views on the role of Communism evolved over the years. His involvement in peace efforts after the Second World War and concerns about the U.S. plans to extend the Monroe Doctrine to the whole world (Pax Americana) led him to openly oppose the American imperial ventures. In 1946 Levering notes that Du Bois appeared before the World Youth Conference in 1946 in South Carolina where he addressed “850 black and white delegates and several hundred observers.” Levering continues that Du Bois’ comments became a fifteen page pamphlet which “was to become an instant classic of the left.”

Known as “Behold the Land” this pamphlet indicated an ideological shift on the part of Du Bois. This was evidenced, according to Levering, as revealed in the pamphlet’s “program of economic empowerment based on interracial struggle ­ of unity based on class rather than race. Simply stated, the central question for the twentieth century was whether economic empowerment and racial equality were possible under democratic liberalism, or whether economic egalitarianism was the logical prerequisite for liberal democracy and racial equality. Du Bois himself was in the process of deciding.” Levering notes that in 1947 Du Bois wrote “On the other hand, if a world of ultimate democracy, reaching across the color line and abolishing race discrimination, can only be accomplished by the method laid down by Karl Marx, than that method deserves to be triumphed no matter what we think.”

In a speech Du Bois gave in 1953 at the California Peace Crusade, he begins by saying that American thought is distorted. At a time when economics should be studied, he said, it is not. What interests Americans is the accumulation of money without understanding the economics of it all:

What has gone wrong? It is clear the workers don’t understand the meaning of work.

Work is service not gain. The object of work is life not income. The reward of production is plenty, not private property. We should measure the prosperity of the nation not by the number of millionaires, but by the absence of poverty; the prevalence of health; the efficiency of the public schools; and the number of people who can, do read worthwhile books.

Toward all this we do strive but instead of marching breast forward, we stagger and wander thinking that food is raised not to eat but to sell at good profit; houses are not to shelter the masses but to make real estate agents rich; and solemnly declaring that without private profit there can be no food or homes. All of this is ridiculous. It has been disproven centuries ago.

The greatest thinkers of every age have inveighed against concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and against the poverty, and disease and ignorance in the masses of men.

We have tried every method of reform. A favorite effort has been force ­ by war. But the loot stolen by murder went to the generals and not to the soldiers. We tried through religion to lead men to sacrifice and right treatment of their fellow men, but the priests too often stole the fruits of sacrifice and concealed the truth.

In the 17th century, of our modern European era we sought leadership in science and dreamed that justice might rule through natural law but we misinterpreted that law to mean that most men were slaves and white Europeans were the right masters of the world.

In the 18th century, we turned toward the ballot in the hands of the worker to force a just division of the fruits of labor among the toilers. But the capitalists, happening on black slavery and land monopoly and on private monopoly of capital, forced the modern worker into a new slavery which built a new civilization of the world with colored slaves at the bottom, with white serfs between, and the power still in the hands of the rich.

But one consideration halted this plan. The serfs and even the slaves had begun to learn to think. Some bits of education had stimulated them and some of the real scientists of the world began to use their knowledge for the masses and not solely for the ruling classes. It became more and more a matter of straight thinking.

What is work? It was what all must contribute to the common good. No man has a right to be idle. It is the bounden duty of each to contribute his best to the well bring of all, of what men gain by the efforts of all have a right to share, not to the extent of all that they may want, but certainly to the extent of what they really need.

You must let the world know that this is your simple and unwavering program: the abolition of poverty, disease and ignorance the world over among women and men of all races, religions and color; to accomplish this by just control of concentrated wealth, and overthrow of monopoly to ensure that income depends on work and not on privilege or change; that freedom is the heritage of man, and that by freedom we do not mean freedom from the laws of nature, but freedom to think and believe and express our thoughts and dream our dreams and to maintain our rights against secret police, witchhunters or any other sort of a modern fool or tyrant.

The four freedoms come not by slavery to corporations and monopoly of the press, cinema, radio and television but by united social effort for the common good so that decently fed, healthy and intelligent people can be sure of work, not afraid of growing old and hold high their heads to think and say what they damn please without fear of liars, informers or sneaking FBI.

The Peace Information Center (PIC) had been created in 1950 to publicize the Stockholm Peace Agreement on nuclear disarmament. Du Bois served as chair of the new organization. In 1951 Du Bois and others in the PIC were brought to trial for refusing register the organization with the Justice Department as “an agent of a foreign principal within the United States.” On November 13, 1951 Du Bois and his co-horts were acquitted ­ it was one of the few victories during the U.S. “red” scare period. However, Du Bois was also stripped of his passport in the 1950’s for alleged communist affiliation. One month after his 90th birthday celebrated on March 2, 1958 with 1,000 people at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel, the Supreme Court finally decided that denying people passports based on political grounds was unconstitutional.

But by his 93rd year Du Bois had had enough. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left America for good.

Finally, Du Bois stated, when becoming a communist, that he realized that capitalism will not be able to self-correct ­ he thought that the premise that the market would serve as a process to create economic equality was fallacious. Levering, in his final chapter on Du Bois, quotes the great man’s assessment on American capitalism from his essay “Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the United States” which is certainly relevant today. It was written 10 years before he died in 1963.

The organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history.From the use of psychology to spread truth has come the use of organized gathering of news to guide public opinion, then to deliberately mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda. Mass capitalistic control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio, cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net