WEB Du Bois on John Brown: a Book for Our Time

In 1994, Yale University don Harold Bloom published THE WESTERN CANON: THE BOOKS AND SCHOOL OF THE AGES, a 578 page argument for aesthetic supremacy in the selection of reading material appended with an index of what Bloom chose as the essential writings of human history. I often find myself turning to Bloom’s canon when I cannot find a decent volume and must admit I am rarely let down. Yet in between GILGAMESH and Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA, he seems to have made one glaring omission, leaving out the works of W.E.B Du Bois. It strikes me as almost unthinkable that he could have left out even THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK but made a space for that classic history of the Haitian Revolution, THE BLACK JACOBINS by C.L.R. James.

Du Bois is vital to our discourse for two reasons. First, obviously, is his socio-political stance, with both feet firmly planted in the ground of emancipatory liberation politics, as made clear in SOULS with regards to his feud with Booker T. Washington. When Du Bois took aim at Washington, he was not engaging in a petty feud, he was daring African Americans to think, dream, and fight for something much higher than segregated wages and menial labor, an assault on the idea of ‘keeping in your place’ and accepting white supremacy.

But second, in line with Bloom’s notion of aesthetic, is the style. After all these decades, Du Bois continues to stand as one of the best writers in American history. Not African American history or nonfiction writing history or any other qualifiers, but American history, period. Ernest Hemingway famously said that HUCKLEBERRY FINN was the be-all end-all of American literature, but more than likely Papa was either drunk as a mule or in the midst of one of those racism-tinged manic phases when he uttered it, for he was making a serious error, like Bloom did, in leaving out Du Bois. Just consider the opening lines of SOULS:

Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line. I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there.

The painful fact of those beautiful lines, rich as they may be, is that the problem of the color line still haunts us, as do the debates Du Bois was involved in. In this Age of Obama, black children are expected to be polite and not revolt against the blatant and covert forms of racism in our country, yet when they get flushed down the school-to-prison pipeline, they are blamed for not getting an education. The somersaults in between point A and point B are a little more convoluted than a century ago, but the narcissism of whites remains the same.

Of course, this brings me to the present Du Bois volume I have fallen in love with, a forgotten 1909 biography he authored, simply titled JOHN BROWN. In these days of #BlackLivesMatter and Occupy, this book is most vital because it is not a guide for a single group, it is inspiration that is direly needed for all. Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report wrote on August 19:

Lots of folks in #BlackLivesMatter identify themselves as revolutionaries. Nearly all of them claim to want radical social transformation, an end to capitalism. People that are steeped in the Black radical tradition understand that primary demands are those that distill the true aspirations of the people; they are formulated to galvanize the people, not for endorsement by those in power, who would be overthrown if the demands were actualized. Radicals also understand that there is a place for reformist demands, which are crafted to enhance the people’s power relative to the rulers, and to alleviate the people’s pain. But #BLM has eschewed both reformist and radical demands in its current campaign, revealing a loud but empty politics. We wish it were not so.

John Brown did not just hate slavery, he genuinely loved the oppressed African American, a love so brilliant that Frederick Douglass said of him “Mine was as the taper light, his was as the burning sun.” It is in the praxis of John Brown that the reader finds what standards should be applied to whites, both when discussing the history of the Civil War and our allegedly post-racial landscape. It is in reading Du Bois’s JOHN BROWN that we find not just a historical occurrence but a roadmap for today.

Ford made clear that the #BlackLivesMatter confrontation with Hillary Clinton recently had been a complete debacle and resulted in less than even a compromise. “Compromise is when I demand something and you say ‘no, you can’t have that, but I’ll give you this‘ and somehow, somewhere you meet in the middle or acquiesce to whatever they’re John Browngoing to give you. But when you have no demands at all, how is that a compromise? All you’ve really done is create a bit political theater in which you don’t show very well. I think experienced activists and people who know anything about history and the fundamentals of politics understand after that video circulated that there is something quite wrong with the approach of the leadership of the #BlackLivesMatter movement… I don’t know if just viewing the disastrous encounter between Hillary and #BlackLivesMatter provides answers to people, but I think it does raise lots of questions about their behavior even from those who are not, politically, deeply initiated.” JOHN BROWN presents the opposite, a radical yet calculated series of demands on the white supremacist power structure and its operations.

This volume is interesting in a historical sense. I have read The Modern Library Classics edition, issued in 2001 and edited by David Roediger. In 1962, Du Bois republished the text with International Publishers, imprint of the Communist Party, and added commentary on developments in Russia and China, as well as some notes regarding revolutionary violence and the interconnections of Brown with the wider world of early socialism and Marxism. The 1909 text, commissioned in 1904 just after SOULS OF BLACK FOLKS was published, shows us a Du Bois coming into his own. This volume followed SOULS, his Marxist Ph.D thesis THE SUPPRESSION OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE (1896), and his sociological study of THE PHILADELPHIA NEGRO (1899) but was published before his 1920 autobiography DARKWATER and his 1935 magnum opus BLACK RECONSTRUCTION IN AMERICA. Ford told me in an interview “Du Bois began his approach to liberation politics with the gathering of facts. He does his study of the slave trade not just because he is interested in slavery as an institution but because the people who were the most prominent and vicious enemies of black folks, the folks who ruled in those places where most black people still lived, were the political descendants of the slave traders. And so how do you fight that class of folk without understanding that kind of system that created those kinds of people? So it is a methodical approach to politics, not based upon sloganeering but gathering the facts.”

In this 1909 text, Du Bois is calling for a type of socialist politics in America with a certain flexibility in the possibilities, the discussion that defined the discourse of the Second International epoch and which was arguably lost after the First World War, when socialist parties either adopted the compromised electoral politics stance of European Social Democracy or the radical vanguardism of Leninist Communism. In this sense, this text is also an artifact of a time in America when the dialogue had a space for ideas like anarchism, syndicalism, parliamentarism, and the hybridization created by thinkers like Daniel DeLeon. This openness is something that radicals need to reclaim when we have a public discussion about socialism and which is noticeably absent from the Bernie Sanders campaign. Consider this passage from the biography:

It is not well with this land of ours: poverty is certainly not growing less, wealth is being wantonly wasted, business honesty is far too rare, family integrity is threatened, bribery is poisoning our public life, theft is honeycombing our private business, and voting is largely unintelligent. Not that these evils are unopposed. There are brave men and women striving for social betterment, for the curbing of the vicious power of wealth, for the uplift of women and the downfall of thieves. But their battle is hard, and how much harder because of the race problem-because of the calloused conscience of caste, the peonage of black labor hands, the insulting of black women, and the stealing of black votes? How far are business dishonesty and civic degradation in America the direct result of racial prejudice?

This could have been written in 2009 in the wake of the banking crash, if we were so blessed to have a modern-day Du Bois in our presence. One of the oft-cited flaws of the Occupy movement was that they refused to present a list of concrete demands and that the entire affair was a variation on the old anarchist notion of propaganda of the deed. One can only imagine what might have resulted if the protestors had dared to present Du Bois-like demands.

In the historiography of John Brown, there exists a tendency that tries to engage in a cheap post-modern psychoanalysis of the abolitionist, usually framed around two points, Brown’s religion and the violence of the Bleeding Kansas episode, where Brown executed a group of pro-slavery advocates. On the left end of the spectrum there exists an effort to contextualize and apologize, whereas the right uses these issues to equate Brown with The Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden. Du Bois engages in neither. Rather, he gives us a sane Brown in an insane world, a man who is fundamentally disgusted by slavery and racism. The Bleeding Kansas affair is not glossed over, but it is not apologized for either, it is justified as the kind of revolutionary violence Frantz Fanon wrote about decades later in THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH.

The author presents us with a weak-willed white abolitionist movement, composed of those who hated slavery but were still racists or a morally-compromised William Lloyd Garrison, a man who places politeness to white gentry ahead of black lives. As a result, Brown breaks with them and chooses to align with blacks like Frederick Douglass, who felt that Brown’s plan to raid Harper’s Ferry was untenable, and Harriet Tubman, who in fact originally planned to join in the attack until she took ill. Later biographers have used Douglass’s resistance as a reason to strengthen the argument that Brown was utterly insane, that even blacks were opposed to his behavior. Du Bois is having none of this and attributes this refusal to an internal dialogue where former slaves assuaged their own consciences by telling themselves ‘I was already a slave, I have been through enough‘. Such self-granted pardons have not ceased to be part of our exchange of moral capital in the political discourse around racism. For example, did not Hillary Clinton invoke her previous experience with the Civil Rights movement in the #BlackLivesMatter video? For that matter, was that not the exact same response of the Bernie Sanders campaign?

Du Bois gives us a Brown who was not the financial failure that later biographers claim, which is used to make his abolitionist work sound like a destitute man who turns to activism as a form of escapism. Rather, Brown was a serious businessman in the textile trade who made a fortune but lived an austere life, not based on a fundamentalist reading of Calvinism, but because he was constantly funneling money to the movement. In one moment, Brown gives a summation of his religious views on economics that seem like a premonition of Liberation Theology:

One of the most interesting things in his conversation…, and one that marked him as a theorist, was his treatment of our forms of social and political life. He thought that society ought to be organized on a less selfish basis; for while material interests gained something by the deification of pure selfishness, men and women lost much by it… He condemned the sale of land as a chattel…

As for the issue of tactics, Brown is a student of military history, “he had read all the books upon insurrectionary warfare, that he could lay his hands on”, from the Spanish uprising against the Romans to the strategy of Toussaint L’Ouverture in the Haitian slave revolt. He formulated a charter which all his followers signed and agreed to be governed by after the Harper’s Ferry raid was successful. The rules of conduct Brown created are for a revolutionary party that would inhabit a hidden mountain commune and strike pre-selected outposts of the slave trade, fomenting future rebellions that would collapse the plantation system. What we are dealing with is not a madman but a mind whose vision of a revolutionary elite combat squad seems like a precursor of the vanguard policy the Bolsheviks embraced. As the work progresses, we see not just a biography but a manual of praxis.

Ford told me “Du Bois was a towering figure, a towering intellect, a leader of black folks during periods of what we could call ‘movement activity’ and in between. It’s difficult to talk about the contributions of W.E.B. Du Bois. But just in terms of his work as a scholar…the PHILADELPHIA study, for example, actually being a model of using empirical data to come to come to sociological conclusions about a specific municipality, that was groundbreaking stuff. But he wasn’t just curious about what makes black Philadelphia tick, he wanted to understand the facts of black Philadelphia in order to work through what needed to be done politically to organize black folks in urban situations as well as the rural locales where most black folks still lived when he did the PHILADELPHIA study.” This is true also of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Du Bois presents us with a military operation that was planned down to the finest detail. Brown knew that Harper’s Ferry was a key gateway because of its position on both two major waterways, the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers, as well as major mountain ranges in Maryland and Virginia. This was a calculated stab at the heart of the Southern order that, had it succeeded, could have resulted in a Second American Revolution far more liberating than the Civil War and Reconstruction ever were capable of becoming.

The story of John Brown is important in terms of both history and for today. His life proves the excuse that all whites before the Civil War were racist is a complete lie. Following the brutal murders in Charleston by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, there was a small debate that emerged where some tried to claim the Civil War was not about slavery, made ever more clear by Eric Foner’s recent interview with Jacobin magazine. But one need only say the name John Brown to disprove these weak apologias, the early stirrings of the Southern militias that would become the Confederate Army were agitated in response to Harper’s Ferry out of fear of future slave revolts.

But in terms of today, Brown’s example, as well as Du Bois’s, shows a praxis of black and white solidarity in opposition to racism and capitalism. There is a strange ennui that has overtaken direct action and agitation that has resulted in refusing to make tenable demands, a sort of post-agenda politicking that makes the rhetoric easy for the Democrats to co-opt. Occupy, for example, should have been calling for a program to nationalize the financial institutions and prosecution of the bankers. Ford told me in the closing of our interview that Black Agenda Report has always called for a termination of gentrification and mass-black incarceration.

It is in Brown whites should look for an example. Consider the 1988 utopian novel by Terry Bisson, FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN. Bisson sets the narrative in two time frames, an alternate history where the Harper’s Ferry raid was a success and a 1959 descending from it. In this world, electric cars drive across the highways of a socialist southern United States, which broke away from the North and became a black republic called Nova Africa. Bisson understood then, as we should now, that John Brown was a powerful source of inspiration and guidance and that, following his lead, another world is possible. This of course explains why later biographers have invoked the insanity and fanatic slurs.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.