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No history of the twentieth century in the United States is complete without a discussion of the works and deeds of W. E. B. DuBois. Indeed, DuBois’ organizing of and writing about the African-American population in the United States remains both crucial and relevant. Of course, any human of this importance has had numerous biographies written about him. The most recent, written by Bill Mullen, is titled W.E.B. DuBois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line. Because he views DuBois’ life through a revolutionary left prism, Mullen’s text is different from most other biographies of DuBois. Mullen chronicles Dubois’ transition from what might be termed a liberal political viewpoint to a left-communist one through his writings and actions. Despite my statement that no history of the twentieth century is complete without mention (if not serious discussion) of DuBois and his influence, Mullen points out that that this is exactly what happened in the period following World War Two. W.E.B. DuBois was wiped from US history in the media, scholarly conversation and studies. Mullen attributes this erasure to DuBois’ increasing interest in communism and its analysis of world events during an intensely anti-communist time.
Given the political intent of the author, this biography is somewhat lacking in personal details of DuBois’ life. His marriages are briefly mentioned, as are his children (one of whom died at a young age, leaving a tragic mark on DuBois and the child’s mother. However, W.E.B. DuBois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line makes up for that lack of personal biography with its discussions of DuBois’ political development and the forces at play in that development. Like many other intellectuals and workers alive in the early twentieth century, DuBois watched the revolutionary upsurge in Europe and Russia with great interest. Not only did he lend his support to the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917, DuBois also studied the relationship between the wave of revolutionary activity, its Marxist underpinnings and its relationship to the fate of African and other non-white peoples around the world, especially those living in colonized lands. Indeed, his study of this relationship became crucial to later understandings of imperialism and race; they are arguably part of the foundation of Malcolm X’s politics and those of the Black Panther Party, among others.
At the same time, DuBois had serious issues with certain worker and socialist organizations, especially in the United States. In large part, this was due to the racism found in these groups. It was a racism endemic to the United States that was manipulated by the ruling powers in a manner quite obvious to Black Americans but somehow not obvious to their white-skinned brethren. This actuality kept DuBois from pursuing alliances with trade unions; he considered them to be racist organizations, which is historically not far from the truth. For an African-American leftist, the pervasive racism of the United States was and is a constant challenge. DuBois straddled a line between communism and Pan-Africanism most of his intellectual life. It was this struggle that inspired a fair amount his writing and work.
The worldwide communist movement split into two main factions after the rise to power of Josef Stalin. Simply stated, the resulting split between those who supported Stalin and those who supported Leon Trotsky has never been resolved. Indeed, the immediate effects are still being studied and discussed; and Left political strategies are made according to where one situates themselves in the debate. (If there is one fault in the text, it is that the author interjects his positions favoring Trotskyism, which are clearly part of the fallout from the dispute, without explaining the doctrinal reason for those opinions). DuBois placed himself in the group siding with the Communist International and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like others who agreed with Stalin, DuBois found himself explaining certain actions that he probably was not too comfortable explaining. However, the wave of anti-Communist hysteria fomented by the US right wing and fanned by the liberal elites in the United States left him little room to maneuver. He was accused of Soviet and communist sympathies and was made to pay for those sympathies. Unlike several others accused of such sympathies (whether true or not), DuBois did not waver under the challenges to his belief in Black liberation and social justice. His US passport was revoked. When he got it back, he traveled to the newly independent nation of Ghana. Eventually, he was asked to help the government and left the United States for good. He died on August 27, 1963, the day before the massive March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC.
DuBois was first and foremost an anti-racist warrior. His anti-racist understanding is why he was also antiwar, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist. His life’s constant was challenging the status quo of racism and war; this introduced him to numerous philosophies and people, some of which became his guiding principles. Bill Mullen provides a comprehensive timeline and discussion of DuBois’ intellectual and activist journey in this slender text. It is an accessible and valuable work, especially for those interested in the politics of DuBois’ intellectual and activist legacy.