PART III: The complicated, controversial politics of W.E.B. Du Bois and his passion for social justice
Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on the origins and context of the political views of W.E.B. Du Bois written by Justin F. Jackson, an assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington. To read Part I, click here; to read Part II, click here.
In the 1930s, Du Bois was also hardly alone in his curiosity regarding Marxism and communism. In that decade, Communist activists in the United States led protests that attracted the unemployed and industrial and agricultural workers, many of whom joined Communist-led popular organizations and unions that ultimately involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.
Communism at this time also strongly attracted African-Americans. After 1928, the party sought to recruit black members in the South by embracing the notion that they were a separate “nation” within the United States. Party activists also supported civil rights struggles spurned by mostly white and often racist Democrats. Despite this activity, Du Bois did not join the party in the 1930s.
On the contrary, early that decade, Du Bois, still an NAACP official, criticized Communists for manipulating civil rights politics. He excoriated them for cynically using for their own political agenda, the legal defense of the so-called “Scottsboro boys” in Alabama — nine young black male hoboes who had been arrested and sentenced to death for raping two white prostitutes.
Du Bois labeled black tenant farmers who accepted Communist leadership as “innocent dupes”; from the NAACP’s office, he protested that his organization “deserved from Russia something better than a kick in the back from the young jackasses who are leading Communism in America today.”
Thus, even while he adopted Marxist ideas in the 1930s — if often in superficial ways, according to some critics — he rejected entreaties to join the party during the Great Depression and World War II era, the high-water mark of American communism. Du Bois had witnessed and experienced too much racism in America and abroad to believe that the “class struggle” would magically transmute white workers’ racism into interracial solidarity. His insistence on the paramountcy of racial equality consistently confounded white Communists and others in the American left who believed working-class solidarity needed to come before civil rights.
It is also true that Du Bois traveled to Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and imperial Japan in 1936—but, of course, this transpired before the Holocaust, the worst of Stalin’s political purges and terror, about which Du Bois knew little at the time, and Japanese aggression against the United States. Du Bois hardly made this tour to serve as these regimes’ propagandist.
His 1936 trip was a social investigation into the comparative politics of fascism, socialism and democracy at a moment when liberal capitalist nations were being severely tested. He intended that this research inform a book manuscript entitled “The Search for Democracy.” Part of its funding had been secured the year before from the Oberlaender Trust, a Philadelphia-based institution that promoted cultural relations between the United States and German-speaking countries.
In Germany, he planned to investigate industrial education programs, which his old nemesis, Booker T. Washington, had advocated and Du Bois had roundly criticized. In the spring of 1936, he did reject an invitation from anthropologist Franz Boas to co-found the American Committee for Anti-Nazi Literature, citing the terms of the Oberlaender grant and his research plans. Yet after learning intimately of Nazi policies and politics during his visit, he made known his abhorrence of “the terrible outburst of race prejudice in Germany.” He described the anti-Semitism he witnessed there as “surpass[ing] in vindictive cruelty and public cruelty anything” he had seen before, including the horrific treatment of fellow African-Americans in the South.
Du Bois failed to secure a visa from Moscow for his trip’s Russian leg; he only transited the Soviet Union en route to Japan, via the Trans-Siberian railway. His trip there was facilitated by a young Japanese student, Hikida Yasuichi, whom Du Bois suspected may have had “official connections with his government.” But again, Du Bois accepted no restrictions on his reporting.
It may seem strange, from today’s perspective, that Du Bois at this time, among other things, heralded the Japanese occupation of Chinese Manchuria as the end of white supremacy. Yet many African peoples at the time identified, as did many Asians, with Japan’s stated policy of expelling European colonial powers from Asia.
Five years before the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the slogan of “Asia for Asians” seemed to mirror the Pan-Africanism of Du Bois and others striving to end European colonialism in Africa. Nor was China a communist country when Du Bois visited Beijing that year; this would come only in 1949, long after Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government fell. There is no evidence, by the way, that Du Bois in 1936 either met with Chinese communists or sympathized with them.
Du Bois, fastidious in preserving his political independence until the end of his life and even while living inside the United States, did not make this trip or return to America an open or covert apologist for fascism, communism or Japanese imperialism; and he made this journey several years before the U.S. government waged declared and undeclared wars against these powers.
Perhaps most important, it must be noted that Du Bois continuously refused to join the Communist Party throughout the 1940s and 1950s, both during World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union under Stalin were allies, and in the first phases of the Cold War, when they became mortal enemies. Always valuing the intellectual freedom that his political independence guaranteed, and which had enabled him to insist on the importance of racial justice and equality above all other causes, Du Bois in these years did occasionally praise the Soviet Union.
But he did not do so at this time as a member of the Communist Party. He was motivated rather by his ironclad commitment to the universality of the principle of national sovereignty and his anti-capitalist proclivities — not from any interest in defending totalitarianism. His Pan-African activism as an NAACP official during World War II brought him close to organizations led by black communists inside and outside the United States.
Yet as the Cold War heated up in 1946 and 1947, and as Soviet troops occupied eastern Berlin and eastern Europe, and Harry Truman and Winston Churchill warned of a new global conflict with the USSR, Du Bois actually criticized Stalin’s dictatorship — even while he insisted, at the same time, that Russia nevertheless represented the most successful attempt yet in world history to address the poverty inherent to capitalist societies. Still, even when Du Bois endorsed the Communist-backed Progressive Party candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948 — a decision that prompted the non-partisan NAACP to expel him — he did not join the party.
Du Bois’ Marxism and his qualified defenses of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule increasingly marginalized him in the NAACP and on the left and, from today’s perspective, seem naïve and unjustifiably exculpatory. Growing anti-Communist fervor and the often-paranoid pressures of McCarthyism in the United States made the costs of being on the left, and accusations of treason, too great for many who were unwilling to sacrifice their political legitimacy and causes.
Yet throughout the 1950s, despite traveling in Communist circles, he did not join the party. He did not join it in 1952, after his first wife died and he remarried to Shirley Graham, an African-American author and party stalwart. That year he also defended Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two party members charged with espionage for stealing nuclear secrets and giving them to the Soviets. But he did not defend the Rosenbergs as a party member himself.
He was also not a Communist in 1953, when he published a rather tactless eulogy for Stalin. Calculating, perhaps cynically and disingenuously, that his enemies’ enemy could be his friend, Du Bois defended Stalin and Soviet achievements, despite their horrendous human costs by that point, as somehow less horrific than the mass death inflicted by the Atlantic slave trade, European imperialism in Africa, an unnecessary World War in 1914, the Nazi Holocaust, and racial discrimination and poverty within America and beyond.
Yet it is also important to note that he wrote this before Soviet leader and Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev repudiated Stalin’s crimes in 1956, at the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow. To what extent Du Bois truly comprehended the depth of Stalin’s atrocities, and particularly his political repression, is unclear.
This finally brings us to the context in which Du Bois actually did apply for membership in the Communist Party, in 1961, only three days before he and his wife left for Ghana. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, as he moved in ever-smaller and more marginal political circles, Du Bois, from an independent position, embraced international efforts — some of them involving Communist parties and activists from different countries — to decry the emerging nuclear rivalry between the United States and the USSR, and stop a potential war between them, after the latter country, in 1948, successfully tested its own atom bomb.
Asked in 1950 to chair the Peace Information Center in New York only a few days into the Korean War, Du Bois signed and helped circulate the Stockholm Appeal, which called for the United States’ nuclear disarmament. As Freke Vuijst recently explained in the Edge, Du Bois and the PIC’s leaders were prosecuted by the federal government for their peace activism under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for failing to register as “agents” of a foreign power.
Du Bois was humiliated and impoverished at the age of 82 by his arrest and trial. Neither Du Bois nor the PIC represented the Soviet Union, nor was Du Bois then a member of the Communist Party. He also was not a party member when he and his wife, in late 1958 and early 1959, traveled to eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China.
Indeed, accepting an offer from Mao’s China to travel there as a Communist Party member would have been nearly unthinkable given the Sino-Soviet split. According to his biographer, Du Bois and Shirley Graham at this time “knew absolutely nothing of the catastrophe inflicted upon the Chinese people by their omnipotent ruler” — namely, the deaths of 10 million from famine during Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward.
As in so much of history, the timing of his decision to formally apply to join the American Communist Party, on Oct. 1, 1961, is significant. After his passport had been stripped from him unconstitutionally, and then restored, Du Bois joined the party only days after the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the McCarran Internal Security Act.
Passed by Congress in 1950, over President Truman’s veto, at the height of anti-Communist witch hunts spurred on by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, this law required that Communist-affiliated and suspected organizations register with the federal government’s Subversive Activities Control Board; failure to do so meant imprisonment and enormous fines.
In this light, Du Bois’ application for party membership seems like a defiant and contrarian defense of his civil liberties, and hardly an act that threatened fellow Americans. He neither stayed in the United States to foment revolution nor was the party any longer a danger to the U.S. government, with only 10,000 members at this time — and many of them FBI agents.
In essence, joining the party that he had spurned throughout his life, as one of his last acts as an American citizen, was a parting shot at his own government. Du Bois knew, perhaps better than most, that this was a government that had not merely persecuted him for his political beliefs. For generations and the entirety of his own existence, it had also legally enforced and unofficially sanctioned white segregation and discrimination against blacks and the law of white lynch mobs.
Pressured by a new civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., politicians in the White House and Congress had not yet moved to pass federal civil rights and voting rights acts; this would occur not long after Du Bois’ death in Ghana in 1963, on the eve of the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C.
Du Bois’ defense of Stalin’s record and his visits to Mao’s China, among other things, do make for discomfiting and unseemly facts, especially from the retrospective standpoint of the more complete historical knowledge we have about their atrocities today. Nonetheless, they do not leave me persuaded that Great Barrington should refrain from honoring Du Bois with a statue on its main library’s lawn, or perhaps even a less modest marker of his local origins.
If Confederate statues, rightly viewed as the vestigial symbols of white supremacy, are being toppled throughout the South, no reasonable person today calls for the removal of national monuments to Presidents George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned slaves. We do not continue to honor these men as the masters of slaves, but as founding fathers who granted the nation and its citizens timeless and noble gifts: America’s democratic and egalitarian ideals, which rightfully continue to guide the nation even as its society changes.
It is not impossible to honor Du Bois in a similar fashion. Certainly Great Barrington can simultaneously recognize his flaws and faults while also finding ways to remember publicly, in a permanent way, his profound contributions to the struggle to push the United States to live up to its founding ideals, particularly regarding the plight of African-Americans. Today the great majority in Great Barrington and beyond, I believe, feel that his profound ideas, passion for racial justice and role in founding the modern civil rights movement outweigh enormously any political errors he may have committed very late in life as an ostracized and marginalized man in the twilight of his time.
Knowing that history, like any human individual, is infinitely complicated—and that facts, as President John Adams once quipped, are “stubborn things”—it is time for Great Barrington to welcome home its native son, if only as his bronzed likeness, reposing on a bench, encouraging the love of education that propelled him and his extraordinary and sometimes confounding life forward and outward.
Information for this op-ed comes from David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1989).