Source: Fourth International, May-June 1950, Vol.11 No. 3, pp.80-86.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
As he approaches eighty-two, no higher tribute can be paid William Edward Burghardt Du Bois than that it is impossible to seriously consider the Negro in America without being confronted by his name at every turn. Journalist, research scholar, sociologist, historian, novelist, pamphleteer, educator – his evolution intertwines so completely with that of the Negro people since the Civil War that his individual portrait is the collective portrait of the Negro intelligentsia in twentieth-century America. Du Bois is not unaware of this. His autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, is appropriately subtitled An Autobiography of a Race Concept. We propose to relate the successive stages of Du Bois’ conceptions not only to the clash of American capital and labor in general, but also to Du Bois’ more direct relationship to petty-bourgeois liberalism on the one hand, and the struggles of the Negro masses on the other.
Du Bois was educated at Harvard and at Berlin. In Berlin, as he himself relates, he was influenced by the “professorial socialism” of the German universities, a part of that emasculation of Marxism associated with the name of Edward Bernstein. This had a permanent effect on his thought.
When he returned to the United States, strikes, unemployment inarches and the meteoric rise of the Populist Party were sweeping the country. The radical American intelligentsia expressed a growing disbelief in that mythology which declared free enterprise, chosen by fate to remake and rule America as the crowning triumph of American history. The presumed natural basis of the plutocrat’s rule, individualistic adaptation of Darwinism, Herbert Spencer’s “Survival of the Fittest,” proved vulnerable to the class conflicts produced by the very growth of capital. After the defeat of the Populists in the election of 1896, the scene shifted to the hard-pressed middle classes of the cities. Social work and an ameliorative sociology made their appearance hand in hand. With the “controlled experiment” as method and “moral welfare of society” as principle, this early twentieth century critical intelligence appropriated the method of the natural sciences to bolster evolutionary reformism.
In An American Dilemma Myrdal declares “it is merely a historical accident” that Du Bois’ sociological writings of the early 1900’s “sound so much more modern than white writings.” The reason for this, says Myrdal, is that
The Negro writers constantly have proceeded on the assumption, later formulated by Du Bois, that ‘... the Negro in America and in general is an average and ordinary human being ...’ This assumption is now, but was not a couple of decades ago, the assumption of white writers ... It is mainly this historical accident why, for example, Du Bois’ study of the Philadelphia Negro community published in the nineties stands out even today as a valuable contribution, while white authors ... have been compelled to retreat from the writings of earlier decades.
Myrdal misstates the whole case. Not only is Du Bois’ sociology of the Negro superior to similar works by white authors of that period; there is no single body of American sociology on any subject during that period which, for seriousness, thoroughness and extensiveness, can compare with Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro and his annual Atlanta studies on the Negro as farmer, artisan, business man, etc.
It was because of the objective conditions of the Negro that Du Bois, intellectually a product of this period, seized upon sociology with such inherent belief and urgency. If the new theme of the social sciences – indeed their very creation – was premised upon the recognition of individuals as being constituent parts of a social entity, such compact communities as the Negro Ghetto and Black Belt were crying for study. Despite its affinity for reform, the prevailing theory of Social Darwinism did not refute the ideology of racism. The Negro was outside its vision. Du Bois therefore extended the whole range of social inquiry in America.
Another work of this period was Du Bois’ Suppression of the African Slave Trade. Written fully fifteen years before Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, this is one of the pioneer applications in the United States of economic analysis to historic phenomena. “The development of Southern slavery has heretofore been viewed so exclusively from the social and ethical standpoint that we are apt to forget its close and indissoluble connection with the cotton market.”
Frederick Douglass preceded Booker T. Washington in pressing forward the need for industrial training for Negroes. Du Bois himself applauded Washington’s famous Atlanta speech in 1895 for segregated equality. In the subsequent decade developments within the Negro and non-Negro world began to play havoc with this program. The Negro migrations northward speeded the growth of the Ghetto. These highly urban concentrations of misery marked both the beginning of the Negro’s migration into industry and the birth of a professional class far removed from the Southern hinterland. Outside the Ghetto the radicalization of the middle classes and of labor was evidenced by hundreds of thousands of socialist votes in the 1904 elections. The heretofore excluded unskilled workers were finding expression in the new Industrial Workers of the World.
The futility of Washington’s philosophy was becoming evident even in the rural South. According to him, the education of the Negro sharecropper and tenant farmer in scientific agriculture would be the means of creating an independent Negro peasantry equal to the white rural middle classes in America. But precisely the scientific revolution in agriculture, the rationalized exploitation of the soil, the growth of capital investment in farming, increases the pauperization of the small agricultural producer. The expansion of capitalism, therefore, strengthened the remnants of feudalism on the Southern countryside. Du Bois, both as acute sociologist and sensitive observer of the Negro’s fate, recorded some of his impressions in Souls of Black Folk. Moreover, he engaged in a thorough study of an Alabama Negro farm area in 1906 at the behest of the United States Commissioner of Labor. It was paid for, but never published, on the grounds that it “touched on political matters.” No wonder – for by 1910 official statistics reported 75.3 per cent of the Southern Negro farmers were tenants and sharecroppers.
Not Du Bois, but Monroe Trotter and his Boston Guardian began the attack on Booker T. Washington. Du Bois was at this time preoccupied with sociology, with placing the facts at the disposal of the powers that be. But Washington’s setting up of a Negro “ghost government” at Tuskegee to control the Negroes on behalf of capital provoked increasing opposition from the new Negro intelligentsia, Du Bois included. The Atlanta riot in 1906 and the Tuskegee dictatorship ripped apart Du Bois’ belief that the Negro was “a concrete group of living beings artificially set off by themselves and capable of almost laboratory experiments.”
Du Bois conceived that the intense political activity in the United States between 1892 and 1912 placed the Negro electorate in a decisive position. To parliamentary democracy he attributed a miraculous power: “... with the right to vote goes everything; freedom, manhood, the honor of your wives, the chastity of your daughters, the right to work, and the chance to rise ...” Hand in hand with these miraculous powers of the ballot went his conception of a Talented Tenth which would uplift the illiterate and poverty-stricken Negro mass to the level of an advanced world.
In Du Bois’ Philadelphia Negro (1895), this conception is already established. He writes that the Negro upper class “forms the realized idea of the group.” And Du Bois finds his precedent: after a series of riots and repressions culminating in 1840, the Philadelphia Negroes were in a desperate situation. New European immigrants were pressing them against the wall economically.
It was at this time that there arose to prominence and power as remarkable a trade guild as ever ruled a medieval city. It took complete leadership of the bewildered group of Negroes and led them steadily onto a degree of affluence, culture and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America.
This leadership, according to Du Bois, consisted of southern house servants who evolved into a caterers’ guild in Philadelphia. Such a narrow craft conception of leadership was possible in the Nineteenth Century, but was out of step with reality at the beginning of the industrial Twentieth.
The fetishism of education, which has always been strong in the US, experienced a very particular revival at the turn of the century. Around this time John Dewey’s notion of applied scientific intelligence was brought forward to revolutionize formal schooling. The classroom was to be a model society, and worse, society was considered a model classroom. According to Dewey, Veblen, Parrington, Beard, leadership of the offensive against monopoly capitalism was now to emanate from the Academy.
Du Bois’ Talented Tenth was no mere imitation of this doctrine of Progressivism, but a natural exaggeration rooted in the extreme conditions of Negro life. In order to insure the most painless integration of the Negro into industry, Booker T. Washington had emphasized manual labor training. The Negro intelligentsia’s attack on Washington, and implicitly on Andrew Carnegie and other industrialists supporting the Tuskegee idea, was the self-defense of their very being.
The most obvious characteristic of the Negro upper class, then even more than now, is that it parallels the white middle class rather than the capitalist rulers who control production. As a result, the educational level of the Negro professional is far higher than his occupational or income level. One result of this excruciating disparity is self-consciousness, self-idealization, an ideological yearning and reaching out to a future of higher status and social achievement. The Negro intelligentsia in Northern cities was excluded from serving bourgeois society. It was isolated from the Negro majority living on the Southern countryside. It was also isolated from the Negroes in the urban Ghetto. Thus the notion of a Talented Tenth with a historical mission and exalted function was felt necessary to fill this painful vacuum in Negro and Negro-American class relations.
Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, a product of this period, is widely celebrated to this day. The isolation of the Negro intelligentsia lent a stylistic power and passion – yet tempered and lyrical – to these essays. North and South, the post-Civil War counter-revolution was the supreme fact in American Negro life. Lynching was an open wound – between 1885 and 1894 the murder of seventeen hundred Negroes was a tragically accurate index to the degree of Southern barbarism. Du Bois on the fate of the Southern Negro peasantry reads like the writings of the great Russian intellectuals isolated in a backward, peasant sub-continent and jailed in the vast darkness of Czarism, prior to the rise of the Russian proletariat.
However deep its historical roots, the Talented Tenth remains a conception of limiting, restraining and subordinating the Negro masses. Pleading for higher education of the Negro, Du Bois warned that only in this way could “demagogic” leadership of the Negro masses be avoided. No sooner did there arise a Negro proletariat, integrated into American labor by the mechanism of capitalist production, than the Du Bois-Washington dispute was altogether transcended. The Talented Tenth did not serve to release and guide these new energies, it fettered them; it substituted solidarity with liberal reformism for the specifically new forces and independent activities of the Negro masses.
In The German Ideology Marx explains that the German bourgeoisie, having arrived late on the world scene, failed to destroy feudal vestiges, to achieve national unification or foreign conquest, and succeeded in triumphing only in the “shadow world” of ideas. With due respect for all differences, a similar generalization might be made of the post-Civil War Negro. Nowhere in America was the gap between actuality and need so great. The very existence of the Negro Ghetto and landless peasantry necessitated a vision of their negation through the destruction of that society which nurtured serfdom and a Ghetto existence. If Du Bois programmatically was confined more or less to the limits set by white petty-bourgeois liberalism, he could far transcend these limits in his historical works. His speech on Reconstruction before the American Historical Association in 1909, John Brown, and finally Black Reconstruction – each provided a greater sensation for an ever growing audience. Myrdal and others today can appropriate Du Bois’ sociology but not his history.
His transition from sociology to history was not a mere transition in modes of thought or personal interest; it formed part of the blood and anguish of Du Bois’ contemporaneity. The conflict with Booker T. Washington had deepened against Du Bois’ own will. The 1906 Atlanta riot cast doubt upon the purposes and effects of his sociological investigations. The insurgency of the Negro intelligentsia required not only a symbolic visit to John Brown’s grave, but an ideological pilgrimage to the Negro and the nation on the eve of Civil War.
Here were no controlled experiments conducted by a Talented Tenth. “Most Americans ... had heard of Douglass, they knew of fugitive slaves, but of the living organised struggling group that made both these phenomena possible they had no conception.” (My italics) But John Brown knew better than anyone else that he embodied the insurrectionary spirit of the slave mass and was thereby essentially a Negro creation. Because of that same insight Du Bois could declare with such clarity that the Second American Revolution was inevitable. Slavery “had to die by revolution and not by milder means. And these men knew and they had known it for a hundred years. Yet they shrank and trembled. From round about this white and blinding path ... flew equivocations, lies, thievings and red murders.” Some pages later, Du Bois appropriately asks, “Was John Brown an episode or an eternal truth?”
Du Bois’ version of John Brown was heavily hit by Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the Nation and heir-apparent to Abolition, who was soon to head the new-born NAACP. In Villard’s volume on Brown, Harper’s Ferry is reduced to an episode. Villard re-appropriated Brown for the glory of American morality in general and the Northern conscience in particular – and, with magnificent inconsistency, even to Villard’s own pacifism. Petty-bourgeois liberalism, panic-stricken by the depression of 1907, but safely confined to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, wildly applauded Villard’s volume.
In reaching the heights of his historical conceptions on the Civil War, Du Bois did not abandon either his directed Darwinism or Talented Tenth. Against the clamor about racial inter-marriage, Du Bois in the final chapter of John Brown can only answer: “The thoughtful selection of the schools and laboratory is the ideal of future marriage ... we can substitute a civilized human selection of husbands and wives which shall insure the survival of the fittest.” If John Brown demonstrates, through history, the inevitability of social revolution, then a sociology subordinated to biological evolution demonstrates for Du Bois that “Revolution is not a test of capacity; it is always a loss and lowering of ideals.” The Nation’s reviewer slammed the book, but complimented the last chapter.
Du Bois will carry this fear of mass upheaval, this fixed conception of a specialized function for a specialized Talented Tenth, over into Black Reconstruction, but there it will take a different form, more befitting the time and theme of its writing.
The white liberals and quasi-socialists who sponsored the NAACP fancied themselves of direct Abolitionist lineage. This was a delusion: the Abolitionists were revolutionary, their descendants were reformists. Du Bois, the only Negro in the NAACP leadership, suffered as a consequence.
Although the Abolitionists had attempted to dominate the Negroes within their ranks, this was possible in individual cases, not with the mass. The white Abolitionists, consciously or otherwise, were forced to base themselves upon the rebellious and fugitive slaves. Nat Turner made Garrison famous in the 1830’s; Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad kept the movement from disintegrating in the 1840’s; the battles over the return of fugitive slaves together with John Brown’s attempted slave insurrection made Abolition a burning issue during the 1850’s.
The Talented Tenth of Du Bois’ day, however, was in a different position. It could be dominated – and was – because it was isolated from the Negro masses.
Garrison avoided political activity entirely out of exaggerated fear of being contaminated by the slave power. Oswald Garrison Villard and others immediately plunged the new-born NAACP into the misadventure of supporting the pro-Southern Democrat, Woodrow Wilson! Thus twentieth-century liberalism was incorporating the Negro in its futile protests against the encroachment of the monopolies.
Yet even in this unpropitious environment Du Bois found a means of expression. The sponsors of the NAACP had limited their plans mainly to legal action and enlisting the big names of liberalism. Du Bois, almost completely on his own, emphasized the need for a Negro magazine. The Crisis proved to be a great success, reaching over a hundred thousand’s circulation in less than ten years. Monroe Trotter’s Boston Guardian had by its militant policy prepared the Negro public years in advance for their protests against Booker T. Washington’s Boston speech in 1905. J. Max Barber’s militant Voice of the Negro, published in the South, had reached a phenomenal 17,000 circulation when the Atlanta riot drove the editor out of town. The Negro migrations North provided a ready-made audience, while the revolutionary implications of the Negro struggle were an immediate stimulus to bold and effective propaganda. At the height of The Crisis success, the government tried to ban it from the mails.
World War I, which destroyed the world of Booker T. Washington, made precarious the world of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois recognized this wistfully. “The Races Congress, held in July 1911 in London, would have marked an epoch in the cultural history of the world, if it had not been followed so quickly by the World War.” (Dusk of Dawn)
The Tuskegee machine expired even before Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. The Negro petty-bourgeoisie was solidifying the alliance with its white counterpart. The Negro working class was yet to be reinforced by the hundreds of thousands soon to enter war industries. Meanwhile the strains in the economy were not acute. The Socialist Party, like its sister parties in Europe, had mellowed; membership in the IWW was declared incompatible with membership in the Socialist Party. More than ever Debs’ radicalism seemed an individual phenomenon. Samuel Gompers was happily wedded to capital in the National Civil Federation.
The “Amenia Conference” in 1915, which gathered together former supporters as well as opponents of Booker T. Washington, prided itself in a resolution “that its members had arrived at a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to certain principles and that a more or less definite’ result may be expected from its deliberations.” What definite result? “In 1916 we found ourselves politically helpless. We had no choice.” Moreover, when America entered the war it was the pressure of a typical petty-bourgeois, Joel Spingarn, that overrode Du Bois’ doubts about supporting the war. Spingarn was only one of that layer of quasi-socialist intellectuals – Charles Edward Russell, W.E. Walling, Mary White Ovington, John Dewey – all founders of the NAACP who enlisted Progressivism, Socialism, the Negro and the proletariat behind the war-making of Woodrow Wilson.
It remains impossible for Du Bois, even retrospectively, to correctly evaluate what happened. In tribute to Spingarn he writes:
It was mainly due to his advice and influence, that I became during the World War nearer to feeling myself a real and full American than ever before or since.
Yet at the same time he can say:
I am less sure now than ten of the soundness of this war attitude ... I do not know. I am puzzled ... In my effort to reconstruct in memory the fight of the NAACP during the World War, I have difficulty in thinking clearly. (Dusk of Dawn)
The failure of Du Bois’ scientific rationality in the face of imperialist war was only a more extreme form of the bankruptcy of American liberalism before the same phenomenon.
Paternalistic liberalism was exploded by the Negro masses through two fundamental social developments: the proletarianization during wartime and the colonial revolts throughout the world of color. The craft-corrupted AFL locked out the Negro and all unskilled workers from organization and class expression. The response of the Negro masses to industrial society was projected onto the scale of open colonial revolt outside America. As a consequence, the British and French rulers of Africa considered Garveyism as the black variant of international Bolshevism.
Out of this racial solidarity of the Negro masses was born a hatred for that minority, mainly mulatto, who were most distant from them and closest to reigning bourgeois society. For its attempted integration into – and imitativeness of – its counterpart in bourgeois society, the Talented Tenth was placed under a sustained assault by the aroused Negro masses.
An incidental irony of this whole conflict was that Du Bois reached Africa; few Garveyites did. The Garvey movement, attempting to reconstruct a new free Africa through the American Negro, actually reconstructed a new, freer American Negro through Africa as a symbol and conception. Du Bois, intent on “practicality,” proceeded to the task of internationalizing a Talented Tenth. President Coolidge appointed him Envoy-Extraordinary to Liberia in 1924. Through his own energies Du Bois had organized the Pan-African Congress earlier. The third Pan-African Congress made connections with Harold Laski, Ramsay MacDonald and Beatrice Webb. But Du Bois was only internationalizing the dilemmas of his own position in America.
His project died because the imperialists saw in Du Bois merely the lighter shadow of Garveyism while the Garveyists saw in Du Bois merely subservience to imperialism. At home Du Bois found “the board of Directors of the NAACP not particularly interested. The older liberalism among the white people did not envisage Africa and the colored peoples of the world.”
The negative side of “Back-to-Africa” was developing in the United States. It was the “Jazz Age” and the Negro was in vogue. The white intellectuals came to admire the Negro as a primitive; this was their image of the Negro’s contribution. William Lloyd Garrison admonished the Negroes not to smoke, drink or swear, and thus make themselves worthy of the approval of white society. A century later Carl Van Vechten told the Negro to sing, dance and play to be worth the attention of a middle-class Bohemia.
Du Bois saw a new function of the Talented Tenth in the encouragement and guidance of Negro cultural expression as a bridge to the sympathy and support of enlightened white liberalism. The task was to resist the growing conception of the Negro as a child of Nature. It was precisely over this problem that Du Bois clashed with Langston Hughes and others who considered him “old-guard” and “upper-crust.” (Langston Hughes: The Big Sea)
Darkwater, Du Bois’ own work of that period, is no longer tempered and lyrical; it is harsh and shrill. The “unreasonable” capitalists and imperialists on one side, and the “unreasonable” Garveyites on the other, make for alternate pages of pleading and threatening which tend to cancel each other out. In one essay, Work and Wealth, Du Bois effectively delineates the role of the craft union leadership faced with the mass influx of unskilled Negro workers, a situation which brought on the St. Louis riot of 1919. This and one or two other essays are minor triumphs of Du Bois as social analyst and historian during the years which marked the emergence of the Negro mass movement.
The main theme of Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, is not that “the Negro is an average, an ordinary human being.” Indeed the critics of Du Bois’ volume attacked him for not limiting himself to proving that alone. Du Bois had dealt with Reconstruction a number of times previously, but this was a new stage. “The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor, and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” Du Bois was now seeking an historical anticipation of the modern proletariat in the Civil War Negro. His very errors and exaggerations tend to underscore the extent of his effort to incorporate the Negro into modern proletarian history.
In the totality of style, passion, historical sweep, prodigious research, and boldness of interpretation, Du Bois here far outdistances his contemporaries, the Beards and the Schlesingers. A great work of this kind is always a climax of historical accumulation. Everything was poured into its writing: the slave system, the slave insurrections, the murder of Abolitionists, fugitive slave rescues, the last letters of John Brown, the Civil War, the intervention of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association, the Year of Jubilee, the Black Codes, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, post-Reconstruction peonage, the monstrous crimes of world imperialism, southern lynching, northern labor chauvinism, World War, the crash of 1929, the pauperization of the Negro masses and intelligentsia both, Italy’s assault on Ethiopia, the rise of industrial unionism, new waves of Southern terror, the threat of another world war.
In the chapter entitled The General Strike, Du Bois presents the Negroes’ physical movement from the Underground Railroad to the mass enlistment in the Union Army, not as the flight of a broken people, but as a purposeful weakening and paralysis of Southern economy, as the necessary prelude to its fundamental reconstruction. This was part of a larger conception that the Negro in the South was not simply a long-suffering but essentially a revolutionary laboring class which attempted “prematurely” to remake Southern society in its own image through land seizures and government based upon mass political participation. And if the prosperity of European imperialism was built on the massacre of the Paris Communards, America’s rise as a participant and leader in world plunder was built on the unbridled deceit and terror which broke Black Reconstruction in the South.
This bold, new conception startled the bourgeois historical writers, petty-bourgeois radicals and Negro intellectuals. Characteristically the liberals of the Nation and New Republic with the Stalinists of the New Masses, just then plunging up to their necks into liberal-capitalist Popular Frontism, conducted a united assault upon Du Bois’ history. The Stalinists launched James Allen’s Reconstruction: the Battle for Democracy, as a substitute. Their attack on Black Reconstruction in a more concealed fashion has continued up to this day.
Having gone so far to the left (even ultra-left) in assaying the Radical state governments of the post-Civil War period as a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Du Bois asserts that they were sponsored through self-interest by the Northern dictatorship of industrial and finance capital. The critics latched on to this obvious incongruity and tried to shake the whole book apart with it. But in this incongruity Du Bois is maintaining his principle of the guardianship of the masses by the professorial chair, the test-tube laboratory, private or government philanthropy, or an entrenched intellectual caste. The history of the revolutionary Negro elicits from him an accurate, forceful expression. But immediately there comes to the surface at the same time the classical fears of the highly trained intellectual: it is precisely in revolutionary times that the masses seem most untutored, undisciplined, capable of creating only incessant “violence and dislocation of human civilization” (Dusk of Dawn), rather than a new social order, a new way of living, a new stage of thought.
If Du Bois reached a more advanced position than Dewey, Beard, Parrington and the other intellectuals produced by the Progressive Era, it is because the Negro as a whole was not and could not have been incorporated into that era. But in his fundamental inability to comprehend the role of the modern proletariat – Negro and white – and embrace all of its capacities and potential, Du Bois demonstrates that, despite the highly radical coloration of his later beliefs, he remains fixed in the prejudices of the protest movement of small-farmer Populism and urban middle class Progressivism between 1885 and 1915.
The violence of this contradiction in Du Bois has propelled him to strange places programmatically. Characteristically, in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, Du Bois organized the “Negro Cooperative Guild.” During the world-wide economic crisis of the nineteen thirties, Du Bois developed a full-blown program for a planned Negro economy. Of course this was, in a way, an expression of his justified suspicions that New Deal planning would affect little change in the Negro’s economic status. But Du Bois’ solution is again adaptation to new conditions for the functioning and fulfillment of the Talented Tenth.
In explaining his program, Du Bois reveals the real lack in his theoretical equipment. Writing in The Crisis on the Negro’s relation to Marxism, Du Bois frankly identifies his planned Negro economy with pre-Marxian Utopianism. Strong on sociology and history, there is a general lack of economics in Du Bois’ writings. Thus, when the Negro was being proletarianized on the largest scale, Du Bois could write:
The American Negro is primarily a consumer in the sense that his place and power in the industrial process is low and small ... I see this chance for planning in the role which the Negro plays as consumer. In the future reorganization of industry the consumer as against the producer is going to become the key man.
Here is revealed the vast gap between Du Bois and Marxism, which sees the consumer and consumption as functions of production.
When Du Bois broke with the NAACP in 1935, he spoke very critically of the fate that had overtaken the Talented Tenth, which had sought to integrate itself individually into bourgeois society rather than lead the Negro masses. But without their self-identification with the perspective of mass social revolution, no other fate was possible. Indicative of this was the replacement by a first rate lobbyist, Walter White, for the first-rate theoretician and propagandist who had left the leadership of the NAACP.
And when Du Bois called a Conference on “Economic Planning and the Negro” in 1940 in Atlanta, the attendant Negro intelligentsia contained a large sprinkling of economic planners, not of a separate Negro economy, but for the New Deal, for the dominant, capitalist economy! In the same year as this conference of planners, a hundred thousand Negroes pledged themselves to a March on Washington, which could have delivered a deadly blow to the pretensions of New Dealism. Never was Du Bois so isolated from the actual living mass movement as he was after detailing the heroic efforts of the lowliest slave masses during Black Reconstruction, to create a new society. This paradox has run the full course of Du Bois’ life.
The current affiliation of Du Bois adds a great deal to Stalinism. It adds nothing to Du Bois. For the time being his hostility to American imperialism for its long betrayal of the Negroes finds a congenial refuge in Stalinism. There he can find embodied in a single movement the two ideals which have dominated his life work in regard to the Negroes: the conception of the Talented Tenth and the urge toward international revolt. Stalinism operates on a world scale. And it approaches and manipulates the masses like an elite convinced of their backwardness and incapacity; hence the necessity to dictate, plan and administer for them from the heights of superior knowledge and wisdom.
This pitiable political decline has been accompanied by a total loss of theoretical moorings. Reviewing Myrdal’s American Dilemma in 1944, Du Bois gave it unqualified approval. A year later, Du Bois wrote that the problem of a “harsh” or “soft” peace with Germany was the same as the problem of reconstructing the South after the Civil War! Writing in the Negro Digest of February 1950 in defense of Paul Robeson, he says: “The American Civil War was not fought to free the slaves and if it accomplished this partially, a wiser nation could have done more by peace than by murder and destruction.” Du Bois thus lands smack in the middle of that conservative American historiography which has been trying to prove for nearly a hundred years that the Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, but could have been avoided, if only there had been less “fanaticism” on the part of both slavery and anti-slavery! What then becomes of Du Bois’ John Brown and at least seventy-five per cent of all Negro historical works?
Du Bois continues “... our New Deal was socialism pure and simple and it must be restored ...” Are there any serious thinkers today, from Republicans to Stalinists, who believe both in the first and the second halves of this preposterous proposition? Amidst the greatest successes of the New Deal, Du Bois could write that the rebuilding of America in the modern world, “whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to... Reconstruction in the United States ... for slaves black, brown, yellow and white under a dictatorship of the proletariat.” Four years later Du Bois, facing the united hostility of the pseudo-radical intellectuals on this, question, insisted on repeating his exaggerated formulations that the flight of the slaves, the “general strike” was followed by a “dictatorship of black labor” during Reconstruction (Black Folk, Then and Now, 1939). Today, in the face of atomic war, imperialist counter-revolution, and universal chaos and crisis, Du Bois has nothing to counterpose but New Deal “Socialism pure and simple!”
The present generation of Negro intellectuals has one immense advantage over Du Bois. The last generation of social experience has been more permeated with the dynamics of the class struggle out of which the future will be created than all of Du Bois’ eighty-two years. Yet his earlier sociological writings, his Black Reconstruction, and even Souls of Black Folk are imperishable. Such successes are dependent upon self-identification with the movement and sentiments of the broad masses, and recognition, even though limited, of the insurgence of those generally considered the most powerless and retarded – the Negro millions in America.
Du Bois wrote early in the century “... the Negro is a sort, of seventh son, born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world.” Convulsive decades in human history have filled this intuitive observation with pressing reality. Speaking to the Association of Negro History in 1939, W.T. Fontaine pointed out that the Negro intelligentsia is
not at all a socially unattached intelligentsia. (His emphasis) Consequently, Black Reconstruction by Du Bois is in its very inception an indictment of the democratic-liberal way of life ... The mind of the Negro scholar today ... presents a configuration generally antithetical to democratic-liberal concepts, thought patterns and techniques ... The subtle casts of an old world view shall be broken, and time transformed by might of mind and hand, shall yet yield the black man’s contribution.
Whenever he was inspired by the Negro masses, Du Bois has made notable contributions to the breaking of the traditional moulds of American thought. His work is restricted to the Negro question only in origin and theme; its full implications belong to the search for a new way of life for the whole American people by the best representatives of American thought in our time.
Last updated on: 18 March 2009