On the 145th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, Anthony Monteiro looks at Du Bois’s relationship with the CPUSA and the Soviet Union
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
We’re continuing our discussion on the occasion of February 23, which is the 145th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois.
And now joining us to continue this chat is Anthony Monteiro, who’s a professor of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Thanks for joining us again, Anthony.
ANTHONY MONTEIRO, PROF. AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDIES, TEMPLE UNIVERSITY: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: Talk a bit about Du Bois’s attitude, I guess starting with the Russian Revolution, the American communist movement, trade unionism. And it’s a whole arc of his life right till 93 years old.
MONTEIRO: There’s a lot just in the 1920s. You know, he writes this essayâ€”I think it’s published in 1916â€”called “The African Roots of the War”, and he says that World War I is a war over which European power would dominate the colonies in Africa. He says Germany is the aggressor and the protagonist, because in the Berlin Conference of 1885, Germany got the smallest amount of colonies; by the beginning of the 20th century, Germany is the fastest-growing industrial nation and it wants more colonies; it therefore goes to war. He puts Africa at the center of this war.
JAY: It’s very controversial, his position on the First World War, ’cause if I understand correctly, in the beginning he’s advocating for more blacks to be in the army, which more or less supports the war. Then he takes a position criticizing the war. But then in 1918, apparently he’s offered a commission and he decides toâ€”he writes this thing called “Close Ranks”, which winds up supporting the war, which was very controversial on the American left, right?
MONTEIRO: Yes, it was, and especially on the black left. You know, he supports Wilson, President Wilson’s entering the war with the condition that, one, it is a war against the aggressor, Germany; two, that the peace after the war would be a democratic peace, which would mean steps to decolonize Africa, a process begun under a newly written international legal system with the League of Nations.
He felt betrayed after the war by Wilson and the other allied powers, who in Versailles sought to establish a peace without decolonization. He felt this was wrong, he felt it was a mistake, because he felt that the source of the war were colonies and which nation would have the largest share of the African and Asian colonies. Well, of course he was right, because if you think about World War II and you think again about Germany as the protagonist, and now under the leadership of Hitler, the question of colonies is uppermost.
JAY: When he takes this position on World War I, it’s at a time just before the Russian Revolution, and the communist movement and much of the left movement around the world is taking the position that workers of different countries should not slaughter each other and the workers instead should fight their own elites. And instead of taking that position, he winds up closing ranks, as you say, because he hopes it leads to decolonization.
MONTEIRO: He was wrong by not seeing the issue of workers slaughtering one another and this hypernationalism that comes about with war, but they did not see the colonial and race question. You see what I’m saying? So there were errors on both sides. And, certainly, inâ€”placing his confidence in Woodrow Wilson as an arbiter for anti-colonialism was a great mistake, and he admitted it.
JAY: So this then raises the question of his attitude towards the communist movement, because the communist movement and Lenin and these kinds of people, they are talking about the anti-colonial struggles, and it’s part of sort of the grand picture of how that movement saw the world. But I’m not so sure what, in terms of the American movement and how real that was in the American movementâ€”especially in terms of how so much of the leadership of some of the unions, at least, were in fact quite racistâ€”and then the Communist Party here, I mean, they certainly did advocate unions that were multiracial, but I don’t know how that worked in practice. So what was his relationship? Because just quickly, at the end, when he’s 93 years old, he joins the Communist Party.
MONTEIRO: Exactly. Well, you know, you had after World War I this upsurge of leftist activism, and you had leftists in the African-American communityâ€”Cyril Briggs, A. Philip Randolph, and othersâ€”and many of them supported the Russian Revolution. Du Bois hesitates. Claude McKay, the poet, is very outspoken in his support.
But then Du Bois has an opportunity in 1926 to visit the Soviet Union, and he writes this famous article that appears in The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, where he says that if what I’ve seen is Bolshevism, then I am a Bolshevik. I think this is a very important moment. You know, the Russian Revolution changes the international equation, and for the first time, a great power in the modern era is supporting anti-colonialism. Du Bois becomes thereafter a supporterâ€”in fact, a partisanâ€”of the Soviet Union.
JAY: What then was his relationship with the American Communist Party? ‘Cause while he supported the Soviet Union, he never joined the American Communist Party during this whole period. In fact, he didn’t vote for their candidates and such.
MONTEIRO: No, he disagreed, especially in the 1930s, on several questions. One, he disagreed with the Communist Party’s slogan of a Black Belt republic. He felt that to do that would be to separate the black working class from the main thrust of class and race struggles in the United States.
JAY: What was this proposal, Black Belt republic?
MONTEIRO: Well, you know, part of the Communist Party’s conceptualization of the question of racial oppression was to conceptualize black oppression as an instance of national oppression very similar to the colonial question in Africa and Asia. And as such, in what was viewed as 165 counties stretching from Virginia down to Louisiana and Mississippi, there were 165 counties that had a black majority, and the Communist Party said that it would be conceivable that as part of resolving the race question, which they again saw as a national question, that these 165 counties could become a Black Belt republic with the right to self-determination.
JAY: And Du Bois opposed this because it sounds like separate but equal in a different way.
MONTEIRO: Well, that’s what he thought.
And so he disagrees also with the Communist Party on the conduct of the struggle to save the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, you know, the nine young men who were accused of raping two white women. And this became an international cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre in a lot of ways because of the leadership of the Communist Party. He felt that the Communist Party had brought its politics too much into the case and they would be benefitingâ€”they were seeking political benefit out of this.
JAY: Now, for the sake of argument, some people write the history that he didn’t get involved in the early stages and the Communist Party did, and so they wound up kind of reaping the rewards of the campaign, and that he resented them ’cause it sounded like they were trying to take leadership away from his organization. I mean, what do you make of that?
MONTEIRO: That’s arguably true. He wanted the NAACP to get involved in it from the beginning, he wanted black leadership to spearhead the movement, he felt this was part of a larger civil rights agenda, and so on. So there was that competition, and, you know, I think you’re right about that.
JAY: Alright. Well, as I said, this is just the beginning, and we’re going to do many other segments about the life of Du Bois, ’cause I think it’s an important life, a fascinating life, and a lot in terms of what’s going on today. But let me just ask you one more question before we conclude for now.
A lot of what I think shaped Du Bois’s life was that in theory socialism was better for people. In theory, even the Communist Party and that movement made sense and the class analysis made sense. But there was so much in practice he wound up against white racism in those movements that it was hard to actually go the whole way, to see it in fulfilment. And then others did, I mean, people like Paul Robeson. In fact, many of the people that built the trade unions and the communist movement were African-Americans. But he still had this relationship. So a little bit about that. And then, how does that look like today?
MONTEIRO: It’s so complicated. And, you know, as you said, he’s a very complicated individual, a lot of pride in black leadership and in his leadership.
But then for him the question was: how do you get from where we are to where we want to be? How do we carry out both the struggle for black civil rights, which is a broad democratic struggle, which also involves the rights of unions and the rights of women, and ultimately the struggle against war? How do we conduct that struggle in such a way that we move from where we were, that is, the Jim Crow segregated, openly racist society, to a society of true equality and true and real redistribution of wealth, which would not only mean formal equality but equality in substance? And that was what he struggled with, really, from 1920 to the end of his life. And he wanted a theory and a practice to do that. And I don’t think anyone ever thought more deeply about the complexities of this transition than he did.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Anthony.
MONTEIRO: Thank you so much, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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