Another look at W.E.B. DuBois, the revolutionary

W.E.B. DuBois was arguably the most important African American leader and intellectual of the 20th century. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Angela Davis, among many, many others, stand on DuBois’ broad shoulders, on his intellectual and political work.

While some scholars have tried to domesticate DuBois and confine his intellectual and political life within the boundaries of capitalist hegemony, DuBois was in fact a life-long revolutionary committed to socialism, Pan-Africanism and Black Liberation, a man who late in life – partly as a direct challenge to McCarthyism and the Cold War – joined the Communist Party, USA.

Bill V. Mullen’s W.E.B. DuBois: Revolutionary Across The Color Line corrects the record, highlighting a side of DuBois many would like us to forget. Mullen’s biography is part of a larger Revolutionary Lives series published by Pluto Press, which includes Gerald Horne’s bio of Paul Robeson (which is reviewed here) and nine other titles.

DuBois, like many African Americans of his generation, “lived in the shadow of slavery, and in a period of enormous national anxiety…,” which undoubtedly shaped his life-long commitment to African American equality and Black liberation.

Like Karl Marx, he saw the exploitation of Africa and the enslavement of Africans as the genesis of modern capitalism and imperialism. He also saw the 1917 Russian Revolution as “one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and his own development as a political revolutionary.”

DuBois said, the Bolshevik Revolution “explained me.” “This aspect of DuBois’s intellectual and biographical development is the one most overlooked by scholars,” writes Mullen.

While DuBois didn’t shy away from supporting Russian communism, nor communists (domestically and internationally), his main focus was articulating and analyzing racism and capitalism.

Considered a masterwork still today, DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, “developed an entirely new and revolutionary theory to explain this period in American history,” and laid the groundwork for other scholars – like DuBois’ friend and fellow Marxist, Herbert Aptheker, who would later become DuBois’ literary executor.

Unlike most Civil War historiography of the time, which depicted white plantation owners as benevolent masters and slaves as “incapable of achieving their own freedom,” DuBois argued that former slaves comprised a “black working class [which] undertook its own wide-scale mass-emancipation.” Pointing out that 200,000 African Americans fled the plantation during the Civil War, DuBois called this a “’general strike’ against slavery.”

Additionally, he argued that Reconstruction was a period of African American self-empowerment and an illustration of democracy and political participation in action, a revolution, or “experiment of Marxism.” African Americans “organized amongst themselves to redistribute land, resources, education and social benefits,” similar to the Russian Revolution, DuBois argued.

Ultimately, this “experiment of Marxism” was defeated as northern industrialists and southern plantation owners “conspired” to “extend the domain of capitalism into the South in order to preserve ruling class wealth.”

DuBois also championed Pan-Africanism, or the political unity of the entire African diaspora. According to Muller, DuBois “asserted African liberation as one of the pillars of his political life and work.” After being ousted from the NAACP – an organization he helped to found – DuBois would serve as vice-chairman of the Council on African Affairs (CAA), thereby working with Paul Robeson and Alphaeus Hunton, also a communist. He also wrote the groundbreaking book, The World And Africa.

By 1946 DuBois, “The man who had built up a reputation as the greatest race leader and African American intellectual of the twentieth century fund himself indicted by the U.S., blacklisted, and dishonored even by longtime allies for his persistent public support for the idea of socialism both within America and in its Cold War nemesis states, China and the Soviet Union in particular.”

Mullen adds, “…the ‘late’ period of DuBois’s life was in many ways a culmination of commitment to the destruction of capitalism, the emancipation of the working class, and the liberation of all minority and colonial peoples.”

On October 1, 1961 DuBois applied for official membership in the Communist Party, USA. Shortly thereafter, he was in Ghana, a guest of Kwame Nkrumah – that nation’s socialist first president – working on the Encyclopedia Africana. However, he did not live to see this final masterwork completed. DuBois died on August 27, 1963.

Prior to his death, DuBois wrote, “I believe in socialism. I seek a world where the ideals of communism will triumph…For this I will work as long as I live. And I still live.”

Indeed, the ideals that DuBois spent the entirety of his life fighting for still live.

Mullen’s W.E.B. DuBois: Revolutionary Across The Color Line is a must read for anyone interested in the life and work of this pioneering Black revolutionary.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.