WEB DuBois

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Jan 22 17:06:57 MST 2001


February 8, 2001

The Double Life of W.E.B.Du Bois


W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963
by David Levering Lewis
715 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)
published by Holt, Henry

Despite Du Bois's disagreement with Communists and socialists on the
prospects for interracial solidarity in the 1930s, Black Reconstruction
drew on Marxist theory. Du Bois shows the influence of "scientific
socialism" on his work most clearly when he describes what was attempted in
the South as a "dictatorship of the proletariat." He meant by this that the
federal government between 1867 and about 1872 made a serious effort to
coerce the Southern states:

"into accepting a new form of administration in which the freedmen and poor
whites were to hold the overwhelming balance of power. As soon as political
power was successfully delivered into the hands of these elements, the
Federal government was to withdraw and full democracy ensue. The difficulty
with this theory was the failure to realize that such dictatorship must
last long enough really to put the mass of workers in power...."

The reason for the lack of perseverance that doomed this great experiment
was that the government was then falling into the hands of "organized
wealth," which had no inclination to foster proletarian democracy. One
problem with Black Reconstruction, as some Marxist critics pointed out at
the time, is that it argued that a dictatorship for the benefit of a
proletariat could have been established by a government that was thoroughly
"bourgeois" from the beginning of Reconstruction to the end. Another
problem that was less apparent when Black Reconstruction was published is
that Du Bois vacillated between economic determinism and a willingness to
acknowledge the autonomous effect of cultural racism. "Beneath the race
issue, and unconsciously of more fundamental weight, was the economic
issue," he wrote of events in South Carolina during Reconstruction. But in
explaining poor white support for the Jim Crow system after Reconstruction,
he called attention to the way in which white workers, although poorly
paid, were "compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.
They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were

Du Bois seems to have believed that there was in fact a period during
Reconstruction when white and black "workers" might have come together on
the basis of a colorblind proletarianism. But the cultural depth of white
racism that he affirmed in the passage I have quoted from Dusk of Dawn and
elaborated in his concept of a "pub-lic and psychological wage" resulting
from racial hierarchy suggests a non-economic explanation of why such
interracial solidarity would have been highly unlikely, if not impossible.
It must be conceded, however, that Du Bois's successors have yet to resolve
this central problem in interpreting Southern history. The relationship
between economic and psychocultural factors in the history of white-black
relations in the nineteenth-century South remains a murky and contentious
question. Du Bois's approving use of the term "dictatorship" reveals more
than an affinity with Marxist historical analysis. Despite being at odds
with American Communists on the possibility of working-class solidarity
across racial lines, Du Bois strongly admired the Soviet Union when he
visited Russia in 1926 and his admiration was not diminished by Stalin's
rise to power or by any of his actions thereafter. His devotion to Stalin
and Stalinism became one of the unwavering commitments of his later life
and survived the death of the Soviet dictator and his repudiation by most
of his former supporters after Khrushchev's revelations of 1956.

Full review at:

Louis Proyect
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