bill mullen

This biography reveals W.E.B. Du Bois as a radical and revolutionary thinker who challenged capitalism, imperialism and racism, finds Adam Tomes


Bill Mullen, W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (Pluto Press 2016), vi, 169pp.

W.E.B. Du Bois was born just three years after the end of the American Civil War and died one day before the March on Washington in 1963. His life spanned almost a hundred years of social and political change in the USA, framed around some of the most important international events. During this time, he is remembered as the highest profile African-American intellect and a ‘master of propaganda’ (p.41), as he described himself. He was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, he played a lead role in the NAACP, which challenged the Jim Crow laws, and edited The Crisis, the most important African-American publication in the United States. In many ways, his life has become a ‘symbol of African-American history and the wider struggle for black freedom’ (p.9).

History remembers Du Bois today in a sanitised way and through its own ideological prism to remove the radical elements of his thought. Du Bois is widely celebrated as a ‘polite advocate of “racial uplift”, scholar of African American history, culture and psychology’ (p.2), even if the US Department of Education embarrassingly misspelled his name in a tweet for Black History Month in 2017. Eradicated from this history is the Du Bois who described the Russian revolution of 1917 as ‘the vision of great dreams that only those who work shall vote and rule’ (p.2).

Bill Mullen in this short work, which is both engaging and accessible, aims to give a full account of the significance of Du Bois to understanding ‘revolution and revolutionary thought in the twentieth century’ (p.3). It is not the biography for you if you are looking for a detailed insight into his personal life; it skates over this as it has been comprehensively covered elsewhere. Instead, it focusses on his political journey ‘from reformist and bourgeois democrat to radical Socialist’ (p.5). It places him in the context of global left figures such as Nehru, CLR James and George Padmore in their ‘aspiration to build socialist inspired revolutions across the world’ (p.4).

Racial uplift and reform

The first period of Du Bois’ political journey takes us from his birth through to the First World War, during which time he can best be described as a ‘liberal social democrat’. During this time, Du Bois published his most famous work, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903, which is regarded by many as one of the great non-fiction works of all time. This book gives an insight into the issues that preoccupied Du Bois: ‘race segregation, racial oppression, African-American history and the historical wounds and strivings of black Americans’ (p.33). It gave rise to probably the most famous line associated with Du Bois that ‘the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line’. This statement was at the time a reference to the problems faced by African Americans in Jim Crow America, although it would be later developed into his understanding of the issues faced by non-white races across the globe due to imperialism, war and colonialism.

The book also gives us one of the most memorable and important ideas to emerge from his writing that speaks to the truth of the African-American experience. The concept of ‘double consciousness’ is Du Bois’ theory of alienation:

‘the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’ (p.33).

The Souls of Black Folk is hugely influential and Mullen argues that the book is a ‘synthesis of the reformist period of his thought, and as breakthrough in African-American scholarship’. It clarifies Du Bois’ view that African-American self-improvement would come through the gradual reform of social and economic conditions under the guidance of the leadership of the ‘talented tenth’; the most influential and outstanding race leaders. Mullen argues that this book, written when Du Bois was 35, should be seen in the context of his other work which he created up to the age of 95, which reform the ideas expressed in Souls.

Outside of his writing, Du Bois left academia to pursue his career as an activist. His platform was the NAACP, an interracial group that sought to bring ever greater civil and social rights to Black Americans. Du Bois used the publication, The Crisis, as a mouthpiece to state the aims of African Americans and report on the facts about their social conditions by reporting ‘on lynchings, discrimination against black soldiers … and agitating against racist restrictions’ (p.43). The Crisis also carried poetry and fiction that were central to the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes’ poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’.

Du Bois’ more radical turn was reflected by his joining of the Socialist Party in 1911, largely driven by the vehement anti-racism of its leader Eugene V. Debs, who refused to speak to segregated audiences. Du Bois left the party a year later, in response to the Socialist Party’s failure to tackle Jim Crow in the South, or to try to recruit black workers, as well as his opposition to the leader of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, who was a nativist. Outside of the US, Du Bois attended the first Pan-African Congress in 1900 where he engaged with the other major interest that would dominate his activist life. Du Bois gave a keynote speech where he ‘pleaded with leading capitalist and colonial countries of the west to recognise the rights and full humanity of people of African descent’ (p.31).

Du Bois also still had a lingering ‘elitism, scepticism about working-class unity, and faith in top down reforms’ (p.45). This led to two of his main errors of this time: firstly, backing Woodrow Wilson for the Presidency in 1912, believing his promises to assist African Americans. Yet Wilson’s actions were racist in attempting to extend Jim Crow into the North and in his endorsement of the racist film, Birth of a Nation, which Wilson saw as history written in lightning. The second error was in his editorial ‘Close Ranks’, where Du Bois asked African Americans to set aside racial grievances and support the war as part of a process to gain more civil rights.

At the same time, Mullen identifies World War One as a turning point in his thought. This is based around Du Bois’ powerful article in Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘The African Roots of War’. The article sees the war as attempt to spread Western imperialism, including American imperialism, across the world, and places the blame for the war on imperial rivalry between capitalist nations. Imperialism buys off the ‘aristocracy of labor’ at home using wealth stolen from non-white nations in order to divide the working classes and gain ‘industrial peace at home at the mightier cost of war abroad’ (p.47). Du Bois was moving to a position where he saw war as an attack on the world’s working classes and that the US state could not be an ally either for the liberation of African peoples from colonialism or the liberation of African Americans in the US.

Moscow to Manchester, 1917 to 1945

The next period of Du Bois’ journey is the period of the greatest change. His developing view of war, his interest in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the establishment of the Comintern in 1919, all led to Du Bois moving leftward in his thinking. Mullen cites the Comintern as particularly important as it stressed one of the key issues that Du Bois, as a Pan Africanist since 1900, was focussed on, that of the colonies. The Comintern was arguing the case for ‘national self-determination both as a formula for decolonisation of the non-white world and African Americans fighting domestic racism’ (p.59).

In 1926, Du Bois visited Russia in a carefully stage managed tour and left convinced by what he had seen, writing: ‘If what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, then I am a Bolshevik’ (p.67). He comments about the lack of racism in Russia and these remarks were a stinging rebuke to the racism present in American democracy. Du Bois is also taken with the idea that Soviet policy was to give national self determination to all races in order to ‘preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle’, and this in many ways is the start of his advocacy of world Communist revolution.

Absent from his report is any critique of the Soviet experiment, which by 1926 was already being undermined by Stalin’s rise to power. This absence of critique becomes a theme of Du Bois’ work, who as a defender of Stalinism, committed a grave error of judgement, although this was a mistake made by other leading radical thinkers. It is perhaps this error, according to Mullen, which has led to the failure to really give air to Du Bois’ wider thinking on world revolution.

On his return from Russia, Du Bois threw himself into a self-directed study of Marxism. This resulted in the production of what Mullen argues is his greatest and most influential book, Black Reconstruction. This study of the American Civil War and the twelve years of Reconstruction that followed, develops an ‘entirely new and revolutionary theory to explain this period in US history’ (p.78). Du Bois tears down the racist historiography of the period that sees the end of slavery as down to the morality of white figures such as Abraham Lincoln, as African Americans were ‘incapable of achieving their own freedom’ (p.78). In its place, Du Bois argues that the black working class carried out is own emancipation, seeing the 200,000 slaves that fled the plantations as carrying out a general strike against the slave owning classes.

Du Bois argued that after the war, African Americans played a key role in redistributing ‘land, resources, education and social benefits’ (p.79) in what he calls an ‘experiment in Marxism’ (p.79). Du Bois added to this the framework of the Russian revolution, arguing that ‘slaves, former slaves, poor whites and white workers’ (p.80) were lined up one side against northern industrial bosses and southern plantation owners. The capitalist class bought off the white worker with ‘a wage of whiteness’ in order to defeat this revolution from below. In discussing the outcome, Du Bois sees the tragedy that ‘while slaves were now free, an interracial working class that had worked to free itself was now defeated’ (p.80). Crucially, Du Bois was arguing Marx’s point that black and white labour could only rise together. Mullen places this book on a par with Marx’s Civil War in France, and with CLR James’ The Black Jacobins (which was deeply influenced by Du Bois’ work) as explanations of revolutions from below.

This period also sees Du Bois’ continued activism to achieve African liberation, but again Mullen shows that his thinking was torn between Pan Africanism and Socialism. At the 1950 Pan-African Conference, Du Bois was elected as President and introduced by George Padmore as the ‘father of pan Africanism’ (p.96). He lived to see the decolonisation of large parts of Africa and Asia, and that success was down to the Pan-African movement. However, Mullen argues that Du Bois’ greatest success was ‘linking black freedom struggles in the US to African decolonisation’ (p.103), which educated African Americans about the history of the African diaspora, and inspired leaders of the Black Panther party such as Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton.

The desire for a socialist Africa brought far more mixed results. Du Bois became increasingly concerned about a nationalism that was painted red as he feared the rise of a ‘black bourgeoisie associated closely with foreign investors’ as the potential ruin of African independence. This view was prophetic and, as Mullen argues, sounds like Frantz Fanon’s warnings about the neo-colonialism of a new class of national bourgeoisie. Du Bois’ commitment to the Stalinist model remained a grave error of judgement, and this top down approach, with its inevitable squashing of workers’ democracy, had terrible consequences for many of the new African states.

Revolution and the Cold War

The last stage of Du Bois’ life was spent largely as an enemy of the American state. He found himself blacklisted and ostracised for his support for Communism in general, and in particular his support for socialism in Russia and China. In many ways, this period sums up the journey that Du Bois had been on and reflects both his successes and failures. He was committed to ‘the destruction of capitalism, the emancipation of the working class, and the liberation of all minority and colonial peoples’ (p.108). Within this, Du Bois rightly saw the US as the rising imperialist power and linked the fate of African Americans in the US with the people of the African diaspora fighting for freedom in Africa and the West Indies and with the white slaves of a capitalistic society. His opposition to the US led to him wrongly supporting China and Russia, failing to see the abuses of Stalinism, the Great Leap Forward or ‘the hijacking of the principles of Marxism and Leninism’ (p.119).

Du Bois, in line with many other thinkers of the time, failed to criticise these abuses and this damaged the reputation of Communism and Du Bois himself. They are perhaps a reflection of his early commitment to reform from above by great leaders to tackle the problems of the oppressed, which continued to shape his thinking. However, Mullen argues that should not stop us reclaiming some of Du Bois’ better socialist principles of socialism from below and applying them today.

In focussing on these principles, Mullen argues that we can see that Du Bois’ commitment to the liberation of African countries would find a home in support for the Arab Spring and its attempts to topple dictatorships. His commitment to equality and opposition to capitalism and imperialism would find a home in the anti-globalisation movement and the Occupy movement. His commitment to end the racism and violence of the state has direct links to the Black Lives Matter movement today. As an example, Du Bois was a signatory to the 1951 petition to the UN, named ‘We Charge Genocide’ that asserted that the US killings by the police of African Americans were the practical expression of government policy. After the killing of Dominique Franklin Jr (Damo) by the police in Chicago in 2014, a group of young activists took inspiration from this work and formed a group named We Charge Genocide, which brought a report on police violence to the UN Committee against torture.

Perhaps, as Mullen suggests, it is best to leave with a cautionary parable that Du Bois tells in Black Reconstruction:

‘Inspired by the dream and promise of the emancipation of slavery, Du Bois wrote, African Americans “for a brief moment in the sun” began their climb to freedom, only to be pushed back by the forces of capitalism and racism towards slavery’ (p.151).

Both capitalism and racism must be ended for African Americans to achieve freedom and for all workers to achieve freedom. Marx argued that ‘Labour in the white skin can never free itself as long as labour in the black skin is branded’, and this biography shows how Du Bois came to place this view both at the heart of his writing and his activism.