Sympathy for the Comrade

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W.E.B.
Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963

by
David Levering Lewis
Henry Holt & Company, 2000, 715 pp.

W.E.B.
Du Bois is conventionally perceived as the quintessential crusader
for black freedom, heroically contending with an America by turns
hostile and indifferent to his cause. This is the Du Bois of the
Niagara Movement and the NAACP, editor of The Crisis, theoretician
of Pan-Africanism, engaged a ceaseless and passionate struggle for
racial justice. The perception is not baseless, but it reflects
a colossal shallowness. W.E.B. Du Bois was a much deeper and disturbing
individual, one who expended considerable effort defending history's
most murderous regimes.

David
Levering Lewis's W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the
American Century, 1919-1963 completes the story he began in
W.E.B.
Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919
. Superbly researched
and written, this final volume presents a thorough portrait of its
subject. That W.E.B. Du Bois was a totalitarian apologist is not
omitted by this biography. Lewis writes of Du Bois's affection for
Soviet Russia and Maoist China; his "On Stalin," described
as "an apostrophe to the dead dictator"; how "Khrushchev's
Twentieth Party Congress revelations in February 1956 of Stalin's
crimes left him publicly unmoved"; his 1959 receipt of the
Lenin Peace Prize; and his 1961 application for membership in the
Communist Party.

To
exacerbate this record, Du Bois emerges as a moral moron in his
travels. When he visits the Soviet regime in 1926, "Du Bois
could have been at best only dimly aware of the momentous political
tragedy unfolding in the Kremlin." (How about the human tragedies
that had been perpetrated for nearly a decade? The Red Terror wasn't
unknown prior to The
Black Book of Communism
. Du Bois asserted willful blindness:
"I know nothing of political prisoners, secret police and underground
propaganda.") Du Bois's 1959 trip to China in the wake of the
Great Leap Forward is similarly described: "As they moved about
Beijing in their ceremonial cocoon, Du Bois and [Shirley] Graham
Du Bois knew absolutely nothing of the catastrophe inflicted upon
the Chinese people by their omnipotent ruler." Du Bois would
write rhapsodically of "so vast and glorious a miracle as China"
and return in 1962.

Notwithstanding
this repugnance, Lewis looks favorably upon Du Bois. (His subtitle
indicates as much.) "An extraordinary mind of color in a racialized
century," he writes, "Du Bois was possessed of a principled
impatience with what he saw as the egregious failings of American
democracy that drove him, decade by decade, to the paradox of defending
totalitarianism in the service of a global ideal of economic and
social justice." This ideal further impelled Du Bois to seek
allies, and "because he believed that the enemies of his enemies
were his friends in Africa and Asia, neither communism's doctrinal
rigidities nor the Soviet Union's 1956 rampages in Eastern Europe
would shake Du Bois's commitment to world socialism." As for
Du Bois's prescriptions, Lewis comments: "No doubt he was precipitous
in totally writing off the market economy. Even so, it may be suggested
that Du Bois was right to insist that to leave the solution of systemic
social problems exclusively to the market is an agenda guaranteeing
obscene economic inequality in the short run and irresoluble political
calamity in the long run."

This
apologetic spin is unpersuasive. Lewis's deterministic portrayal
of Du Bois's totalitarian embrace ("the egregious failings
of American democracy that drove him…") makes for ornate illogic,
as if oppression in America entailed exalting the apogees of oppression
abroad. Lewis here and elsewhere manifests an exculpatory as well
as explanatory objective. The tenor amounts to the following: Yes,
Du Bois behaved shamefully, but these were the deeds of an errant
idealist, not an ideologue.

Might
these mitigative attempts derive from Lewis's own ideology? He dryly
refers to "communism's doctrinal rigidities" but excoriates
the "obscene economic inequality" and "irresoluble
political calamity" resulting from a market-based approach
to "systemic social problems." The disparity of intensity
elucidates Lewis's perspective on his subject's communist cuddling.
Whereas encomiums for Stalin and Mao should be contextualized in
American racial injustice, an economic order grounded in market
principles is ipso facto abhorrent.

W.E.B.
Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963

brims with scholarship and elegance. It is this descriptive
amplitude that contrasts so starkly with its author's critical dearth.

February
19, 2001

Myles
Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Myles
Kantor Archives

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