Du Bois Was a Marxist. Aye. So?

W.E.B. Du Bois at 82 (cropped), New York, NY, 1950. (Keystone/Getty Images). Cropped photo qualifies as fair use under US copyright law.

In recent months, a few people I know have brought up the fact that at least since the mid-1930s, the great W. E. B. Du Bois had professed himself a Marxist. The poet E. Ethelbert Miller, one of my co-panelists at a talk a couple of months back, made a point of interrogating notions of Blackness with the idea that Black activists were/are afraid to identity Du Bois as a Marxist. Certainly by the time Du Bois broke free from the federal government’s McCarthy-era ban on his international travel in 1958, he was. Du Bois re-obtained his passport, traveled the world, and ended up in Ghana in 1961. There, at the age of 93, he renounced his US citizenship and declared himself a Communist. Two years later, on the eve of the March of Washington, Du Bois died. The end.

All the above is true, but not so fast! The thing I’ve known in all my years of reading Du Bois’ work, writing about Du Bois, and in reading others who’ve written about Du Bois, was that Du Bois wasn’t just one thing. Nearly every social science and humanities tradition in the US can claim influence from Du Bois’ work. Poetry, theology, philosophy, psychology, economics, and American literature would be one set of his influences, and that’s just with The Souls of Black Folk!

Though Du Bois’ Harvard doctorate was in history, he’s widely recognized as one of the founders (if not the actual founder) of American sociology. His 1898 study The Philadelphia Negro is really the first urban sociological study ever conducted in the US. His dissertation on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the only major work to cover the cost of the Middle Passage for kidnapped Africans (and estimate the total number of Africans stolen for slavery in the Western Hemisphere) for nearly seven decades. And there’s Black Reconstruction, probably Du Bois’ magnum opus of scholarly work.

With almost 70 years’ worth of Du Bois’ writings alone, anyone who’d think that Du Bois was just one thing would be guilty of a gross oversimplification of the man. Really, Du Bois was a mess of contradictions. He believed in elitist ideas like The Talented Tenth. Yet Du Bois also fought Booker T. Washington in books and in the press for more than a decade over the latter’s prominence as the “race man” whom Teddy Roosevelt and “liberal” White philanthropists talked to about uplifting Black folk.

He was a founder of both the NAACP and the Niagara Movement that preceded the organization. He befriended White philanthropists just as easily as Washington, though, and kept a personal war between himself and long-time NAACP president Walter White going for nearly two decades. On more than one occasion, Du Bois punned White’s last name as an insult, as the man was biracial, and could’ve easily passed for White.

Du Bois was also a Pan-Africanist. One, though, that used his editorialship at The Crisis to discredit Marcus Garvey and his ill-fated “Back-to-Africa” movement. David Levering Lewis in his Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume biography of Du Bois has even documented the likelihood that Du Bois helped the FBI (née BOI) in their mail fraud case against Garvey.

Du Bois was also a socialist. Though for most Americans, socialism and Marxism is a distinction without a difference, socialism in Du Bois’ mind meant alleviating the worst effects of market capitalism, not necessarily doing away with capitalism all together.

Du Bois was also a pacifist. But like so many of Du Bois’ positions, this one evolved over time. When the US became a military participant in World War I, Du Bois wrote essays where he argued that Black involvement could provide evidence of the need for full integration and citizenship rights for African Americans. By the Cold War, Du Bois was giving speeches about the threat of American imperialism and nuclear war.

Du Bois was also a multiculturalist. One of his more well-known extramarital affairs was with Rachel Davis DuBois (White, no relation), a key founder of the intercultural education movement, which had its heyday between the late-1920s and early 1940s. The idea of a diverse and inclusive curriculum was first fully demonstrated in DuBois’ work, which Du Bois endorsed in the mid-1930s. At the same time, how much can anyone believe from a man who at this point in his career was also serial adulterer?

Even saying Du Bois was a Marxist isn’t the full truth. “I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.” This was what Du Bois wrote soon after renouncing his American citizenship in Ghana. Technically, this would be socialism more than communism. But more to the point, it’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. It’s really Du Bois using Marxism to protest American imperialism and capitalism through his Pan-African affinity for Ghanian revolutionary and prime minister Kwame Nkrumah, not to mention, with America’s archenemy, the Soviet Union.

The one thing I wish those in the scholarly community would stop doing is taking the pyramid that was Du Bois’ life and reducing it to a two-dimensional square. Why can’t we just call an idea whose main source is Du Bois, well, Du Boisian? Like, Du Boisian sociology, or Du Boisian economics, or Du Boisian politics? Is this an example of Whiteness rearing its ugly head, where it’s too difficult to give Du Bois his own due without subsuming him under another White guy? It seems to me that so many are attempting to use Du Bois for their own ideological purposes, when it’s better to just let him be the so much that he was.

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