Du Bois and the Soviet Union

Du Bois and the Soviet Union


PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network.
I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. We’re continuing our discussion on the occasion
of February 23, which is the 145th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois. And now joining us to continue this chat is
Anthony Monteiro, who’s a professor of African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Thanks for joining us again, Anthony. ANTHONY MONTEIRO: Thank you, Paul. JAY: Talk a bit about Du Bois’s attitude,
I guess starting with the Russian Revolution, the American communist movement, trade unionism.
And it’s a whole arc of his life right till 93 years old. MONTEIRO: There’s a lot just in the 1920s.
You know, he writes this essay–I think it’s published in 1916–called “The African Roots
of the War”, and he says that World War I is a war over which European power would dominate
the colonies in Africa. He says Germany is the aggressor and the protagonist, because
in the Berlin Conference of 1885, Germany got the smallest amount of colonies; by the
beginning of the 20th century, Germany is the fastest-growing industrial nation and
it wants more colonies; it therefore goes to war. He puts Africa at the center of this
war. JAY: It’s very controversial, his position
on the First World War, ’cause if I understand correctly, in the beginning he’s advocating
for more blacks to be in the army, which more or less supports the war. Then he takes a
position criticizing the war. But then in 1918, apparently he’s offered a commission
and he decides to–he writes this thing called “Close Ranks”, which winds up supporting the
war, which was very controversial on the American left, right? MONTEIRO: Yes, it was, and especially on the
black left. You know, he supports Wilson, President Wilson’s entering the war with the
condition that, one, it is a war against the aggressor, Germany; two, that the peace after
the war would be a democratic peace, which would mean steps to decolonize Africa, a process
begun under a newly written international legal system with the League of Nations. He felt betrayed after the war by Wilson and
the other allied powers, who in Versailles sought to establish a peace without decolonization.
He felt this was wrong, he felt it was a mistake, because he felt that the source of the war
were colonies and which nation would have the largest share of the African and Asian
colonies. Well, of course he was right, because if you think about World War II and you
think again about Germany as the protagonist, and now under the leadership of Hitler, the
question of colonies is uppermost. JAY: When he takes this position on World
War I, it’s at a time just before the Russian Revolution, and the communist movement
and much of the left movement around the world is taking the position that workers of different
countries should not slaughter each other and the workers instead should fight their
own elites. And instead of taking that position, he winds up closing ranks, as you say, because
he hopes it leads to decolonization. MONTEIRO: He was wrong by not seeing the issue
of workers slaughtering one another and this hypernationalism that comes about with war,
but they did not see the colonial and race question. You see what I’m saying? So there
were errors on both sides. And, certainly, in–placing his confidence in Woodrow Wilson
as an arbiter for anti-colonialism was a great mistake, and he admitted it. JAY: So this then raises the question of his
attitude towards the communist movement, because the communist movement and Lenin and these
kinds of people, they are talking about the anti-colonial struggles, and it’s part of
sort of the grand picture of how that movement saw the world. But I’m not so sure what, in
terms of the American movement and how real that was in the American movement–especially
in terms of how so much of the leadership of some of the unions, at least, were in fact
quite racist–and then the Communist Party here, I mean, they certainly did advocate
unions that were multiracial, but I don’t know how that worked in practice. So what
was his relationship? Because just quickly, at the end, when he’s 93 years old, he
joins the Communist Party. MONTEIRO: Exactly. Well, you know, you had
after World War I this upsurge of leftist activism, and you had leftists in the African-American
community–Cyril Briggs, A. Philip Randolph, and others–and many of them supported the
Russian Revolution. Du Bois hesitates. Claude McKay, the poet, is very outspoken
in his support. But then Du Bois has an opportunity in
1926 to visit the Soviet Union, and he writes this famous article that appears in The Pittsburgh
Courier, an African-American newspaper, where he says that if what I’ve seen is Bolshevism,
then I am a Bolshevik. I think this is a very important moment. You know, the Russian Revolution
changes the international equation, and for the first time, a great power in the modern
era is supporting anti-colonialism. Du Bois becomes thereafter a supporter–in fact, a
partisan–of the Soviet Union. JAY: What then was his relationship with the
American Communist Party? ‘Cause while he supported the Soviet Union, he never joined
the American Communist Party during this whole period. In fact, he didn’t vote for their
candidates and such. MONTEIRO: No, he disagreed, especially in
the 1930s, on several questions. One, he disagreed with the Communist Party’s slogan of a Black
Belt republic. He felt that to do that would be to separate the black working class from
the main thrust of class and race struggles in the United States. JAY: What was this proposal, Black Belt republic? MONTEIRO: Well, you know, part of the Communist
Party’s conceptualization of the question of racial oppression was to conceptualize
black oppression as an instance of national oppression very similar to the colonial question
in Africa and Asia. And as such, in what was viewed as 165 counties stretching from Virginia
down to Louisiana and Mississippi, there were 165 counties that had a black majority, and
the Communist Party said that it would be conceivable that as part of resolving the
race question, which they again saw as a national question, that these 165 counties could become
a Black Belt republic with the right to self-determination. JAY: And Du Bois opposed this because
it sounds like separate but equal in a different way. MONTEIRO: Well, that’s what he thought. And so he disagrees also with the Communist
Party on the conduct of the struggle to save the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, you know,
the nine young men who were accused of raping two white women. And this became an international
cause célèbre in a lot of ways because of the leadership of the Communist Party. He
felt that the Communist Party had brought its politics too much into the case and they
would be benefiting–they were seeking political benefit out of this. JAY: Now, for the sake of argument, some people
write the history that he didn’t get involved in the early stages and the Communist Party
did, and so they wound up kind of reaping the rewards of the campaign, and that he resented
them ’cause it sounded like they were trying to take leadership away from his organization.
I mean, what do you make of that? MONTEIRO: That’s arguably true. He wanted
the NAACP to get involved in it from the beginning, he wanted black leadership to spearhead the
movement, he felt this was part of a larger civil rights agenda, and so on. So there was
that competition, and, you know, I think you’re right about that. JAY: Alright. Well, as I said, this is just
the beginning, and we’re going to do many other segments about the life of Du Bois,
’cause I think it’s an important life, a fascinating life, and a lot in terms of what’s going on
today. But let me just ask you one more question before we conclude for now. A lot of what I think shaped Du Bois’s
life was that in theory socialism was better for people. In theory, even the Communist
Party and that movement made sense and the class analysis made sense. But there was so
much in practice he wound up against white racism in those movements that it was hard
to actually go the whole way, to see it in fulfilment. And then others did, I mean, people
like Paul Robeson. In fact, many of the people that built the trade unions and the communist
movement were African-Americans. But he still had this relationship. So a little bit about
that. And then, how does that look like today? MONTEIRO: It’s so complicated. And, you know,
as you said, he’s a very complicated individual, a lot of pride in black leadership and in
his leadership. But then for him the question was: how do
you get from where we are to where we want to be? How do we carry out both the struggle
for black civil rights, which is a broad democratic struggle, which also involves the rights of
unions and the rights of women, and ultimately the struggle against war? How do we conduct
that struggle in such a way that we move from where we were, that is, the Jim Crow segregated,
openly racist society, to a society of true equality and true and real redistribution
of wealth, which would not only mean formal equality but equality in substance? And that
was what he struggled with, really, from 1920 to the end of his life. And he wanted a theory
and a practice to do that. And I don’t think anyone ever thought more deeply about the
complexities of this transition than he did. JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining
us, Anthony. MONTEIRO: Thank you so much, Paul. JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real
News Network.

19 Comments on "Du Bois and the Soviet Union"


  1. Did he actually state that the "question of colonies" in WWII was "uppermost?" More central than the genocide that was actually committed? Wow.

    Reply

  2. That was one great series by Paul Jay and Dr. Anthony Monteiro. It is very important to learn about local, federal, and global politics; and, it is important to know that the issues around the world are NOT cultural-based. The cultures are the effect of the environment and the human condition.

    Du Bois's theory can apply to a lot of places around the world and from all races.

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  3. when I was 14 ('82) I learned BASIC on a trash 80 & told my mamma that it was the order that words were put in that communicated the concept and that the order of the letters could be checked with a program or proofreader & anything so important would be proof read- so dont be uptight & judge me over spelling

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  4. This is total absurd intellectualism. Your Du bois offered nothing new…
    0:44 "The African Roots of the War" The thesis on WWI was already articulated by V.I Lenin in his "Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism".
    4:03 "they did not see the race and colonial question", who is this fellow? The Communist movement understood that the struggle against colonialism is ALSO is the SAME struggle against Capitol.
    6:56 Read some Harry Haywood, a black Communist for more on the Black Belt Republic.

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  5. "True equality" is what USSR did in killing millions of people. Or what Mao did in the killing fields. "True equality" is unrealistic and unnatural. Hyper egalitarianism is insanity.

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  6. World War I was about other European imperialists getting angry at Germany for educating the people in their colonies and building a progressive economy for itself and the rest of the world. The Brits especially hated this.

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  7. A lot to agree with, but, the soviet union had little do to with socialism =)

    /watch?v=K4Tq4VE8eHQ

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  8. Sounds like Du Bois views were a cultural appropriation of White Progressive Communism in the Soviet Union. Isn't it cultural appropriation to say he is a Bolshevik?

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  9. Du Bois later admitted he was wrong about the first World War, as with the 'Talented Tenth' theory also. Yet he was a GIANT, and our greatest polemicist.

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  10. WWI wasn't all about Africa or German jealously. It had been building for years and was primarily instigated by the British and elements allied with the Empire in order to stop Germany and Central Europe from becoming a power that could rival theirs (and to keep a rift between Russia and Germany- their two greatest rivals). The more I learn about WEB DuBois, the more I come to the conclusion that he did NOT have an accurate understanding of history or current events outside of the struggles of his own group.

    Reply

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