Du Bois before Lenin


This year marked the centenary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ most famous book, Souls of Black Folk. It fell in a year wracked by warfare and capitalist deceit. The fraud of weapons of mass destruction sent our troops into battle against a people who have suffered the ravages of an uncertain history for at least a century. The gains of the war came quickly for global corporations who earned no-bid contracts to reconstruct a devastated country. The invisible hand came in quickly after the visible fist.

In 1920, in his Darkwater, Du Bois offered this antiwar credo: “I believe that War is Murder. I believe that armies and navies are at bottom the tinsel and braggadocio of oppression and wrong, and I believe that the wicked conquest of weaker and darker nations by nations whiter and stronger but foreshadows the death of that strength.”

At a conference in Spring 2003 to honor Souls, the Native American literary critic and co-author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, Robert Allen Warrior, quoted the lines from Darkwater. A hush fell over the room. Then there were murmurs of assent. Warrior, like many of us, refused to allow Du Bois to become a toothless cultural icon. We could not simply talk about “double consciousness,” Jim Crow and history – we had to also engage with his politics.

Du Bois was always an internationalist. In Souls, he wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” The color-line is not the cord that holds people enslaved in the U.S. alone, but it is the chain that binds the world to service the social process called imperialism. Du Bois recognized the salience of imperialism, and, in 1915, two years before Lenin’s Imperialism, he offered his own sophisticated theory of how racism, war and socio-economic theft operated.

The growth of monopoly capitalism alongside liberal democracy within Europe and the U.S. led to the creation of a labor aristocracy, what Du Bois called “democratic despotism.” The uneven union of labor and capital within Europe and the U.S. drew them into an intra-national fight with each other over the spoils of the world, mainly the “darker nations of the world – Asia and Africa, South and Central America, the West Indies and the Islands of the South Seas.” “The present world war,” Du Bois continued, referring to World War I, “is, then, the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations. These associations, grown jealous and suspicious at the division of spoils of trade-empire, are fighting to enlarge their respective shares; they look for expansion, not in Europe but in Asia, and particularly in Africa.”

Du Bois further cautioned us against a peace movement that confines itself “chiefly to figures about the cost of war and platitudes on humanity. What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand million in diamonds and cocoa?” Instead, he wrote, we need to fight for the creation of global democracy. “For a world just emerging from the rough chains of an almost universal poverty, and faced by the temptations of luxury and indulgence through the enslavement of defenseless men, there is but one adequate method of salvation – the giving of democratic weapons of self-defense to the defenseless.”

Our American Lenin had a simple program against imperialism: the demand for global democracy. “Democracy,” he wrote, “is a method of doing the impossible.” Struggle then, not just for democracy within the U.S., but for democracy around the world, democracy without limit.

Vijay Prashad is the author of Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (South End Press). He can be reached at pww@pww.org