Du Bois: A Provocative Homage

— Clarence Lang

W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, by Adolph L. Reed, Jr. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997. 296 pp. $35.00

PRAISED BY SOME and dismissed by others, Adolph L. Reed, Jr. is always thought-provoking. On the pages of the left-leaning Nation and The Progressive, he has offered some of the most insightful commentary on Afro-American political thought in the post-Civil Rights period. Reed's fiery missives against figures like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan have earned his stripes as a hard-headed iconoclast.

His third book-length work, W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Line, continues his running analysis of contemporary crises in Black intellectual culture. In some respects it extends an initial critique he made of the "Black public intellectuals" in a controversial 1995 Village Voice essay. Reed, "What Are the Drums Saying, Booker? The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual," The Village Voice, April 11, 1995: 31-36.”· To a large extent, the book also continues criticisms (begun in the Voice) of many Black Baby Boomers' romanticization of Jim Crow. Reed, "Dangerous Dreams: Black Boomers Wax Nostalgic for the Days of Jim Crow," The Village Voice, April 16, 1996: 24-29.’· As has become a trademark of his work, Reed's arguments in this text intertwine with explicit concerns for advancing critical reflection among Black scholars, and expanding an ethos of "civic liberalism" among African Americans outside the academy.

For Reed, William Edward Burghardt DuBois is a perfect subject around which to center this discussion. A cum laude Harvard graduate who studied in Berlin and taught at Atlanta University, DuBois authored the seminal sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro (1899); in it, he first elaborated the responsibility of educated, trained Blacks (the "Talented Tenth") to guide the masses. Black Reconstruction, published in 1935, is noteworthy in that it pre-dated the work of Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox and Immanuel Wallerstein "by placing American slavery and emancipation at the center of the emergence of world capitalism and imperialism," according to Robin D.G. Kelley and Paul Buhle. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (eds.) Encyclopedia of the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992): 204.

DuBois' most popular work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), was a series of essays on religion, politics and history in which he posited the "color line" as the pressing problem of the twentieth century.

The book is also widely known for DuBois' description of "double consciousness" ("One ever feels his two-ness, --an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body...") Á·pp2·Á

DuBois' productivity as a scholar was matched by the breadth of his social activism. His public rivalries with Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey are by now legendary. With Monroe Trotter and other militants of the "Talented Tenth," he founded the Niagara Movement in 1905.

As part of a bi-racial coalition of liberals and progressives, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People three years later, and subsequently became the editor of its news organ The Crisis.

He resigned from the NAACP in 1934, but returned in 1944. However, his later involvement in pacifist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist movements--and on-going engagement with socialist ideas--had by 1948 prompted the NAACP to dismiss him, and made him a target of Cold War repression.

Joining the Communist Party and renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 1961, DuBois emigrated to Ghana at the behest of president Kwame Nkrumah. He died there two years later, on the eve of the historic March on Washington.

DuBois' Intellectual Roots

Reed's beginning contention is that a wealth of scholarship has been written about DuBois, but little of it assesses the underlying premises of DuBois' political thought--an irony, considering DuBois took part in the sundry debates of his day, attentive to theoretical currents inside and outside the Black community.

Hailing from a generation of reform-minded, Eastern-bred social thinkers active at the turn of the century--when the nation was undergoing the transition to industrial capitalism--DuBois was both a product of and contributor to the academic and scientific assumptions prevalent in this milieu.

Among these, Reed identifies: a belief in collectivism, an ideology emphasizing specialized knowledge and expertise, and the subordination of human interests under the prerogatives of hierarchical administration; a related belief in the "cooperative commonwealth," or the rational organization of economic life for the maximum amount of productivity; and anti-modernism, a romantic ideology that informed DuBois' pastoral view of Black culture as folksy, passionate and anti-rational. Á·pp2·Á

On these premises, Reed implies DuBois' thought fell within a broad Fabian tradition--a brand of socialism built on gradual change by peaceful means. [Editors' note: "Fabian" socialism is a tradition associated especially with the British writers Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Rather than envisioning socialism as a product of class struggle, the Webbs identified with gradualist reform in early twentieth century capitalist Britain, and in the 1930s with Stalin's Russia, which they called a "new civilization."]

Reed asserts that collectivist assumptions undergirded DuBois' approach to seemingly eclectic categories of interracialism, Black institution-building, Pan-Africanism and socialism. With itsÔ···h)········0*0*0*°°··Ô emphases on reason, progress, rational management and the expertise of intellectuals, collectivism informed the unity DuBois perceived between scholarship and activism.

Reed proffers that this component also led him to cling tenaciously to an elite-driven model of organization and leadership. [Editors' Note: In this connection note Mel Rothenberg's perceptive comment, in reviewing Michael Goldfield's The Color of Politics elsewhere in this issue of ATC: DuBois "did not believe that workers, organized on a purely class basis, had that capacity" [i.e. to organize socialism].] The author avers--contrary to what many other scholars have contended--that DuBois never really shifted from this foundation his entire mature life.

DuBois' Thought in Context

These arguments, however, lay the groundwork for larger themes. Reed's broader purpose is to explore the linkages between Black political thought and the premises shaping U.S. political discourse in general, and how temporal political concerns shape such thought. "Political ideas," he observes, "function pragmatically, as instruments of real-world objectives tied to historically specific debates and struggles." (106)

Ultimately, the author's mission is to make a case against contemporary scholars who have evoked DuBois' name and borrowed his conceptualizations, all the while abstracting them from their social context--and bleeding DuBois' work of its aggressive, direct challenge to the political, economic and racial status quo.

Reed argues that this appropriation has been possible largely due to the "racial vindicationism" characterizing Afro-American scholarship--a hero-worshipping, hagiographic approach to studying Black historical figures, without regard to their differences, or how competing theories shaped those differences.

He acknowledges that championing the legacy of Black intellectuals and activists has been a reasonable response to exclusion by many historians, a number of whom continue to mention Blacks only in reference to white concerns and initiatives. Nonetheless, Reed maintains, this vindicationism has tended toward atheoreticism.

The "vindicationist" approach merely asserts major figures' place in history. In the process it reduces them to icons, canonizing them in neat, artificial lineages that distort their actual historical and ideological relationships.

To the extent racial vindicationism does countenance political differences at all, Reed insists, it casts them in simple strategic and tactical terms. Consequently, he contends, it overlooks the theoretical grounding of social thinkers and activists' thought, and obscures the environment of debate in which they have formulated their positions.

Obfuscating such differences blurs distinctions among Afro-Americans, a troubling development in the post-Civil Rights era, when in Reed's words, "the antisegregationist imperative no longer imposes a reasonable semblance of strategic unity." (13) Throughout the text, Reed stresses the importance of establishing the historical, "discursive" contexts in which scholars function. In this manner, DuBois' oft-cited theme of "double consciousness" reflected the Progressive-era intellectual thought of which he was wholly part. Reed maintains that this "two-ness" concept articulated in The Souls of Black Folk was inflected with evolutionist assumptions, which DuBois later jettisoned as conventional wisdom changed.

Here, DuBois viewed Afro-Americans as being on the one hand comparatively underdeveloped as a race, while at the same time facing the imperatives of modernity. Thus, DuBois perceived the need for a "natural" Black Talented Tenth to guide the backward many, Reed suggests.

Criticizing the Academic Agenda

Reed examines DuBois' take on "double consciousness" relatively late in the book. By this time, an attentive reader may recognize that he has spent the balance of the text amassing the artillery to strike at contemporary Afro-American literary critics who, in his estimation, have hijacked DuBois' legacy for a "purely academic program." (96)

Singled out are Houston A. Baker, Jr., Anthony Appiah, and particularly Henry Louis Gates, Jr., director of Harvard University's W.E.B. DuBois Institute of African-American Research. Individuals like Gates appear to follow in DuBois' footsteps, but their work is largely disassociated from national social policy debates, Reed contends.

Nor in his view are their writings concerned with advancing any progressive political agenda outside the university. If anything, Reed argues, Gates has used his stature to articulate increasingly conservative positions about the Black working poor. But as the author indicates, Gates is not the only person playing fast and loose with DuBois' "double consciousness" theme to serve narrow petty bourgeois class interests.

In the final analysis, Reed insists, this theme has been manipulated to speak to the contemporary frustrations and anxieties of Black professionals overall. Dismissed as "racially inauthentic" by both their white colleagues and the Afro-Americans "left behind" in crumbling urban communities, this class has waxed nostalgic about an idealized segregation era when a supposedly unified Black community existed, and when the middle class' status and leadership was unchallenged.

Revising history in this manner, many Black professionals have attempted not only to assert their "authenticity," but also its primacy over and above its working-class counterparts, Reed argues. At the same time, many among this post-segregation generation of middle-class Blacks openly eschew association with the issues of the marginalized poor, blaming the so-called "underclass" for its own economic and social disfranchisement.

Reed alleges that this discourse is indirectly linked to the prominence of literary criticism in current Black intellectual thought. In emphasizing rhetorical form over political content, this tendency has depoliticized Black intellectual history.

A result of this, in Reed's opinion, has been the elevation of figurative expression as the essence of Black politics. Likewise, this expressive politics is rooted in a simplistic conception of racial and cultural "authenticity," one placing Afro-Americans on a common continuum that collapses theoretical diversity, and grounds Black intellectual discourse in a false unity.

Thus, the literary themes of "wearing the mask" and "signifying" (accommodating to racial oppression in form while resisting in essence, or resisting through figurative expression) become vehicles for obscuring conflicting tendencies. For Reed, this goes a long way toward explaining how Baker, for example, was able to position Booker T. Washington as a racial militant in his book Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. (134)

Here, such arguments harken to Reed's Village Voice polemic on the Black public intellectuals, whom he similarly accused of playing the "racial authenticity" game. As he has argued, it has been this very notion that has led scholars like Gates to presume they can speak for Black America to white audiences.

Further, Gates has vigorously claimed DuBois' legacy, but his apparent self-interest and coherence to blame-the-victim rhetoric places him closer to Washington's "gospel of political acquiescence and accommodation to racial inequality," Reed insists. (186) Just as DuBois was part and parcel to Progressive-era thought at the beginning of the twentieth century, Reed suggests that Gates is part of a contemporary, conservative-era ideological hegemony at the century's close.

Against Class-Biased Nostalgia

W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought overall is a densely packed piece of scholarship, exhaustively researched and compellingly argued. Reed has convincingly documented how articulating the "Talented Tenth" position, elaborating the need for Black cooperatives as bases for elite training and stewardship, and championing an international proletarian movement (led by intellectuals) reflected ideological continuity in DuBois' thought. Related to this--and equally engaging for this reviewer--was Reed's discussion of the theoretical consistency in DuBois' outlook on Black institution-building, interracialism, Pan-Africanism and socialism. Moreover, attacking the voguish nostalgia for Jim Crow is equally noteworthy. Indeed, such nostalgia has infused the work of many social scientists and policy-makers, providing the basis of arguments that the middle class provided moral cohesion to Black life; hence once professionals fled the inner city, there was nothing to keep the rest of the Black community from descending into a presumably pathological state.

Reed adroitly reveals such reasoning to be constitutive of a class ideology. His jabs at Gates, further, are well timed. Recent profiles on Gates published in The Progressive and Boston Magazine -- not to mention Gates' own "Frontline" documentary, "The Two Nations of Black America" -- have made explicit his feelings about progressive political activism and the marginalized poor. That Reed is not alone in his criticisms of Gates is demonstrated by a column in the May issue of News & Letters, "Dr. Gates's Martian Chronicles," written by managing editor Lou Turner. Columbia University professor Manning Marable recently squared off against Gates in a "Debate on Activism in Black Studies." See Manning Marable, "A Plea That Scholars Act Upon, Not Just Interpret, Events," and Gates' "A Call to Protect Academic Integrity from Politics," both in the New York Times, April 4, 1998, A13.

Reed's most elementary argument is also a vital one in the conservative climate of the 1990s: Placing Black intellectuals and political activists on a pedestal renders their legacies politically sterile and, therefore, ripe for cooptation.

This applies particularly to the way in which the ideological right has appropriated the words and images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and, increasingly, Malcolm X. This, of course, has implications for the manner in which scholars will interpret the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s into the next millennium.

Yet Reed could, and should, have made better use of his concluding chapter in summarizing his several intricate arguments. He leaves the reader to connect, unaided, many of the themes presented here. Further, in his commentary on scholars who have made figurative expression the central component of Black resistance, Reed strangely overlooks the thesis on hidden resistance ("infrapolitics") pioneered by James C. Scott and popularized by Robin D.G. Kelley.

The omission is curious inasmuch as Kelley, like Gates, was included in Reed's Village Voice essay on the Black public intellectuals. Unlike Gates, Kelley quite consciously embraces a radical ideology, and has evinced a genuine commitment to progressive activism.

Most likely, it was Reed's emphasis on Black literary criticism that excluded Kelley from the discussion, not to mention the fact he does not associate Kelley with any scholarship on either DuBois or Booker T. Washington. Still, it is worth considering that the "infrapolitics" concept invites comparisons to Gates' "signifying" motif, whether or not Kelley shares his assumptions.

The "Vanguardism" Question

There is another, more substantive point to raise. Reed criticizes "racial vindicationists" for canonizing disparate thinkers and activists, as it creates a transhistorical "movement of disembodied ideas and concepts." (106) Yet in his own criticism of DuBois' elitist ideas on organization, Reed himself suggests such a canonical relationship between DuBois and other "collectivist" thinkers, particularly Vladimir I. Lenin.

Reed consequently implies a critique of the Bolshevik model as similarly elite-based and anti-democratic, in that it deprecated "the subjective, volitional realm of human experience." (20) Yet as Peter Beilharz for one has contended, Bolshevism and Fabianism are distinct socialist traditions, with very different goals for social transformation.

The latter is governed by the principle of functional differentiation--everyone participating in society, though in accordance with their position. Rejecting both the labor theory of value and a central unique role for the proletariat, Fabian socialists look to the managerial talents of middle-class technocrats, Beilharz has contended.

Likewise, this trend has included an evolutionary component (evident in DuBois' "double consciousness" thesis, according to Reed): On the one hand, "Fabians viewed civilisation as something to be used sparingly," Beilharz writes; "all citizens should participate, but differentially, according to their situation in life, perhaps, later, according to their talents and interests. Peter Beilharz, Labour's Utopias: Bolshevism, Fabianism, Social Democracy (New York: Routledge, 1992): 54.

Related to this has been an undergirding class paternalism ("[T]he social betters, after all, had it as their duty to form the character of their dependents by placing them in healthy, moral, and enjoyable surroundings," Beilharz quips.) Ibid., 69.

As this indicates, just as DuBois' thought should be historicized, so should Lenin's "vanguard" concept. In What is to be Done?, Lenin concerned himself with a concrete question confronting the socialist movement in Russia: What is to be the relationship, organizationally, of revolutionary socialists to the "spontaneous" workers' movement, behind which they trailed?

Implicit in this was a recognition that the workers' movement stood to be either co-opted by the bourgeoisie, or radicalized. Framing the problem in this way suggested Lenin's acknowledgment of historical contingency and mass human agency, which spoke to the necessity of an organized and consciously socialist presence.

The revolutionary Victor Serge, and numerous subsequent scholars, have argued that the hierarchical, tightly knit Bolshevik style that developed in this context was historically specific to a tsarist autocracy where intense repression of dissidents was the order of the day. But this style was also flexible, depending on the array of forces at a given period.

In any event, Lenin sought the overlapping of the revolutionary intellectual and worker. In this manner, he envisioned the former having a dialectical relationship with the broader movement, not substituting for it. From this vantage point, Reed's "transcendent" vanguard model encompassing DuBois' Fabianism and Lenin's Bolshevism may be an overstatement.

A Fruitful Examination

Given the abundance of work on DuBois, many will perhaps find fault with Reed's suggestion that most of this scholarship is deficient in its engagement with DuBois' political thought. Others will possibly take issue with Reed's reading on the DuBoisian "double consciousness" theme.

Further, Reed has been accused of being mean-spirited--crudely lumping together antagonists and demonizing them. His comments about Gates and Baker may well elicit similar charges.

On another note, many terms used in the text are never explicitly defined, and Reed assumes a familiarity with political science terminology. It is apparent that this book is geared mainly toward a scholarly readership, and most likely will elude a popular audience; some readers may find it useful to be already acquainted with Reed's other work.

This is unfortunate, particularly given the book's broad significance. But even as it stands, W.E.B. DuBois and American Political Thought is a provocative homage to one of the most influential scholar-activists this century has produced.

As recent planning efforts around the Black Radical Congress have demonstrated, a number of African Americans have begun reinvestigating leftist ideas. A discussion of DuBois is all the more pertinent, given his life-long engagement with socialist themes and radical movements. Reed's book, then, must not only be read and digested, but also discussed widely--and debated vigorously.

Clarence Lang, a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is studying Afro-American working-class and urban history. A member of the St. Louis, Missouri-based Organization for Black Struggle, he participated in organizing efforts for the Black Radical Congress in Chicago, Illinois.

ATC 75, July-August 1998

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.