The Radicalism of W.E.B. Du Bois

Over the course of his life, the polemicist of the NAACP evolved leftward


in Features • Illustrated by Alex Hotchkiss


In the April 1919 edition of The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an editorial lambasts the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for its position on World War I. As a revolutionary, anti-capitalist labor union, the IWW opposed the war for pitting workers against one another, rather than their true enemies in the capitalist class. To the NAACP, it was “traitorous” not to support the United States internationally, even if it deserved criticism domestically — a line that the association would continue to echo in regards to other domestic left-wing organizations, like the Communist Party of the United States of America, well into the future. 

The NAACP’s nascent anti-communism notwithstanding, The Crisis soon made a sudden about-face in its opinion of the IWW — an apparent record-straightening by its editor, W.E.B. Du Bois. A second editorial, in the June 1919 edition, explains that the first was not written by Du Bois, but in his absence (apparently by the magazine’s business manager, Augustus Dill). Du Bois clarifies that “We respect [the IWW] as one of the social and political movements in modern times that draws no color line,” referring to the union’s dedicated anti-racism. 

The ostensible revision of the NAACP’s stance on the IWW hints at Du Bois’s evolving politics, which contributed to his eventual departure from the association. Indeed, at the time of the first editorial, he had been in Europe, on one of many trips abroad that he would later credit with advancing his political understanding and ultimately inspiring him to become a communist. 

Written from 1958 to 1959, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois is the third and final memoir from Du Bois, completed just four years before his death. In it, he takes an expansive view of his life and the world throughout that time, giving special consideration to his political evolution and his tenure at the NAACP, where he served as the founding editor of The Crisis from 1910 to 1934 and again as director of special research from 1944 to 1948. These two narrative strands juxtapose an increasingly radical Du Bois and a stodgily liberal NAACP. 

As Du Bois explains in his autobiography, he was raised in Massachusetts following the conclusion of the Civil War and initially subscribed to the ideology of “racial uplift.” Rather than attacking racist institutions, racial uplift encouraged Black people to focus on their own individual development, with racism withering away in time as white society witnessed their successes and accepted their equality — or becoming irrelevant as Black society provided adequately for its own. Both Du Bois and Booker T. Washington advocated racial uplift, although Du Bois distinguishes his promotion of Black higher education from Washington’s capitulation of Blacks as a laboring class. 

“These two theories of Negro progress were not absolutely contradictory,” writes Du Bois. “Neither I nor Booker Washington understood the nature of capitalistic exploitation of labor, and the necessity of a direct attack on the principle of exploitation as the beginning of labor uplift.” 

Du Bois credits his first trip to Europe with introducing him to socialism. He attended the University of Berlin from 1892 to 1894, after cornering former US President Rutherford B. Hayes into helping pay his expenses. (In 1890, Hayes told a newspaper that he would pay to send any talented, studious Black man to Europe to be educated — but it wasn’t possible to find such a man; Du Bois, who had just graduated from Harvard University, decided to press the issue.) In Berlin, Du Bois attended meetings of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which he understood to be the largest political party in the country, but kept from power by gerrymandering and other undemocratic maneuvers. In his contemporary journal, he writes, “Naturally I am attracted to the socialist movement,” and he later reflects that “I began to consider myself a Socialist.” 

Despite that attraction and self-identification, Du Bois did not formally join a socialist party for nearly two decades. Du Bois writes that he “followed some of my white colleagues” from the NAACP into the Socialist Party of America in 1911, but left the following year, feeling that it was better to vote for the Democrat Woodrow Wilson rather than the “unknown” Socialist Eugene V. Debs. (In a sign of Du Bois’ later leftward drift, he writes in The Crisis in June 1919: “We raise our hats silently to men like Eugene Debs who let not even the shadow of public shame close their lips when they think themselves right.”) Besides the realpolitik of the presidential election, Du Bois took issue with the Socialist Party of excluding Blacks from membership in the South in order to appeal to racist whites. 

Du Bois would not formally join the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) for another half-century, in 1961, two years before his death. The rationale for the long delay was likely two-fold: first, his own skepticism of the CPUSA’s agenda; second, virulent anti-communist repression in the United States. 

CPUSA clashed most publicly with the NAACP in the early 1930s, while Du Bois was still part of the association. The conflict revolved around the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women while passing through Tennessee and consequently tried in neighboring Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. Local Communists soon came to the defendants’ aid with both legal representation and a pressure campaign advocating for their release, which included protests, demonstrations, and publicity. The NAACP initially refused to support the Scottsboro Boys but tried to take over the case once it became a cause celebre — only to be turned down by the defendants themselves, who favored keeping on their CPUSA lawyers. Regardless, the NAACP continued to accuse the CPUSA of being self-interested, using the case to build the party at the expense of the defendants. 

“I blamed the Communists when I thought that their agitation made the ignorant Scottsboro boys suffer for the sins of others,” Du Bois writes, “and failed to give those same Communists credit for making the Scottsboro case known to the civilized world.” 

Du Bois’ contemporary skepticism of the CPUSA notwithstanding, he had been harboring reservations about the NAACP’s tactics since first visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Du Bois attributes his first departure from the association to the growing chasm between its focus on challenging the legal nature of segregation through court cases and his own belief that the essentially economic dimensions of Black subjugation could only be remedied by challenging capitalism. 

Du Bois’ perspective on communism changed most definitely, however, in 1959, with his second visit to China. During his first visit, in 1936, he witnessed a colonized nation, where European capitalists ruled over the Chinese in a way that he compares to segregation in the United States. During his second visit, a decade after the Chinese Communist Revolution, he witnessed the reconstruction of a nation following 22 years of civil war. 

“It was not until I saw the miracle of modern China that I realized how splendidly and surely the world could be led by the working class,” he writes, “even if at times they wavered and made vast mistakes.” 

If Du Bois had been convinced of communism sooner, it would have been difficult for him to openly exclaim it. Just as the First Red Scare aimed to destroy the Industrial Workers of the World following World War I, the Second Red Scare aimed to destroy the CPUSA following World War II. Throughout Du Bois’ autobiography, he notes that — although he had yet to join the CPUSA — the US government was persistently hounding him about the party. From 1951 to 1958, the US State Department would not issue him a passport unless he declared that he was not a member of the CPUSA, which he explains that he refused to do on principle, as “the government had no legal right to question me concerning my political beliefs.” The US Supreme Court agreed with Du Bois on that point in 1958, finally granting him the opportunity to leave the country once more. In 1961, he became a citizen of Ghana, which had recently won its independence from the United Kingdom, and he died there two years later. 

Du Bois did not believe that the United States could be made into the Soviet Union. In his opinion, the racialized capitalism of the United States divided Black and white workers in a way that precluded a broad working-class movement of the kind that toppled the Russian Empire. Instead, Du Bois articulated the necessity of Black self-sufficiency based on socialist, rather than capitalist, economics — not dissimilar from the Black Power movement to come in the 1970s. Writing from abroad, in a kind of self-imposed exile from a homeland which he had been trying to better for nearly a century, he elaborates: 

I believe in communism. 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. I believe that all men should be employed according to their ability and that wealth and services should be distributed according to need . . . I know well that the triumph of communism will be a slow and difficult task, involving mistakes of every sort. It will call for progressive change in human nature and a better type of manhood than is common today. I believe this possible, or otherwise we will continue to lie, steal and kill as we are doing today. •