W.E.B. Du Bois and the Importance to the Radical Democratic Movement:
From Socialist Webzine: http://socialistwebzine.blogspot.com/2012/02/web-du-bois-and-importance-...
Being that Black history month is coming to an end, we would be shamed for not examining in some form or fashion the contributions of perhaps one of the greatest human beings, and freedom fighters to have lived: W.E.B. Du Bois. W.E.B. Du Bois was born February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington Massachusetts. He died on the date of my birthday; August 27 1963. He was truly an heir to the struggle of Black folks. He picked up his cross and for over 60 years he dedicated his talents and life to the struggle against racism, colonialism, and sexism, all of which he saw as the prime barriers to the development of the full potentialities of every human individual.
Though most passionately concerned with racial oppression, Du Bois recognized that racism, sexism, and the general well-being of people were the very foundation of the capitalist system. In time he came to thoroughly denounce the capitalist system and put forward a radically humanist and democratic socialist vision, which no Radical Democratic Socialist should ignore. W.E.B. Du Bois like many great intellectuals and champions of radical social equality and radical democracy have left us with a gift embedded in the totality of his life.
This piece is not intended to be a thorough investigation of theoretical developments. Rather, I am concerned with the “fire of his soul”. In other words, this piece hopes to highlight radically democratic socialist society that W.E.B. Du Bois was championing throughout his life. Du Bois’ struggle for justice leaves us with three ethical and vital notes. The first is that we must be willing to be critically self-reflective, and to reinvent ourselves. As activists-organizers-educators we cannot afford to allow our thinking and ways of being to be so fixed that we become incapable of being agents of change. Du Bois reinvented his political philosophy many times. Most of us will never live long enough in such good health as to overthrow ourselves as many times as he did. Nevertheless, from day one was committed to the necessary ideal of a radically democratic and socially just world. He was drafted into the struggle by the color of his skin, which he gladly took up the sword of justice and charged onward as a human rights crusader.
Secondly, Du Bois’ life teaches us that we must always be critical of every political and ideological tendency to assure that we address all forms of oppression without subordinating them to some larger abstract struggle like the “class struggle”. At this point I am sure that some think I have lost my mind. You are probably asking, “How can we abandon the class struggle?” If I have written some heresy, I do so in the name of W.E.B. Du Bois. I invite folks to continue reading. I have called the “class struggle” abstract. But I have not denounced it. The call for class struggle is a popular slogan, but it ignores the reality that, as Marx has written in the 18thBrumaire that a class is not based on common oppression within a social system. Rather, Marx conceives of a class as a group of people united in their forward struggle. In other words, a class is a community of individuals unified in concrete progressive aims. Class (political) and strata (social class or socio-economic status) for Marx, and me are two distinct concepts. Social class or socio-economic status is based on the relations to the means of production and economic condition within society.
But class in the Marxian sense is a political community (not one community, but many communities) that strives to transform society. The notion that all poor people are part of a class in the Marxian sense is nonsense! Much of this confusion comes from misinterpretation of Marx. Yes! The [political] class arises from historical, social, and economic relations, but it is not automatic. Not all working people will struggle for a better social system. Many if not all are forced to struggle against it. This is affirmed by the men, women, children, and their pets that are forced out of their homes and into the streets, the loss of employment and means to survive, which is far too common. And it is obvious in the quiet genocide of people of color in dilapidated and neglected inner cities, and whites and blacks in impoverished rural areas.
To speak of the class struggle is abstract because the real or concrete struggle is being fought by people of color against the various forms of racism which not only disparage and strip people of respect through discrimination, but also dehumanizes them through the reinforcement of economic policies that make resources for People of Color that much worse. The issue of gender oppression reduces women to objects whose image is to be consumed, and whose existence is that of an accessory to the needs and desires of others. And of course social class is of extreme importance, as there are brothers and sisters without adequate housing, without safe working conditions, without adequate nutrition, and sanitary neighborhoods and schools for themselves and their children.
The struggles of working people are diverse. However, they are far worse for poor people of color, and even worse for poor women of color. Du Bois was keenly aware of this. And for that reason while a member of the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, he challenged the party to focus its attention on the other unique ways that human beings were being oppressed. Unfortunately, the party failed to do so adequately, and at the time there was a vicious racism emanating from the right wing of the party.
This brings me to the third point. Du Bois challenges us from the grave to be as Manning Marable titled his book chapter, “stern prophets and flaming angels”. To do so, we must work urgently and deliberately to pierce the veils oppression.The need to address thecaustic intersecting winds of oppression is a practical matter embedded in organizing and political practice. For example, it is common for organizations to claim to be multicultural and gender equal, because they work towards parity in terms of membership. This is the most superficial level of practice.
Though necessary, representational parity does not address the conditions, and suffering of people. We must engage in a critical and perpetual dialogue with each other, in order to develop an understanding of ourselves and others in terms of our concrete existence as gendered and racialized individuals within the context of economic circumstances. At the same time, points out that through our oppression we create culture and beauty to be critically respected, and celebrated, not destroyed or ignored. To speak of “we the people” or “the working class” are wonderful rhetorical traditions. But we radical democrats are interested in not merely tradition, but concrete action on behalf of real individuals who cannot be engaged in any meaningful way without understanding the differentiating windows through which we all view the world.
Understanding does not mean simply acknowledging these struggles, and the ways of being that come out of these struggles. Understanding means we have adapt all practices to challenge the most pressing concerns of our brothers and sisters. To do this in an emancipatory way, as opposed to solely an ameliorative way requires genuine solidarity. To do this would require a clarification of the overall ‘ideology ‘or philosophical framework with which we must adopt to achieve our goal of liberation. It was Eugene V. Debs that said that the purpose of the Socialist Party was a pedagogical or educational one. And it was who deepened the understanding of Education, as “by derivation and in fact, the drawing out of human powers.” (Du Bois, 2001, p.25) What are these human powers?
Here he uses powers to mean vital capabilities.
Thus, education is a process through which these vital capabilities are developed or allowed to be expressed. We must be “coworkers in the kingdom of culture, to escape death and isolation. To husband and use his best powers and his latent genius.” (Du Bois, 1994, p.3) Du Bois makes it clear that a dynamic human community was the highest ideal. This community would consist of a just economic order to meet the physical needs of people, and a social intimacy based on the mutual respect for each other to allow for Culture. And by Culture, I have interpreted to mean the free exchange of expression and wonder, as derived from the use of our best mental and physical capabilities.
In order for these “powers” to exist there must be freedom, which Du Bois conceives of as three dialectics, “freedom of life and limb, freedom to work and think, and the freedom to love and aspire.” (Du Bois, 1994, p.7) In other words, we have a right to live in good health, a right to engage in productive and intellectually fulfilling and purposeful work, and the right, and I would add responsibility, to love each other. Finally, we have the right to strive for new ways of being in this world, which implies the need to be curious, and imaginative in our approach to life, and each other. We must strive for all these things simultaneously, because we need them “not singly, but together, not successively, but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal…the ideal of human brotherhood.” (p.7)
To struggle with each other against a particular human ill is the most important form of education. Out of this process comes the power of solidarity, which is truly never complete. To struggle with others requires that we develop a curious thirst for understanding of unique historical struggles of different people. As Du Bois was aware, the history of each group of people is fraught with contradictions that have resulted in marvelous contributions to the world.
Solidarity consists of the critical acceptance of these histories, which lives on through the people and their current struggle. The struggle of undocumented immigrants from various origins is our concern. The struggle of oppressed peoples in dilapidated and violent inner cities, and depressing rural towns are our struggles. The struggle of people in the LGBQT community is our struggle. All of these struggles and more are our struggles. And we should take our oppression with urgency, while carefully noting the contextual specificities of these struggles.
Only after taking on the concrete struggles of people, because they are our people, can we hope to turn the tattered red flag into a vibrant, almost living cloak that moves with each of us, and conforms to our corporeal and historical existences as individuals and peoples. Only when the very fabric and texture of the red cloak is conditioned by the unique and historical complexities of human beings can we genuinely unite to end the “burning of body and rending of soul.” (Du Bois, 1994, p.6) We must act now, and accordingly, if we wish to save the world and create a new society where gifted minds abound, where love overflows, and a deeper mind baptized in a profound joy for what is good and sorrow for that which hinders each other, emerges as the dominant mode of being.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1994). The Souls of Black Folk.Dover Publications, New York.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (2001). Ten Critiques, 1906-1960: The Education of Black People, Monthly Review, New York