A book to whet the appetite

W E Du Bois: Revolutionary across the colour line by Bill V Mullen published by Pluto Press, 2016, £12.99

Reviewed by Veronica Fagan

I didn’t know a very much about W.E.B. Du Bois before I picked up Mullen’s book. I knew something of other towering African Americans of the left from CLR James (whose much thumbed writing on cricket sits by my bed and whose Black Jacobins is a wonderful and vivid read)or Angela Davis whose books and essays I haven’t revisited for several decades but had an important impact on me when I first discovered her. Both Paul Robeson and Claudia Jones are better known on the left here – but then both played a role in politics in Britain as well as the US.

But somehow one of the key founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who made a huge contribution both through his activism and his writing had to some extent past me by. [1]By the time I put this book down a few days later I was determined to find out more, in particular to read Du Bois own writings – particularly the momentous Black Reconstruction in America[2] about which Mullen waxes lyrical, as well as a host of other books

This biography is a compelling and easy read, combining the story of Du Bois life, political evolution and writing with the political context in which these events were unfolding. I realised that Black Reconstruction covers a period of US history (the period after the civil-war of 1860-1860) about which I know very little – but one that would have important implications for the civil rights movement when it erupted almost a century later.

One of the fascinating things about Du Bois is the way he combined the fight against racism in the USA with his involvement in Pan Africanism, organisationally as well as politically. But on this latter thread, about which to my knowledge not much has been written from a Marxist perspective, Mullen is lacking in detail about the texture of the debates that took place – or the exchanges between key protagonists. So this reader at least is left wanting more.

There are other minor irritations about the book. Mullen’s own politics aren’t explained or argued for, but his characterisation of the Soviet Union as “state capitalist” pokes through. It’s not only that I don’t share this analysis of the Soviet Union, which I think was a “degenerated worker’s state”, but that the book seems to takes for granted his audience’s agreement. This is either little lazy – or profoundly unambitious about its potential audience.

Then there is some of the editing, particularly towards the end of the book, where it seems that some episodes of Du Bois life are recounted several times, from more or less the same angle, within not many pages. The structure of the book is roughly chronological, but within that general framework focuses on different themes. Fair enough, but if you are going to return to something dealt with earlier, then this should be to draw out something new – otherwise it just comes over as a little tedious.

But these flaws shouldn’t be seen as a reason not to read this fascinating book. In his conclusion, Mullen rightly draws out the parallels between the racism of the US state that Du Bois was combatting and that which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement over the last couple of years. Anyone interested in the struggle against racism should get hold of a copy

[1] Even though Im familiar with some of the work of Manning Marable, I missed his earlier biography of Du Bois – W. E. B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat (2005) which is now on my reading list

[2]  https://archive.org/stream/blackreconstruc00dubo/blackreconstruc00dubo_djvu.txt

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1 Comment on A book to whet the appetite

  1. CLR James an African American? He was born in Trinidad and I think spent most of his life in Britain apart from a few years in the States.

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