Sunday 22 November 2009

Book Review #1 - W E B Du Bois - In Battle for Peace

W E B Du Bois - In Battle For Peace : The Story of my 83rd Birthday - New York , Masses and Mainstream , 1952

Dr Du Bois` later writings present the reader with the best and worst aspects of his thinking, often in the course of the same short piece of writing. Time and again, his sharpest insights jostle for the reader`s attention alongside some of  the most deluded sentiments it`s been my misfortune to encounter. I don`t know what it says about me, but for that very reason this period of his life has always fascinated me !

This book is something of a case in point. I had wanted a copy for some time and eventually decided to treat myself to a hardback copy of the first edition from a bookseller in the USA. I understand that there was a numbered limited edition printing initially, with red binding and possibly illustrated. Sadly, these are very hard to trace now and I imagine would cost a small fortune. My copy is a blue hardcover with gold gilt lettering to the spine and is regarded as the first edition, though I suppose a purist might argue that it`s really only a `first in this form` , given the existence of a previous edition.

The book gets on to a strong start, with chapters from the doc on such subjects as About Birthdays, The Council on African Affairs, The Peace Information Center,My Campaign for Senator, and naturally enough, marriage to Shirley Graham. The book contains additional comment from Shirley herself, which appears in the form of supplementary sections at the end of certain chapters and an additional postscript to the Appendix, rather than as a separate section at the end of her husband`s book as I had expected. After these preliminaries, we move on to the question of the indictment and trial of Du Bois and others as a result of their activities within the peace movement.

One thing that surprised me was how low-key some of his later activities were. Who would have guessed that he drew no pay for his work at the Council on African Affairs ( he seems to have felt it was generous of them to provide him with an office and a secretary, the thought of being paid never seems to have entered his head, even though he makes it clear he was not a rich man) or that the Peace Information Center mailing list comprised only 6,000 people. As regards his campaign for Senator, he makes plain his thoughts on his role in political life generally, though here there are no surprises ; "respectable participation in political life as voter, thinker, writer and, on rare occasions as speaker, was my ideal". Having been persuaded to stand for office, as candidate for the short-lived American Labor Party, partly to show support for fellow member/candidate Vito Marcantonio, he pronounces himself reasonably happy with the outcome, given that he never expected to be elected ; "I had slapped no backs during the campaign which I had not slapped before ; I had begged no man for his vote as a personal favour ; I had asked no vote simply because I was black. It was a fine adventure."

The trial is interesting on many levels. Du Bois and others involved in the Peace Information Center were accused of `failing to register as a foreign agent`. In this case, the meaning of the word `agent` was the legal one - `a person who acts on behalf of ( i.e. as an agent of ) a third party`. The suggestion that the PIC acted on behalf of a foreign principal (in this case, an organisation known as the World Peace Council,) seems to have come about in part because one of their activities was to circulate a low-budget newsletter called a `Peacegram`, which informed subscribers of the activities of the peace movement elsewhere in the world. Unusually for a publication involving Du Bois, it contained no articles or editorial comment, just the name and nationality of the groups concerned, plus a sentence or two summarising the recent activities of each one. Strictly speaking, there was no suggestion that the defendants were `agents` involved in espionage, but it`s pretty clear the authorities expected the public to draw that inference. As far as the case goes, the wheels began to drop off at an early stage and the judge eventually halted the trial altogether as it was clear the prosecution was ill-conceived.

Du Bois and associates viewed the whole thing with mounting paranoia. Undoubtedly, they had quite valid reason to feel embittered and suspicious about the trial itself and about the mounting hysteria of McCarthy-era America. Against that, it`s pretty clear that the Judge, a noted conservative, was not only fair but increasingly impatient with the hapless prosecutors.

Some, like David Levering Lewis, have suggested that the Judge, Judge McGuire, stopped the trial to save the state embarassment. Superficially, the timing of his anouncement may seem to support this.  As the prosecution had closed its` case, it was now time for the defence to have their day. Du Bois` friend  Marcantonio, a lawyer as well as a politician, was acting for them without pay and had been ahead on points throughout the trial. Albert Einstein was scheduled to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, and the defendants  would now have the opportunity to make memorable statements concerning the case. Additionally, one prosecution witness had fallen to pieces under pressure and the case against one defendant, PIC employee Sylvia Soloff, had been dropped early on, creating the impression of a case falling apart, a very accurate impression you might think. However, it seems more likely that the Judge had  allowed the prosecution to complete their case before he ruled on its` merits. He had indicated early on, in an exchange with Marcantonio, that he would allow the prosecutors to make their case in full, but that a `directed verdict` would be in order if things did not improve. In my view, he was essentially an honourable man intent on fulfilling his duties properly regardless of his own personal views.

So far so good. An interesting account of a troubled period in American history and in the life of a great Civil Rights leader. On the negative side, we have to consider the political views expressed by Du Bois. There are so many dubious sentiments expresed by him in this book that it`s hard to know where to start. Certainly the authorities were neurotically anti-Communist and quite prepared to sacrifice the very freedoms they sought to defend. The McCarthyites were a bunch of cowardly bullies who ruined lives in their zeal to stifle debate. Some, as we now know from other sources, may not in fact have been believers in democracy themselves. Nevertheless , the picture Du Bois paints of a remorselessly efficient police state is hardly accurate given that the case against him and his co-defendants collapsed. In other areas of life, such as restrictions on his foreign travel, he is on stronger ground, but given that he continued to address international gatherings by the simple expedient of posting his speeches to well-wishers abroad who read them for him, he obviously found this simple to circumvent. In point of fact, the  USSR of the `50s was much worse than America in these areas, but he continued to present the Soviet Union of those times days in a glowing light.

A telling observation here comes in the chapter headed Interpretations. The good doctor begins with some perectly reasonable observations. He concedes that not all of his supporters were Communists or democratic socialists, "many who supported us were liberals, progressives, and even some conservatives who believe in peace and free speech". He further concedes that "there is no socialist or communist program that does not advocate use of capital and individual enterprise as freely as is consistent with real social progress". All good, sensible stuff. Before long however, we enter the realms of political fantasy as he comments "the Soviet Union is desperately trying to evolve a nation working under severe discipline so as to evolve a people as free as abolition of poverty, ignorance and disease makes possible".  I`m no supporter of anti-Communist hysteria, but let`s be honest, the USSR of the `50s was not engaged in anything as high-minded as Du Bois suggests, and I think most people would have grave doubts about that "severe discipline" even if that had been the case.

It is difficult to know why he turned to Russia as his beacon later in life. True, he had sometimes  romanticised other cultures. His second wife may have influenced him. On the other hand, he was close to Trinidadian George Padmore, who, after a lengthy period as an influential Communist had turned against his mentors in the `30s, earning the hostility of the Stalinists. Du Bois also lived through the Earl Browder period of the CPUSA`s history (party leader Browder attempted to take the CPUSA in a new direction, eventually losing his post as a result).  With his own background, Du Bois more than anyone was well aware that not all socialists are Marxists, not all Marxists are Communists and that not all Communists were `orthodox` Communists.  I do not believe his mental faculties were failing him, he seems to have been reasonably sharp and lucid well into old age. At the end of the day, he was wrong, and I`m certainly not about to make excuses for him.

Against that, there is one passage that rings true ; "If, however, the democracy we are losing can be restored and made alive, because of our natural resources, technique, intelligence and science, why are we not undertaking this task immediately...? In such an effort here and now I long to help".

That seems a worthy aim to have and I believe he was quite sincere. If we`re looking for a positive legacy from Dr Du Bois` later writings,  that seems a pretty good one to me.

Monday 9 November 2009

Quotations # 1 : The Quest

Sadly, I`ve not had time to write any book reviews for this blog, though I hope to soon. In the meantime, here`s a quote from  Dr Du Bois.  Not one of the ones most commonly quoted, but the opening paragraph from one of his novels, The Quest of the Silver Fleece ;

"Night fell. The red waters of the swamp grew sinister and sullen. The tall pines lost their slimness and stood in wide blurred blotches all across the way, and a great shadowy bird arose, wheeled and melted, murmuring, into the black-green sky."

`The Quest` was published in 1911, his first novel if I recall correctly. Arnold Rampersad comments in his Foreword to the 1989 edition, "In writing this book, Du Bois brought almost all his significant experiences to bear on his subject. Set both in the South and in the North, [it] reflected graphically the historical and philosophical tensions between the cultures of New England and the Suth, both white and black. The book attempts to depict not only the larger social and economic forces impinging on blacks but also the more intimate aspects of African-American culture".