The American Lenin - The Falsification and Reclaiming of Du Bois’s Revolutionary Science in Modern America. By: Noah KhrachvikRead Now
This is a transcript from Noah’s presentation at the Saturday Free School for Philosophy and Black Liberation’s Symposium on W. E. B. Du Bois. You can see Noah’s presentation HERE.
Hi. I’m Noah. Before I begin, I just want to say it’s an honor to be here with all of you today, to represent the Midwestern Marx Institute, and to be able to share our views and learn from all of you. The subject of reclaiming WEB Dubois, and his most important works, Black Reconstruction in America and The Souls of Black Folk is of primary importance in our era. I’m genuinely honored and humbled to be a small part of that project.
You know, one of the things I admire most about Dubois, and I’m sure you’ll hear this a hundred times today, was that his knowledge, his study, the social science he basically founded in our country, it wasn’t for its own sake. It wasn’t Dubois simply wanting to understand how things work from a privileged position of comfort. Instead, for Dubois, all of it, and I mean all of it, was in the effort of direct necessity, the struggle for freedom and liberty from the most brutal forms of oppression, exploitation, and domination in human history. A shining example of Marx’s iconic call in his 11th thesis on Feuerbach. Marxism views this as a concrete, particular form that the universal process of class struggle arises in, due to the material history that creates it, the things that condition what it looks like and how it moves and changes over time. It is a struggle of a nascent class that carries with it the future of society against a decaying class that no longer serves a purpose. Or, to put the concept of universal and particular in Dubois’s own words, “There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race, or poverty. But with all we accomplish all.”
Our entire society is, of course, based on class struggle, whether we call it the struggle for democracy, the struggle against imperialism, or the class struggle. All forward motion in American history has been because of this struggle, and WEB Dubois, whom our Institute refers to as the Father of American Marxism, is THE central and pivotal figure for understanding this struggle in our context. Understanding the theory of Dubois as a class project - for the poor, working class, and oppressed peoples of America in our necessity, and for the imperialist ruling class of distortion, ideological limitations, and subterfuge, is, for us at Midwestern Marx, anyway, the first step towards a new society.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to begin with a quote from VI Lenin, who said: there can be no “impartial” social science in a society based on class struggle… To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as foolishly naïve as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question of whether workers’ wages ought not to be increased by decreasing the profits of capital.
We can’t very well reclaim Dubois if we don’t understand how he has been taken from us, and this poor excuse for a duct-taped-together, papier mache mannequin that the institutions of the capitalist class have called Dubois given back to us in his place, and so this is what I’ll briefly try to explain here.
The first thing we must examine here is the class nature of “the left”. We don’t have time to get into how and why now, of course, but over the last period of American history, any real forces in our society we could call a “left” have been replaced by what CIA whistleblower Thomas Braden has called “the compatible left”, or a synthetic creation coming from the institutions and knowledge production apparatus of the capitalist class that is forced to retain a radical-looking exterior by the demands and necessities of the working class, but the substance of which is fully of, by, and for the upper classes. The forces most commonly referred to as “the left” in American society today are the children of CIA operations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the think tanks and foundations owned by the Ford and Rockefeller cartels (among others).
The primary methods of the distribution of knowledge in modern America are through these think tanks, foundations, and more and more importantly in the internet age, the bourgeois academy. And it is how they treat the life’s work of Dubois that is the problem here. Coming from the class institutions of the bourgeoisie, it is rife with mistakes typical of bourgeois ideology.
What seems to happen is that they take bits and pieces of Dubois’s thought and re-ify it, especially in his early work, divorcing it from its context and what gave rise to it and how it changes over time. We often call this sort of mistake one of “metaphysics” in Marxism, but I’ve always kind of secretly hated that term because it’s so easily misunderstood, so we’re going to use one of our own: the purity fetish. So, in their discussions of Dubois on the subject of race, they remove the early concepts from their movement and change, and re-ify them at that point, isolating this section and freezing it in time. For them, this becomes essential, becomes Dubois, as it justifies their preconceptions and ideological dogmas, so they can safely toss out the fact that Dubois refines and concretizes his views on race throughout his entire life, and even explicitly says as much in his biographies. This is a fundamentally anti-dialectical reading, of course, as it fails to take into account the entirety of the concept. It’s archetypical of the purity fetish. For them, this is Dubois before his purity was taken, tainted by his growth into socialism, Pan-Africanism, and Marxism. (Of course, they do the same thing to his Pan-Africanism, but that’s a whole nother bag of bananas.)
Which leads me to my second point. This ideological, re-ified, purity fetishized papier muh-shay version of Dubois is in direct contradiction to the real life’s work of Dubois. A comprehensive, dialectical, and materialist study of Dubois shows us that he was ALWAYS moving forwards, ALWAYS refining, ALWAYS overcoming internal contradictions in his theory and creating something better. This is how he worked, because this was the necessity of the work he was doing. Real liberation REQUIRES such constant refinement and motion, REQUIRES overcoming our mistakes. Necessity understands that even if a thing was correct then and there, it may not necessarily still be correct here and now.
And let’s be real. There is no necessity in the comfortable, 200k a year salary academics of the bourgeois academy that falsify and parade around the pure, papier mache Dubois through their institutions like they just won the Stanley Cup. The necessity of change in post-Civil Rights Revolution, 2000’s USA, however, the necessity of the era of re-proletarianization, THIS creates for us the possibility of a deeper understanding. One that is hyper-aware of the crimes of these so-called progressives: that they deepen and proliferate the very divisions in American society that Dubois sought to overcome! In their purity fetishization, they essentialize and ontologize what Dubois, instead, explains the creation and inner mechanics of: things like imperialism, racism. His concept of the psychological wage of poor whites was not calling it an inherent and essential aspect of their skin color or ethnicities, as many of these “academics” treat it, reducing their thought to what Henry Winston would call a ‘skin strategy’. Precisely the opposite! Dubois’s theorizing of these schisms in American society was done in order to understand what gave rise to them, how they function, and HOW THEY CAN BE OVERCOME! Far from a binary good/evil moral condemnation of poor whites and there being some essential content inherent within a race (such as the many, many things people just took as fact that he talks about in Black Reconstruction that sound crazy to us modern Americans), Dubois had extreme sympathy for this forgotten class of people while still recognizing the capacity for harm and reaction, and he put his hopes in its ability to form an alliance with the black working class in the north AND south (and also the immigrant petty bourgeoisie of the west). This, for Dubois, would be a force the capitalist class could not stop, and the only one capable of fulfilling the democratic ideals set down in the Declaration of Independence.
And this brings us to today, where we believe that alliance is more possible than ever before. We have gone through three revolutions in this land. The first, bourgeois revolution to overcome British imperial rule. The second, the civil war, which became the revolution of the freedmen and the destruction of the moribund planter class. And the third, the political revolution we refer to as the Civil Rights Movement. The effects of this political revolution cannot be understated, even though they seem to be downplayed in the service of reinforcing the old divisions of American society by these same faux progressives. All of these represent leaps in the form of American social relations (and I wouldn’t be a Marxist if I didn’t irritatingly note that all three followed great leaps in technology and production–sorry). Anyway, this history, our history, of two and a half hundred years (give or take - I’m bad at math, sorry) is the American people becoming, well… the American people. Taking back Dubois, taking back Black Reconstruction, from the institutions of the class standing in the way of completing that process, who falsify and distort his theory, is taking back the ability to understand our own history and how we have gotten to where we are, which is, of course, essential if we want to figure out how to move forward.
So where are we? In Black Reconstruction in America, Dubois describes a white working class that was taught that we weren’t even the same species, and a black working class that was kept from being taught altogether. Our society, based on class struggles, has won tremendous victories in those struggles since then. Now, in 2023, kids aren’t taught that we’re a separate species, or even that one race is superior to another (as it was even when my father arrived here as a child). Now, kids are taught that we are the same. Of course, we cannot speak of American history without at least briefly touching on the middle classes, based as they were in what amounted to American apartheid, and Jim Crow, but these are all whole discussions of their own. What I want to focus on is the same necessity that drove Dubois, and that is the necessity of now, the era of the destruction of the middle classes; the era of re-proletarianization.
It is this process, of imperialism reaching a moribund stage, of full financialization, de-industrialization, and the impossibility of continuing on in the old way that leads us to this necessity, that has over over 60% of the country struggling paycheck to paycheck, a complete loss of faith in the system, and a rapidly decreasing standard of living. This is necessity. It opens up a possibility that the middle classes never had.
The last point I want to make is on the recovery of Du Bois’s internationalism. Today, Du Boisian scholarship, grounded in the academy, comfy PMC positions, and the purity fetish world outlook, is tied up inherently in American imperialism. This couldn’t be any farther from Du Bois, who was an anti-imperialist thinker through and through - who connected the struggle of the working class in America to the struggles of colonized peoples abroad. Today, what passes for Du Boisian scholarship is not only limited to the halls of academia, far away from the dirtiness and vulgarity of real working class life and politics, but when it does comment on real life and politics, it simply paints a radical-looking veneer over the narratives of the American empire. And for me, it doesn’t really matter how cool and hip and radical your words sound, if the content and practical implications align fully with imperialism, as theirs do in the cases of China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and, really, any country which dares to exist outside of the spheres of influence of US/NATO imperialism, then it is imperialist. (Ideologically speaking, this is a new, modern, “woke” liberal form of the reaction to Reconstruction from the ruling class.) Du Bois, on the other hand, was an ardent supporter of those undergoing the difficult task of constructing an alternative order outside of the sphere of influence of empire, and constantly under attack from hybrid warfare arising from imperialism. Du Bois was unapologetically supportive of the revolutionary movements in Africa, of the Chinese revolution, of the Soviet revolution, and of all projects for liberation which ran counter to the claws of empire - a support which well predates his turn towards a more explicit Marxism in the mid-1930s. This attitude required not only an exclusion of purity as the standard through which we judge projects abroad - but also an incredible amount of courage, something which many Du Bois scholars lack. Du Bois was excommunicated from the country for being a revolutionary, asking for peace, and supporting actual socialist experiments. Not to mention that they kept kicking him out of their institutions for refusing to compromise his radicalism, a very big difference to the academics being funded by those institutions who use his name now. Today, Du Bois scholars live comfortable middle class lives in the heart of the empire, and are used as what Carlos Garrido calls the controlled counter-hegemonic agents of empire, who present themselves as radical, but always side with the exploiters, the colonizers, the imperialists.
Du Bois has been taken from us, but only in form. The Du Bois they hold onto is not actually Du Bois, but a caricature of his they have created in order to domesticate his radical ethos, a papier mache facsimile, a phantom. The project, then, for me, is maybe less taking back Du Bois, and more, sort of… re-discovering Du Bois. Today the task is to go back to the real Du Bois, and to use this real Du Bois in the project of smashing the phantom, and gaining ideological clarity in our confusing and contradictory times. Du Bois, today more than ever, is the most important weapon the American people have if they want to fight for a world of genuine, positive peace, where democracy is expanded, and regular working class people, not capital, is in control. This Du Bois, for us at the Midwestern Marx Institute, is the father of American Marxism. The American Lenin. If we are to win the class struggle, abolish empire, and achieve a higher form of democratic life - one in line with the ideals of the founding of the country, then this is our first step.
Noah Khrachvik is a proud working class member of the Communist Party USA. He is 40 years old, married to the most understanding and patient woman on planet Earth (who puts up with all his deep-theory rants when he wakes up at two in the morning and can't get back to sleep) and has a twelve-year-old son who is far too smart for his own good. When he isn't busy writing, organizing the working class, or fixing rich people's houses all day, he enjoys doing absolutely nothing on the couch, surrounded by his family and books by Gus Hall.