Understanding Du Bois

Understanding Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois and
American Political Thought:
Fabianism and the Color Line
by Adolph Reed, Jr.
Oxford University Press, 1997 282 pp $35

W. E. B. Du Bois’s productive use of his ninety-five years on earth casts a vigilant shadow over anyone who thinks about the political dimensions of the black experience. Few observations made during our century have been so prescient as Du Bois’s well-known 1903 declaration, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Few monographs have challenged and redirected American historical inquiry as did Black Reconstruction in 1935. Since his death in 1963, no black intellectual has acquired the authoritative stature of Du Bois. All this justifies the attention Du Bois’s life and writings have received in recent years. But it does not explain why Du Bois remains the iconic black intellectual.

In W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, Adolph Reed, Jr., attempts to explain the logic of Du Bois’s political thought and his status as a model for black intellectuals. Reed’s command as a scholar and a polemicist holds the reader’s attention throughout this compact book. Using a method he calls the “generativist” approach to the history of American political thought, by which he “anchor[s] inquiry overtly to contemporary concerns while requiring thick historical grounding,” Reed carries out four tasks, each of which makes a contribution to our understanding of Du Bois.

First, Reed argues that Du Bois’s intellectual career was guided by a “scientific” approach to social inquiry, and that the interventionist orientation of late-nineteenth-century social science deeply shaped Du Bois’s view of scholarship. This is significant for Reed, because it allows him to offer a model of political thought as policy-rooted in contrast to the recent academic obsession with politics as interpretation and culture. Throughout the book, Reed aims to explicate how Du Bois’s political thought was directed toward social change. His argument turns on his treatment of The Philadelphia Negro (1899) as a central text for understanding Du Bois’s intellectual commitments to collectivism and elitism as the organizing principles of his political thought.

Collectivism, in Reed’s view, “entails typically an emphasis on expertise as a legitimate, decisive social force, notions of the impartiality or neutrality of the state and resonant assumptions of the neutral guiding role of technology.” In The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois declared that the “art of organization” was the “hardest for the freedman to learn.” Therefore, it was the responsibility of the “better classes” of blacks to organize the community. With this text, Reed claims, “certain core principles of Du Bois’s thought . . . were set.” Within a few years, Du Bois became less concerned with manipulating blac...