Murali Balaji, The Professor and the Pupil: The Politics and Friendship of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, New York: Nation Books, 2007.
W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson have been poorly served by their biographers. David Levering Lewis and Martin Duberman found these two US communist revolutionaries about as congenial as Philip Foner would find Frick and Rockefeller. They employed all the usual snide dismissals and overrulings-in-hindsight of the labor movement and its Marxist vanguard, and summed up their subjects as quixotic.
Nearly all the historians and biographers of the US communist movement find their subject perplexing and uncongenial. Academic scholars who build their careers on merciless competition for pelf and place have no experience of democratic discussion, collaborative work, and collective leadership. They have no appreciation of the daily rhythm of life for members of a Leninist party; their pulse does not quicken when bruiting phrases like “spring subscription drive” or “all out on Saturday” or “tabling on campus.” They view life-or-death questions of party trade union fraction work as fruitless eccentricity. Communists building Black rights organizations can only be opportunists since they could never feel any real emotion about such a struggle, only “cold Bolshevik calculation.”
The prospect of a dual biography of W. E. B Du Bois and Paul Robeson, focusing on their political work, and published by Nation Books (whose logo features red flames rising from a manual typewriter) could not help but excite all those who respect and seek humbly to continue Du Bois and Robeson’s work. There were no smarter or more principled communist revolutionaries produced in the US. They came to the working class movement from different directions at different speeds and from different traditions. Their allegiance first and foremost to the Russian Revolution won them to the cause of building a communist party in the “belly of the beast.”
Does The Professor and the Pupil by Murali Balaji measure up to the moral grandeur and intellectual authority of its subjects? Alas. . . . Balaji, while acquainted with the shifts in fortune of his subjects over time, seems to be of at least two minds about them, what they did, and even some facts. It is one thing to misspell the words Labour Party as “Labor Party” (p. 36) or to refer to “playwright Rockwell Kent” when discussing that fine painter and visual artist (p. 202), but can any scholar of 20th-century US communism afford to refer to the Palmer Raids as the “Palmer riots” (p. 324)?
Instead of the clean, clear communist vocabulary of Du Bois and Robeson themselves, from the start Balaji deploys a series of hopelessly vague and ultimately meaningless euphemisms. Balaji uses the word globalism to describe Robeson’s political thought (p. xviii), but surely it is a mistake to use such a loaded modern word when describing the thinking of one of his subjects, when they themselves used the terms internationalism and communism.
Throughout, Balaji’s vocabulary is both confusing and misleading. He refers to the anti-apartheid movement as a “political suffrage struggle in South Africa” (p. 160). At one point he even refers to Du Bois as a “class suffragist” (p. 44). This is taking prevarication to new heights.
The organizing principle of the book is that Robeson was Du Bois’ pupil. The book itself, however, cuts against this thesis. Robeson was, in fact, far ahead of Du Bois in seeing the USSR’s existence as a step forward for toiling humanity and US communists as the best allies in the Black liberation struggle. Du Bois was always a consistent supporter of the USSR, but found the early US Communist Party wanting. “Du Bois wrote that the Communists were led by ‘a number of unprincipled fools’ who used the Scottsboro case as a publicity tool to hinder the NAACP legal defense” (p. 53). Though unmentioned by Balaji, it was the sacred NAACP national leadership who initially refused to join the Scottsboro united front for fear the defendants might be guilty. The Communist Party and the International Labor Defense initiated the nationwide Scottsboro campaign and gave it authority through mass mobilizations that the NAACP leadership was compelled to respect.
A strength of Balaji’s book is the clear picture it paints of the NAACP as an organization suffering under a leadership completely at odds with any advancement for “colored people.” Cop-loving stool pigeons like Walter White and Roy Wilkins fought a war not against Jim Crow and the lynchocrats that ran the Democratic Party and the New Deal, but against any grassroots organizations or direct action programs for Black liberation, no matter how small the scale. Funded almost entirely by white philanthropists, the NAACP helped witch hunt and destroy both the Civil Rights Congress and the anti-imperialist Council of African Affairs, groups that sought to link the US Black struggle to the world anti-colonial upsurge that gained its greatest victories after World War Two. Du Bois first resigned and was later expelled from the NAACP over precisely the question of imperialism’s relationship to Black oppression. Even while referring to US Communist Party leaders as “brazen jackasses” (p. 64) Du Bois fully endorsed their fightback program, castigating Walter White for ignoring tenants’ rights, medical care, and Black economic independence (p. 74).
The Professor and the Pupil makes it clear that both Du Bois and Robeson’s early radical sentiment was transformed into allegiance to Leninism both by the example of the USSR and the loyalty won by the Communist International among the best anti-colonial fighters of Asia and Africa. While never mentioning the central place communists, aided by the Comintern, came to give the US Black liberation struggle, Balaji does attempt to breathe life into revolutionaries now virtually erased from history. C. L. R. James, Benjamin Davis, William Patterson, Cyril Briggs, and Richard Moore are just a few of the communists from different traditions who made their presence felt in the lives of Du Bois and Robeson.
Labor Movement Slandered
Much of the characterization of Black revolutionaries in The Professor and the Pupil relies on vulgar anti-communism. Often the author’s perspective indicates ignorance of the subjects themselves. He refers to Claude McKay, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James, who all rejected Stalinism as objectively counterrevolutionary, as “disenchanted Russophiles” (p. 105) as though questions of principle were not involved in their political evolution. (It is not hard to imagine what C. L. R. James might say to a scribbler who attributed his long life of scholarship and activism to “Russophilia.” I am sure a cricket metaphor would be employed.)
There are a few salutary quotations that do offer political clarity. Du Bois in 1937 noted, in fact, that “the Russian people . . . need more (Karl) Radeks and fewer Stalins” (p. 110). But at the same time we suffer under Balaji’s own brand of historical analysis: dwelling in his own voice on something he calls “Stalin’s genocide” (p. 111) while never referring in that same voice to the real US-organized genocide against the Black nationality in North America and within the borders of Washington’s growing world empire. However one sums up the Stalin leadership’s legacy, the word “genocide,” correctly defined, does not pertain. This is the kind of rhetorical inflation that has long made the Black Book of Communism school a laughing stock, cheapening powerful words through intemperate axe-grinding.
The CIO’s central role in the 1930s in the anti-racist struggle is minimized in The Professor and the Pupil. Balaji writes: “. . . labor groups have long struggled with social chauvinism and in recent years many whites have left unionized jobs altogether, leaving a marginalized base of mostly minority workers with little political clout” (p. 133). Each word of this sentence expresses such breathtaking ignorance that it beggars reason. To begin with, trade unions have not shrunk in size because white workers left them; they shrank in numbers because of an unprecedented post-1975 union-busting drive by the US capitalist class and the dead-end class collaborationist political line clung to by union leadership at all levels. Second, trade unions have historically been the most integrated and least chauvinist institutions in class society. They were always one or two generations ahead of churches, universities, and all forms of media. To workers of all nationalities the phrase “an injury to one is an injury to all” is not a liberal moral abstraction: it is a question of life and death solidarity. Those who live in the bat’s belfry of the capitalist superstructure’s ivory towers might reflect on this from time to time.
Robeson: Vanguard Artist and Organizer
Paul Robeson was the greatest communist artist the United States produced. Spirituals, labor ballads, Soviet music, and Shakespeare were all part of his arsenal. As an actor, he knew playing Othello was a revolutionary act. As an activist, he knew Marxism was the strongest tool for the liberation of the Black nationality in the US and all workers and oppressed peoples of the world. He thrived within a developing US Marxist culture primarily centered on the CPUSA and was a consistent supporter and builder of that party. The main enemy, he knew, ran the land of his birth. One of that enemy’s central supports, Jim Crow, it was his especial pleasure to help destroy.
Balaji acknowledges that for both Du Bois and Robeson nationalism was not an obstacle but a fuel for their work as revolutionaries. Historians drunk on the pragmatic politics of Wall Street’s Tammany Hall-style Washington regime have never found the unity of working class and oppressed peoples’ struggles permissible. “By early 1942, Du Bois was an admitted nationalist, at the brink of shunning any idea of Black advancement via white philanthropy” (p. 135). Both Du Bois and Robeson saw that the Black US “battle for freedom and equality is part of the battle of colored colonial peoples in Asia and Africa and the battles of serfs in Eastern Europe against feudalism” (p. 144).
Anti-communism with a Liberal Face
At the end of The Professor and the Pupil author Murali Balaji sums up his subjects. “Politics made both men, and ultimately destroyed them” (p. 435). This absurd statement is, for anyone who has read Du Bois and Robeson, studied their lives, or simply read the preceding pages of Balaji’s own book, something on the order of a blood libel. Despite what he may conclude, the author has presented a picture of two men who died as their politics was achieving its greatest victories. Du Bois died a partisan and comrade of Mao and Nkrumah. Robeson, though not politically active in the last 10 years of his life due to poor health brought on in part by the witch hunt, was acknowledged by Black nationalists and communists at that time as a founding father of their work in the US working class.
Balaji reduces all politics to History Channel-style impressionism. He chalks up the FBI campaign against Du Bois and Robeson to J. Edgar Hoover’s “growing paranoia” (p. 128). Regarding the barbaric bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he writes: “Truman’s atomic statement would be an emphatic start to the cold war and a dramatic reversal of Roosevelt’s anti-imperialism” (p. 169). Has Balaji read what his own subjects wrote about Roosevelt’s supposed “anti-imperialism”? The Professor and the Pupil is filled with this kind of obscurantist double-talk. Why else refer to an “atomic statement,” or dismiss Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela as “aggressive nationalists” (p. 175)? Balaji tells us Du Bois and Robeson dreamed of something he calls “class parity” (p. 31) when in fact they fought for a dictatorship of the proletariat without balk or apology.
Regarding the Council of African Affairs, Balaji writes it off as “increasingly pro-Soviet and irresponsible in its advocacy” (p. 176) as the Cold War developed. He seems to think that Ralph Bunche finding a place in the US State Department is a more important step for the Black liberation struggle than independent Black political action free of the shadow of Jim Crow supporters like Franklin Roosevelt.
Inflated death tolls of the “victims of communism” so beloved of reactionary writers of the David Horowitz-Michael Savage-Jeanne Kirkpatrick axis of evil are presented here as fact. “Du Bois began to view China as a success story in implementing Soviet-style socialism, unaware that Mao’s Great Leap Forward would eventually kill millions in Stalinized collectivization. The Doctor would even excuse China’s occupation of Tibet, dismissing the Dalai Lama’s right to rule” (p. 187). To begin with, Balaji gives — and can give — no documentation to his statement that “Mao’s Great Leap Forward killed millions. . . .” There is no citation, and the figure itself has become a traditional piece of prop scenery in the theater of anti-communist mummery. Balaji is strangely quiet on statistics for the devastating human toll of racism, Jim Crow, and colonialism in this book. But he always has a body count ready to smear socialist countries.
Phrases like “the Dalai Lama’s right to rule” (p. 187) also beg belief. The Dalai Lama had and has no more right to rule than any czar or Kaiser ever did. The reason the people of Tibet do not demand the return of the Dalai Lama is because they remember his rule and that of his predecessors: grinding down the populace in near-slavery and profound poverty.
Readers of The Professor and the Pupil may wonder how Balaji handles the Peekskill, New York anti-Robeson lynch mob riots of 1949. According to Balaji, there would have been no riots but for Robeson’s “stubbornness in the face of pressure” (p. 275). It was all about ego, you see, not about building a united front to out-mobilize the lynchers and witch hunters.
Balaji calls Du Bois and Robeson “increasingly irrational” and “sentimental” (pp. 287, 381) for continuing their support of the USSR and communism into the 1950s. One almost feels that Balaji himself has become infected with the witch hunter’s poison to try to police his subjects this way. He presents cooperation and capitulation to the witch hunt by Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes free of such editorializing. Perhaps Robinson and Hughes will be the subject of Balaji’s next dual biography?
Cuban Revolution Slandered
The lowest scholarly point in The Professor and the Pupil is reached with author Murali Balaji’s unconscionable slander of the Cuban revolution. It epitomizes Balaji’s slip-shod second-hand knowledge about the communist movement and anti-colonial struggles that were the central political reality of Du Bois and Robeson’s lives.
“Marxists Che Guevara and Fidel Castro commandeered a seemingly improbable bloody revolt against the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista” (p. 381). Just let that summing-up of the Cuban revolution linger for a moment. And let me quote again the part of the sentence that all history and scholarship refutes: “Marxists Che Guevara and Fidel Castro commandeered a seemingly improbable bloody revolt. . . .”
There are no citations to support this astounding example of ignorance.
Has Mr. Balaji read any books about the Cuban revolution? Even the most reactionary gusano would tell him Che and Fidel commandeered nothing; they and the July 26th Movement cadre initiated the Cuban revolutionary war. Even the CIA would tell Mr. Balaji that these revolutionaries did not become Marxists until well after January 1, 1959. Only when confronted with the impossibility of having a truly independent post-colonial country under the economic and political aegis of US imperialism did they realize that Marxism, and Marxism alone, offered them the chance of a free homeland.
Two Good Men
The class enemy Du Bois and Robeson fought and organized others to fight continues to enslave, exploit, and destroy in its search for greater and greater profits. Du Bois and Robeson were not the last of the great Black freedom fighters to be won to communism as the science of their struggle. They were among the first. Every accommodation with capitalism, every third-way fantasy, has left us further from the rebirth of our own power.
The liberal pragmatism and shallow instrumentalism of Murali Balaji and his ilk has not stopped one police shooting, one Jena, one eviction, one layoff, or the death of one child of color on this planet of slums. Du Bois and Robeson could not have been clearer: only independent Black political action, free of the Democrats, and free of the bourgeoisie and its night-riders, will lead to liberation.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.