DuBois Abroad

by zunguzungu

I picked up John Lewis Gaddis’ The Long Peace in a library “free books” box. They must have assumed that a book of essays on the cold war from the eighties would be of limited interest. The more fools they! So I’ve been flipping through it here and there. And the first essay (“Legacies: Russian-American Relations Before the Cold War”) turned out to be surprisingly relevant. I’ve been trying to make sense of DuBois’ tendency in his later years to apologize for indefensible dictators (Stalin, Mao, the Japanese empire before WWII, and so forth), and understanding the vicissitudes of American relations with Russia is a good way to contextualize these kinds of choices, which DuBois always saw in the context of American politics. As Gaddis makes clear, the U.S. and Tsarist Russia got along quite well until the end of the nineteenth century, as the purchase of Alaska illustrates; a shared antipathy for the British (or a shared interest in countervailing Western European power) meant that more often than not the interests of “the worlds great democratic hope” and the interests of “the absolutist Tsarist empire” didn’t, for example, get expressed in such terms. Neither state saw the radically different ideological premises of the other’s government as a threat until later.

That changed, Gaddis observes, in the late nineteenth century, a change he relates to larger shifts in the American state’s sense of itself: from a belief in democracy as necessitating a hands-off approach to foreign policy (in which only the oppressed could really revolutionize themselves), the U.S. started to clearly articulate a policy of taking responsibility for democratizing the world, just in time for 1898, the high water mark in American colonialism, and the era of Wilsonian interventionism that would follow.

There is a lot that can be teased out of this shift, I think, and not least interesting is the role of post-civil war intellectuals in leading the charge for liberal interventionism abroad. But to me, the most interesting thing is that although Gaddis tries to stress the “obvious” threat to capitalism posed by an anti-capitalist revolution in 1917, he also clearly shows that the breakdown of Russo-American amity began a bit earlier, in the time period when the breakdown of Chines power in Asia gave Russia new opportunities to expand and the fast-industrializing American state started looking for new outlets for its economy. And the DuBoisian approach, I think, would quite rightly note that this conflict in interests begins with opposing colonial ambitions, and that ideology only serves as a means of rationalizing and justifying it. Ideology, in other words, is irrelevent without the sense that both states had an investment in foreign territories, the sense that a place like China was already always the business of American and Russian security. “How is our oil under their sand?” puts it in another idiom.

This doesn’t explain why DuBois would idolize Stalin, or why he became such a fan of the Japanese that he would urge the Chinese, after the rape of Nanking, to grin and bear it. That’s a different set of questions. But it does shed some light on how the American sense of its own internal colonies was shifting in the very period when DuBois was maturing as an intellectual in a very suggestive way. The previous generation of abolitionists had (perhaps disingenuously) disclaimed responsibility for the freed slaves, arguing that the job of a slave was to declare its own independence and no one else could do it for them. But DuBois was part of a new generation of American intellectuals who believed that modernizing the primitives was the responsibility of the enlightened few, and I’m not so quick to assume that they were as personally disinterested as they themselves liked to believe. After all, when the self-declared talented tenth of the world declared their responsibility to clean up the messes made by the other ninety percent, the primitives that were not so blessed, things like the colonialism and the the cold war for world domination had a way of happening. So, too, do I wonder what the untalented nine-tenths thought of DuBois and his struggles with Booker T. Washington for race leadership, how they felt about being the terrain over which the cold war between those two was fought.

(The pictures all from the UMass Amherst DuBois collection, just because)