New books, old books,
the leaves all piled together.
A paper blanket
is better than no blanket.
You who sleep like princes,
sheltered from the cold,
Do you know how many men in prison
cannot sleep all night?
New books, old books,
the leaves all piled together.
A paper blanket
is better than no blanket.
You who sleep like princes,
sheltered from the cold,
Do you know how many men in prison
cannot sleep all night?
As the people of North and South Korea continue the work of building peace and unity on the Korean Peninsula–a peace that must honor the valiant efforts of the North Korean people to advance the principles of socialism and democracy in the twenty-first century–it is worth returning to the origins of the present conflict, which will take us back more than sixty years ago to the American invasion of Korea during the Korean War. One of the reasons why North Korea continues to remain a threat to imperialism is because of the history of its founding as a socialist republic.
During the Second World War, the Soviet Union led the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation, which was aimed at containing the Empire of Japan. The Soviet army’s liberation of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as well as northern Korea placed the former two regions back in the control of the Chinese. The Democratic Republic Of North Korea (DPRK) was established with the support of the Soviet Union, while the Republic of Korea to the south became an American base. For this reason, Han Sul Ya, the Chairman of the Korean National Peace Committee and the representative to the 1953 World Peace Council in Vienna, thanked the world communist movement in his remarks, noting that
The American invaders for more than three years made every effort to subjugate the freedom-loving people of Korea. With this end in view, they used an enormous quantity of war material and manpower against our little country…The victory of the Korean people, gained after a three-year struggle for the freedom and independence of their country, for Peace and civilization throughout the world was obtained thanks to the great support given by the peoples of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic Of China, the People’s democracies, and millions of defenders of peace throughout the world.
W.E.B Du Bois, who fought for the freedom the darker races from white rule, organized a vehement opposition to the Korean War through his roles in the World Peace Council, the Council on African Affairs, and the American labor movement. He recognized the need for a genuine peace rather than a conditional armistice privileging American interests in the region. Indeed, these are the terms upon which peace in Korea ought not to be established today.
The origins of Korean civilization, Du Bois reminds us, stretches back more than five thousand years and like all civilizations, is subject to historical laws particular to its development. Prior to the American invasion, Korea was ruled by imperial Japan, which was defeated by Allied forces during the Second World War. Du Bois reminds us that the problems faced by the Korean people at the end of the war were part of the same greater problem plaguing oppressed nations throughout the world: the problem of the color line and the striving of the darker races to establish their own government, determine their wages and conditions of work, elect political leaders of their own choosing and rebuild civilization in the realm of art, language, science, and industry at long last. This striving was a problem, however, for the rising American giant, for
[e]ver since the First World War, the United States has been eager to rule Asia and Africa as Britain once ruled.
In defiance of the U.S-aligned regime in South Korea, the North Korean leadership embraced a fundamental transformation in matters of government and production. The political ideology of juche emphasized the importance of self-reliance and the rapid industrialization of the nation against the encroachment of the United States, which perpetually seeks to render this rather well-developed country with a rich and complicated history as an isolated “rogue” state led by a backward dictator. It is vital that we insist upon the significance of North Korea’s achievements. It has managed to do what Cuba accomplished under Fidel, what Lumumba was struggling for in Congo, and what India pursued under Nehru: independence and the pursuit of the socialist path of development.
The Korean War began on June 25, 1950, lasting for three years. The destruction inflicted by the American army tore into the soul of the nation: factories and workshops were razed to the ground, infrastructure was ripped out, a third of the population slaughtered, and scores of towns, farms, and hamlets obliterated by American troops, all in the name of staunching the rising red tide of Communism. Du Bois made it clear that aggressor in the Korean War was the United States alone, not the Soviet Union or China as the Western propagandists and war-baiters made it appear. He also expressed his disappointment in the interventions of the United Nations in the Korean War:
It was a civil dispute for which the United States and especially South Korea were primarily responsible and which could’ve been settled with the minimum of hostilities if the United Nations had exhibited the restraint and wisdom in Korea that it had exercised in Palestine.
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, North Korea remained defiant amongst the nations of the world in its pursuit of the peace agenda and today, it continues to honor its original demand for self-determination, peace, and socialism in a world beleaguered by a rapidly doomed neocolonial agenda. In spite of the Gorbachev administration’s betrayal of the world anti-imperialist movement, North Koreans continued to oppose the American colonization of the Korean Peninsula. Their heroic commitment to secure their freedom must thus be recognized and commended by the international community.
In an essay called “As the Crow Flies,” wherein he discusses the Korean War, Du Bois argued that
The difficulty with war is that during its continuance, not only are laws silent but thinking is stopped, or at any rate there is a strong tendency to discourage discussion.
The state of war, he says here, retards the proliferation of reasonable thought altogether. We need look to no other place and time than our own in order to come to terms with the truth of this statement, as the war-mongerers and profiteers push sanctions upon the North Korean people in efforts to delegitimize a regime organized around the principles of socialism rather than imperialism. The enemy, according to the white liberal, is Russia, China, and North Korea–not the monopolists who squander the wealth created by the masses of humanity. The vast majority of Americans are fed lies about the world and how it came to be the way it is. Defenses of imperialism clamoring for the status of truth proliferate in the media. However, we can no longer stand to ignore the origins of the present crisis, wherein American imperialism seeks with all its failing might to preside over Asia and Africa in the wake of European retreat. to do so would be to deliberately obscure the true nature of the Korean struggle for a genuine peace. I will end by invoking the anti-war declaration issued by the Council on African Affairs in 1950 in opposition to the Korean War, which reminded me that as members of the darker races, we must be very deliberate in setting forth a concrete program for peace, one that does not entail the clause of whiteness:
We want peace in Korea, but we do not want the sort of peace the United States seems to impose on black and yellow peoples and we solemnly protest to the world against this latest attempt to enslave the dark people of the world
Telegram from Premier of North Korea to Shirley Graham Bois, September 2, 1963
In 1913, Du Bois wrote and presented The Star Of Ethiopia, a historical pageant chronicling the history of black civilization and its contribution to world history at the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York City. In many ways, the play is an early enactment of the story he so painstakingly documents in the idiom of social science in his 1946 monograph, The World and Africa. Foregrounding African-American drama’s connection to African dramatic and spiritual traditions as well as its historical distinctions, his chief purpose in imagining it was to create a complete work of art, one capable of educating and uplifting the masses. As he put it, “The great fact has been demonstrated that pageantry among colored people is not only possible, but in many ways of un surpassed beauty and can be made a means of uplift and education and the beginning of a folk drama.”
Towards the fulfillment of this mission, The Star of Ethiopia progresses in six movements that detail the origins of humanity in Africa, the contributions of African civilizations to the ancient world, and the struggle of the black worker for freedom from American slavery and imperialism in the modern period. Originally imagined for an ensemble of three hundred to a thousand performance artists, the play premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1915 and made its Philadelphia debut in 1916 (see below for pictures of cast and the playbill). It was revived in a 1925 performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
“Hear ye, hear ye! All them that sing before the Lord and forget not the Vision of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And remember forever and one day the Star of Ethiopia, All-Mother of Men, who gave the world the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and Sorrow Song of Pain, and Freedom, Eternal Freedom, underneath the Star. Arise and go, Children of Philadelphia—the Play is done—the Play is done.”
In 1858, Rani Lakshmibai, a leading figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, died from injuries inflicted upon her after the British led a vicious attack upon Jhansi, her kingdom in Uttar Pradesh, in their efforts to conquer India for the Crown and impose ruinous land policies introduced by Dalhousie, a British aristocrat and administrator. Dalhousie’s laws would wreak havoc on Indian civilization, leading to mass unemployment amongst peasants and deep political unrest as local rulers were toppled only to be replaced with a native ruling class loyal to Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Indian industries were forcibly destroyed. The handicraft industry collapsed and artists were impoverished. Dalhousie pried India open to create a captive market for English goods, leaving Indian workers without jobs and open to exploitation, forcing them to labor for the British Raj. Unlike the comprador classes of rulers who cooperated with British authorities, however, Lakshmibai stood with the people and defended India against the European pretender. In the Jhansi army, women played a leading role in soldiering, carrying ammunition, providing food to the soldiers, and maintaining post. Lakshmi Bai herself inspected her forces daily and attended to their needs in addition to developing the larger defense strategy. She is pictured here carrying her son on her back in cavalry attire.
In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.
As Du Bois confirms
The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.
He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.
Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.
The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.
As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here
all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”
Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.
Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.
Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.
The Black Buddha, after W.EB Du Bois
A poetic dance form originating in the Tamil and Malayalam literary tradition, OttamThullal was developed by Kunchan Nambiar in eighteenth-century India. The form, traditionally accompanied by a double-headed hand drum (mrindagam) and a drum-and-cymbal (edakka), stages important sociopolitical questions, deploying satire, humor, and irony in order to shed light upon prevailing social maladies. Jawaharlal Nehru would refer to it as “the poor man’s Kathakali,” as many of the facial expressions of Ottam Thullal are drawn from Kathakali, which is an older theatrical form in the region, though one that tended to reinforce the values of the feudal aristocracy. By contrast, Ottam Thullal often advanced sharp criticisms of poverty and other forms of social inequality.