Solving the “The Negro Question” with “White” Tools?

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Kwame Zulu Shabazz

This is the sixth day of the AAIHS’ roundtable on Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism and Communism. We began with an introduction by Keisha N. Blain and remarks from Gwendolyn Midlo Hall followed by remarks from Minkah Makalani; Stephen G. Hall; Michael O. West; and Darryl C. Thomas. In this post, Kwame Zulu Shabazz raises questions about the meanings and implications of the label “reactionary”–often used by Communists during the twentieth century to describe Pan-Africanists such as Marcus Garvey. **On Friday, Professor Adi will respond to the six reviewers and offer concluding remarks.

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Kwame Zulu Shabazz, better known as “Brotha Shabazz,” is originally from Inglewood, CA., and is a servant of the People. He is a Pan-Africanist and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Africana Studies program at Knox College. Brotha Shabazz is a scholar of Africana Studies and Anthropology. His research interests include: race/racism, identity, globalization, criminalization, freedom studies, and Black Radical Thought. His geographic areas of interests include Western Africa and the African diaspora. Brotha Shabazz’s current research projects are: Black radical movements; African immigrants in the southern USA; Black Muslims in the South; and Malcolm X’s Pan African political agenda. In his spare time, Brotha Shabazz enjoys hanging out at beaches, lakes and rivers and getting lost in bookstores.

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There are many different variants of pan-Africanism. Some versions focus on the political unity of the African continent. The Nigerian writer Chinweizu insists that continental unity is unworkable because “Arabs” control North Africa. Chinweizu’s solution is to limit pan-Africanism to “Black Africa” or Africa south of the Sahara. Other versions of pan-Africanism are global in scope and seek to unite Black/African people wherever they are on the planet. Some pan-Africanists are race-conscious. Some invoke “blackness” as flexible unifier that can include, say, the Dalits of India, or Aboriginal Australians, or freedom fighters in West Papua (i.e. populations that are “black,” but not culturally “African”). Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism and Communism is an important contribution to a longstanding debate within Pan African circles. Namely, what is the relationship between Pan Africanism and communism? Are they incompatible ideologies as was asserted by George Padmore (a former communist), Marcus Garvey and others? Is communism a complement to organic African concepts? Or is it a foreign imposition with a dubious agenda? Should the origins of communism matter, or should the best idea win?

The short answer is that communism’s seminal role in supporting global black liberation is well documented but not well known.1 Following decades of persecution and negative propaganda, communism, for many Americans, has become a sort of pejorative.2 But for African Americans combating “white terrorism,”3 communism was appealing primarily because of its promise of racial equality. The longer answer, as Adi convincingly argues, is more complicated. Communism is stereotyped as heavy-handed and monolithic, but local leaders sometimes operated without clear directives. At other times, personal agendas trumped official directives.4 And African diasporans frequently combined communist principles and race consciousness.5 Black communists expressed frustration with the lack of financial support from Comintern headquarters. There were vigorous debates and even sharp disagreements within communist groups.6 There were progressive white communists and there were racist white communists who did not respect their black comrades as social equals.7 Women party members challenged anemic responses to the specific issues of oppressed women.8 Adi also chronicles persistent discontent with the Party’s commitment to resolving what was deemed the “Negro Question” in Africa and the African diaspora.9

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Marcus Garvey

Whatever the disagreements on the “Negro Question,” the communists featured in Pan-Africanism and Communism all concurred that Marcus Garvey, a leading proponent of racial Pan-Africanism, was “reactionary” and thus a threat to the impending world revolution.10 Garvey’s obsession with race and his willingness to embrace black capitalism were distractions that distorted the concrete reality of class oppression. For his part, Garvey viewed communism with suspicion. He insisted on “race first” and declared that Black people were fully capable of solving their own problems and advancing their own interests. Furthermore, Garvey charged that communists were exploiting black oppression for white aims. It is unsurprising, then, that Garvey made several appearances as an antagonist in the archives analyzed by Adi. For both black and white communists of the 1920s and 30s, the revolutionary energy of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) masses was dissipated by Garvey’s “reactionary” leadership.

The accusation that Garvey was “reactionary” intrigues me. Although it sounds dated to my 2015 ears, I have occasionally heard the accusation of “reactionary” politics invoked by contemporary black radicals. So what precisely is a reactionary? Harold Cruse once complained that it seemed to apply to anything that didn’t adhere to the communist line. Thus, for example, an essay that Cruse wrote on African American folklore was criticized by Black communists for reinforcing negative stereotypes. For Cruse this and other engagements with communists proved that they were “fundamentally anti-cultural.”11

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Nathan Wright Jr. and Maulana Karenga (right)

Throughout the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, the Marxist-leaning Black Panther Party was engaged in a bloody ideological war with the cultural nationalist members of Maulana Karenga’s Us Organization.12 I am curious to know what Adi makes of the stark division between “revolutionary” communists and their “reactionary” rivals. Was the acrimonious relationship between communists and Garvey unavoidable? Was the communist deployment of the term “reactionary” useful? Can these historical divisions teach us anything about the current predicament of the global black community?

Pan-Africanism and Communism is a welcome addition to recent work on Black Internationalism and Black Radical Thought. Adi lets the archives tell the story. He skillfully guides us through a detailed analysis of the archival evidence while weaving a compelling narrative along the way. Non-specialists, however, will have some difficulty remembering the many different communist groups discussed in the text. Adi makes a compelling case for the deep engagement between communism and the black liberation. This is a history worth telling and Adi tells it well. However, I have lingering questions and doubts. Did communist officials in eastern Europe view their African comrades as equals or strategic junior partners in a struggle against global white supremacy? And, notwithstanding Adi’s deftly argued examples of how African and African diasporans sometimes bent communism to their own ends, are not these efforts still worked out on materialist terms that can’t account for, say, the sacred economy of the Vodou revolutionaries in Haiti or Christian led rebellions in the antebellum South (USA)? The radical agenda of (some) black religious devotees stood in sharp contrast with communist directives that dismissed religious institutions as distractions to revolution.13

  1. See, for example, Adi’s discussion of the Scottsboro Case, 146-147; and the “Black Belt Thesis,” 60, in Pan-Africanism and Communism.
  2. Communism was also criminalized in colonial Africa. See Ibid., 267.
  3. Ibid., 90.
  4. See, for example, Adi’s analysis of George Padmore’s expulsion, ibid., 152-161.
  5. Ibid., 115.
  6. Ibid., 27, 56.
  7. Ibid., 65.
  8. Ibid., 113.
  9. Ibid., 6, 92, 100.
  10. Ibid., 17-18, 60, 79, 90, 300.
  11. See Harold Cruse, Rebellion or Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2009), 19-20.
  12. We now know that these divisions were instigated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). See Scot Brown, Fighting for US : Maulana Karenga, The US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism (New York: New York University Press, 2003).
  13. Compare with Wallace Johnson’s more Afrocentric assessment of the revolutionary potential of religion wherein he distinguishes between colonial Christianity and “Ethiopia’s God.” See Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism, 186.

Comments on “Solving the “The Negro Question” with “White” Tools?

  • Difficult to answer all the questions posed by Brotha Shabazz in a few words. I think that many of these question were addressed in Harry Haywood’s famous autobiography – Black Bolshevik, who spends a good deal of time discussing Garvey and the UNIA. Even today a distinction is often made between different political agendas and activities. For example, how would we characterise the politics of Obama in regard to advancing the interests of African Americans or Africans more generally? I recall many people before his election imagining that he would resolve many problems while others warned that he represented not the interests of the majority of African Americans or other Americans but rather the interests of the a small minority concerned to maintain the status quo.
    The issue for the Communists of the 1930s, as I try to explain in Pan-Africanism and Communism, was that thousands were attracted to the UNIA and became active politically. The Communists, including those such as Briggs, Haywood, Padmore etc tried to work with the UNIA and argued that the struggle for change could be more powerful if it was based on fighting for the rights of all. Garvey disagreed. The Communists considered that those who maintained such divisions between working people were aiding the enemy who instigate and encourage such divisions and that the UNIA were dong a great job mobilising people but then encouraging them in directions that would not lead to significant changes in regard to the capital-centred system.
    The situation is different today, although the rulers still try to create divisions amongst people, so as to divide and rule. Anything and anyone is pointed out as the cause of people’s problems except the economic and political system itself. That, we are told, is the best there is and there’s no alternative to it.

    • Thanks, Brother Hakim. As you note, Haywood was eventually won over by the “revolutionary potential” of the “Black Belt thesis”–basically Garveyism without Garvey. He is also aware that the Workers Party’s stance on Black nationalism was less charitable.

      But Garvey was not opposed to internatonalism in principle or practice–it’s implied in the commitment to the “universal improvement” of African people.

      What you have called “fighting for the rights of all” is on point but was not tenable in the southern USA where whites generally, regardless of class, embraced racism/white supremacy (hence the “Black Belt thesis”). And, moreover, communist principles of struggle and freedom were ultimately masterminded in Moscow. This is what Garvey found objectionable.

      I think Garvey was right. Black self-determination includes the right of black people to organize themselves politically. Black communists of the 1930s and, Haywood specifically, never successfully resolved the contradiction of advocating black self – determination whilst promulgating directives that ultimately come from Moscow. I think your focus on Comitern underscores that contradiction.

  • If I may so, I think you may have misinterpreted what I have written in Pan-Africanism and Communism.
    Comintern policy was decided by all the communist parties discussing together. Of course they may well have met in Moscow, as that was the most convenient place to meet. Policy on what was then called the ‘Negro Question’ was often mainly discussed and decided by black communists themselves as my book and Haywood’s Black Bolshevik make clear. In regard to implementation, the ITUCNW that was also mainly in the hands of communists of African descent too. If Haywood was following decisions made in Moscow it was decisions he had participated in making. This is a very important democratic principle.
    The idea of following directives from Moscow is examined in some detail in the book and there is not much evidence of it, there is not much evidence of ‘Moscow gold’ either. The idea of Africans dutifully following directives from Moscow really has no basis as my book demonstrates. These are things we have been encouraged to believe by the anti-communists but we have to investigate them for ourselves
    I think th emore important question is what self-determination mean and what programme is put in place to bring about its implementation? The key thing about the Comintern is that it had a programme, not only in the American south, but also in the Caribbean and Africa. The policy developed by the Comintern in South Africa is a very good example. It was the only international body calling for a black republic from the 1920s, and it was the mission of the Communist Party in South Africa to fight for that goal.
    I think you also asked a question about the origins of Communism. It origins stem from the need to analyse a capital-centred society and all its ills and find and alternative. That could only come about where and when capitalism developed first ie Europe. However, the underlying philosophical principles of what is known as scientific socialism, dialectics and materialism are very much older and can undoubtedly be traced back to many ancient societies including ancient Egypt. It is an interesting area for future research.

    • Very interesting.

      Origins of scientific socialism is a part of my research.

      Looking at ancient German societies which Marx was inspired by.

      • Fascinating topic, Ame. Thanks for participating in the roundtable.

    • Yes, Brother Hakim, I did note the ample examples of Black communists crafting communism in ways that suited their specific circumstances. But I’m still unclear about the degree to which Comitern directives were arrived at democratically, This will require more research on my part.

      Your point about Comitern supporting the establishment of a black republics in black zones is important. But it’s equally important to note that black/African people had been fighting for self-determination long before communism. Lastly, we are still left with Garvey’s dictum: self-determination implies the right of African people to chart their political destiny independently. This, I believe, gets lots in the communist version of “internationalsim.”

  • I attended a great booksigning event with Hakim Adi recently. He seemed very open-minded and committed. One of the things I believe he cited was the view that Garvey had supported both Hitler and Mussolini in their fascist organization of populations in Germany and Italy. Garvey evidently spoke with pride of Hitler’s emulating his–Garvey’s–ideas. I don’t know enough about this subject to say that Garvey went so far as to endorse the final solution or not or that he understood Hitler’s real agenda: Hitler’s rhetoric was, like that of many fascists, couched in terms of passionate support for the well-being of the common citizen persecuted and bled dry by the mighty in society.

    One of the things that Brother Shabazz and Hakim Adi may want to do is read Trotsky, particularly “The Third International after Lenin,” “Stalin,” and his books on fascism in Germany and on the Spanish Civil War (Felix Morrow on the Spanish Civil War also). The Comintern after Lenin’s death in the 1920’s and the expulsion of Trotsky, the former head of the Red Army described as “indispensable” by Lenin, and the other Bolsheviks who constituted the Left Opposition in 1929 was a far different Comintern (aka the Third International) from the one founded in 1917. During the 1930s Stalin purged–killed or incarcerated by the thousands–almost all of the remaining original Bolsheviks as well as the skilled generals who had won against the world’s imperialist forces in the civil war that immediately followed the revolution. Following a policy of “building socialism in one country,” a marked departure from the internationalism of the original Comintern, embryonic revolutions around the world were unfortunately sacrificed to the end of not upsetting the global bourgeoisie and thereby incurring another physical assault on the Soviet Union. Just enough aid was given to national liberation struggles in some cases to keep them afloat. Assistance was tendered partly out of commitment to global revolution but largely to use such movements to keep the capitalist leaders “busy” defending “their” colonies and to secure the support and loyalties of the global masses for the Soviet Union.

    This is not to say that there were not many dedicated Communists who did not adhere to Trotsky’s positions–there were and there still are. It is to say that one would be dangerously mistaken not to include an evaluation of the evolution of the Comintern under Stalin, who, by the way, disbanded the Comintern in the 1930s. Given that the Comintern was the international party of revolutionary struggle, and, as such, a centerpiece of the revolutionary campaign developed by the original Bolsheviks, this action to some extent speaks for itself. I do not know enough about George Padmore’s break with the Comintern to evaluate it, but as I heard Mr. Adi briefly describe his dissatisfaction with a policy decision, it gave me at least the impression that he might have justifiably been reacting against Stalinist policies of fighting with one hand tied behind one’s back. The Manchester conference that figures prominently in Hakim Adi’s book for its addressing programs for third world liberation took place while Stalin was in power.

    What I felt heartened by in Hakim Adi’s talk was his NOT downplaying the considerable problems that have faced, do face, and will face all who want revolutionary change, problems having to do with racism, sexism, etc., among even the most dedicated militants and their organizations. He also acknowledged that it’s a different world with the huge defeat of the Soviet project leaving not only a void of hope for ultimate success but standing as a beacon of hope for every reactionary on the face of the earth that the “end of communism” is nigh, if not already achieved.

    As a white woman of 70 years I have done my best to raise consciousness for over 30 years without being in a party, because I was so alienated by the sexism in the white male-led parties, where it was not uncommon to see men pull their female partners out of study groups when they saw women developing political lives and views of their own and preferring to be out organizing rather than cooking supper and “supporting” mister. Men commonly wrote speeches and even newspaper articles submitted for one woman or another, thereby depriving those women of the change to develop in an opportunist bid to appear “representative” of all citizens. There’s overlaps in some of the gender and racial stereotyping–many women were also conditioned to internalize views of themselves as beings of inferior intelligence and capacity to act with direction and fortitude. In fact, Marx, when once asked, replied that what he liked most about men was their strength and what he liked most about women was their weakness. Lenin, by contrast, said that the wellbeing of human beings in every land should be gauged by the degree to which the potentialities and wellbeing of women were realized. I’m still an ardent Leninist and Trotskyist (I don’t think the current “Trotskyist” parties represent his thinking well, another reason not to be in a party just now!), and it’s because there just aren’t other choices.

    My experiences with sexism on the left helped me to see the degree to which racism prevailed, often because the numbers of whites were greater and they tended to vote or co-opt people of color into “leadership” based on their comfort levels with given individuals, usually more moderate folks without quite the passion and penetrating insight that might be desirable in a leader.

    Mr. Adi’s response to audience concerns on the alienation of African-Americans in multi-racial formations, if I understood him correctly, was to advise that they get in there in enough numbers and tight enough to take their rightful place as the core leadership for the whole task of global liberation. I think that, just as the parties in each nation in the original Comintern would have the greatest influence in Comintern decisions over their national course of action, while yielding to the ultimate decisions of the entire Comintern, oppressed groups in the advanced industrialized countries should form caucuses to refine and present their views as a group to the parties as a whole, even though the whole party would have the ultimate say in a given course of action through a democratic-centralist process. Right now in the US alone people of color are more than half the working class and are soon to be the majority of citizens period, so there may not even be a need for caucuses to increase leverage/take majority leadership in a working-class oriented party.

    Just as a footnote, I was taught in the sixties that people of color, particularly African-Americans, would be the leadership of the revolution simply by virtue of the fact that the most oppressed have the most motivation, resourcefulness, and creativity in struggle. I was also told that the revolution here would look like a race war with whites on the losing side. None of the whites batted an eye at this. We actually got it, so to speak–at least on paper! The SWP used to have Malcolm X speak at their forums. Whites have done a far from laudable job in making multiracial work comfortable or appealing to people of color, but at least on a formal level, as I think Mr. Adi pointed out, we do in many cases believe in human supremacy. Perhaps flooding white-led groups with people of color is not a practical or palatable answer, but could forming a people of color-led party and then judiciously recruiting whites be a possibility? Since we are naturally camouflaged, we might be handy in a number of ways, especially our goal is to save lives by taking state power as quickly as possible. Thanks for considering my input.

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