Conclusion: Roundtable on Pan-Africanism and Communism by Hakim Adi

Hakim Adi
Hakim Adi

This is the final 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; Darryl Thomas; and Kwame Zulu Shabbaz. In this final post, Professor Adi responds to the reviews and offers concluding remarks. On behalf of the AAIHS, thank you all for participating in this exciting roundtable. We hope you’ll continue the conversation in the days and weeks ahead. In the fall, Professor Adi will be discussing and signing his book at the Sanfoka Book Store on Sat., Sept. 19 (2-3:30pm). He extends an invitation to everyone in Washington D.C.  and surrounding areas.


I have come to the conclusion that every right-minded person ought to be a communist. I have hesitated all the time because communism has been mis-represented: I have been brought up on capitalistic literature, which is never satisfactory when it tries to explain working-class misery. I am convinced that no half-way measures will solve the problem…I am prepared to do my little bit to enlighten my countrymen on this point. (Albert Nzula, Pan-Africanism and Communism, p.375)

When someone asked me what communism was, I opened my mouth to answer, then realised I didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon…In school we were taught that communists worked in salt mines, that they weren’t free, that everybody wore the same clothes, and that no one owned anything. The Africans roared with laughter…I never forgot that day. We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is. (Assata Sharkur, Assata: An Autobiography, pp.151-152)

The coloured people of Cardiff are mainly communists simply because no one else has seen fit to give them a helping hand. (Harold Moody, Pan-Africanism and Communism, p.279)

Yes I am a communist and consider it one of the greatest honours because we are struggling for the total liberation of the human race. (Angela Davis, An Autobiography, p.214)

I have been greatly honoured by AAIHS’s roundtable devoted to my book, Pan-Africanism and Communism and must first of all thank Keisha N. Blain for organising such a wonderful opportunity for discussion. I must also sincerely thank all the eminent reviewers who have honoured my work with their time and wise words. I have not yet had the opportunity of meeting most of those who have contributed to the roundtable but I hope that will be possible in the future. I would also like to publicly acknowledge my friend Michael O. West, who has supported my work over many years, in good times and in bad. In this roundtable he has furthered honoured me by writing the most extensive comments of any of the reviewers. I would also like to extend my thanks to Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who was the first to read and review the book soon after it was first published. She has been consistent with her appreciation of my work for which I’m very grateful.


Although Pan-Africanism and Communism has been published relatively recently it was initially inspired by a book that I don’t think any of my reviewers mentioned–not even Gwendolyn. That book was Harry Haywood’s Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. I first read it nearly forty years ago and still regard it as vital for understanding the significance of the communist movement not just for African Americans but for all oppressed and exploited people throughout the world, especially during the early 20th century. I think it also addresses some of the issues raised by Minkah Makalani, Stephen G. Hall, Kwame Zulu Shabbaz, Darryl Thomas and others, in regard to events in the Soviet Union and the international communist movement, as well as the relationship between that movement and Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Haywood’s account is, of course autobiographical, but having now looked at many of the archival sources, I still find it a remarkably accurate and honest account. I certainly hope that more people will read it.

As Keisha, has pointed out (see the comments section of Minkah’s post), historians have to reconstruct the past from a variety of sources. My attempt to do so is one reason why the book took so long to produce, but I certainly did not spend ten years in the archives in Moscow (as someone on Twitter suggested)! As the bibliography of Pan-Africanism and Communism makes clear, I draw on evidence from a range of sources and from archives in Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Nigeria. It would not be very convincing to rely on evidence from just one source, although there is a wealth of different types of material available in Moscow. Perhaps I can illustrate this point with an example from the book (pp.152-3). When Padmore was arrested by the Nazis in Hamburg in February 1933, he wrote to his comrades claiming that he had ‘safely deposited’ documents and other incriminating material. His report to this effect can be found in the Moscow archives. However, the Nazis collaborated with the British security services and we know from the latter’s report that several trunks of material were confiscated. Some of this material is now to be found in the National Archives in Britain. This is a rather simple example but hopefully it illustrates my point and what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie refers to as ‘the danger of a single story.’

However, where the written sources are scarcer the historian is presented with rather more difficult problems to overcome. This was certainly the case in regard to the contributions of women and issues relating to gender more generally. The question of how women in Africa and the diaspora were to empower themselves and how this relates to the liberation of all ‘Negro toilers,’ is not well documented in the archives. That is not to say that it was not an issue, or was not discussed. There is certainly no mention of it in The Life and Struggle of Negro Toilers, for example, although we know that it was discussed at the Hamburg conference of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers in 1930. The sources also yielded very little information about the few significant female activists in both Britain and France. I complained in the Introduction (p.xviii) that the written sources ‘present a male-dominated picture of events.’ Many events were male-dominated in this period, of course, but some significant female figures appear only fleetingly in the sources. One who was particularly interesting is Padmore’s Austrian partner, Frieda Schiff, abut whom I was able to discover almost nothing. However, I do think that the role of women needed to be brought out more fully in Pan-Africanism and Communism. It certainly requires much further investigation and hopefully this will be an area for future research.

It is difficult for me to address all the important points raised by the reviewers. The most critical comments made appear to be reserved for those elements that, it is claimed, have been left out of what is already a rather lengthy book. I don’t think I can address all of those issues here but I will try to make a few comments. I should perhaps also comment on the fact that, as some reviewers have mentioned, there is some repetition in the book. This was deliberate because I assumed that many readers would not make the journey from cover to cover, but might just look at particular chapters relating to South Africa, the Caribbean or France for example. So I have tried to provide some context for those readers too.

I think that the relationship between the Comintern, ‘Black Bolsheviks’ and the UNIA is quite well covered in Pan-Africanism and Communism. I even quote from Garvey’s eulogy for Lenin, who he referred to as ‘probably the world’s greatest man.’ (p.18) I think it is made clear that great efforts were made to work with the UNIA and that there was some support for Garvey during the period when he was facing deportation from the US. There is also ample coverage of Huiswoud’s public debate with Garvey in Jamaica. (pp. 299-301) The book makes it clear that the activities of the UNIA were of central importance to the work of the Comintern and particularly to Communists such as Haywood. Black Bolshevik goes into this in some detail, I recall. Obviously, much more could be said but the book is already lengthy. Once again it is a subject that merits further research.

I mentioned earlier ‘the danger of a single story’ and this is a particular danger in relation to Communism. It is a problem that is highlighted in the quotation above from Assata. The most well know accounts of Communism are those presented by the defenders of anti-communism. Those are the views that became almost the official ideology of countries such as the United States and Britain after 1917. They may have been temporarily abandoned during the Second World War, that is from 1941-1945 but were then re-established with renewed vigour thereafter. Perhaps anti-communism reached its zenith during the Cold War with the McCarthyite period in the United States but anti-communism has not abated even in the 21st century as the attacks on Cuba demonstrate. Certainly the persecution of those linked to the communist movement in the US during the mid-20th century, such as Claudia Jones and Paul Robeson, is well known. Communism can be defined simply as the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the workers, that is the vast majority of people in the world. But as Assata explains, we are often taught that it is something completely different, something to be feared and avoided.

My own experience and research led me to the view that the doctrine of communism was something rather important. It was clearly also something important in the lives of George Padmore, Albert Nzula, Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, Aime Cesaire, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela, and W.E.B. Du Bois to name but a few. Moreover, even before researching and writing Pan-Africanism and Communism, this doctrine and its adherents kept appearing. It was difficult to find a movement for the advancement of Africa and Africans in the 20th century in which communists, or communism, were not somehow significant.


One of the aims of writing Pan-Africanism and Communism was to present the politics and activities of the Comintern and the ‘Black Bolsheviks’ of that period from the available evidence. Of course that meant that many things that are normally written in connection with the Communism of the inter-war period were omitted and some others contested. I did not repeat all of the anti-communist allegations and insinuations. There are just too many and they are commonplace–rather, the aim was to contest the ‘single story’ by presenting another one based on the available evidence. Those who read Pan-Africanism and Communism can make up their own minds.

In this regard I’m not sure how to deal with my friend and brother Michael’s comments without writing the entire book again? I can assure everyone that there is no conspiracy between us. I have not encouraged his comments in order to promote discussion, nor to have another opportunity to explain how Pan-Africanism and Communism deals with all the points that he raises.

Michael appears to suggest that I’m unfairly attacking Padmore. In fact, Padmore is not under attack at all. There are occasions were the evidence seems to suggest that he has been rather economical with the truth and I merely point that out. There is no evidence at all to suggest that Kouyaté was ‘dismissed’ from the communist movement because he didn’t turn up to a meeting–how could there be? The book goes into some detail to explain his parting, not only with the Communist Party but even with the Africans of the UTN (pp. 236-243). Indeed, the main difference between the approach of Pan-Africanism and Communism and that presented in Michael’s review is that the former provides the reader with substantial evidence. Michael writes that ‘many black communists dropped out or were forced out the movement,’ but provides no evidence for such an assertion. Of course, some people do leave political movements, while others never join them but what conclusion should be drawn from this? As for Padmore’s parting company with the communist movement, I think I present this with some care and based on the sources available but readers can judge for themselves (pp. 152-161). I don’t really know what to say about Michael’s comments on the Soviet Union, the Comintern and Ethiopia. Again, I think the reader will have to make up their mind from the book (pp.174-184).

Both Gwendolyn and Michael made comments about Stalin and ‘Stalinism,’ suggesting that I should have said much more about Stalin and his impact on the Comintern. I’m not sure how long they wished the book to be? One publisher told me to delete 60,000 words. I think the issue here is that the book is not about the Comintern in general, nor is it about Stalin, nor the Soviet Union. It is rather about the Comintern, Africa and the diaspora. Where the personality of Stalin appears to have had an impact on the Comintern’s policies on Africa and Africans, he has been mentioned. Other leading Russian figures in the Comintern, such as Nikolai Bukharin, are also mentioned, on the occasions when they spoke or acted on matters relating to the book’s main focus.

Then we come to what is referred to as ‘Stalinist terror’ or Stalinist repression.’ Gwendolyn kindly refers to one book on that subject to encourage me to say more (see the comments section of Minkah’s post). However, that particular book contains nothing about Africa and Africans, nor anything about those who had relevant responsibilities within the Comintern, as far as I can tell, and therefore has no relevance to Pan-Africanism and Communism. One key figure who was removed from his position during this period was the Russian Ivan Potekhin, who was allegedly  trying to impose his views on the South African Communist Party. He was sacked but subsequently became the Director of the Africa Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Michael refers to me ‘innocently’ writing about the death of the African American Communist Lovett-Fort Whiteman in a prison in the Soviet Union in 1939. By why should I not write ‘innocently’? Does he think that I had something to do with his death, which occurred many years before I was born?

The fact is there is much new literature on the period of the repression that took place in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s, some of it appearing in Russia, for those who are interested in such matters. With the rise of fascism internationally and the attempts of the Anglo-Americans to direct this against the Soviet Union, as well as anti-government conspiracies and terrorism internally, it cannot be considered surprising that policing activities increased in the Soviet Union during this period. It is also well-known that this situation was exploited by unscrupulous people, including very senior people many of whom were later themselves arrested and made to answer for their crimes. In those tragic circumstances many innocent people as well as guilty ones lost their lives, including two members of the South African Communist Party who were of Latvian origin. There is much academic literature on the subject from historians such as J. Arch Getty and Grover Furr. There were of course also reports at the time, including the writing of the US ambassador Joseph Davies and journalists such as Sawyers and Kahn. But as I mentioned, I don’t think that has much bearing on the focus of Pan-Africanism and Communism.

The demise of the ITUCNW in 1937 occurred for a variety of reasons, not least changing historical conditions. As historians we also have to take account of those changed conditions and try to explain them and that is what I attempt to do in Pan-Africanism and Communism. For a time, between the two world wars, the communist movement adopted a Pan-Africanist orientation to the struggle for the liberation of African and the diaspora. When political conditions changed that orientation was reassessed and reformulated. The Comintern’s priorities also changed because of the threat of fascism and war and the need to unite broad sections of people against these threats. Was this approach a correct one in the circumstances? Were fascism and war major threats? What should the approach of Africans have been to Nazi fascism? These are of course questions to be considered. Was it a good thing that the Soviet Union played the decisive part in the victory of fascism during this period? Did that victory undermine the whole colonial system and lead to major advances for Africans as well as other oppressed people? These are questions outside of the scope and time-period of the book but they point to the important changing circumstances of the period that had to be taken into account.

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure of the significance of Césaire’s letter that Michael has kindly quoted for us. It was written many years after the period discussed in Pan-Africanism and Communism and in very different circumstances. To put it in a nutshell, the communist movement of 1956 was not that of the 1930s. Many people severed their links with the communist movement in that period, although those with conviction such as Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson and many others did not. Some realised the necessity of establishing a new revolutionary international communist movement at that time. But Césaire wrote a letter of resignation. When people turn their backs on something important they usually find justifications for so doing, that is only to be expected.

The demise of the ITUCNW was not the conclusion of the Comintern’s concern with the liberation of Africa and Africans, as I make clear in the book. As for the importance of Communism for such liberation, if anything that increased in the period after 1945 and will hopefully be the subject of a new book I hope to write focusing on Pan-Africanism and anti-communism during the ‘Cold War’. We might also consider what impact Communism had on the wider Pan-African movement. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Manchester Pan-African Congress. I would suggest that there is a very strong influence there and in some ways, Manchester builds on the experience of the Hamburg conference of 1930. The break with previous congresses is significant. The delegates are all representatives of workers and farmers organisations for example, and there is clear opposition to monopoly right and imperialism. At the event itself one of the most prominent slogans was the famous dictum of Marx – ‘Labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself while labour in the black skin is enslaved.’

It is intriguing to note that Kwame Nkrumah who with Padmore organised the Manchester Pan-African Congress and the All-African Peoples Conference in 1958, and who was himself a notable Pan-Africanist, should at the end of his life declare: ‘There is only one true socialism and that is scientific socialism, the principles of which are abiding and universal.’ One wonders what he could have meant by such a statement.

What Pan-Africanism and Communism aims to outline is that the doctrine of the condition for the liberation of the majority was of importance for those struggling for the liberation of Africa and Africans. As the above quotation from Harold Moody indicates, it was the Communists who were often at the forefront of the struggles for the advancement of Africa and Africans, and many of these Communists were themselves Africans. Some gave their lives, others were imprisoned, all faced great hardship, especially in Africa and the Caribbean, where their activity was generally illegal. Of course, some deserted the movement, for a variety of reasons, but many more continued with the conviction that a better world was possible and necessary and that they could play a role in bringing it about.

Once again I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the roundtable and provided so much food for thought. I hope that the discussions continue on what is clearly such an important subject. It’s certainly the case that as historians we have to present the evidence and not simply rehash the so-called accepted wisdom, which is often based on very flimsy evidence or no evidence at all. Moreover, as was once pointed out, the issue is not merely to interpret the world but to change it. For that purpose too an accurate rendering of the past, from which we can draw the appropriate conclusion, is vital. It is of course also true that there are some people who do not wish to change the world and even claim that there is no alternative to that which currently exists. Fortunately for us experience and history point to a different conclusion.

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Comments on “Conclusion: Roundtable on Pan-Africanism and Communism by Hakim Adi

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    Prof. Adi,

    Thanks for your scholarship! And thanks for correction of my assumption that your work in the archives took ten years. Look forward to what’s next.

    • Keisha Blain

      Josh: Thanks so much for participating in the roundtable! I mentioned this to Prof. Adi earlier this week–I am partially to blame for this. In the intro, I indicated that the book was “ten years in the making” (which is correct) but this could also be interpreted as ten years in the Moscow archives!

  • Avatar

    It sometimes felt like 10 years – especially when they sent all the wrong documents! Thanks for your kind words Josh and your participation.

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