Expanding the Literature on Black Internationalism and Transnational Politics

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Darryl Thomas

This is the fifth 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 on Sunday; remarks from Stephen G. Hall on Monday; and remarks from Michael O. West on Tuesday. In today’s post, Darryl Thomas emphasizes the strengths of Adi’s work and highlights its significant contributions to the growing literature on twentieth century black internationalism.

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Darryl Thomas is an Associate Professor of African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He received his B.A. in African American History and U.S. History from Florida A&M University and his MA and Ph.D. from the doctoral program in Political Science at the University of Michigan. He served as the Chair of the Binghamton University ’s Africana Studies Department from 1997 to 2003. His research and teaching revolves around Africana Studies, African Studies, World Politics, Comparative Politics, Black Politics, Urban Politics, and Political Theory. He has published widely on the International Politics of the Third World, African and Africana Studies, Globalization, Democratization and Global Africa resistance to Globalization including U.S. hegemony and empire. He is the author of The Theory and Practice of Third World Solidarity (Praeger, 2001).

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Hakim Adi’s book, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa, and the Diaspora, 1919-1939, is a very important contribution to the growing literature on black internationalism. The literature on black internationalism has experienced proliferate growth in recent years due to the opening of a large number of archives in the former Soviet Union and other sites that were closed to scholars outside of the Soviet bloc. The growing interest in transnational politics and affairs has also generated interest in black internationalism. Adi’s book is a tour de force revolving around Africa’s and the African Diaspora’s encounter and engagement with Marxist-Leninism and Pan Africanism as twin ideological movements–at times, under the banner of black internationalism, providing concrete organizational and institutional structures to facilitate liberation and freedom from white supremacy and imperialism in all of its forms and manifestations.

The world order based on a balance of power system under the hegemonic system of Pax Britannica was waxing and waning as Germany, Japan and to some extent, the United States contended for global leadership in the political, economic and military arenas. The First World War and the impending Second World War had all the trappings of a second “thirty year war” with a continuing conflict over the receding colonial outpost in Africa and Asia as the key prize for primitive accumulation. The Russian Revolution catapulted Russia into the new position as an anti-systemic actor challenging the status and threatening to spread the gospel of communism and socialism throughout the world system. Adi captures the struggle of the Russians to construct a transnational movement erected around Communism and Pan Africanism as a new face of black internationalism. He outlines in bold relief the attempt by Russia to construct a new transnational alliance consisting of both state and non-state actors, the colonized in Africa, the Caribbean, North, West, South Africa, the Caribbean and the United States as well as working class movements in Germany, Great Britain, France and the United States. He draws attention to the efforts of the Communist International to construct this new alliance or coalition between actors committed to class struggle, incorporating the working classes in the periphery with their counterparts in the Center (Core) under the vanguard leadership of the Bolsheviks.

The Communist International (1919 – 1943)
The Communist International (1919 – 1943)

Adi provides an analytical account of how difficult it was to develop this coalition at the same time we were witnessing the rise of the “dark world.” Adi pays attention to the Communist International’s efforts to forge coalitions between the working classes in diverse locations such as France, Germany, Great Britain, the colonial world of North, West, and South Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. He examines this coalition building efforts through the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW). He demonstrates the conflict over agency and how it was played out over the hegemonic struggles of race and class. He examines the complexity of developing a coalition that included white workers who did not perceive people in Africa and the African Diaspora as part of the revolutionary vanguard–regardless of the position of the Comintern. It was in this context that W.E.B. Du Bois was critical of Marxism and Marxists, particularly those associated with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), for not recognizing the racial dimension of the class struggle in the world system. He had engaged the New Negro Intelligentsia over these issues including Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), and others in coalition with the CPSU and the more black radical organizations. At this juncture, Du Bois had abandoned his commitment to black liberation through vanguardism including the Talented Tenth. Du Bois contended that the most sustained threat to the capitalist world system came from the periphery and not the center.

W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois

Through Adi’s text, the leadership turnover and controversy also revolved around the debate of what should drive this coalition—class or race. Over time, these actors began to issue a call for independence through black liberation and increasingly articulated black internationalism through Pan Africanism. Adi chronicles several intervening events that pushed the coalition to its breaking point. These momentous events included the Italian intervention and control over Ethiopia, one of the last independent states on the African continent. Other events revolved around the Nazi coup in Germany and the declaration calling for a new scramble of Africa through re-negotiation over returning select African colonies to Germany and the impending world war over the colonial issue. All of these events ignited debates between activists in Africa and the African Diaspora–whether they were serving the interest of black liberation through Pan Africanism or whether they were pressed into service to preserve the Russian Revolution and serve the interest of the Communist International.

Adi also provides provocative insights into the conflict between George Padmore and the Communist International. He examines the critical role Padmore played in building a coalition with ‘Negro’ workers and toilers. Padmore was a key agent in furthering the cause of the Communist International and his expulsion created chaos in the ITUCNW and several interrelated organizations. Adi chronicles how Padmore and others relied on financial support from the Communist International to support their coalition endeavors as well as their other efforts to promote Pan Africanism. Like Du Bois and others, Padmore and his associates longed for support from the masses of Africa and the African Diaspora. However, they lacked the connections and support of the masses that Marcus Garvey was able to mobilize. At the same time, they had profound differences with Garvey over black capitalism and Black Empire through his vision of Pan Africanism. The lack of access to financial support was also due to the Great Depression that accompanied the accumulation crisis in the capitalist world system.

The Communist International’s experience with Pan Africanism as a new phase of black internationalism would take on a new form in the postwar era with the Bandung Conference, Afro-Asianism and the Non-Aligned Movement. The Soviet Union would once again experiment with the Afro-Asian Peoples Solidarity Organization (APSO) as a new catalyst to influence state and non-state actors in the Global South. Adi has provided a benchmark study to examine the Cold War efforts to influence black and Third World internationalism and Pan Africanism.

Afro Asian People's Solidarity Organization in the 1970s
Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization in the 1970s

Adi has performed a deep archaeological dig into the archives to provide a comprehensive historical and analytical account of the Communist International’s efforts to provide an alternative approach to liberation, training and organizing African and African Diaspora workers and their leaders on how and why to organize, create alternative organizations, build on racial and class solidarity and challenge racial chauvinism in the Communist parties in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean and Africa (South Africa). He also examines the conflict among a cadre of black leaders from the US, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa. He pays attention to whether they were workers or peasants as well as their understanding of their role in the capitalist world system. He accents their belief that they were a critical factor in a world historical context and an integral part of the exploited global labor force. He provides a comprehensive examination of the various communist parties in major European locations from Great Britain and France to Germany and beyond.

Adi also focuses his analytical lens on the Caribbean, the United States, and Africa–igniting the conflict and competition between radical blacks in the US, Africa and the Caribbean. He develops a narrative that goes beyond a focus on individual leaders from William Patterson, George Padmore to Jomo Kenyatta. He provides case studies of the Communist International’s activities including institution building in West Africa, South Africa and elsewhere. Adi also examines the breakup of the ITUCNW that sets the parameters for a new phase in Pan Africanism and African liberation in the post-World War II era.

This work is comparative and compelling, providing a deep archaeological dig into the roots of radical black internationalism that goes beyond the narrative of two cities to include what we refer today as the black radical tradition in Global Africa–that is, Africa and its Diasporas.

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