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.
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.
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
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
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
- See, for example, Adi’s discussion of the Scottsboro Case, 146-147; and the “Black Belt Thesis,” 60, in Pan-Africanism and Communism. ↩
- Communism was also criminalized in colonial Africa. See Ibid., 267. ↩
- Ibid., 90. ↩
- See, for example, Adi’s analysis of George Padmore’s expulsion, ibid., 152-161. ↩
- Ibid., 115. ↩
- Ibid., 27, 56. ↩
- Ibid., 65. ↩
- Ibid., 113. ↩
- Ibid., 6, 92, 100. ↩
- Ibid., 17-18, 60, 79, 90, 300. ↩
- See Harold Cruse, Rebellion or Revolution (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2009), 19-20. ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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. ↩