The Archive of Black Marxism and the Story of Twentieth Century Black Radicalism

Minkah Makalani
Minkah Makalani

This is the second 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. In this post, Minkah Makalani offers a brief historiographical overview and raises questions about the limitations of the archival sources on which Adi relies.


Minkah Makalani is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas. His interests include black radicalism, the African diaspora, black intellectuals, theory, and social movements. Makalani is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (University of North Carolina, 2011). In addition to editing a special issue of Social Text on “Diaspora and the Localities of Race,” 2009 Vol. 27, No. 1 98: 1-9, his articles have appeared in the journals Souls and the Journal of African American History, as well as the collections White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, and Race Struggles (Routledge, 2003).


“The writers and organizer of the study of Negro history have reached a critical stage in their work. They have accumulated an imposing body of facts which demonstrate the active participation of Negroes in the making of American history and, in particular, in the creation of the American liberal and revolutionary tradition.… But what next? Merely to go on accumulating facts?… [H]istorical facts, as facts, can do so much and no more. They have to be organized in the light of a philosophy of history.” —C. L. R. James, “Key Problems in the Study of Negro History”

“Dutch colonial archival documents serve less as stories for a colonial history than as active, generative substances with histories, as documents with itineraries of their own.” —Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain

The opening of Russian state archives in the early 1990s allowed for the first time an unprecedented window into the inner-world of V. I. Lenin’s Communist International (Comintern) and the numerous national communist parties constituting its membership. For many scholars writing about the American left, such access held the promise of indisputable facts from which would issue the true story of international communism. It likely surprised few that Cold War historians would locate within these voluminous files the necessary documentation to confirm their long held suspicions about Soviet intrigue and control over American communism. It should have been equally unsurprising that historians of the left would mirror such positivism in demonstrating the value of international communism and the autonomy of the American Communist Party. As far as black people in organized communism were concerned, the respective arguments in this debate continued largely unchanged, the former still portraying black Communists as either naïve pawns or willing agents of Kremlin intrigue, the latter still presenting U.S. and Soviet Communists as, on the whole, positive forces in antiracist and anticolonial struggles. For each, the villain or the hero of the story, its central figure, remained the Comintern and its member parties, with black people appearing largely as evidence to substantiate their competing claims.

Importantly, by this time historians like Nell Painter and Robin D.G. Kelley had already published groundbreaking works that told far more compelling stories of the black left. Rather than histories of the Comintern, they broke with the archive of black Marxism, the “conceptual-ideological ensemble” of concerns and questions that set the range of arguments and conclusions deemed acceptable in writing about black radicalism, and recovered a long submerged (or rather, a generally ignored and dismissed) black radical tradition.1 Kelly and Painter, and over the last twenty years a new crop of scholars influenced by them, drew on interviews, autobiographies, personal narratives, radical periodicals, pamphlets, music, poetry, and even government surveillance records to reorient the history of the black left away from any notion of heroes and villains. They crafted narratives that allowed full range to the motivations, initiatives, desires, fears, failures, and strides of black people who, for various reasons, saw value in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao, and the global communist and socialist movements that they led. One notices, too, in this still growing body of literature the influence of Cedric Robinson’s classic, Black Marxism, especially his insistence on a black radical tradition that anticipated and exceeded the rather brief Twentieth Century encounter between black radicalism and the white left. Privileging the intricacies of black political life and the complexities of black thought, this new body of work, as with Painter and Kelley, often crafted their narratives with only scant recourse to Soviet archives.

English_language_Communist_International_issue_6Hakim Adi’s expansive and deeply researched Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939, joins this growing field with the intention of exploring how black Communists influenced and shaped Comintern policies on the ever enigmatic Negro Question. Writing this history based almost entirely on Russian archival sources, Adi presents amazingly detailed accounts of the organizational activities of black Communists from around the globe, producing in turn possibly as fulsome a picture of worldwide black participation in organized communism as we are likely to ever have.2 Those familiar with the works of Brent Hayes Edwards, Winston James, Joyce Moore Turner, Erik McDuffie, Leslie James, and Matthew Smith will recognize many of the names and organizations that appear in Adi’s work. Impressive here, however, is the wealth of information on such figures as George Padmore, Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté, Otto Huiswoud, Max Blancourt, James Ford, and Jacques Roumain. Equally suggestive is the attention given to the Comintern’s most promising attempt at organizing black people worldwide, the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW). Under George Padmore’s leadership (1931-1933), the ITUCNW grew into an international network of black radicals and workers in Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe, while its journal, The Negro Worker, reached thousands throughout the diaspora. Equally impressive, Adi eschews the normal historical practice of discussing only one or two locales, choosing instead to cover the ITUCNW in South Africa, Paris, London, the Caribbean, and colonial west Africa.

The book’s title, Pan-Africanism and Communism, should make clear its departure from the suggestion of any necessary dichotomy between communism and pan-Africanism implied by George Padmore in his autohistorical Pan-Africanism or Communism? As Adi sees its, by its Fourth Congress in 1922, if not its Second in 1920, one could speak of “the CI’s [Comintern’s] Pan-Africanist approach to the Negro Question” (23). Indeed, Padmore’s own intellectual and political biography belies the idea of their incongruence. While he did come to despise what he considered “the pretentious claims of doctrinaire Communism, that it alone has the solution to all the complex racial, tribal, and socio-economic problems facing Africa” (18-19), it remained the case that he did build a radical African diasporic network focused on pan-African liberation through the ITUCNW. The irony, as one historian notes, is that the Comintern’s strictures and relative wealth of resources “allowed Padmore to move towards alternative views of black liberation that remained within a Marxian analytical framework.” 3

Adi is correct to see in Padmore’s framing of pan-Africanism or Communism a juxtaposition that existed neither theoretically nor historically, 4 though he might have done well to consider Padmore’s sense that the Comintern’s sectarian policies isolated the ITUCNW from the colonized masses, and the toll he felt that the racism of white Communists took on the group. Adi’s focus on whether Padmore resigned from the Comintern or was expelled, on my reading, dwells on a hopelessly empirical question that reveals little. The archival evidence would seem to suggest that Padmore was expelled, and as I have argued in my book, In the Cause of Freedom (see pp. 184-94), it also suggests that Padmore had left the organization by the time of his expulsion. While there is little evidence the Comintern sought to liquidate the ITNCUW, as Padmore had claimed, what is clear is that his dissatisfaction with Moscow led him to question its value for diasporic liberation, and that by 1933 he was operating largely independent of its directives. We see the same independence of thought and action in Garan Kouyaté, who worked closely with Padmore before and after his expulsion from the French party. Rather than take such independence as itself evidence from which to understand this episode, Adi only ever calls into question Padmore’s account for leaving the Comintern (155-61), and similarly suggests that Kouyaté fabricated his accounts that are contained in official Comintern documents in order to present “what he thought his audience wanted to hear” (228). These are legitimate historical questions, though it seems to have never occurred to Adi to similarly ask whether Comintern officials and the leaders of national parties misrepresented their interactions with their black comrades or crafted reports based on what they thought would cast them in as favorable a light as possible.

At issue is less a question of what the “facts” of the matter are, than how one approaches the archive from which “facts” are drawn. Long ago, Michel-Roplh Trouillot implored scholars to remain attentive to the power at play in the creation and collection of sources, the choices that build silences into archives and the historical narratives crafted from them. Following Trouillot and Ann Laura Stoller, we must always ask, whether working in the U.S. National Archives, the British Public Records Office, the Russian State Archive of Sociopolitical History, or the Schomburg, what stories do the sources attempt to tell? In what ways do archives attempt to delimit what subsequent generations might say about the past? This would seem to me to be C. L. R. James’ point, that to merely go on accumulating facts misses the more important issue of how one approaches the past, what Trouillot calls the “moment of retrospective significance (the making of history)” (26).

Hakim Adi’s failure to critically approach Russian archival sources gives Pan-Africanism and Communism an eerily similar ring to an outdated leftist historiographical approach to black radicalism. Given the detailed attention to what black Communists said and did, one can easily miss that the central figure in this story, its hero as it were, is neither black Communists nor the ITUCNW, but the Communist International, an unwaveringly anticolonial formation that “attempted to find answers to…the Negro Question from its inception” (451). We see black Communists either working diligently for the Comintern, departing from its wisdom, or ignoring its directives, but rather little of their independent ideas and initiatives. Alternatively, the Comintern appears to us as an automaton rather than a group led by people who may well have had good intentions, who engaged a range of ideas in arriving at a given decision, and that these decisions were at times flawed, up for debate, and could have gone differently. We see Lenin presenting the Comintern’s approach to the Negro Question before the 1920 Second Congress, but hear nothing of his debate with M. N. Roy, the Indian radical whose counter proposal on national liberation to that congress informed nearly a decade of Comintern efforts around race—genuinely antiracist, anticolonial efforts that were nonetheless often clumsy and misguided. The Comintern did not so much have a pan-Africanist approach as its had Asian members like Roy who helped transform it into a global movement in which black radicals believed they could pursue African diasporic liberation.

Adi’s detailed attention to the ITUCNW in Part 2 of Pan-Africanism and Communism, which covers the group in France, Britain, the Caribbean, colonial west Africa, and South Africa, will stand the test of time and the gnawing criticisms of his contemporaries. Indeed, this work will stand as a baseline from which future scholars can continue to explore this organization and its members’ importance of any understanding of a global black radical politics. By treating the ITUCNW in these distinct locales, Adi does makes clear how each national context informed and constrained what the group was able to accomplish, its potential and its unrealized promise.

Lamine Senghor (front and center)
Lamine Senghor (front and center)

One example will suffice to close. In 1926, several black Communists in the French Communist Party (PFC) joined the Senegalese radical Lamine Senghor, who left the PCF and formed the Comité de Defense de la Race Nègre (CDRN). Senghor’s CDRN grew out of his prior involvement in the Ligue Universelle pour la Défense de la Race Noire, an anticolonial formation established in 1924 by the Dahomian radical Kojo Tovalou Houénou. One wonders how the story Adi tells might have looked had he considered Houénou’s efforts to link his group with Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and W.E.B. Du Bois’ NAACP, efforts that hint at the scope of diasporic political desires that informed numerous interactions between black radicals in the Comintern—the correspondences between U.S.-based Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Paris-based Joshep Gothon-Lunion; the interactions at the 1927 Brussels Congress (35-40) between Senghor, the South African Josiah Gumede, and the former African Blood Brotherhood member Richard B. Moore. The episodic nature with which these and other interactions appear leaves unexplored how these might be constitutive of a larger pattern of diasporic anticolonialism. To be sure, Adi’s is a work that moves along the grain of a Russian archival structure that preserves the national distinctions between its various parties, itself a reflection of the nationalist orientation of Comintern internationalism. Nonetheless, Adi does give a sense of the possibilities to be had in breaking with such logic, though these are dissonant moments in the text: the black internationalist response to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia; the Caribbean labor revolts in 1937 and 1938 that served as a bellwether of the British Empire’s decline.

Hakim Adi’s work confirms that there is, indeed, still a great deal to learn from the decades long encounter between black radicalism and international communism. And he has, perhaps unintentionally, provided yet even more grounding for moving beyond the diminished returns of any inquiry that centers the Comintern. Indeed, the wealth of work that has appeared in the past ten years alone could have productively drawn on his extensive research. Adi has certainly added to what one might now be able to say about an autonomous black radical tradition that, as others have shown, turned in innovative ways, sometimes quite productively, at other times rather unfortunately, to the international communist movement as a means of diasporic liberation.

  1. I am drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of the archive not simply as an institution but also a “system of enunciability” governing what can and cannot be said. Important to my thinking, too, is David Scott’s notion of the “problem-space.”
  2. See the equally extensive work by Holger Weiss
  3. Leslie James,  George Padmore and Decolonization from Below, 28
  4. For other approaches to this, see George Padmore: Pam-African Revolutionary.
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Comments on “The Archive of Black Marxism and the Story of Twentieth Century Black Radicalism

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    I wonder why neither Adi nor this commentator barely mention the emotionally and politically charged name Stalin. By the Sixth World Congress in 1928 he was pretty firmly in charge of the Soviet Union, the Comintern and his book, Marxism and the National Question was endorsed by Lenin well before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Lenin’s studies of imperialism and Stalin’s rather rigid definition of what constitutes a nation need more attention from this commentator as well as from Adi. Trotsky’s emphasis on the revolution in the advanced “Western” countries and Lenin and especially Stalin’s emphasis on the revolutions in the wide world suffering from imperialist exploitation and terror should not be ignored. Adi’s study shows the conflict between Black Communists backed to a great extent by the Comintern and the communist parties in the “advanced” capitalist countries which demonstrated little interest in Black liberation. Also ignored is the extremely negative picture of the destruction of the Comintern by witchhunting, paranoid, xenophobic purges
    Author Chase, William J., 1947-
    Title Enemies within the gates? : the Comintern and the Stalinist repression, 1934-1939 / William J. Chase ; Russian documents translated by Vadim A. Staklo.
    Publisher New Haven : Yale University Press, c2001.

    Although the Comintern was officially dissolved in 1943 it’s very existence is questionable during the last half of the 1930s. It became a personal operation run by Stalin relying mainly on Dimitrof and Togliatto and probably Andre Marti. It’s prior active role in Pan-Africanism calls for an evaluation for this time period.

    I also question the extreme skepticism about the value of archives. It is the job of the historian to evaluate sources. I consider “silenced history” the questions historians have refused to pose often under economic pressure stemming from the demands of the profession. We have indeed made great progress recently which I am grateful I have lived long enough to enjoy.

    I could of course be wrong since my colleagues here have devoted their lives to these studies while my work has focused elsewhere. Still I hope these observations might be of some value.

    • Keisha Blain

      Yes, these are such crucial points. Michael West’s post addresses the Stalinist repression (will be posted tomorrow) among other things.

      I agree with your assessment re: Minkah’s post (which I really enjoyed reading). I think we have to be skeptical of archival sources but then we have to be skeptical of ALL sources. One could easily talk about the silences of print journalism; the silences of oral histories and so on. Still, I appreciate Minkah’s post because I think historians generally privilege archival sources above all else when we should be just as skeptical as we are of oral histories etc.

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    Firstly, l would like to thank the organizers (Keisha N. Blain etc) for setting up this roundtable discussion focusing on Hakim Adi’s richly detailed, ten year labor of love ‘Pan-Africanism and Communism’.

    Also, thanks to all historians involved (reviewers) for taking the time to give detailed and thought provoking constructive criticisms and Hakim for being generous enough to take part in this process.

    The key points raised above about archives are important. They need to be carefully reviewed (like all other types of sources).

    The question l have in mind is open to all interested in responding.

    In the West (eg. America, Britain etc) the national archives are managed with the knowledge that after a given time, they have agreed to give open access to a large amount of their documents to the public. A small percentage of their documents are closed.

    Up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, their archive was completely closed to the public.

    Considering the different policies in regards to public access to archives, do you think this might of effected the way in which government officials wrote their documents that ended up in the archive?

    For example, Western officials who are aware that their documents will be put in an archive and eventually read after a number of years maybe more cautious of what they write.

    Did any of you notice a difference in the form of writing?

    Look forward to hearing your views.

    • Avatar

      I think one point that might be made about the archives is that they were designed for rather different purposes. The archives of the Communist International were of course related to activity that as designed to overthrow the existing capital-centred world order, The national archives of government departments in Britain, for example, are mainly concerned with preserving that order.But archives contain all kind of information. The national archives in Britain contain communist publications as well as the surveillance reports of the security services. they might also contain the letters of those under surveillance, or the concersations of those who have had their phones tapped. Not all material is made available to tthe public even today, but both the archives of the Comintern and those of governments in Britain, the US, France etc were vital in the writing of Pan-Africanism and Communism.

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    Crossy Highway is actually a newer game while in play shop and the app store that is evidently increasing.

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