This is the fourth day of the AAIHS’ roundtable on Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism and Communism. On the first day, we began with an introduction by Keisha N. Blain and remarks from Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. On the second day, Minkah Makalani raised questions about the archival sources on which Adi relies. On the third day, Stephen G. Hall emphasized the significance of including Garveyism in the narrative and paying closer attention to women’s roles and gender relations. In this post, Michael O. West forcefully challenges Adi’s portrayal of the Comintern’s approach to the Negro Question and identifies some of the silences in the book.
Michael O. West is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Binghamton University (SUNY). His current research focuses on the interconnections and inter-relationships between the liberatory struggles of African peoples worldwide. This is an outgrowth of his previous research, which centered on class formation in southern Africa, black transatlantic connections, and the emergence of African studies. His publications include The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965; From Toussaint to Tupac: the Black International since the Age of Revolution (with William G. Martin and Fanon Che Wilkins); and Out of One, Many Africas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa (with William G. Martin).
George Padmore was one of the most outstanding pan-Africanists of the past century. Next year (2016) will mark the 60th anniversary of the publication of Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa, his best-known book. Padmore had not always posited so crude a binary between pan-Africanism and communism. As is well known, he was at one point the very embodiment of the fusion of pan-Africanism and communism. Scholars have yet to fully untangle Padmore’s torturous journey from his break in 1933 with the Moscow-based Communist International, or the Comintern, to the anticommunist jeremiad that is Pan-Africanism or Communism? more than two decades later.1
Hakim Adi’s book, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939, frontally challenges Padmore’s interpretation of the historical relationship between black liberation globally and the Comintern. Even while debunking Padmore’s interpretations, however, Adi affirms his outsize role in the Comintern. In this big and beautifully illustrated (although somewhat repetitive) book with ten chapters, plus an Introduction and an Epilogue, Padmore is omnipresent. Pan-Africanism and Communism is also well researched, Adi having consulted sources in several countries, most crucially in Russia, where the opening of archives (including those of the Comintern) after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been a great boon to scholarship.
Yet for all its epistemic spunk, historiographical novelty, and documentary innovation, Pan-Africanism and Communism, not unlike Pan-Africanism or Communism? has serious flaws. The root of the problem is that Adi’s book is, first and foremost, a defense of the Comintern’s position on the “Negro Question,” as black oppression and black liberation were dubbed in that era. This starting point, in turn, leads to any number of very unfortunate omissions, silences, evasions and elisions.
As an exercise in apologia, Pan-Africanism and Communism is directed especially at two individuals. Padmore, needless to say, is one of them. The other is Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté, another outstanding twentieth-century pan-Africanist who hailed from the former French Sudan, what is now Mali. Like Padmore, his staunch ally, Kouyaté first appeared on the stage of pan-Africanism as a communist. Both were eventually expelled from the communist movement for failing to toe the party line on the Negro Question. When their collaboration began in the early 1930s, Padmore was based in Germany, where he headed the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUC-NW). The Comintern body charged with organizing the global black proletariat, the ITUC-NW is the main subject of Adi’s book as well as the chief focus of another recently published work.2 Padmore’s most important task at the ITUC-NW was editing its journal, the Negro Worker. For his part Kouyaté, who resided in France and was a member of the French Communist Party, spent much time organizing black maritime workers in the French ports, places like Marseille. He was also a frequent contributor to the Negro Worker.
The ITUC-NW had been formed because of a serious omission in the work of the international communist movement. The communist parties of Britain, France, the United States, and South Africa – countries that collectively ruled over most of the world’s black people – paid lip service to the Negro Question while actually ignoring it. (In South Africa, as in the other aforementioned countries, the communist party was predominantly white, at least initially.) Precisely because of this history of neglect, both Padmore and Kouyaté, the latter even more so than the former, tended to operate independently of the communist hierarchy. They needed to work like the “devil,” including outside the framework of the communist movement, Padmore informed Kouyaté, so as to make their labor a “living response to those comrades who underestimate the revolutionary capacities of the black race” (Adi 152).
For Padmore and Kouyaté, that was precisely the problem: too many white communists seemed to doubt the capacity of black folk for revolution. While officially working within the communist movement, therefore, both men set out to make revolution, black revolution. Kouyaté, always more overtly independent than Padmore, was the first to be called on the carpet for his transgressions: He was summoned to a hearing by the French Communist Party. For defying the inquisition – he did not even bother to show up for the hearing – Kouyaté was expelled from the party, becoming the first in a distinguished line of black revolutionaries to be booted out of the Comintern for what the communists sometimes called “Negro petty-bourgeois nationalism,” among other political misdeeds.
In part, Padmore was expelled from the Comintern for continuing to consort with Kouyaté after the latter’s expulsion. The two men “even shared the same address,” Adi disapprovingly notes (158). Adi’s research demonstrates that Padmore resigned from the communist movement after being expelled from it, and not the other way around, as Padmore and others following him have long maintained. Adi also sharply disputes the validity of Padmore’s reasons for the break. On Padmore’s account, he left because with the rise of fascism in Europe, especially the emergence of Nazi Germany, the Comintern changed course, with serious consequences for black liberation. Under orders from the Soviet Union, which was now seeking allies against the fascist powers, Padmore alleged, the Comintern abandoned its previous opposition to British and French colonialism. As George Orwell would put it in his famous critique of the British left: “The unspoken clause is always ‘not counting niggers’. For how can we make a ‘firm stand’ against Hitler if we are simultaneously weakening ourselves at home? In other words, how can we ‘fight Fascism’ except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?”3 Padmore adjudged that, in turning its back on colonized Africans in the name of anti-fascism, the Soviet-led Comintern indeed was bolstering a greater injustice. “The Negroes,” Padmore protested, “have been thrown to the wolves” (Adi 158).
Adi, however, will have none it. Refuting Padmore’s stated reason for breaking with the Comintern, he sees “no indication of change” in Soviet foreign policy in August 1933, as the Comintern was building its case against Padmore. It was only in April 1934, Adi argues, that “major changes” in Soviet foreign relations were announced. (161). He seems oblivious to the fact that governments often change policy long before officially announcing it. To Adi, the problem was Padmore’s arrogance and over-ambitiousness. Padmore, he asserts, repeatedly operated beyond his “official remit,” exceeding the directives of his supervisors in the Cominern, and “persistently refused to act in the disciplined way expected of a Communist” (Adi 151, 160).
Adi also sharply takes Padmore to task for his actions upon leaving the Comintern. “Padmore’s expulsion” he says, “was followed by his ‘campaign of slander’ and public recrimination that lasted several months” (165). Although putting the phrase “campaign of slander” between quotation marks, Adi clearly accepts it as a valid description of Padmore’s war of words with his ex-comrades. That it was the communists who initiated the “slander,” Adi does not concede. He does concede that communist publications carried articles “denouncing” Padmore. If Adi is to be believed, however, Padmore alone engaged in “slander.” Nor does Adi acknowledge that the Comintern had far greater resources to conduct a campaign of slander than did the now British-based and impecunious Padmore, whose chief means of communication was the petty-bourgeois African American press, which as a member of the Comintern he had condemned as a mouthpiece of capitalism and imperialism.
Then there is Adi’s discussion of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the single most consequential event in the African world in the years between the two world wars. Indeed to many black activists, the fascist assault on Ethiopia marked the beginning of World War II. Adi, who has a good deal to say on this subject, writes that the Comintern “vigorously supported Ethiopia’s struggle for independence” (176). That the Comintern, and individual communist parties worldwide, strongly condemned the Italian conquest of Ethiopia is beyond question. What is also beyond question, but what Adi does not say, is that the actions of the Soviet Union were in many cases inconsistent with the censorious words of the Comintern and its affiliates.4 Power is as power does, not as it says.
There are even more substantive silences and evasions. To its credit, Pan-Africanism and Communism privileges the voices of black communists and their associates. In addition to Padmore, Kouyaté and other male figures, the book discusses a number of lesser-known black activists. The latter include several women, such as Hermina Huiswoud and Elma Francois. The brutal truth, however, is that the black agency was far from being the dominant one in determining the Comintern’s position on the Negro Question, which is why over so many years so many black communists dropped out or were forced out of the movement, beginning with Kouyaté and Padmore. From an admittedly idealistic and (somewhat) collectivist beginning in 1919, within a decade the Comintern had come under the control of the Soviet state. And by 1928 – the year of the famous sixth Comintern Congress, which had important consequences for the Negro Question – Joseph Stalin had assumed command of the Soviet state.
It is impossible to discuss the evolution of the Comintern after 1928 without centering Stalin and Stalinism. Yet there is precious little on Stalin in Pan-Africanism and Communism. In what is perhaps his most substantive reference to the Soviet leader, Adi even seems to downplay his impact on the Comintern. “Some historians have tried to suggest that behind the Comintern’s approach to the Negro Question in the United States can be detected the invisible hand of Joseph Stalin, or the domination of Moscow,” Adi writes. “There seem,” he continues, “to be several anecdotal links to Stalin” (76). In fact, Stalin had a visibly determining hand in the affairs of the Comintern after 1928, including on the Negro Question, the evidence for which is hardly just “anecdotal,” as Adi suggests. It is a measure of such control that when, during World War II, he found it politically inconvenient, Stalin simply abolished the Comintern, as a sop to his Anglo-American capitalist allies.
Nor will readers of Adi’s book find anything on the Stalinist terror, including the policies of forced collectivization and their attendant famines, and the political purges and their accompanying gulags. At least two black communists are said, or suspected, to have been victims of the purges. One was the African American Lovett Fort-Whiteman. Of Fort-Whiteman, who appears at various points in his book, Adi writes innocently, in a footnote, that he “died in prison in the Soviet Union in 1939” (34). Using Comintern sources, as Adi does, other scholars (albeit anticommunist ones) have established that Fort-Whiteman met a cruel death in a Siberian labor camp.5
There is also the case of the South African communist Albert Nzula, who, like Fort-Whiteman, died in the Soviet Union. Citing Comintern sources, Adi asserts that Nzula “died from the consequences of alcoholism in January 1934” (164). This may well be so, for it is universally acknowledged that Nzula was an alcoholic. But others have suggested that Nzula’s death may have been connected with his anti-Stalinist views, which reputedly he was not shy about sharing when under the influence. Adi does not have to accept this contention, which is far from conclusive. But he does have an obligation – if only by way of a substantive footnote, which he liberally deploys throughout the book – to alert readers to the existence of alternate interpretations. His failure to do so is troubling, especially because at least one of the sources he cites advances just such an alternate interpretation, namely that Nzula may have fallen into the not-so-invisible hands of Stalin’s secret police.6
Adi’s largely uncritical defense of the Comintern includes a barb at the Trinidadian man of letters and pan-Africanist C. L. R. James, who is dismissed as “a leading Trotskyite critic of the Comintern” (179). James indeed was a key critic of the Comintern, under Stalin’s leadership, a distinction Adi neither makes nor seems to acknowledge.7 It is not without significance, too, that Adi calls James a “Trotskyite.” Like other followers of Leon Trotsky, whom Stalin beat out for leadership of the Soviet Union after the death of V. I. Lenin, James would have referred to himself as a “Trotskyist.” (James later renounced Trotskyism.) By contrast, “Trotskyite” is a pejorative term, usually used by the critics of Trotskyism. Reportedly, both Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Albert Nzula ran afoul of Stalin’s enforcers because of their alleged Trotskyite, or Trotskyist, proclivities.
In 1928, the year of Stalin’s triumph over Trotsky, the Comintern announced a new phase of “class against class” and declared ideological war on the noncommunist left, the members of which were denounced as “social fascists.” With the ascent to power of genuine fascists, above all in Germany, the Comintern changed course and began to promote alliance with the noncommunist left in an anti-fascist “popular front.”
The ITUC-NW, formed with much fanfare in the period of “class against class,” became a victim of the “popular front.” This, essentially, was Padmore’s argument. Although Adi strenuously rejects this argument, much of the evidence in his book supports it. The main difference is the timeframe. In breaking with the Comintern in 1933-34, Padmore announced that the ITUC-NW had, in all but name, been “liquidated.” Several years later, in 1937, the Comintern officially dissolved the ITUC-NW, and Adi writes that it had been “discontinued” (403). Like Padmore, the Comintern itself was not so diplomatic and did not shy away from the word “liquidation.” In announcing the end of the ITUC-NW, the Comintern frankly stated that its continued existence “is not advisable and this committee is liquidated.” (407; emphasis in original). This was de jure recognition of the de facto reality that Padmore had previously described.
In dissolving the ITUC-NW, the Comintern denied the very pan-Africanism on which it was founded, and indeed dismissed pan-Africanism as a black bourgeois ideology. “All questions concerning the Negro peoples must be examined and settled according to the concrete situation in each country,” the Comintern asserted. “It is impossible to admit that there exists and must be developed a special international movement of the Negro race – despite the effort of some of the Negro bourgeoisie to develop such a movement” (407). This was liquidation not just of the ITUC-NW but also of pan-Africanism. But the paradox escapes Adi, ever persistent in his defense of the Comintern. The ITUC-NW, he says, was discontinued “for sound political reasons and the promise of something new, even if the rationale for the new was not fully elaborated” (411). Actually, the something new had been defined, and it was something old. Control of the Negro Question would revert back to the national communist parties, whose neglect of black rights and aspirations was the original reason for forming the ITUC-NW.
One result of the popular front, when communist parties worldwide set out to court radicals they had previously shunned, was a new era of engagement with black cultural figures, some of whom became party members. Among the latter, as Adi notes, was the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, who joined the French Communist Party. Adi does not add that Césaire later left the party. His reason for doing so sums up well the black experience in the international communist movement. Césaire’s iconic letter of resignation is worth quoting at length here:
I believe I have said enough to make it clear that it is neither Marxism nor communism that I am renouncing, and that it is the usage some have made of Marxism and communism that I condemn. That what I want is that Marxism and communism be placed in the service of black peoples, and not black peoples in the service of Marxism and communism. That the doctrine and the movement would be made to fit men, not men to fit the doctrine or the movement. And, to be clear, this is valid not only for communists. If I were Christian or Muslim, I would say the same thing. I would say that no doctrine is worthwhile unless rethought by us, rethought for us, converted to us. This would seem to go without saying. And yet, as the facts are, it does not go without saying. There is a veritable Copernican revolution to be imposed here, so ingrained in Europe (from the extreme right to the extreme left) is the habit of doing for us, arranging for us, thinking for us — in short, the habit of challenging our possession of this right to initiative of which I have just spoken, which is, at the end of the day, the right to personality.8
The right to personality, to be precise the right to black personality, brought individuals like Kouyaté, Padmore, and Césaire into the international communist movement. They left, or were forced out, at the point they believed their right to personality was being denied.
Hakim Adi has written a book that sheds considerable light on the interlocution of black liberation and the communist movement, as represented by the Comintern. In design and execution, and even in the title, Pan-Africanism and Communism doubles as a foil to Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism? As well it should. For Padmore’s book, despite the status it once held (and perhaps still does in some circles), is deeply problematic in multiple ways. Try as he might, however, Adi has not escaped the imperious grip of Padmore’s teleology. The silences, the evasions, and the tendentiousness that characterize Padmore’s book are reproduced in full measure in Adi’s, despite their ideologically differing starting points. Adi tells us much about the congresses, conferences and committees of the Comintern and its affiliates, most notably the ITUC-NW, along with the concomitant resolutions, proposals and declarations. He has less to say about the gap, which is always present, between theory and practice. The great merit of his book is its deep research into the interstices between pan-Africanism and communism, a leading theme in the global black liberation struggle of the twentieth century. The book’s great pitfall is that the Comintern and all that it wrought – which is not to say communism and Marxism, as Aimé Césaire notes – did not in practice prove worthy of the spirited defense Adi makes on its behalf. In this sense, Hakim Adi is a good lawyer with a bad brief.
- On Padmore’s public life (his private life remains largely uncharted), see most readily James R. Hooker, Black Revolutionary: George Padmore’s Path from Communism to Pan-Africanism (New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967); Fitzroy Baptise and Rupert Lewis, eds., George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 2009); Leslie James, George Padmore and Decolonization from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). ↩
- Holger Weiss, Framing A Radical African Atlantic: African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2014). ↩
- George Orwell, “Not Counting Niggers,” http://orwell.ru/library/articles/niggers/english/e_ncn (accessed June 21, 2015). ↩
- See, for example, J. Clavitt Clarke III, Alliance of the Colored Peoples: Ethiopia & Japan before World War II (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2011); William R. Scott, The Sons of Sheba’s Race: African Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). ↩
- Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Kyrill M. Anderson, The Soviet World of American Communism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 218-227. ↩
- The source in question is Robert Edgar, “Notes on the Life and Death of Albert Nzula,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, 16, 4 (1983), pp. 675-679. See also Paul Trewhela, “The Death of Albert Nzula and the Silence of George Padmore,” Searchlight South Africa, 1, 1 (1988), pp. 64-69. Adi does not seem to cite the latter, which argues that Padmore was very likely familiar with the circumstances of Nzula’s death for political deviation but kept silent about it in Pan-Africanism or Communism? According to Trewhela, a letter Nzula sent to Padmore warning him not to come to the Soviet Union may have both saved Padmore’s life and helped to cost Nzula his. ↩
- C. L. R. James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International (Wesport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1973; first pub. 1937). ↩
- Aimé Césaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez, http://hydrarchy.blogspot.com/2010/05/letter-to-maurice-thorez.html (accessed June 15, 2015). ↩