The Russian Revolution, Africa and the Diaspora

This post is part of our online forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois viewing the May Day parade in Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 1959. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

From the time of the Great October Revolution in 1917, Africans and those of African heritage around the world gravitated towards the revolutionary events in Russia and Communism, seeing in them a path to their own liberation. Perhaps not surprisingly then, many of the main black political figures of the twentieth century, in Africa and elsewhere, have been Communists, or at least inspired and influenced by the international communist movement. These include such diverse figures as André Aliker, Aimé Césaire, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, W.E.B Du Bois, Elma Francois, Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, Alex la Guma, Audley Moore, Josie Mpama, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Paul Robeson, Jacques Romain, Thomas Sankara, Ousmane Sembène and Lamine Senghor.

African Americans and those in the African diaspora were impressed by the prospect that the Revolution might spread globally and signal the end of the capital-centered system and all that went with it including racist oppression. The Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay therefore referred to the October Revolution as “the greatest event in the history of humanity,” and Bolshevism as “the greatest and most scientific idea in the world today.”1 Another Jamaican, Wilfred Domingo wondered, “will Bolshevism accomplish the full freedom of Africa, colonies in which Negroes are the majority, and promote human tolerance and happiness in the United States?”2 There was thus an early admiration for the Revolution from the perspective that it heralded the possibility of an alternative to the capital-centered system which would be to the advantage of those who were oppressed in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in Africa. These were the perspectives of those early twentieth century organizations, which were inspired by the October Revolution such as the African Blood Brotherhood in the United States, which subsequently included many leading black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Cyril Biggs, Harry Haywood and Grace Campbell.

Singer and actor Paul Robeson during his tour in Moscow in August 1958. Credit: Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik, via Associated Press

Once the new Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s, several prominent figures traveled to see at first hand the construction of socialism and remarked on the absence of racism and national oppression. Indeed, this was a common theme in the eye-witness accounts of visitors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. As early as 1926, on his return from the Soviet Union, the prominent African American scholar-activist Du Bois publicly acknowledged, “I stand in astonishment at the revelation of Russia that has come to me…If I what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” Even the famous Pan-Africanist George Padmore, a former communist from Trinidad who had parted company with the communist movement, wrote a major book in 1945, How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire, over a decade after his expulsion. Padmore still felt compelled to publish what was, in effect, a celebration of the revolutionary transformation of 1917 and the elimination of national oppression which in the author’s view was a consequence of it.

The significance of the October Revolution was not just in the event itself, but the fact that it gave rise to the construction of a new political and economic system in the Soviet Union and to a new international communist movement organized from 1919 in the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern. The aim of the Comintern was to create the conditions for revolutionary transformation outside the Soviet Union and from its inception it took a very keen interest in Africa and other colonies, as well as in what came to be called the ‘Negro Question’–the question of how Africans and those of African heritage could liberate themselves and put an end to all forms of racist oppression. In fact, there was no other international organization that took such a stand, that was openly opposed to both colonialism and racism and attempted to organize all people of African descent for their own liberation.

The fact that the Comintern grappled with the ‘Negro Question,’ included in its ranks Communists of all nationalities and took a strong stand in opposition to colonialism and racism endeared it to many in Africa and beyond, even when there was some dissatisfaction with the communist parties in Britain, France, the United States and South Africa. To some, these parties appeared to be dragging their feet over the important Negro Question. There was a widespread view that the Comintern was more revolutionary, the custodian of the legacy of the October Revolution and therefore more concerned about such matters than some of its constituent parties. This certainly seemed to be the case when the Comintern demanded that the Communist Party in South Africa should be a party of the masses of the people of that country, led by Africans, and that it should first champion the rule of the majority in what was considered a colony of a special type, even if many of the leaders of that party had a contrary view. The decisions of the Comintern were similarly firm and controversial in relation to the orientation to be adopted for the African American struggle for self-determination in the so-called ‘Black Belt’ in the United States. Whatever may be said of the Comintern’s policy, it undoubtedly raised the profile, significance and centrality of that struggle and, as recent historical accounts have shown, laid many of the foundations for the later struggles for civil rights and Black Power. What is more, the Comintern’s position had an impact outside of the United States, influencing communist parties in Cuba and other Latin American countries. Eventually, Black Communists took a lead in demanding the creation of a specialized organization–the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW).

The importance of the ITUCNW, its organ Negro Worker, as well as other publications, was that the revolutionary politics and impact of the October Revolution and of the Comintern were spread throughout the world– particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s. As part of the work of the ITUCNW workers and others were recruited from the British colonies in West Africa, as well as from South Africa and in time, students were sent from many parts of Africa to the Soviet Union. Others traveled to see the consequences of the October Revolution from the Caribbean and from the United States. In the period between the wars, hundreds made this journey including leading anti-colonial figures such as Isaac Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone, Jomo Kenyatta, future prime minister of Kenya, and Albert Nzula, the first black general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Black Communists in the Soviet Union in the 1930s

Perhaps the most important legacy of the October Revolution was the theory that emerged from it and the experience of building a new social system while surrounded by a capital-centered world. What was demonstrated was that another world was possible and that those who were the producers of value could be their own liberators and could construct this new world themselves. This alternative and the prospect of liberation continued to inspire individuals and organizations in Africa and the diaspora throughout the inter-war period and particularly during the Second World War thereafter–when the Soviet Union led the defeat of fascism and created the possibility of national liberation and the restoration of sovereignty in those countries that languished under colonial rule.

For some, this theory was embodied in the personality and work of V.I Lenin, who continued to inspire many. In 1970, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Amilcar Cabral–the famous leader of the national liberation struggle in what was then Portuguese Guinea–is reported to have said, “How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” Cabral was far from alone in voicing his admiration from Lenin’s work and contribution. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso, not only expressed his admiration for Lenin’s writing, which he claimed to have read in its entirety, but was rather more specific in his praise of the ‘great revolution of October 1917 [that] transformed the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundations of capitalism and made possible the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.”3 In 1984, he concluded, “the revolution of 1917 teaches us many things.”4

The world has changed considerably since 1917. The Soviet Union and the construction of socialism in some other countries have been terminated. Communism – the doctrine of the conditions for the liberation of the wealth producers has not and cannot be terminated, although clearly there is a need for a modern Communism providing solutions for modern problems. The October Revolution demonstrated that another world is possible, that this alternative is not a utopia, and that we can all be the agents of change and the makers of history.

  1.  Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013), 12.
  2.  Ibid., 13.
  3.  Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 (London: Pathfinder, 2015), 165.
  4.  Ibid., 135.
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Hakim Adi

Hakim Adi is a Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester. He has written widely on Pan-Africanism and the modern political history of Africa and the African diaspora. He is the author of several books, including West Africans in Britain 1900-60: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (Lawrence and Wishart, 1998) and Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Africa World Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @hakimadi1.