Book Review: Pan-Africanism and Communism

Pan-Afric­an­ism and Com­mun­ism: The Com­mun­ist Inter­na­tion­al, Africa and the Dia­spora, 1919–1939

Hakim Adi, Africa World Press, Trenton, 2013, 444pp, £28.99.

At 5am on 3 Octo­ber 1935 Mussolini’s fas­cist army marched across the Mareb River into Abyssin­ia (mod­ern Ethiopia), open­ing a war that would see Africa’s old­est inde­pend­ent coun­try turned into an Itali­an colony. The inva­sion sparked mass protests across the globe, in many places led by the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Uni­on Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers (ITUCNW), a mem­ber organ­isa­tion of the Com­mun­ist Inter­na­tion­al (Comin­tern) which for sev­er­al years had fought to organ­ise and uni­fy ‘the wide mass of Negro work­ers on the basis of the class struggle’. In this book, the fruit of a dec­ade of research, his­tor­i­an Hakim Adi provides a detailed explor­a­tion of the ori­gins, polit­ics and role played by the ITUCNW and Comin­tern in the anti-racist and anti-colo­ni­al struggles of black people through­out the early 20th cen­tury.

Adi begins by study­ing the devel­op­ment of a com­mun­ist pos­i­tion on the struggles of black people again­st racism and colo­ni­al oppres­sion. He turns first to the writ­ings of Marx and Engels who recog­nised the eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al import­ance of slavery, racism and colo­ni­al­ism for the cap­it­al­ist class. In Cap­it­al Marx noted that ‘the turn­ing of Africa into a war­ren for the com­mer­cial hunt­ing of black-skins sig­nal­ised the rosy dawn of the era of cap­it­al­ist pro­duc­tion’, while Engels con­demned the European ‘scramble for Africa’ as a ‘sub­si­di­ary of the stock exchange’. Both under­stood the sig­ni­fic­ance of anti-racist polit­ics to the class struggle, neatly sum­mar­ised in Marx’s fam­ous con­clu­sion that ‘labour can­not eman­cip­ate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded’. As revolu­tion­ar­ies in both words and deeds, Marx and Engels became keen sup­port­ers of the abol­i­tion­ist move­ment in the US and the anti-colo­ni­al move­ments in Egypt and Ire­land.

With the devel­op­ment of world cap­it­al­ism into its mono­poly – imper­i­al­ist – phase in the later 19th cen­tury the ‘colo­ni­al ques­tion’ assumed great­er prom­in­ence among social­ists, reflect­ing the upsurge in anti-colo­ni­al struggles in the oppressed coun­tries.

In the after­math of the 1917 Bolshev­ik Revolu­tion the newly-developed Comin­tern ini­ti­ated ser­i­ous debate with­in the com­mun­ist move­ment about the import­ance of the colo­ni­al ques­tion. At the Comintern’s Second Con­gress in 1920 Len­in stressed the need for Com­mun­ist Parties to ‘render dir­ect aid to the revolu­tion­ary move­ments among the depend­ent and under­priv­ileged nations (for example, Ire­land, the Amer­ic­an Negroes, etc) and in the colon­ies’, res­ult­ing in the cre­ation of a spe­cial ‘Negro Com­mis­sion’ and dis­cus­sions over the ‘Negro Ques­tion’ at the Fourth Con­gress in 1922. These dis­cus­sions, led by the black del­eg­ates Otto Huis­wood and Claude McKay, res­ul­ted in a ‘Thes­is on the Negro Ques­tion’, which emphas­ised that black people, par­tic­u­larly in the US, were ‘an integ­ral part of the world revolu­tion’. Comin­tern mem­ber organ­isa­tions were com­mit­ted to ‘closely apply­ing the “Theses on the Colo­ni­al Ques­tion” to the situ­ation of the blacks’, which included a set of con­crete demands for polit­ic­al, social and eco­nom­ic rights.

How­ever, des­pite this poli­cy sev­er­al Com­mun­ist Parties con­tin­ued to ignore the twin ‘Colo­ni­al and Negro ques­tions’. Dur­ing the Comintern’s Fifth Con­gress in 1924 the Com­mun­ist Parties in Bri­tain (CPGB), France (PCF) and the US (WP/CPUSA) came under right­ful fire for this reas­on. The CPGB, rep­res­ent­ing a pro­let­ari­at ‘more infec­ted with colo­ni­al pre­ju­dice than all oth­ers in the Comin­tern’, still lacked a state­ment that unequi­voc­ally sup­por­ted the break-up of the Brit­ish Empire.

As the ini­tial tremors of the Great Depres­sion began to be felt across the world – and par­tic­u­larly acutely in the oppressed nations – chau­vin­ist atti­tudes in the work­ing class had to be urgently fought if mean­ing­ful revolu­tion­ary work was to pro­gress. The ven­ue for this battle was the Comintern’s Sixth Con­gress in 1928. In every debate over the nature of imper­i­al­ism and racism the del­eg­ates of the oppress­or coun­tries and labour aris­to­cra­cies – par­tic­u­larly Bri­tain and South Africa – sought to min­im­ise their import­ance, advoc­at­ing a chau­vin­ist ‘pure’ social­ism that ignored imper­i­al­ist real­ity. In every instance they were roundly defeated by the revolu­tion­ary trend, at the fore­front of which were the out­stand­ing black com­mun­ists Harry Hay­wood and James Ford.

The debates at the Sixth Con­gress armed revolu­tion­ar­ies across the world – but most clearly in the US and South Africa – with a solid the­or­et­ic­al under­stand­ing that rooted the anti-racist and anti-imper­i­al­ist struggle in the struggle for social­ism. This revolu­tion­ary per­spect­ive was based on the under­stand­ing that the his­tor­ic­al devel­op­ment of imper­i­al­ism had given black people a dual oppres­sion; on the one hand, they were oppressed as work­ers and poorer peas­ants, while on the oth­er they faced a racial oppres­sion. This racial oppres­sion had a real mater­i­al found­a­tion in nation­al oppres­sion. As Hay­wood put it, ‘the spe­cial oppres­sion of black people is the main prop of imper­i­al­ist dom­in­a­tion over the entire work­ing class’; the struggle again­st racism was tied to the struggle again­st imper­i­al­ism, and with it the struggle for social­ism.

This book is an enorm­ous research archive of the his­tory of the Comin­tern and the ITUCNW. How­ever the read­er should not look to Adi to give answers to some of the polit­ic­al ques­tions that were his­tor­ic­ally and are today still import­ant issues. The rela­tion between pan-Afric­an­ism and com­mun­ism is not dis­cussed but sub­sumed under the title of the book. The impres­sion is given that the author seeks to define the Comintern’s pos­i­tion as ‘pan-Afric­an’ by simply rede­fin­ing pan-Afric­an­ism as a neut­ral con­cept address­ing his­tor­ic oppres­sions of people of Afric­an ori­gin and does not explain the class con­tra­dic­tions with­in these move­ments.

Adi’s pro­ject avoids polit­ic­al judg­ments but his work will serve as an excel­lent point of ref­er­ence and source mater­i­al for those who want to take up and con­tin­ue the struggle again­st racism, again­st imper­i­al­ism and for social­ism.

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Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra

Edit­or / Research­er at No Bounds
Gata is a music and arts lov­er, stud­ied anthro­po­logy, art man­age­ment and media pro­duc­tion ded­ic­at­ing most of her time to cre­at­ive pro­jects pro­duced by No Bounds.
Gata Malandra

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About Gata Malandra

Gata Malandra
Gata is a music and arts lover, studied anthropology, art management and media production dedicating most of her time to creative projects produced by No Bounds.

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