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Pan-Africanism and Communism: An Interview with Hakim Adi

by | March 2, 2018

Selim Nadi: How would you define Pan-Africanism?
Hakim Adi: Pan-Africanism can be considered both an ideology and a movement that grew out of the common struggles of those of African descent both in Africa and in the African diaspora against enslavement, colonial rule and the accompanying anti-African racism and various forms of Eurocentrism. The phrases Pan-African and Pan-Africanism did not emerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century but an embryonic form Pan-Africanism was in evidence in the eighteenth century with such abolitionist organisations as the British-based Sons of Africa, led by former enslaved Africans such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, which recognised the needs to Africans to unite together for common aims.

Pan-Africanism has assumed different forms at different times, but its key feature is a recognition that Africans, those from the continent and in the diaspora, face common forms of oppression, are engaged in a common struggle for liberation and therefore share a common destiny. Pan-Africanism therefore recognises the need for the unity of Africans, in order to achieve liberation, but also the desirability of the unity of continental Africa. It generally embraces the view that Africans in the diaspora share a common origin with those in the continent and recognises that those in the diaspora are entitled to return to their homeland.

In Pan-Africanism and Communism my main concern was not the Pan-African movement of the period led by those such as Garvey and Du Bois. For the Comintern, this Pan-Africanism was viewed critically as essentially reformist and unlikely to result in African liberation. However, the Comintern, prompted by black communists, adopted other aspects of Pan-Africanism, especially the view that Africans shared common forms of oppression and were engaged in a common struggle. It also championed the idea of the United Socialist States of Africa. In the inter-war period it could also be argued that some of the leading Pan-Africanists were those who like George Padmore were also part of the international communist movement.

To what extent did the October 1917 revolution impact Africa and the African diaspora? Why did the Russian Revolution have such an influence on Egypt and on South-Africa?
The October Revolution was probably the major political event of the twentieth century, for the first time demonstrating not just the possibility of the working people rising in revolution, but also their ability to empower themselves by establishing and maintaining a new form of state power. The Russian Revolution also took Russia out of the imperialist world war, exposed the secret treaties of the big powers and the relationship between colonialism, imperialism and war. It showed that even those in a relatively backward society could emancipate themselves. Since this was a revolution that shook the world and overturned the established capital-centred order, it could not do otherwise than have a profound impact on all those who were oppressed, especially those who recognised that their oppression was a product of the existing social order. Therefore, there was a hope that Bolshevism might spread and the established order could be overthrown elsewhere. Support for revolutionary change is most evident amongst sections of African-American radicals such as the African Blood Brotherhood, but it is clear that it raised the hopes of many including those Africans who had fought in the war, such as Lamine Senghor in France. Amongst those oppressed by European colonial rule, the Russian revolution also opened up new prospects, since the Russian empire had included oppressed nations and nationalities that were now able to liberate themselves. The lack of national oppression in what became the Soviet Union made a favourable impression on many visitors including African-Americans Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. Following his visit to the Soviet Union, the latter famously declared in 1926, ‘if this is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.’

Within the African continent the October Revolution also had a significant influence, most notably where the anti-colonial movement or working class were most developed. In Egypt, the anti-colonial movement and workers movements reached a new level following the revolutionary events of 1919. The October Revolution had a significant influence on those who created the conditions for the founding of the Egyptian Socialist Party in 1921, which became the Communist Party in 1922. In South Africa, as in Egypt, foreign workers played a key role in introducing Marxism and early socialist organisations often had a membership that was mainly European. However, the strength and militancy of the African workers created the conditions for the founding of revolutionary organisations, such as the International Socialist League, founded in 1915 and the Industrial Workers of Africa, that embraced all workers. The October Revolution therefore had a significant impact on those who were already organising amongst South Africa’s workers and led to the founding of the Communist Party of South Africa in 1921.

What was Lenin’s role in initiating the discussion on the ‘Negro question’ in the Communist International?
In the United States, the particular oppression faced by those of African heritage and how they might liberate themselves from this oppression became known as the ‘Negro Question.’ It is significant that this term was also adopted within the Comintern, not just to refer to the liberation of African-Americans but also to the related question of the oppression of Africans in South Africa as well as the colonial oppression of Africans in the African continent and African diaspora, including such countries as France and Britain. The Comintern thus began to view this ‘question’ from a Pan-African perspective, that is to say as if Africans faced common problems, were engaged in a common struggle and as if their fate was in some way interrelated. With some reservations, it maintained this approach until the time of the Seventh Congress in 1935.

Lenin initiated the discussion on the Negro Question in the United States at the Second Comintern congress in 1920, as part of his concern for all oppressed nations and colonies in the world and in connection with his ‘Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Question.’ The issue here was how the communist parties should provide aid and support to those fighting against colonial rule and national oppression, since Lenin and others were urging a united struggle must be waged by the workers in the most developed capitalist countries and those oppressed people against their common enemy, imperialism. Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and the experience of the October Revolution had shown that a revolutionary breach of the imperialist system of states might occur not just in the advanced capitalist countries in Europe but wherever the chain of imperialism was weakest. This analysis, as well as Lenin’s concern with ‘Negroes in America’, meant that for the first time communists viewed the struggles of the oppressed globally, and the need to organise them, as just as important as the struggles of the working class in few economically developed countries.

Could you please explain the criticisms made against the French and the British communist parties during the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June 1924?
In order for a communist party to be recognised as such and join the Communist International (CI) it had to adhere to twenty-one conditions. One of these conditions declared:

A particularly marked and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and oppressed nations is necessary on the part of the communist parties of those countries whose bourgeoisies are in possession of colonies and oppress other nations. Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation of exposing the dodges of its ‘own’ imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples.

In other words, European communist parties also had the responsibility to engage in anti-colonial activities. In addition, there was a particular responsibility to take up for solving the ‘Negro Question’ as it related to Africa and the Caribbean and to agitate amongst those of African and Caribbean origin in metropolitan countries such as Britain and France. At this time, the CI was also trying to organise a ‘World Negro Congress’ and expected the British and French parties to shoulder this responsibility too. However, these parties were relatively new and inexperienced and had limited connections in the colonies or with populations of colonial origin living in Europe. They also often had other priorities and concerns. These parties were thus subjected to criticism by the Comintern as well as by their own members, particularly for their reluctance to even demand an end to colonial rule, which demonstrated that even amongst communists there were those influenced by the chauvinism and racism produced by imperialism. In some regards the French Communist Party could be said to have been more organised than the British Party, since it organised the Union Intercolonial and activists from Africa, the Caribbean and Indo-China and had its own colonial studies committee. It also sent delegates from the colonies such as Ho Chi Minh to the CI’s Fifth Congress. However, this did not save it from criticism – most notably from these delegates, as well as from others, who noted that the ‘Negro Question’ had not even been discussed at the party’s congress.

Could you comment on the establishment of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW)? To what extent was it linked to inability of the ‘communist parties of the West’ to adequately deal with the ‘Negro question’? In your paper ‘The Comintern and Black Workers in Britain and France 1919–37’ in Belonging in Europe: The African Diaspora and Work, you wrote that until ‘its dissolution in 1937 the ITUCNW constantly complained about the lack of support and work of the European communist parties, suggesting that more could be done and achieved’. Could you explain this point?
The Comintern also established a Red International of Labour Unions (RILU or the Profintern), essentially a trade union organisation designed to provide a revolutionary alternative and combat the influence of the International Federation of Trade Unions, then under the political direction of the Socialist or Second International. The RILU also concerned itself with the ‘Negro Question’, particularly how to organise black workers in such countries as the United States, South Africa, as well as in Britain, France and their colonies. In this regard, the RILU was also critical of the perceived inactivity of the communist parties which were slow to make headway with this work. This was for a variety of reasons including factional activity in the American and French parties, and an inappropriate political orientation in South Africa and in Britain. Such criticisms grew and were particularly evident amongst African-American communists. It was in this context that it was decided in 1928 to form an International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), which could help the communist parties fulfil their responsibilities on the ‘Negro Question’. The ITUCNW was led by the African-American communist James Ford and remained in existence until 1937. It was established to work with the communist parties under the direction of the RILU and the CI but had very few resources of its own, in short it relied on individual parties to implement decisions, a factor that made its work difficult and limited its influence. It organised an international conference in 1930, produced a regular bulletin in French and English and did establish links with workers in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. However, it was based in Europe and its activities were limited by lack of personnel and resources, and because of the continued limited activity of the major European communist parties, especially those in France and Britain, but also those in Belgium and Holland that were unable to effectively organise in those colonies without substantial European settlement.

Who was James La Guma? What was his role in the struggle against racism in South Africa? What was the ‘Native Republic thesis’ and why was the Communist Party of South-Africa opposed to it?
James La Guma (1894–1961) was a South African communist and father of the South African writer, communist and ANC member Alex La Guma. James was of Madagascan and French heritage and was a workers’ organiser and early leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union and an activist in the ANC. La Guma joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1925 and was chosen as a delegate to the founding congress of the League Against Imperialism held in Brussels in 1927. Following that important event, La Guma travelled to Germany and the Soviet Union where he was asked to report on the CPSA. At that time the CPSA was still grappling to Africanise itself and to move away from its origins as an organisation of mainly European workers. It was also discussing its political orientation about which there was also some confusion and how to combat the divisions that already existed between white and black workers within the wider labour movement. The Comintern, basing itself on La Guma’s report as well as other information intervened in these discussions. It declared that the CPSA must become a mainly African party with a mainly black leadership and that it must organise around the demand for an independent black republic, in other words that the main struggle was for national independence, so that the majority of Africans could emancipate themselves, and that white workers should involve themselves in this struggle as a precursor to any struggle for socialism. This anti-imperialist orientation was championed by La Guma but initially opposed by the majority of membership of the CPSA who believed that it was the struggle for socialism and the role of the white workers that was key. The position of the Comintern was very different, emphasising the anti-imperialist nature of the struggle and pointing out that the majority in South Africa were neither workers nor white. It is evident that La Guma played a key role during this period and the CPSA eventually accepted the political orientation that had emerged in the discussions between him and the leaders of the Comintern.

How was Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) apprehended by the Communist Party of the United States – and especially by African-American Communists?
The UNIA initially founded in 1914 in Jamaica was re-founded in New York in 1916. This was at a time of an African-American political and cultural renaissance which also led to the founding of other organisations such as the African Blood Brotherhood and culminated in what has become known as the Harlem Renaissance, a major influence in Africa and the diaspora, especially on the early Négritude and Black Internationalism movements in France. The UNIA developed a programme for Africa and the diaspora which demanded an end to discrimination and segregation, as well as self-determination. It promoted racial pride, especially pride in Africa and its history, at a time of virulent anti-African racism and Eurocentrism. Garvey most famously demanded ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad,’ slogan that included strong support for a return to Africa for some in the diaspora. In short, the UNIA initially had an anti-colonial orientation and even opposed the League of Nations. It claimed to have some 4 million members by the early 1920s and a publication that certainly influenced millions in Africa, the Caribbean, North America, Europe and elsewhere. It is generally recognised as the largest Pan-African organisation ever to exist. Some African-American communists and organisations, such as the African Blood Brotherhood, had close connections with the UNIA and recognised that it included progressive individuals with whom they might cooperate. Although Garvey recognised Lenin’s importance and welcomed the founding of the Soviet Union, he remained hostile to Communism, and efforts of the ABB and the American communist to work with the UNIA were largely unsuccessful. The Communist Party did offer support when Garvey was arrested on a trumped-up charge of mail fraud but, as his programme became increasingly less progressive in the 1920s, the Comintern viewed Garvey and the UNIA as ‘misleaders’ of the African-American masses and others, intent on diverting them away from struggles that were likely to bring liberation. Nevertheless, there was a recognition that some elements of African-American nationalism were important. The idea of a particular kind of African-American nation, that had the right to self-determination, remained an important part of Communist politics in the US, and formed a key part of the so-called ‘Black Belt thesis’ concerned with the rights of the majority African-American population in the southern states, championed in particular by Harry Haywood and adopted by the Comintern in the 1930s.

How can one explain that ‘white chauvinism’ was that strong in the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) of the 1930s while 90 per cent of the population was Afro-Cuban? What were the PCC’s specificities regarding the struggle against racism?
The term ‘white chauvinism’ was used by the Comintern to describe all attitudes that showed a disinclination to take up the ‘Negro Question’ for solution or did not pursue it vigorously enough. It was thus a blanket term used to cover a variety of attitudes that came under criticism not just in the PCC but also in other Communist Parties. The situation in Cuba was that initially, as in South Africa, there were very few Afro-Cubans in the PCC, and so measures had to be taken to address this situation, to take up the question of exactly what form of oppression was faced by Afro-Cubans, how this was connected to the overall class struggle in Cuba, as well as the anti-imperialist struggle against US domination. The figure of 90 per cent actually refers to one province, Oriente, where Afro-Cubans formed the majority and where the PCC decided that there was a question of the right of self-determination. Whether this would be a particular Afro-Cuban nation is open to question but what is important here is that the communists were trying to find a solution to a particular problem and recognised that previously such a demand had been made by Afro-Cubans.

The other issue is that racism against Afro-Cubans was evident in the wider society and so it would initially also manifest itself within the CP unless measures were taken. Within the PCC itself, therefore, such measures were taken, there were strong efforts to recruit more Afro-Cuban members and by the mid 1930s some of the leaders of the PCC such as Lázaro Peña were Afro-Cuban. Where there was evidence of ‘white chauvinism’ measures were taken to combat it as they were in the US party. In Cuba these issues related not just to Afro-Cubans but also to migrant workers from Haiti and Jamaica

Did the Comintern pay attention to the Caribbean and to Latin America? Was there a specificity concerning the ‘Negro question’ in those countries?
The Comintern was concerned about the revolution in all countries and that includes the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. However, while the ITUCNW was responsible for the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean apart from a very early period, when the Afro-Cuban communist Sandalio Junco was involved, it did not have responsibility for Cuba and the Dominican Republic or other parts of South America. This responsibility passed to the Confederacion Sindical Latinamericano. Initial steps were taken and perhaps most headway was made in Brazil. In Pan-Africanism and Communism, therefore, I do not concentrate on Latin America, apart from a few comments on Cuba and Brazil.

There were of course no communist parties in the British and French colonies and this made organising more difficult, although efforts were made to organise amongst those who were leading the workers movements in such countries as Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad as well as Guadeloupe. Links also existed with the communists such as André Aliker in Martinique, as well Jacques Roumain in Haiti, who was in exile in France for some years before his premature death. As well as direct contacts with those in the Caribbean the ITUCNW also worked with organisations and individuals in France and Britain. Some important work was undertaken and the ITUCNW had strong links with the workers’ organisations in British Guyana and Trinidad in particular. The key point here is that the Comintern was concerned to organise everywhere and that included the Caribbean and Latin America.

How did the ITUCNW link the colonial question in Africa with the threat of fascism and war in the 1930s?
The main emphasis of the ITUCNW’s work in Africa was to develop links with the emerging workers movement but also with the anti-colonial movements in parts of Africa, especially West and South Africa. It did this directly where possible and through the distribution of its publication Negro Worker, but also through individuals and organisations in Britain and France. The Negro Worker was illegal in most African colonies and was regularly confiscated by the authorities in South Africa so organising was extremely difficult. On some occasions individual activities from the ITUCNW were sent to parts of Africa. Before the mid-1930s the ITUCNW was anxious to combat what it saw as ‘national reformism’ – that is Garveyism – as well as ‘social reformism’, the influence of the Second International. Its general orientation was that colonial rule should be abolished and that this would come about through the organisation and struggles of the workers and masses of the people in the colonies. Although it recognised that there were differences between the struggles in different colonies, its policies were not well-developed, apart from in South Africa where it worked closely with the CPSA. In that country, however, there were problems produced by the leadership of the CPSA, which pursued narrow and sectarian policies that often isolated the party from those it was trying to organise.

The approach of the ITUCNW, the RILU and the Comintern was influenced by the world situation which in Africa and the diaspora focused on fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. This provoked worldwide condemnation and led to an upsurge in the anti-imperialist struggle in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere. The advent of fascism and the danger of war had also led to the Comintern to revalue its approach to the Second International and to seek a united from of all workers’ organisations as well as a broad anti-imperialist front in the colonies. It also led to a re-evaluation of the need for the RILU, which was eventually itself dissolved. This re-evaluation and reorientation of the Comintern is most closely connected with its Seventh Congress in 1935, when the organisations came under a new leadership headed by Dimitrov.

In this period the ITUCNW established a legal base in Paris and attempted to strengthen its ties with organisations in the West African colonies and South Africa. Perhaps its main activity was to involve itself in the continuing protests against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, although it also issued protests against Germany’s demands for a re-division of African colonies. In short the ITUCNW did not change its policy towards colonialism of the big European powers; at the same time it recognised the growing threat of fascism and war and mobilised against it. It is for example noticeable that in France the Union des Travailleurs Nègre, an affiliate of the ITUCNW, adopted a critical stance to the Popular Front government’s colonial policies while in general the PCF supported the existence of the same government.

Why was the Comité de défense de la race nègre (CDRN) created in 1926 and why was it important that this CDRN emphasized its independence from the French Communist Party (PCF)? How did the PCF evolved on the ‘Negro question’? What were the differences between the PCF and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) on this question during the inter-war period?
The CDRN was formed in 1926 and was affiliated sometimes loosely and sometimes more closely with the PCF. It was founded by Senghor and others partly because of their dissatisfaction with what they perceived as the PCF’s half-hearted approach to the ‘Negro Question’. What is significant is that the early leaders of the CDRN maintained their support for the Comintern and its policies but lamented the fact that they were not being adequately implemented by the PCF. What is significant was that this was a Pan-African organisation embracing those from Africa and the Antilles. It was not hostile to the doctrine of Communism but tried to maintain its organisational independence. It’s likely that this approach increased its membership but for most of its existence it remained financially dependent on the PCF and was viewed as a communist organisation by the police. In fact it managed to combine elements of Marxism with various forms of Pan-Africanism and this approach was maintained in its successor the Ligue de défense de la race nègre (LDRN) founded in 1927.

In general it can be said that the organisations which took up the Negro Question for solution in France were those such as the CDRN, LDRN and later the Union des traveilleurs nègres (UTN). In these Communists from Africa and the Antilles played a leading role. These organisations were affiliated to the ITUCNW and even financed by that organisation to some extent in the early 1930s and became the main means by which the Comintern exerted its influence in the French colonies especially in Africa. The PCF attempted to organise through these organisations but with limited success until 1934. What success it achieved before this time was due to the extent to which it managed to hold the purse-strings. However, these organisations were active and had their own publications which found their way to the colonies. Throughout this period, therefore, the PCF was criticised for its inability to make substantial advances on the the Negro Question most notably when there was a major uprising in the Congo in 1928.

In Britain, on the other hand, anti-colonial organising was mainly in the hands of the League Against Imperialism (LAI), certainly in relation to Africa and the Caribbean, and its affiliate the Negro Welfare Association (NWA) that was formed in 1931. The NWA had a Barbadian secretary, Arnold Ward, but it was politically led by English communists which led to some organisational problems. It was not until the late 1930s that the CP had reliable African and Caribbean organisers and so in many respects its work was weaker than its French counterpart. It did have some responsibility for the South African party but its role in that regard was also ineffective. Most organising in Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies was therefore initially undertaken by the ITUCNW in association with the LAI and the NWA. The British CP was therefore also criticised for its inactivity.

Why was the ITUCNW dissolved? How did the ‘Negro question’ evolve in the Cominern after its dissolution?
The ITUCNW was dissolved in 1937 after lengthy discussions and deliberations. In the main this was because more emphasis was placed on individual communist parties to carry out policies relating to the ‘Negro Question’ and partly because the way in which the ITUCNW had been established with limited resources had with a narrow trade union focus did not make it a useful organisation in the new conditions of the late 1930s. It was also considered that its Pan-African orientation was not suitable for encouraging struggles in diverse areas and countries. The RILU itself was dissolved in the same period and the Comintern in 1943 during the Second World War.

In the period before the advent of war the Comintern main concern was opposition both fascism and war preparations but it is noticeable that a concern with the Negro Question continued in several countries. In Britain there was an upsurge in activities both by the Negro Welfare Association, an ITUCNW affiliate, and by the CPGB. In the US work progressed through the National Negro Congresses and through such organisations as the Council on African Affairs led by Paul Robeson and others. Even in France during the period of the Popular Front government there were advances for the communist movement in the Caribbean, the legalisation of trade unions in the African colonies and the emergence of a Communist organisation in Senegal. Indeed the influence of Communism was enhanced in Africa and the Caribbean during this period as the careers of Robeson and Césaire demonstrate.


This interview was first published in French in Période. Our thanks for their permission to publish the english version here.

Prof. Hakim Adi (Ph.D. SOAS, London University) is the author of West Africans in Britain 1900-1960: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (London, 1998); joint author (with M. Sherwood) of The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London, 1995) and Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787(London, 2003). He has written widely on Pan-Africanism and the modern political history of Africa and the African Diaspora, especially on Africans in Britain. He has also written three history books for children. He is currently working on a film documentary on the West African Students’ Union His latest book Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 was published by Africa World Press in 2013. In 2014 his children’s book, The History of the African and Caribbean Communities in Britain, was re-published for the third time.

Selim Nadi is a French PhD candidate in history and a member of the editorial boards of the French journals “Période” and “Contretemps”. He is also a member of the Parti des Indigènes de la République, a French anti-racist organisation.