This afterword reflects on the profound impact of the revolutionary events in Russia in 1917, especially the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’ and the launch of the Communist International in 1919 on Africans and those in the African diaspora. It discusses the impact of the controversial ‘Black Belt thesis’, the right of African Americans to empower themselves and become the decision-makers in the Southern states of the United States, where they constituted a clear majority. The afterword also reflects on how the biographical accounts presented in this volume offer fascinating insights into the lives of key activists during the twentieth century, and highlights the need for much more work to establish the influence of Marxism and Communism on Africans and those in the African diaspora from the nineteenth century onwards, particularly black women. It also raises issues around the methods that can be utilised in such research, including how surveillance activities can often seem to be a boon to researchers because the police and security services collect information which is then sometimes placed in archives at the disposal of historians.
African-American actors Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson are pivotal figures for discussions of attitudes globally that continue to inform contemporary critical approaches to race and representation. This chapter explores their engagements, reception, and appropriation in both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Aldridge and Robeson visited Russia within very different political climates. Aldridge travelled from America to England in 1824, then in the 1850s and 1860s spent several years in Russia. Official discussions around the emancipation of serfs, and connections between the systems of slavery and serfdom, were noted in press reports of Aldridge’s performances. In the 1930s Robeson was drawn to the USSR, regarding it as a place where people of African descent would be treated fairly, unlike the discrimination they faced in the United States. Robeson travelled extensively throughout the Soviet Union from 1934, throughout the 1940s, and returned later after the US reinstated his passport in 1958. Though Robeson was more overtly political than Aldridge, they each were drawn to Russian culture, received warmly by Russian audiences, and utilised by the Russian press as catalysts for political positions that they were seen to represent with their artistry. Robeson’s speeches in support of Soviet workers and of the Communist state led to his harassment by House of Un-American Activities Committee/the US government. Aldridge’s celebration of African ancestry and championing of the repressed in Russia led authorities to fear his advocacy. This heritage of political activism associated with both Aldridge and Robeson as Black American performers in Russia forms the basis of this chapter.
Over the course of the 1920s, the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) and its Malawi-born leader, Clements Kadalie, demonstrated for the first time the possibility and importance of black mass organisation in Southern Africa. Through its organising successes, the ICU influenced radicals across the world and transformed ideas about race, radicalism and revolution for Communists and non-Communists alike. This chapter makes three arguments about the multidirectional flow of radical ideas between Southern Africa, Russia, America and Europe, and the syncretic nature of both the ICU and early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). First, it contextualises the early reception of Communism in Southern Africa against entrenched anti-Communist local tendencies. Second, it explains how the ICU’s leadership transformed the priorities of the CPSA by demonstrating the necessity of organising black workers in their hundreds of thousands. The successes of the ICU led the CPSA to see the mass industrial organisation of black workers (rather than the local white labour aristocracy) as the instrument of historic change, and it was through the ICU that ideas of race consciousness and race leadership shaped the policies of Comintern officials in Russia and black radicals in America and Britain. Third, ICU criticisms indicate that the early CPSA was severely weakened by the enduring influence of white labourism and top-down dictatorial tendencies. The Russian Revolution certainly inspired a select number of militant ICU leaders, but the ICU gave black workers in Southern Africa and beyond a vivid example of black mass organisation.
Cyril Briggs is principally remembered for his activism and journalism, with his founding of the journal The Crusader in 1918 and, a year later, the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a black-centred, left-leaning organisation, cementing his reputation as a ‘Black Red’. What rarely surfaces in treatments of his life, writing or career, however, is his fiction. This chapter offers a biographical treatment of his life, charting his journalistic work at the New York Amsterdam News and The Crusader; his role as an ABB leader; the ABB’s implication in the 1921 Tulsa riots; his political orientation prior to and after the ABB’s affiliation with the Communist Party of the United States of America in 1921; his attempted alliances with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and subsequent feud with Garvey. Crucially, it includes reflection on two of Briggs’s short stories and another by Virgin Islander Romeo L. Dougherty, serialised in The Crusader – two of which (Briggs’s ‘The Ray of Fear’ and Dougherty’s ‘“Punta” Revolutionist’) were archived and assessed by Bureau of Investigation operatives. In shedding light on this underexplored fiction, this chapter charts not only Briggs’s networks, but also the shadow networks of J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau during and after the first US Red Scare. It also unravels the role of Agent 800, aka James Wormley Jones, the Bureau’s first black, full-time agent, in Briggs’s world. Jones not only fuelled animosity between Briggs and Garvey, but also turned in a report of an ABB near-bomb plot in the US South – a narrative straight out of Briggs’s fiction.
Caribbean intellectual C.L.R. James has made a distinct contribution to global Marxist thought through his insightful analysis of the organisational imperatives for revolutionary change beyond the vanguard party model offered by V.I. Lenin. Indeed, in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global experience of the rise of spontaneous mass movements independent of centrally organised vanguardist leaders has concretely actualised James’s reflections. Yet, despite the contemporary validity of his perspectives, James has been largely assessed as being more relevant to the radical politics of the advanced capitalist regions of Europe, than to the small Caribbean states in the Black Atlantic. While James is acknowledged as a foremost Pan-Africanist, his ‘Pan-Africanism’ is often treated as separate from his Marxism. Except for the reviews of his ‘The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro problem in the USA’, few writers see his theoretical reflections on Marxist organisation as being linked to the possibilities of Pan-African liberation. This chapter seeks to highlight the analytical link between C.L.R James’s Pan-Africanism and his Marxism, by engaging in a comparative analysis with the work of other notable black Marxists. The chapter seeks to resolve tensions between race and class, and Marxism and Pan-Africanism, in order to address the lingering questions about the applicability of Marxism to black revolutionary politics in the twenty-first century.
Grace P. Campbell’s role in the formation of a radical feminist tradition in African-American intellectual culture
Grace P. Campbell, a founding member of the African Blood Brotherhood that holds the distinction of being the precursor to black national radical organisations in the twentieth-century, and the first black woman to join the Communist Party, was a formidable public speaker. She brought her considerable intellectual acuity and administrative skills to organising and maintaining key institutions that fostered New Negro radical thought. The primary purpose of this chapter is to give voice to Campbell within the radical left New Negro movement. Her voice on the left has often been muted because she did not leave many writings. But the finding of her analysis of the ‘Negro Question’ among the papers of the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, writings within the Daily Worker, Negro Champion, and the Working Woman, as well as exerts from her speeches allows us to hear her voice and helps her to secure her place within the ranks of black leftist feminist intellectuals. Campbell’s role in the formation of radical feminist tradition in African-American intellectual culture shifts from the politics of respectability as a strategy to mitigate or dissemble away intense racial, gender and class oppression, to a deviation from traditional Marxist theory to where she saw the intersectionality of race, class, gender and value in wage and non-wage domestic or reproductive work for African-American women – which suggest that waged industrial workers were not the only participants in the battle for humanity’s emancipation.
Previous critical discussions of Amiri Baraka have focused almost exclusively on the poetic and political work which predates his ‘conversion’ to Marxism-Leninism in 1974. Yet Baraka’s Marxist period, which lasted the majority of his career, was neither an aberration nor a footnote. Baraka did not simply fade away into obscurity once he became a Marxist; rather, he produced a large body of work that deserves reassessment, looking to the examples of Bolshevism and Maoism in order to build a viable mass politics and mass art. This chapter examines Baraka’s collections Hard Facts and Poetry for the Advanced, published in 1975 and 1979 respectively. While often dismissed as ‘dogmatic’ and ‘sloganeering’, these collections combine the polemic-prosaic with a ‘lyric necessity’ that never left Baraka. Baraka here shows himself to be a mature poet, drawing on the tradition of American socialist poetry – in particular, that of Langston Hughes – illuminating debates on the American left in a decade of increasing political fracture, and writing poems of absolute commitment to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. In engaging with and reviving a neglected tradition of Soviet-influenced Afro-American Communism – one often forgotten in the wake of McCarthyism and the often explicitly anti-socialist discourses of black nationalism – Baraka’s work illuminates the fraught legacy of the Soviet revolution in black America at a time of divisive Cold War politics, in which the search for a workable mass politics and for a means of poetic expression adequate to this task was as vital as it now is today.
This chapter invites a greater appreciation of one of Black history’s most important yet underappreciated figures within the Black radical tradition. Hubert Henry Harrison (1883–1927) was a Caribbean-born journalist, educator, and community organiser whose historical restoration requires us to expand the frame of Black political and intellectual culture in the twentieth century. He was also the first Black leader of the Socialist Party of America to articulate a historical materialist analysis of the ‘Negro Question’, to organise a Black-led party organisation, and to systematically and publicly challenge the party’s racial prejudices. At the height of the Jim Crow era, he spearheaded the New Negro movement by founding the Liberty League of Negro Americans and The Voice newspaper. In the era of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Harrison also developed an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and race-conscious ‘colored internationalism’. His people-centred and mass-movement-oriented model of leadership catalysed the rise to prominence of Marcus Garvey and the Garvey movement. Despite Harrison’s wide-ranging influence on a whole generation of Black leaders, from W.E.B. Du Bois to A. Philip Randolph, his impact and legacy have been largely forgotten. As a result, unearthing and recovering Harrison requires us to rethink multiple histories – the white left, the New Negro movement, Garveyism, the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ – which have marginalised him, despite his unique theoretical and practical contributions to all of them. Despite being marginalised historiographically, Harrison exerted a unique influence on twentieth-century Black intellectual and political life.
The introduction sets out a framework for understanding the formation of revolutionary lives at the intersection of trajectories and linkages related to the Red and Black Atlantic. The chapter positions the volume within the important tradition of work which adopts a politicised understanding of Black Atlantic worlds, drawing out the relevance of these approaches for life writing. We contend that such a biographical approach can bring a vivid and distinctive lens to bear on how racialised social and political worlds were negotiated and experienced and to engagements with left political movements and organising. The introduction sets out a sense of how diverse political lives were shaped both in relation to Russia but also in ways which traversed various maritime spaces associated with the African diaspora. In doing so it outlines a dynamic framework for articulating some aspects of the racialised, gendered and classed articulations of revolutionary political lives in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Some of the arguments of the chapter are demonstrated through a discussion of the political trajectories of Hugh Mulzac. Born in 1886 on Union Island, near Saint Vincent in the Grenadines, Mulzac became a founder of the National Maritime Union and during the Second World War, after decades of struggle by organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, became the first African-American merchant marine naval officer to command a mixed integrated crew on the SS Booker T. Washington.
To speak of a ‘Black France’ in the interwar period still typically involves accounts of jazz, Josephine Baker and la vogue nègre of the 1920s or the birth of Négritude in the 1930s. Over the past three decades, however, groundbreaking research has uncovered the writings and activism of a hitherto largely forgotten group of black militants from the 1920s who sought to fuse Pan-Africanist and Marxist thought. This chapter examines one of the most important but still curiously neglected figures of the period, Lamine Senghor, a decorated Senegalese veteran of the First World War. Senghor emerged in the mid-1920s and, for a few short years (he died of TB in November 1927), was perhaps the best-known and most influential black anti-colonial activist of his time. In his writings and activism, Senghor combined a Communist-inspired critique of empire with an attempt to forge a shared sense of black identity across disparate groups both within France and more globally. The chapter charts the trajectory of Senghor’s brief career as an activist, tracing the ways in which issues of race and class were consistently intertwined. It focuses in particular on his success at the inaugural meeting of the League against Imperialism in Brussels in February 1927: Senghor’s speech – in which he used slavery as a key trope linking black and working-class experience – was widely greeted as one of the highlights of the Congress, translated almost immediately into English and published in the United States.