The Comintern and the African Atlantic

Issue: 145

Ken Olende

A review of Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Africa World Press, 2013), £28.99, and Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic: African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Brill, 2013), £170

The early Communist movement, organised through the Communist International or Comintern, set out to be at the heart of the fight against racism and imperialism. From roughly the mid-1920s until the mid-1930s it seriously engaged with how to build a movement that could put black people at the centre of their own liberation. The Comintern offered a series of methods for changing the world based on the successful experience of the Bolsheviks in the 1917 Russian Revolution. These included the centrality of class struggle, thoroughgoing internationalism, working with other forces in united fronts and an unwavering commitment to anti-racism.

Two books on the relationship between the Comintern and the African Atlantic—black people in Africa and the diaspora—have arrived in rapid succession almost 40 years since the last serious study, Edward T Wilson’s Russia and Black Africa Before World War II.1 Both concentrate on the little remembered International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW) and its main figures, the key one being George Padmore.

Padmore was from Trinidad. He studied in the United States where he joined the Communist Party in 1927. He was the leading figure in the ITUCNW until his dramatic split in 1933 over the direction the Comintern was taking. He went on to be the prime organiser of the Pan-African Congress in Manchester. This was very important to African struggles for independence, though Weiss is overstating the case when he says: “The decolonisation process in Africa was directly a result of the Manchester 1945 Congress”.2

Many of the other figures around the ITUCNW came from the US Communist Party (CPUSA). Otto Huiswoud, born in Suriname, had worked as a seafarer and was a founder member of the CPUSA, working with the Comintern from 1922. James W Ford, from Alabama, would later stand for US vice-president three times as a CPUSA candidate. Hermina Huiswoud, originally from British Guiana, had been in the leadership of the Harlem Tenants League as a Communist and worked for the Comintern in Moscow. Harry Haywood was head of the CPUSA’s Negro Department and one of the main organisers around the Scottsboro Boys case. This case, in which nine young black men aged between 13 and 19 who were arrested in Alabama and charged with a rape that had never happened, brought the Communist Party to the forefront of the struggle against racism in the US. The party provided lawyers for the accused and helped organise protests around the country and internationally to push for their release.

In pre-colonial times there was no particular reason for people from Africa to feel they had a common identity. It was the Atlantic slave trade that treated all black people as the same, ignoring the continent’s myriad cultures. But in the US it was common sense for all black people to see a united identity in resistance. Marcus Garvey’s mass movement, based in the US, was the first to bring the idea of a united Africa—Pan-Africanism—to the continent. But it was the Communists who influenced many independence movements after the Second World War. They gained this influence with organisations that would insist that race or nation were central in determining political issues, despite the fact that in the period under discussion they argued that Africans needed to organise on a class basis to overcome their national and racial oppression.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a dramatic affect on people fighting oppression around the world and this included black people, particularly in the US. For instance the African Blood Brotherhood led by Cyril Briggs, who went on to become a Communist, argued: “The growing band of Negro radicals who look to Soviet Russia for guidance and inspiration in the struggle…in close touch with the class conscious white workers of America, are pointing the way to proletarian emancipation as the only hope for their opposed negro brothers in Africa and America”.3

At each point the Comintern tried to work out the best way of reaching out to and engaging with the struggles of colonised peoples using a complex range of interlocking organisations, including the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and the ITUCNW. The kaleidoscope of organisations and fronts can seem unnecessarily confusing—particularly as the main participants also used a variety of false names—but they had to operate underground to avoid imperialists and bosses; what seemed the best organisational way to challenge imperialism changed over time and there was a growing bureaucracy in the Comintern.

The RILU tried to coordinate and radicalise trade unions internationally. It looked to colonial countries, but was not as concerned with direct issues of colonialism and racism. The ITUCNW was set up specifically to bring together black workers from the diaspora via the newspaper The Negro Worker and build links with potential revolutionaries in Africa and the Caribbean. It set out to create a network of black militants and its success was in creating links between people as diverse as Foster Jones, a seafarer from Sierra Leone, and Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to become Kenya’s first president.

The ITUCNW was based in Hamburg, Germany, a port where African sailors could be contacted and in the country with the largest and best rooted Communist Party outside Russia. Partly it was established to try and overcome inertia in national parties. Adi says: “Overcoming the inaction of the local Communist parties remained a major problem for the ITUCNW, even though it was this weakness that was its raison d’être”.4

Much of the time it was hard to make communist parties in the imperial countries see the importance of the work. Huiswoud complained of the British CPGB’s “almost complete lack of attention paid to colonial work (particularly in Africa)”.5 But nonetheless, the Communists had enormous respect among many groups of immigrants. In 1935 one commentator said: “The coloured people of Cardiff are mainly Communists, simply because no one else has seen fit to give them a helping hand”.6

Padmore was appointed to run the ITUCNW in 1930 and to make wider links with Africa. He was a great communicator and writer, producing 20 pamphlets in 1931 alone and while editing the monthly Negro Worker.

The ITUCNW’s organisational highpoint was the holding of the International Conference of Negro Workers to discuss building an international revolutionary movement. It was originally planned for London, but ended up taking place in Hamburg in 1930. The event was neither as big nor as representative as the organisers had hoped, but it brought together revolutionaries and anti-imperialists from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the US and began a process of international cooperation. Many of the delegates went on to Russia for more overtly revolutionary discussions. Here they argued for “the immediate evacuation by the imperialists of all negro colonies and for complete independence”.7

The revolutionaries faced a number of massive obstacles. The first was the objective conditions. The anti-colonial movement was young and pulled in many different directions. They faced their own political naivety and the hostility of the imperial powers.

Both books detail the minutiae of revolutionary organisation—missed meetings, misunderstandings and sectarian sulks. A letter from Huiswoud to Padmore from Trinidad describes typical difficulties “because of the very poor contacts we have and the fact that it is hard to find some real class-conscious elements. They are either connected with the Garvey movement, as is the case in Jamaica, or they have not the slightest concept of what a labour movement is”.8

Yet they did find people and make contacts. Some of the most interesting material is that which shows the practical things activists tried to achieve. For instance, in response to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Wallace-Johnson wrote in the Morning Post in Gold Coast: “Ye ‘civilised’ Europeans, you must ‘civilise’ the ‘barbarous’ Africans with machine guns. Ye ‘Christian’ Europeans, you must ‘Christianise’ the ‘pagan’ Africans with bombs, poison gasses etc”.9 Of course this was implicitly an attack on all colonialism. He was arrested and convicted of sedition. The case led to the growth of his West African Youth League, which had 5,000 members in 1936.

Padmore was particularly keen on Eduard Small, who had established the Gambia Labour Union. He saw him as a potential Comintern representative in Africa. Small was one of the few who actually got to train in Russia, but he was critical of what was being taught: “According to him, the comrades at the Negro Bureau totally misunderstood the conditions in Africa and [he] declared that the most crucial issue was to raise the racial awareness of the masses in Africa rather than to declare it a secondary question”.10

The problems of building in West Africa with no cadres on the ground could be seen even with a good activist like Foster Jones. Weiss comments of attempts to build the organisation in Sierra Leone: “Jones never saw himself as a leader, only a messenger. Being a seaman, his opportunities to stay ashore were limited if he did not want to arouse the suspicions of the colonial authorities. Neither did he have any capabilities to lead a strike, lest a rebellion [sic]”.11

One significant row between the various leaders of the ITUCNW and Moscow was over the quality of Africans sent to study in the USSR. Moscow acted as if the committee could choose from many candidates, rather than having to work with whoever they could find because of the low level of contacts with Africa. There was no way that they could expect all or even most of those going to the USSR would be Communists.

A further frustration was the Comintern bureaucracy. One example was a difficulty Padmore experienced over Foster Jones. Weiss records Padmore’s frustration that “the Comintern apparatus was incapable of handling a matter of urgency”.12 He tried to get help to Foster Jones stuck in Liverpool with no money to travel to Hamburg and on to Moscow for political training, but as weeks passed and letters went back and forth he lost faith that anything would be done, and indeed Jones had to make his own escape.

For anyone who comes from a background as a political activist, it is easy to identify with the way PanAfricanism and Communism is full of an organiser’s frustration at leads not followed, and constant Comintern reminders.

The only country in sub-Saharan Africa that actually had a Communist Party was South Africa. The difficulties it faced were enormous. A leading black South African militant, Moses Kotane, who had joined the party, was sent to Moscow for political training in the International Lenin School and rapidly put back into the leadership of the South African Party. He wrote to the Comintern in 1933 complaining: “Despite the fact that I had no training and education prior to joining the revolutionary movement, I am only given one year’s training in the [International Lenin School] and shipped back to South Africa, with heavy responsibilities on my shoulders”.13 He makes the good point that without experience he will tend to just follow people above him.

The Comintern saw the ITUCNW as the first step in developing cadres in the rest of Africa. As with the experience in South Africa it faced a constant tension between the scale of the task and the very limited resources it could mobilise. But within a few years it had changed its vision. Padmore fell out with the Comintern leadership, saying that it had abandoned its revolutionary anti-colonial work. The Comintern denied this and indeed the work of the ITUCNW continued under Otto Huiswoud. However, an undeniable shift in what the leadership in Moscow believed was possible or desirable had taken place.

The Comintern was formed in an atmosphere that expected widespread revolution in the immediate future. This was followed by the ultra-left “Third Period”, when Social Democratic parties were seen as the main obstacle to revolution. With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Russia became much more concerned with diplomatic alliances with Western states, including the US and Britain.

The exact details of Padmore’s break with the Comintern are hard to pin down. He wrote retrospectively that it had been about plans to dissolve the ITUCNW and stop promoting revolution among colonised people so as to ease alliances with the colonial powers. Both Adi and Weiss feel that because he broke before the Popular Front line had been announced, the shift could not have been responsible for his actions.

I don’t see that this is necessarily the case. As an insider he would have been in a position to see which way the wind was blowing. For instance, all the African students in Moscow signed a petition complaining about the cancellation of the film Black and White which was being made in Russia with black American radicals about racism in the US. This was in 1933, long before the official change of policy. They also complained about other issues including poor teaching, but the film is significant. As Glenda Gilmore explains in the book Defying Dixie the film was scrapped as part of an attempt by the Soviet Union to improve relations with the US, precisely the kind of shift that Padmore complained of.14

The books take different attitudes to the shift in the politics of both Padmore and the Comintern. To enormously oversimplify their arguments, Adi tends to be pro-Comintern, while Holger Weiss looks to a unity in Padmore’s ideas that sees him as a developing Pan-Africanist who was bound to break from the “class first” politics of the Comintern.

Adi makes some plausible criticisms of Padmore’s actions, but then goes on to attempt to justify the wild changes of direction in Comintern policy in the terms that the Comintern used at the time. Weiss is more inclined to dismiss Comintern motives and is sympathetic to a unity of ideas in Padmore. But his book is designed to show how it was Communist politics that created space.

While the two books differ on their attitude to the early Comintern, both authors would disagree with the position argued by the tradition associated with this journal. This has concentrated on the first four congresses of the Comintern between 1919 and 1922 as those that reflect the best internationalist traditions of revolutionary Marxism, seeing the Third Period ultra-leftism and the Popular Front as a decisive rejection of that tradition.

Neither author considers there was an alternative to Padmore’s drift away from Marxism once he left the Communist movement. Adi accepts that the Third Period was ultra-left, but sees the Popular Front as being a correct repositioning. He argues: “The Comintern also attempted to deal with instances of sectarianism, which isolated the Communists and the Communist Parties. Many of these problems were only resolved in the period after 1934 when the Comintern was under new leadership…and was able to develop a new political orientation which was formally adopted following its seventh congress in 1935. It is ironic that it was in this period that the Comintern was criticised by Padmore and others for allegedly departing from its former militancy in regard to the Negro Question”.15 He doesn’t say that the change in leadership at the Comintern was connected to the Moscow show trials.

Adi comments: “It might appear paradoxical that the ITUCNW concluded its work at the very time that an upsurge occurred in the struggles of workers in the Caribbean and following the rise in Pan-Africanist sentiment in response to the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy. However…changing international conditions, especially the menace of fascism and world war, necessitated different tactics”.16 But it really is paradoxical. If the Comintern had not made this turn this was precisely the time when the potential appeared to create the kind of revolutionary organisation that the ITUCNW had hoped for.

Padmore was right about the need for revolutionary politics and the Comintern’s move away from it. He moved on to work in London with C L R James, who had been a childhood friend. At the time James argued for Leon Trotsky’s position of united fronts with the labour movement and strong independent workers’ movements as the best way to challenge the fascists.

The tragedy is that both Padmore and the Comintern moved away from the revolutionary internationalism that had built the original Comintern. Both sides would say that this was not so, but in practice their proletarian internationalism was removed into the future. Padmore would end up supporting Kwame Nkrumah’s radical Pan-Africanism based in the state of Ghana. The Russian leadership dissolved the Comintern during the Second World War, no longer seeing a purpose for it. For the leaders of the USSR their project became building a series of socialisms in one country that would be allied to it.

The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 had shown how an economically backward country could come to lead an international workers’ movement. Leon Trotsky developed his theory of permanent revolution initially to understand how this had been achieved, when Marxists at that time had assumed that such a country could not have a socialist revolution universalising the theory after its negative confirmation in the debacle in China in 1926-27. This is a dispute of particular concern to people writing about the colonial world, but is not considered in either book. The best single account is in Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.17 Its relevance is in deciding whether the working class was still the revolutionary class in economically backward countries under colonial dominance such as China or Africa. Most of the Communist movement came to the conclusion that it was necessary to look to other forces—blocks of classes and the popular front. But Trotsky and the tradition expressed in the early congresses of the Comintern of calling for international workers’ revolution became marginalised.

Both PanAfricanism and Communism and Framing a Radical African Atlantic are substantial works at around 400 and 700 pages respectively and make use of Comintern archives that were not accessible to earlier historians. Unfortunately there are several examples of poor editing and proofreading in Weiss’s book. A troubling one is his use of the term “agent provocateur” to mean an agent working for someone (in this case usually Padmore), rather than a police troublemaker.18

The complexity of the two books reviewed here comes from a mixture of these fundamental debates within the Comintern at the time and the confusing nature of the organisations. Some of the politics are a reflection of the current period, where Marxism is not seen as an alternative. They have a very different tone from their predecessor Edward T Wilson’s Russia and Black Africa Before World War II, published in 1974.

Wilson said: “The amount of energy devoted to agitation in Africa by [the ITUCNW] and other Comintern affiliates, together with the attention directed toward the region in communist pronouncements, literature and scholarship during the 1920s and 1930s, all provide clear evidence that Africa, in its own right, had found a conspicuous place in Russian thinking long before the era of independence”.19 Wilson’s book reflects an interest at the time in why the USSR had an ongoing involvement in black Africa. It is worth comparing this to Holger Weiss’s assertion that early Soviet interest was non-existent and “lukewarm”.20 He sees the left as neglectful of Africa—and Padmore’s break from Marxism as a positive step towards the goal of Pan-Africanism.

The demand to put workers at the centre of the anti-colonial movement was not mistaken. In the end a lasting legacy in both PanAfricanism and Communism and Framing a Radical African Atlantic is the idea that Africa can aspire to something more than the petty destructive nationalism that is now presented as an ideal. These books record both a forgotten record of how important parts of world history developed, but also a vision of how a different century could have emerged. They hint at an alternative that could have been achieved, but also an alternative that should be easier to achieve today, when there is a much more developed working class across Africa.


1: Wilson, 1974.

2: Weiss, 2013, p718.

3: Wilson, 1974, p135.

4: Adi, 2013, p170.

5: Adi, 2013, p278.

6: Adi, 2013, p279.

7: Adi, 2013, p340.

8: Adi, 2013, p304.

9: Adi, 2013, p361.

10: Weiss, 2013, p495.

11: Weiss, 2013, p505.

12: Weiss, 2013, p378.

13: Adi, 2013, p390.

14: Gilmore, 2009, pp134-146.

15: Adi, 2013, pxxiii.

16: Adi, 2013, pxxiv.

17: Isaacs, 2009.

18: Weiss, 2013, p501.

19: Wilson, 1974, p270.

20: Weiss, 2013, p130.


Adi, Hakim, 2013, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Africa World Press).

Gilmore, Glenda, 2009, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 19191950 (W W Norton and Company).

Isaacs, Harold, 2009 [1938], The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Haymarket).

Weiss, Holger, 2013, Framing a Radical African Atlantic: African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Brill).

Wilson, Edward T, 1974, Russia and Black Africa Before World War II (Holmes and Meier).