Theory of a black planet

Issue: 138

Christian Høgsbjerg

Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 19171939 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), £34.50

This work is a very useful if perhaps overly ambitious introduction to what Minkah Makalani calls “the history of inter-war radical black internationalism”, a story that “travels from the heights of 1920s Harlem radicalism to the summit of anticolonial activism and black international organising in 1930s London, encompassing the ideas, activities, organisations, and networks of the black radicals who made this history”. Taking inspiration from the work of Brent Hayes Edwards—author of The Practice of Diaspora—who has been at the forefront of the recent turn in black studies towards a concern with “black internationalism”, he has assiduously worked his way through much of the secondary literature and has undertaken a quite staggering amount of archival research internationally over many years—and the result is generally impressive, given Makalani’s literary flair and eye for the telling quote or story.

The main original focus on Makalani’s research was the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB)—an organisation of up to 8,000 members at its height—that coalesced in 1919 in particular in Harlem around a number of impressive Caribbean intellectuals inspired by the blows the Russian Revolution had struck against racism and imperialism, and critical of the failings of the Socialist Party of America to take race and black self-organisation seriously.
Makalani begins with the ABB, though his method is less to offer us a purely institutional history of organisations such as the ABB and their often strained relationship with what he (problematically) calls “white left” organisations, but more to illuminate such organisational history in a more lively and accessible manner by focusing attention on the political and intellectual evolution of critical black radical activists. I found the resulting account of the rise and fall of the ABB to be a most informative and enlightening read, bringing to life still distinctly neglected figures in radical history such as Hubert Harrison, Cyril V Briggs and Lovett Fort-Whiteman.

Makalani then moves on to the failures and limitations of American Communists with respect to work around race in the 1920s, highlighting the sectarianism that stopped the American Negro Labour Congress fulfilling anything like its potential, and the decision of the Communist International to form the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers in 1930. He then turns to international Communism’s most famous black leader, the Trinidadian George Padmore, and his break with orthodox Communism in 1933 and the role he subsequently played in London during the 1930s alongside the likes of Amy Ashwood Garvey, CLR James and ITA Wallace-Johnson in forming militant Pan-Africanist organisations like the International African Friends of Ethiopia and the International African Service Bureau (IASB). Makalani concludes by noting that when James met Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1939 to discuss the strategy and tactics for black liberation in the United States, he rightly suggested that establishing an American branch of the IASB could be a model way for black revolutionaries to organise alongside other campaigners against institutional racism in the US and against colonial oppression internationally.

The strengths of Makalani’s work lie in his ability to explore the difficulties faced by those fighting for international black self-organisation and what he calls “inter-colonial” unity in the inter-war period, and how these difficulties (not only due to the short-sighted vision and sectarianism of the “white left” but also rivalries around leadership between Caribbean migrants and “native” black American activists in the context of the US and Caribbean migrants and African migrants in the context of Britain) were not really to any meaningful extent overcome effectively until the formation of the IASB in 1937. The work contains generally accurate and insightful biographical portraits of a whole host of black radicals, many of whose achievements deserve far greater recognition, and though his focus is on “radical black internationalism”, Makalani does not overlook the important contribution made by, for example, Indian and Chinese nationalists. His account of the changing visual imagery used by anti-racist and anti-colonial activists was also fascinating.

However, I felt the work was limited somewhat by a failure to effectively contextualise this narrative adequately with respect to the story of what Makalani (again problematically) calls “organised Marxism” and in particular to the internal degeneration of the Russian Revolution during the 1920s followed by the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1930s—and the consequences of this for international Communism. So when Makalani has Padmore in 1933 outlining “his notion of double revolution: a sequence by which anti-colonial liberation movements would first produce national revolutions against white imperialists, which would then allow colonial proletarian revolutions to emerge against the indigenous bourgeoisie”, the idea was not, as Makalani claims “a rather classic Leninist formation”. Rather it was a new-fangled concept introduced by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the late 1920s that was a complete break with Lenin’s understanding of the strategy and tactics necessary for national liberation. This focused on the importance of independent working class organisation, even in the most economically under-developed countries.

The failure to understand this means that Makalani can’t make sense of the real differences over strategy and tactics that did exist between Padmore—who still held to many orthodox Communist perspectives after his break with the Communist International—and the Trotskyist James. Indeed, Makalani’s account of James’s anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist activism in the 1930s is a little unfair in places, and undermined somewhat by his limited understanding of James’s revolutionary Marxist politics, together with an overreliance on the rather sectarian account of James’s work in the 1930s by the British Trotskyist John Archer.

More generally speaking, Makalani’s categories of “organised Marxism” and “white left” miss out something of the complexity of the relationship of early classical Marxist thought with respect to race, class and colonialism. As Kevin B Anderson has demonstrated in his recent work Marx at the Margins, Marx himself—certainly after 1848—was very far from being a “Eurocentric” thinker, while the likes of Lenin and Trotsky were actually remarkably sophisticated and profound “post-colonial” thinkers in many ways, not that it will ever be fashionable in academic circles to say so.

Overall, Makalani has written an important work that brings to light a wealth of information from scattered archives and usefully complements the growing literature on militant anti-colonialism in the inter-war period, seen in recent works by Susan Pennybacker, Carol Polsgrove and Jonathan Derrick. His account of organisations from the ABB and IASB will serve as useful introductions for those who have not previously studied them, while even scholars of these groups will doubtless learn much as well about certain individuals within them that they had not previously known.

Though one might have hoped that Makalani would demonstrate a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the left and labour movement (talk of “the leftist conceit of class struggle” seems a little out of place in such a work, particularly given that many of the activists discussed were fervent “class struggle Pan-Africanists”), in general his analysis relating to the struggle by black radical activists to find forms of organisation that were fit for purpose for their heroic fight against white supremacy is most convincing, and will give readers much to ponder for the struggles against the powerful hierarchies of race, class and
gender today.