Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London

Article excerpt

Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011, xvii + 309 pp., bibliography, notes, index

Over the last decade there have been several studies - including unpublished dissertations and theses - exploring "black internationalism" in the context of the Third, or Communist International (Comintern). For example, Brent Hayes Edwards' The Practice of Diaspora (2003) defines the "black international" as an "extraordinary arrangement, a transnational alliance" between black militants that "crie[d] through the Comintern" and spoke "the language of international communism - in order to trump the limitations of a particular national communist party" (p. 264). Edwards, however, was more a work of literary criticism than history. Minkah Makalani's innovative work, the work under review, which in part aims at rescuing "radical black internationalism from the narrative sutures of international communism" (p. 11) examines the historical development of "black internationalism" and analyses in much detail the relationship between an emerging black radicalism of the interwar period and the international Communist [Red] movement inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Makalani argues that the relationship between the Red and Black internationals had negative implications for black radicals since it caused the latter to abandon "their independent organizations and [relinquish] a great deal of autonomy" as well as engendered serious confrontations between black radicals and Communist leaders who "repeatedly proved either indifferent to questions of race or were openly hostile to black radicals' organizing initiatives and ideas" (p. 5). Thus the work challenges the general assumption that the value of the red international (the Comintern) was largely to facilitate the development of the black international and brings greater clarity to how discussions over the "Negro question" (as the issue of black oppression was known at the time) came to fit into the broader Communist movement. Notwithstanding these negatives, the work shows that the international Communist movement provided "global contacts" for black radicals which even developed outside the Communist movement itself later, and pushed the Comintern "beyond its focus on European nations and white workers to address their non-Western world and oppressed racial groups" (p. 8).

The work however, is less a coherent study of the "black international" than a series of studies of different aspects of the black /communist [Red] relationship during the interwar years and consequently enables a more in-depth examination of various contours of "black internationalism" .

The first two chapters examine the relationship between black radical tradition and racism in the United States of America. Here the author argues that North American socialist and left-wing movements were, at best, indifferent to the need to fight to end black oppression while some socialist leaders (such as Victor Berger) were themselves blatantly racist. They opposed Asian immigration and supported racial segregation, arguing that it would continue under a socialist regime. A substantial part of chapter two however, is spent in an examination of the role of Nevisborn radical journalist C.V. Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) members of the Communist Party during the 1920s in the development of the "black international" .

The third chapter, which might seem to be one of the more interesting chapters in the book, discusses the joint attempts of black Communists from the Americas and Asian Communists to "shape international Communism, especially on questions of racial and ethnic oppression" (p. 20). Asian Communists, argues Makalani, saw "the colonial world as the fulcrum of socialist revolution . . . [and] suggested a reordering of the terms of Marxism that would bring race into greater focus" (p. …

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