In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939/pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939

By Ewing, Adam | African Studies Review, September 2014 | Go to article overview

In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939/pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939


Ewing, Adam, African Studies Review


HISTORY

Minkah Makalani. In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. xviii + 309 pp. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $42.00. Cloth. $27.95. Paper.

Hakim Adi. Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2013. xxvi +445 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $39.95. Paper.

C. L. R. James left England in 1938, traveling first to the United States, then to Mexico to visit the exiled Leon Trotsky, then back to the United States, where he would reside for the next decade and a half. During six productive years in London, James had emerged as a leading figure in the city's burgeoning black radical community and a leading theorist in the project of aligning Marxist praxis to the pan-African, anticolonial, and race-conscious sensibilities of black radicalism-to the project of shifting the focus of world socialist revolution from the European proletariat to occupied Africa. James, along with George Padmore, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Ras Makonnen, and others, was the bearer of an intellectual tradition that had held organized Marxism and black internationalism in productive tension since the inauguration of the Third International in 1919. In 1945, when he met a young African student named Rwame Nkrumah, then preparing to sail for London, James would bequeath this tradition to a new generation. In The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domongo Revolution (1938), his classic account of the Haitian Revolution, James had argued that the antislavery writings of the Abbé Raynal sparked the imagination of the revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture as a young man. Looking forward, he suggested that African liberation would likewise be kindled by a stray pamphlet falling into the right hands, this time perhaps written by Lenin or Trotsky. But when Nkrumah-the future leader of independent Ghana and of an incipient continental Pan-Africanism movement-arrived in London, he was welcomed by Padmore and handed not Lenin, Trotsky, Marx, or Engels, but rather a copy of The Black Jacobins.

Minkah Makalani narrates this story near the end of his important and groundbreaking new book, In the Cause of Freedom. Makalani is not interested in reigniting debates about the relative influence of the Comintern in black radicalism and organizing in the United States and elsewhere, nor is he especially burdened by the old project of demonstrating black agency in Comintern policymaking and Communist organizing on the ground. Rather, he demonstrates that black radical internationalism preceded the Russian Revolution, encouraged-along with its Asian analogueinternational Communism in new theoretical directions during the 1920s, and eventually outgrew the limitations of the Comintern as an organizational, discursive, and liberatory vessel in the 1930s. By the Second World War, with the Soviet Union locked in a strategic embrace with the great colonial powers, then the Nazis, then the colonial powers again, black radical internationalism represented the vanguard of Marxist internationalism. Kwame Nkrumah found his voice in Marxism, but he did so via C. L. R. James, George Padmore, the Haitian Revolution, and The Black Jacobins.

For Makalani this narrative requires a "repositioning" of the evidence, a willingness to think beyond the prevailing "archive of black Marxism," and a telling of a story about black radicalism between the world wars "without taking organized Marxism as the principal or originary frame" (11-12). This does not mean an endorsement of Cedric Robinson's pioneering effort (Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 1983) to position black Marxism outside of and in opposition to traditions of European Marxism. Makalani is more comfortable with Anthony Bogues's notion of the "black heretic" (Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals, 2003), which acknowledges the influence of Western radical theory on black Marxists even as it challenges what is seen as its limited vision when it came to the nonwhite and colonial world. …

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