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Making the Revolution Global—socialism and black liberation in the shadow of 1917

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Christian Høgsbjerg, author of CLR James in Imperial Britain, reviews Theo Williams’ new book Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation
Issue 2835
Making the Revolution Global Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation book cover

Making the Revolution Global—Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation by Theo Williams

One hundred years ago a remarkable moment in the history of both revolutionary socialism and black radicalism took place. On 30 November 1922 the fourth congress of the Communist International, held in Soviet Russia, passed a resolution on black liberation. Hailing the growth of black resistance, it said black people’s liberation “has become an essential part of the world revolution”. It called for the organisation of an international black movement in Africa and across the Western hemisphere.

One of those who drafted the resolution addressed the congress was the black Jamaican poet, writer and revolutionary Claude McKay. “Those Russian days remain the most memorable of my life,” McKay would later recall. “Whenever I appeared in the street, I was greeted by all of the people with enthusiasm.” He described “a spontaneous upsurging of folk feeling”—the complete reverse of his experiences in the US and Europe. “Never in my life did I feel prouder of being an African, a black,” he remembered of his time in Soviet Russia during the “lean hungry years” of 1922-23.

The Russian Revolution saw the working class seize power through its own democratic organs, the workers’ councils (soviets), in October 1917. But it wasn’t just one of the most critical events of the 20th century in its own right. It struck powerful blows against racism and imperialism—on both a practical and theoretical level— which reverberated globally. The birth of workers’ power in 1917 began to transform thinking around race and resistance.

The Bolshevik party, which was critical to the success of October 1917, had set up the Communist International or “Comintern” in 1919. It aimed to bring together militants into revolutionary socialist parties, in the hope of repeating successful socialist revolutions across the world.

The Comintern’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism deeply impressed at least a minority of black radicals and fired their imaginations. In 1903 WEB Du Bois had famously asserted that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line”. Now many seriously considered Communism as a possible solution. The revolution was a potential beacon of hope at a time when black people were suffering under European colonialism and the violent terror of lynch-mobs in the Jim Crow US South.

In the US, many black radicals initially turned to the African Blood Brotherhood. And, from there, many increasingly went to the new Communist Parties as they emerged and developed internationally.

Malcolm Evan Meredith Nurse was a black Trinidadian Marxist, writing under his pseudonym “George Padmore”. He moved to the US in 1924 to study medicine and joined the Communist Party USA. He articulated in characteristically fiery words the tasks for a new generation of black people in one of its newspapers. He said the “The time has come” for black “youth, students and workers … to take a more definite and active interest in world problems.”  

“We have seen our brothers massacred on foreign battlefields in defence of the very imperialist social order that today crushes them to earth,” he wrote. “Let us join with the masses of the rising colonial peoples and militant class conscious workers to struggle for the establishment of a free and equitable world order.”

He said this new generation “has to realise that the salvation and emancipation of any oppressed group can only be achieved by those who in the face of great odds have the courage to raise the standard of revolt. For he who dares to be free, must himself strike the first blow.”

Over the next 30 years, few would emerge to fight with more dedication for black and colonial liberation than Padmore. He briefly led the Comintern’s black bureau and edited its newspaper. Afterwards, Padmore worked with his boyhood friend and compatriot, the Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James, and figures such as Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta, the Barbadian seafarer’s organiser Chris Braithwaite and the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey. They formed militant Pan-Africanist organisations in Britain during the 1930s, such as the International African Friends of Ethiopia and International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937.

Theo William’s new book, Making the Revolution Global—Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation, gives us a very impressive organisational history of the IASB. In the process, he builds on the work of other scholars like Priya Gopal in Insurgent Empire. He details how this small, but dedicated group of black militant Pan-Africanist radicals in Britain not only fought for colonial liberation in Africa and the Caribbean. They worked with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), led by the likes of James Maxton and Fenner Brockway,

This helped change the way half the British Left thought about racism and imperialism. As Williams writes, “A more thorough understanding of the IASB’s political thought allows us to grasp the importance it attached to working within the British socialist movement.”  Black radicals “often criticised the British left not because they rejected it, but because they wished to change it—to reshape and redefine it from within”.  

In the process, Williams “demonstrates that the international movements of socialism and black radicalism, rather than forming separate strands of radicalism, were imbricated in Britain”. He stresses that “there was no ‘White left’ during the interwar period, insulated from the activism of socialists of colour”. Many black activists in Britain were attracted to Marxism as they organised resistance against the British Empire.

Williams insists that “black radicals were not involved simply in the consumption of Marxism, but also its production”. Indeed, “the complex analyses of race, class and imperialism pursued by black radicals, and particularly by James and Padmore, created a form of Pan-Africanist Marxism”.

Their Marxism was perhaps most clearly on display in works such as James’s classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, and his A History of Negro Revolt. Other works include Padmore’s Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, How Britain Rules Africa, Africa and World Peace and How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire.

The Labour Party was, for black radicals like Padmore, led by those who would “line up behind” the needs of British imperialism. And the record of Labour governments and their official colonial policy proved they were “the last people in the world to support the cause of self-determination”.

There was a principled left wing. But it must have been particularly gutting for the likes of Padmore to witness the careers of leading left wing Labour politicians such as Stafford Cripps and Arthur Creech Jones. They journeyed from anti-colonialism in the 1930s to become servants of the colonial machine during the 1940s.

Those that followed once Labour formed a government in 1945 were often little better. In 1947, leading left wing Labour MPs Richard Crossman, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo published a pamphlet called Keep Left. It did not dissent from Clement Attlee government’s imperial policy or call for African independence. Instead, it championed the virtues of military service for colonial subjects and noted African “development” should “be our main colonial responsibility for the next twenty years”.

Little better than Labour was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Its record of anti-colonial activism was slow to develop during the 1920s, and was criticised by the Comintern. However, from the late 1920s, the Stalinist counter-revolution rolled back the gains of October 1917. While Stalin kept the revolutionary rhetoric, the aim was to develop Russian industry in competition with other capitalist states. The regime abandoned world revolution, and turned the Communist Parties into instruments subordinated to the needs of Russian foreign policy.

The Comintern’s “Third Period” of 1928-33 saw Communist Parties denounce Labour-type parties as “social fascists”. The CPGB’s anti-colonialism briefly flourished in this period, albeit in a sectarian fashion, through organisations such the League Against Imperialism. But Stalin turned to the “Popular Front” after the Nazis seizer of power in 1933. These were alliances with liberal capitalist parties against fascists. And, to keep these coalitions together, the Communist Parties held back workers and oppressed groups’ struggles that threatened capitalist ruling classes.

The Popular Front period saw the CPGB side-line anti-colonialism. By the late 1930s, the CPGB no longer called for self-determination or independence in the colonies ruled by the British Empire. The Comintern now made a distinction between “democratic imperialism” and “fascist imperialism”. As Padmore—who broke with the Comintern in 1933—put it, the CPGB had decided “the colonial peoples living under the yoke of British, French and American Imperialisms must forego their struggles for self-determination and line up in defence of “democracy”, something they have never known.”

So, the two main organisations of the British Left during the 1930s, the Labour Party and CPGB, failed the litmus test of opposing British imperialism effectively. But the smaller Independent Labour Party (ILP) did move to the left after disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1932.

It was never a revolutionary socialist organisation. But the ILP did shift to become a principled anti-colonial party in the late 1930s. This is thanks to the “interracial socialist collaboration” that Williams explores between ILP leaders like Brockway and Pan-Africanist radicals such as James and Padmore. For example, the ILP organised an anti-imperialist Workers’ Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938. It coincided with the official British Empire Exhibition, and highlighted the brutal realities of imperial domination.

For all its strengths, Williams’s work could have been more usefully developed in three areas. Firstly, despite the title, Williams never really defines what he means by the “revolution” which gets made “global” as a result of this “interracial socialist collaboration” in 1930s and 1940s Britain.

Is it the “world revolution” dreamt about by Marxists which seemed for a few years to be on the agenda in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. But, if so, surely the work of a few dedicated black radicals helping to turn the small, reformist ILP towards principled anti-colonialism does not warrant “making the revolution global”? That would have needed the victory of the kind of revolutionary upheavals in Germany and China and Spain that were all defeated during the interwar period. 

Or is Williams really concerned primarily with the “anti-colonial revolution” against European empires? But, if so, surely the most significant movements “making the anti-colonial revolution global” in the interwar period would have been around figures such as Indian independence leaders Gandhi and Nehru.

If Williams was talking solely about a “black revolution”, followers of Marcus Garvey would have a far greater claim to globalising the idea of Black Power in this period than Padmore or James.

Secondly, Williams talks about “Pan-Africanist Marxism” and what he calls “the black radical theory of interdependent revolutions” in the imperial metropole and colonial periphery developed by James and Padmore. This leaves out the critical and contested question of agency and what forces are going to make the revolution—critically, in the colonial periphery. 

James, following the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, held to the theory of permanent revolution. Before the Russian Revolution, Marxist orthodoxy argued that socialist revolution would break out in the advanced core of capitalism. It wasn’t supposed to take place in a backward country such as Russia, dominated by an absolutist monarchy and landowners.  

However, Trotsky identified a process of “uneven and combined development”. Under the pressure of competition and penetration from more advanced imperialist powers, Russia had rapidly built up advanced industries in some cities. This meant that the working class, though numerically small, had social power disproportionate to its size in society. It could lead the revolution in alliance with other groups, for example, the peasantry. And, in doing so, the working class would make its own demands and the revolution wouldn’t have to stop at a “democratic” one. For Marxists, the working class is a collective and “universal class”. It’s the idea that, unlike other exploited classes, it could build a socialist society that abolishes exploitation and uproots oppression for good.

“Permanent” doesn’t mean revolutions go on forever. It is about how it needs to spread internationally, and how it deepens through the interaction of political and economic demands. This experience of Russia in 1917 proved Trotsky right—in February, a revolution tore down the old Tsarist order, in October, the working class seized power. Its ultimate success was, however, predicated on “making the revolution global” and its success in the advanced capitalist countries.    

So, for James, permanent revolution necessitated a focus on the independent action of the working class—no matter how small it was in the colonies—amid work in the wider anti-colonial struggle. Meanwhile Padmore, whose Marxism was learnt in the Comintern under Stalin’s influence, has a more “stage-ist” model of revolution. This is the idea that there has to be the democratic, anti-colonial struggle on broad cross-class lines, and only once this is won comes the struggle for socialism.

Williams’s work, based on years of archival research, represents an invaluable contribution to the growing scholarship on “the red and the black” and deserves to be widely read. It is important, however, to always strive for the utmost clarity when writing about revolutionary history. 

Williams suggests that “the place of the IASB in the British socialist movement proved an important antecedent to the embrace by many Western leftists of Third Worldism in the 1960s”. The politics of “Third Worldism” took a hard line against Western imperialism and in support of national liberation struggles.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the Bolshevik leaders, had argued that revolutionary socialists had to support oppressed people’s right to self-determination. To have any hope of success against their own ruling class, workers in imperialist countries had to break with the racist, patriotic and imperialist ideas used to demobilise and divide them. And, winning colonial freedom, would be a blow to imperialism and weaken the ruling classes.  

However, Lenin had said that doesn’t mean that anti-colonial movements are socialist or communist. They included a variety of class forces—for example, middle class layers that hoped to achieve national development on the backs of workers and the poor. Trotsky had warned that socialists in the Global South shouldn’t subordinate themselves to nationalists.  

The Western leftists who adopted “Third Worldism” looked to nationalist movements and regimes—such as China, Vietnam or Cuba—as the agents of socialist revolution. They challenged imperialism, but weren’t socialist or workers’ states run from the bottom up.

This was a break with the politics of the working class self-emancipation seen in the Russian Revolution whose hammer blows against exploitation, oppression and empire had inspired so many.

So, was “the place of the IASB” an “important antecedent to the embrace by many Western leftists of Third Worldism in the 1960s”? Perhaps so—for some IASB activists. James himself was perhaps guilty of this turn away from the working class to “Third Worldism” to some extent during the 1950s and 1960s. But the more Leninist CLR James of the 1930s and 1940s would have undoubtedly rejected such a move. As Lenin himself—who knew a thing or two about “making the revolution global”—once famously warned, “Don’t paint nationalism red!”

  • Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation (Verso, 2022) by Theo Williams. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop

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