A forgotten fighter

Issue: 124
Posted: 1 October 09

Christian Høgsbjerg

Fitzroy Baptiste and Rupert Lewis (eds), George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary (Ian Randle, 2009), £14.95

This collection of essays on the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist George Padmore (1902-59), appearing on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, is a timely tribute to the life and work of a fascinating but forgotten anti-colonial activist and intellectual. The appearance of such a volume is to be welcomed, not simply because Padmore stands as a towering figure of the 20th century “black Atlantic” who fully deserves more critical appreciation in his own right, but also because the question of why he has remained so overlooked for so long, despite the rise of postcolonial studies, is in itself illuminating.

George Padmore was the pseudonym of Malcolm Nurse, who was born in 1902 in Trinidad, then a British crown colony. After leaving school Nurse went into journalism before leaving the Caribbean to study law at university in the United States in 1924. Yet instead of returning home to become a respected professional among the small black middle class of Trinidad (indeed he never returned to the Caribbean), he became a student radical and soon joined the Communist Party of the USA, becoming George Padmore in the process.

Padmore’s talents as an organiser and writer meant he was soon appointed head of the Communist International’s “Negro Bureau”, and from 1929 to 1933 he threw himself into agitating for black liberation and colonial revolution, residing for periods in Moscow, Hamburg, Vienna, London and Paris, and undertaking daring underground work in colonial Africa. As well as editing the Negro Worker, Padmore wrote prolifically, and his pamphlet The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931) became something of a classic.1

However, when Russia’s Stalinist rulers, threatened by the rise of Nazi Germany, sought new diplomatic and military ties with the “democratic” empires of Britain and France, anti-colonialism ceased to be the critical issue it once was for the Communist International. Padmore, a principled anti-imperialist, resigned from his position in disgust in 1933 and was vilified by the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1935 he moved to London, the “dark heart” of the British Empire, and joined forces with his boyhood friend from Trinidad, the Trotskyist CLR James.

For the next 20 years or so Padmore devoted all his energies to the struggle to liberate Africa and the Caribbean from colonial rule. In 1937 he formed the International African Service Bureau, later the Pan-African Federation, and in 1945 was central to organising the historic Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester. Matthew Quest offers a useful discussion of the “class struggle Pan-Africanism” of the bureau’s journal International African Opinion, while Hakim Adi and the late Fitzroy Baptiste examine respectively how the fifth congress was built and how its potential impact was somewhat blunted by the realpolitik of British colonial officials.

Besides writing several books from his London home, from How Britain Rules Africa (1936) to Pan-Africanism or Communism? (1956), Padmore’s greatest triumph undoubtedly came when one of his African disciples, Kwame Nkrumah, led the Gold Coast to independence in 1957. Nkrumah had met CLR James in America during the Second World War and when Nkrumah moved to Britain in 1945 James referred him to Padmore as a matter of course.

Marika Sherwood discusses Padmore’s relationship as mentor to Nkrumah, quoting one of Padmore’s letters, from 1955, in which he notes that James “introduced [Nkrumah] to Trotskyism and I knocked that nonsense out of him before his return [to the Gold Coast]. And put in its place Pan-Africanism (black nationalism and socialism).”

The extent to which Padmore, who ended his life working as adviser to Nkrumah in Ghana, bears responsibility for the manifest failings of Nkrumah and Pan-Africanism generally is perhaps a moot question, but it is certainly one avoided in this volume due to the Pan-Africanist perspective and hagiographic tone of some of the contributors.

Fitzroy Baptiste’s fine contribution does, however, note important continuities between the Stalinist “two-stage theory” of colonial liberation (first political independence then socialism) that formed part of Padmore’s training while in Moscow and his later strategic vision for achieving “Pan-African Socialism”. Baptiste also quotes from a British Foreign Office document from December 1959 entitled “Africa: The Next Ten Years”, which, with what Baptiste notes was the “typical smugness” of those wielding imperial power, concluded that “Pan-Africanism, in itself, is not necessarily a force that we need regard with suspicion and fear”. This statement stands as an epitaph to the limitations of the “Pan-African Socialism” envisioned by Nkrumah and Padmore (and for that matter by James).

That said, George Padmore’s extraordinary lived experience as an “organic intellectual” of anti-colonial movements in Africa and the Caribbean is well brought out in this volume and remains in many ways inspiring for anti-imperialists today. Moreover, his relentless work exposing and denouncing what Karl Marx called “the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation” is of course relevant today.

Indeed, as a new “Scramble for Africa” centred around oil unfolds, the memory of anti-colonialists such as Padmore becomes particularly poignant. His fate was to be largely ignored by postcolonial studies, never forgiven by Stalinists, regarded as a “problem” by the British Labour Party and, after his death, turned into a “harmless icon” by the new Pan-Africanist rulers of post-colonial Africa. Anyone interested in the past, present and future of revolutionary socialist politics in Africa and the Caribbean can learn much from a critical engagement with his life, work and legacy.


Notes

1: For this pamphlet and more of Padmore’s wrting, go to www.marxists.org/archive/padmore/