The Russian Revolution, Africa and the Diaspora

W.
E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois viewing the May Day parade in
Moscow’s Red Square, May 1, 195
9.

From the time of the Great October Revolution in 1917, Africans and
those of African heritage around the world gravitated towards the
revolutionary events in Russia and Communism,
seeing in them a path to their own liberation. Perhaps not surprisingly
then, many of the main black political figures of the twentieth
century, in Africa and elsewhere, have been Communists, or at least
inspired and influenced by the international communist movement. These
include such diverse figures as André Aliker, Aimé Césaire, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, W.E.B Du Bois, Elma Francois, Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, Alex la Guma, Audley Moore, Josie Mpama, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Paul Robeson, Jacques Romain, Thomas Sankara, Ousmane Sembène and Lamine Senghor.
African Americans and those in the African diaspora were impressed by
the prospect that the Revolution might spread globally and signal the
end of the capital-centered system and all that went with it including
racist oppression. The Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay
therefore referred to the October Revolution as “the greatest event in
the history of humanity,” and Bolshevism as “the greatest and most
scientific idea in the world today.” 
Another Jamaican, Wilfred Domingo wondered, “will Bolshevism accomplish
the full freedom of Africa, colonies in which Negroes are the majority,
and promote human tolerance and happiness in the United States?”
There was thus an early admiration for the Revolution from the
perspective that it heralded the possibility of an alternative to the
capital-centered system which would be to the advantage of those who
were oppressed in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in
Africa. These were the perspectives of those early twentieth century
organizations, which were inspired by the October Revolution such as the
African Blood Brotherhood in the United States, which subsequently
included many leading black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Cyril
Biggs, Harry Haywood and Grace Campbell.
  

Singer and actor Paul Robeson during his tour in Moscow in August 1958. 

Once the new Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s,
several prominent figures traveled to see at first hand the construction
of socialism and remarked on the absence of racism and national
oppression. Indeed, this was a common theme in the eye-witness accounts
of visitors such as W.E.B. Du Bois,
Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. As early as 1926, on his return from
the Soviet Union, the prominent African American scholar-activist Du
Bois publicly acknowledged,
“I stand in astonishment at the revelation of Russia that has come to
me…If I what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears is
Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” Even the famous Pan-Africanist George
Padmore, a former communist from Trinidad who had parted company with
the communist movement, wrote a major book in 1945, How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire,
over a decade after his expulsion. Padmore still felt compelled to
publish what was, in effect, a celebration of the revolutionary
transformation of 1917 and the elimination of national oppression which
in the author’s view was a consequence of it.

The significance of the October Revolution was not just in the event
itself, but the fact that it gave rise to the construction of a new
political and economic system in the Soviet Union and to a new
international communist movement organized from 1919 in the Third
(Communist) International, or Comintern. The aim of the Comintern was to
create the conditions for revolutionary transformation outside the
Soviet Union and from its inception it took a very keen interest in
Africa and other colonies, as well as in what came to be called the ‘Negro Question’–the
question of how Africans and those of African heritage could liberate
themselves and put an end to all forms of racist oppression. In fact,
there was no other international organization that took such a stand,
that was openly opposed to both colonialism and racism and attempted to organize all people of African descent for their own liberation.

The fact that the Comintern grappled with the ‘Negro Question,’
included in its ranks Communists of all nationalities and took a strong
stand in opposition to colonialism and racism endeared it to many in
Africa and beyond, even when there was some dissatisfaction with the
communist parties in Britain, France, the United States and South
Africa. To some, these parties appeared to be dragging their feet over
the important Negro Question. There was a widespread view that the
Comintern was more revolutionary, the custodian of the legacy of the
October Revolution and therefore more concerned about such matters than
some of its constituent parties. This certainly seemed to be the case
when the Comintern demanded that the Communist Party in South Africa
should be a party of the masses of the people of that country, led by
Africans, and that it should first champion the rule of the majority in
what was considered a colony of a special type, even if many of the
leaders of that party had a contrary view.

The decisions of the
Comintern were similarly firm and controversial in relation to the
orientation to be adopted for the African American struggle for
self-determination in the so-called ‘Black Belt’ in the United States.
Whatever may be said of the Comintern’s policy, it undoubtedly raised
the profile, significance and centrality of that struggle and, as recent
historical accounts have shown, laid many of the foundations for the
later struggles for civil rights and Black Power. What is more, the
Comintern’s position had an impact outside of the United States,
influencing communist parties in Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Eventually, Black Communists took a lead in demanding the creation of a
specialized organization–the International Trade Union Committee of
Negro Workers (ITUCNW).

The importance of the ITUCNW, its organ Negro Worker, as
well as other publications, was that the revolutionary politics and
impact of the October Revolution and of the Comintern were spread
throughout the world– particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, as well
as in Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s. As part of the work of the
ITUCNW workers and others were recruited from the British colonies in
West Africa, as well as from South Africa
and in time, students were sent from many parts of Africa to the Soviet
Union. Others traveled to see the consequences of the October
Revolution from the Caribbean and from the United States. In the period
between the wars, hundreds made this journey including leading
anti-colonial figures such as Isaac Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone,
Jomo Kenyatta, future prime minister of Kenya, and Albert Nzula, the
first black general secretary of the South African Communist Party
(SACP).
  

Black Communists in the Soviet Union in the 1930s

Perhaps the most important legacy of the October Revolution was the
theory that emerged from it and the experience of building a new social
system while surrounded by a capital-centered world. What was
demonstrated was that another world was possible and that those who were
the producers of value could be their own liberators and could
construct this new world themselves. This alternative and the prospect
of liberation continued to inspire individuals and organizations in
Africa and the diaspora throughout the inter-war period and particularly
during the Second World War thereafter–when the Soviet Union led the
defeat of fascism and created the possibility of national liberation and
the restoration of sovereignty in those countries that languished under
colonial rule.

For some, this theory was embodied in the personality and work of V.I
Lenin, who continued to inspire many. In 1970, during a visit to
Kazakhstan, Amilcar Cabral–the famous leader of the national liberation
struggle in what was then Portuguese Guinea–is reported to have said,
“How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire
straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is:
this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a
revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the
greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” Cabral was
far from alone in voicing his admiration from Lenin’s work and
contribution. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader from Burkina
Faso, not only expressed his admiration for Lenin’s writing, which he
claimed to have read in its entirety, but was rather more specific in
his praise of the ‘great revolution of October 1917 [that] transformed
the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundations of
capitalism and made possible the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.” In 1984, he concluded, “the revolution of 1917 teaches us many things.”

The world has changed considerably since 1917. The Soviet Union and
the construction of socialism in some other countries have been
terminated. Communism – the doctrine of the conditions for the
liberation of the wealth producers has not and cannot be terminated,
although clearly there is a need for a modern Communism providing
solutions for modern problems. The October Revolution demonstrated that
another world is possible, that this alternative is not a utopia, and
that we can all be the agents of change and the makers of history.

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