Excerpt: In the Cause of Freedom, by Minkah Makalani

In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, by Minkah MakalaniIn the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, by Minkah Makalani, reveals how early-twentieth-century black radicals organized an international movement centered on ending racial oppression, colonialism, class exploitation, and global white supremacy. Focused primarily on two organizations, the Harlem-based African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), and the International African Service Bureau, In the Cause of Freedom examines the ideas, initiatives, and networks of interwar black radicals, as well as how they communicated across continents.

In the following excerpt, Makalani introduces some key players and original ideas that help the movement coalesce. (pp. 3-5):


The International Conference of Negro Workers convened in Hamburg, Germany, and established the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW). [William] Patterson and [James] Ford worked closely with George Padmore, a young Trinidadian radical active in the Communist Party’s Harlem branch, to organize the conference. Padmore quickly assumed leadership of the ITUCNW and from Hamburg directed efforts to organize black maritime workers in Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean. He also edited the group’s journal, Negro Worker, and built a network of contacts throughout the African diaspora. The ITUCNW provided the institutional apparatus through which a black international would take shape. Indeed, those involved in the ITUCNW went on to work with others in African national liberation movements, anticolonial organizations, and struggles against racial oppression. Padmore rose to international prominence, building lasting relationships with [Garan] Kouyaté, [Johnstone (Jomo)] Kenyatta, the South African labor organizer and Communist Albert Nzula, and a host of other African, Caribbean, and Indian radicals. After leaving the Comintern in 1933, Padmore and Kouyaté worked on the abortive Negro World Unity Congress, and with Kenyatta and others, Padmore would establish the anticolonial organization, the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in London in 1937.

Patterson’s brief account of his route to Frankfurt provides a window onto the history of interwar radical black internationalism that In the Cause of Freedom seeks to narrate. This story travels from the heights of 1920s Harlem radicalism to the summit of anticolonial activism and black international organizing in 1930s London, encompassing the ideas, activities, organizations, and networks of the black radicals who made this history. This volume focuses particularly on their thinking about race, colonialism, and class struggle in their pursuit of a worldwide movement centered on pan-African liberation. Early-twentieth-century black radicals were witness to a world that they believed teetered between revolution and repression, self-determination and ever-expanding empires. In the wake of a destructive world war that itself proved the catalyst for the movement of black laborers into cities and countries around the world, the growing crisis over the European colonial presence around the globe, and the rise of socialist and communist alternatives to Western democracy, black radicals sought alternative forms of political activism and began to forge links to other African diasporic radicals. These activists were convinced that whether humanity enjoyed greater freedoms or suffered even harsher colonial regimes hinged on the struggles that peoples of African descent in the United States, Caribbean, and Africa would wage against racism, colonialism, and capitalism and on their ability to link these struggles with similar movements in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. Briggs captured this sentiment in 1920 when he proclaimed simply but profoundly, “The cause of freedom, whether in Asia or Ireland or Africa, is our cause.”[1]

This book tells a new kind of story about those radicals who found the Comintern efficacious for building such a movement. Their thinking about race and colonialism led them to embrace organized Marxism and to theorize African and Asian liberation as the driving forces of proletarian revolution.[2] It accords special attention to the nuances of radical internationalism as it emerged both from these activists’ immediate circumstances and through an array of transatlantic exchanges that they carried on through pamphlets and periodicals, correspondence, and debates. These exchanges allowed black radicals to build important ties and connections that would reverberate throughout much of the century.

In the Cause of Freedom follows these black radicals on their odyssey in search of a worldwide movement. Beginning with those radicals who established the ABB in 1919, it tracks their role in the rise of an independent black radicalism within the intellectual and political institutions and social interactions of Harlem. Uptown boasted a rich intellectual culture whose study groups, lyceums, intellectual forums, and formal debates constantly brought to the surface questions of race, colonialism, and liberation. A walk down the street in Harlem or a lunch break in a park often brought one within earshot of a speaker who unraveled the relationship between southern lynchings, unsanitary tenement housing, and global conflicts over African colonies. In social clubs, fraternal lodges, beauty salons, and barbershops as well as at local sporting events, people would discuss a dynamic minister’s proselytizing about poor southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants or W. E. B. Du Bois’s most recent Crisis editorial. For those black radicals from the Socialist Party of America who joined black nationalists in creating the ABB, these were the venues where they carried out their intellectual work. This history is essential to any understanding of black radicals in the Communist International. For within these institutions, ABB radicals were already elaborating an internationalist politics that saw struggles in Asia, Latin America, Ireland, and Europe as essential to black liberation and world revolution. But in 1919, when the Comintern declared its support for Asian and African anticolonial struggle, it became, as historian Hakim Adi notes, “perhaps the era’s sole international white-led movement . . . formally dedicated to a revolutionary transformation of the global political and racial order.” This position made the Comintern appealing to many black radicals.[3]

Indeed, when the first ABB radicals became Communists, they had not so much joined “the American Party, they had joined the Comintern.”[4] Yet this is not a simple matter of the ABB’s anti-imperialism leading its members, almost naturally, to the Comintern. A full account of the period leads one to ask, for example, why ABB radicals were initially hesitant about the Bolsheviks. And why, during a nearly thee-year run, did the ABB’s magazine, the Crusader, only mention the Comintern in three of its final five issues? Answers to these questions do not lie in overdrawn debates about Kremlin intrigue, black naïveté, and the antiracism of the American communists that has guided a great deal of the writing on blacks in organized communism.[5]

What has gone largely unremarked in the scholarship on blacks in organized communism is how Asian radicals opened up the Comintern so that it might be seen as a vehicle for pan-African liberation. Almost at its inception, Asian radicals challenged the privileged position that Comintern leaders accorded white workers in socialism, proposing instead that Asian liberation would signal the hour of liberation for European workers. Indeed, black and Asian radicals were engaged in parallel debates about race and nation within Marxism. And black radicals entered the theoretical breach opened by Asian radicals to raise the importance of race in socialist thought. Bringing Asian radicals into a history of early-twentieth-century radical black internationalism alters the standard narrative arc of accounts by allowing black radicals in communist parties in England, France, and the United States a history outside the white Left.[6]


From In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, by Minkah Makalani. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Minkah Makalani is assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @minkahm or at the In the Cause of Freedom Facebook page.

  1. [1]Cyril Briggs, “The Problem of Asia; or, Getting the Boot,” Crusader, January 1920, 14.
  2. [2]I use “organized Marxism” for a range of communist and socialist formations that considered themselves Marxist. “Organized Left” more broadly includes formations that pushed a leftist politics but were not Marxists (e.g., labor unions and anarchists).
  3. [3]Adi, “Negro Question,” 155.
  4. [4]Winston James, Holding Aloft, 180.
  5. [5]Much of the anticommunist historiography insists on the centrality of Kremlin intrigue and thus sees the Comintern as giving black radicals their radicalism. This view portrays black radicals as naive dupes or, worse still, as duplicitous in the moral outrages of Stalinism. For works along these lines, see Draper, Roots; Draper, American Communism; Record, Negro and the Communist Party; Record, Race and Radicalism; Glazer, Social Basis; Shannon, Decline; Klehr, Heyday; Klehr and Tompson, “Self-Determination”; Klehr and Haynes, American Communist Movement; Klehr, Haynes, and Firsov, Secret World; Klehr, Haynes, and Anderson, Soviet World; Haynes and Klehr, Venona; Arnesen, “No ‘Graver Danger.'”

    Social historians of the Left have given far more attention to the actual workings of American communism—that is, how local party branches responded to directives from Russia in light of the realities on the ground. As these works convincingly show, Comintern directives and American party activities never had a simple relationship, and the lure of Moscow gold never led these radicals to abandon their principles. For works that touch on black radicals with an eye to debating Cold War historians, see Phillip Foner, American Socialism; Phillip Foner, Organized Labor; Phillip Foner and Allen, American Communism; Carr, “Origins”; Naison, Communists in Harlem; Buhle, Marxism in the United States; Isserman, Which Side?; Isserman, If I Had a Hammer; Mullen, Popular Fronts; Horne, “Red and The Black”; Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare; Susan Campbell, “‘Black Bolsheviks'”; Skotnes, “Communist Party”; Maxwell, New Negro; Solomon, Cry Was Unity; Foley, Radical Representations; Foley, Spectres; Berland, “Emergence, Part I and II.”

  6. [6]For a growing body of work that takes up similar concerns, see Wu, “African-Vietnamese American”; Onishi, “New Negro”; Mullen, Afro-Orientalism; Maeda, “Black Panthers, Red Guards.”