[Liveblog] A Talk by Dr. Minkah Makalani: "Alliances Unthinkable Back Home"
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The History Department here at UCSD is hiring a new professor of African American History. The most recent candidate, Dr. Minkah Makalani from Rutgers University, gave a brilliant talk earlier this week titled “Alliances Unthinkable Back Home: C.L.R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and Black Internationalism in 1930’s London”. Since C.L.R. James usually means revolution (and who doesn't love to discuss a good revolution?), I decided to try my hand at live-blogging the event (i.e., attempting to type as much of the talk as possible as it is being given) for the new California Humanities Scholars blog and repost it to my HASTAC blog. Below you will find my record of his talk followed by much of the Q&A session (which is just as thorough, insightful and thought-provoking as the talk itself). I have also linked key words to digital resources – text, video, and interactive media projects – that should help to place his ideas in context.
Please note: Due to technical difficulties, I missed part of the background information that Dr. Makalani prefaced his talk with. As with any live-blog, there may be omissions and inaccuracies. I have attempted to fix some of the typos and to clarify certain things (additions marked in brackets…), but the purpose of this post is to convey the talk's major ideas. Anyone seeking clarification or a more rigorous presentation of Makalani’s work is encouraged to reference his numerous publications.
Below: Publicity photo of CLR James.
“Alliances Unthinkable Back Home: C.L.R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and Black Internationalism in 1930’s London”
Makalani’s work focuses on the concerns of black radicals, why they entered and left communism. One important group in the U.S. black radical movement was the African Blood Brotherhood in Harlem, which was comprised of many fair-skinned Afro-Caribbean immigrants. This complicated the racial dynamics. They would have been considered mulatto back home. This was the first time the light-skinned Afro-Caribbeans in the group had been racialized as black, so they had to learn how to negotiate new racial formations. Their vision for the [Pan-African communist] movement was one where indigenous organizing in Africa would shape the movement rather than U.S. black radicals imposing their ideas onto the African movement. They were committed to thinking about the relationship between race and class. Should they talk about socialism or negro-ology? They were looking for a way to integrate race and socialism.
Makalani’s work tracks the movement through different social groups, intellectual institutions, and radical print culture. He is particularly interested in exploring the relationship between African diaspora worlds and Asian radical movements. The Comintern [Communist International] played an important role in the development of these relationships by providing a space for Asian and black radicals to meet. But communism and the Comintern didn’t automatically draw black radicals, who were not convinced that Comintern was capable of dealing with the issue of race and colonialism. Makalani argues that it is important to think about a history of black radicalism that is separate from the history of the international left, because it provides a way to talk about intersections between radical black and radical Asian movements.
One important figure in the Asian radical movements was M.N. Roy (right), who argued that national liberation movements are themselves class struggles and that we need to see the connection between empire and racial struggles. Asian and black radicals internationalized the Comintern and the Comintern began organizing in Asian countries. Asian and black radicals argued that race was important to the international movement. In 1927, black radicals in the west organized an international congress, where they proclaimed that the fight against imperialism is an incessant struggle against white supremacy.
In 1933, CLR James (below), a native of Trinidad, established himself in London, where he would build a network of black radicals that would become central to the black radical movement. According to James, Marx’s work fails to fully account for the colonial mechanism of power, and this failure is rooted in his replication of Hegel’s stage approach to history. James shifts attention away from white workers to argue that slavery is a capitalist institution and that slaves, not the proletariat, are the basis of the capitalist economy. In his writing, James takes up the Haitian Revolution to argue that Haitian slaves were closer to Marx’s revolutionary proletariat than any other group of workers because they were more organized than any movement. James’ Black Jacobins makes significant intellectual contributions by engaging with Vodou as a medium of revolution, retheorizing Marxism, identifying slaves as the most modern proletarian, and noting that song, dance, and rites are central to revolution. Most importantly, James links anti-capitalist struggle to anti-imperial struggle.
James emerges from colonial politics of 1930s London, where black radicalism was flourishing. England was an incubator for making alliances between black radicals that would have been unthinkable back home. In the space of London, black radicals could think of themselves as more modern than Africans. In the African Diaspora, all groups experience racial oppression, but the unique racial formations that they lived in marked them as racially distinct from one another. In places like the Dominican Republic and Brazil, people might not have been racialized as black, but they were still part of the African diaspora. What it means for someone to be black changes from place to place. James’ experiences in 1930s London challenged him by forcing him to think about Africa as the main front in the revolutionary struggle. We can only understand James’ approach by looking at Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. James is engaged in rethinking the racial basis of capital. James doesn’t support the League of Nations’ sanctions against Italy because he thinks they are a ruse for war. Instead, he thinks that worker sanctions would be more effective. He wants those who suffer from imperialism all over world to organize themselves, and bring about the downfall of Italy by their own power. This brought him into conflict with pacifists. Black institutions became the basis for building the internationalist movement.
At this time, there were deep divisions within the international black community. Africans criticized Afro-Caribbeans for their ignorance of African culture and traditions, arguing that Afro-Caribbeans needed to reestablish their contact with the civilizations of their ancestors and that they needed to stop trying to be white. Initially, CLR James typified the type of Afro-Caribbean that Africans were criticizing. James felt himself a “modern intellectual” and he brought this hubris with him to England, so that when he arrived in England from his native Trinidad, he describes himself as feeling as though he were coming home to England.
Amy Ashwood Garvey (left) is the central figure in the London black diasporic community. She runs a restaurant and social club that provides a space for young black intellectuals and individuals to meet and exchange ideas. Students remember her role in very gendered terms, as a mother figure. Amy Ashwood Garvey provided a venue for political discourse and intellectual exchange, which also served as a center for West Indian agitation in London. C.L.R. James saw her as an extremely acute woman able to see what was taking place in people’s conversation. James was attracted to other radicals that travelled in that circle and who frequented the club. Amy Ashwood Garvey introduced James to Ethiopian friends so that he could assist in the struggle for the political independence of Ethiopia. Ashwood Garvey introduced him to a lot of black and African people in London, and many of the debates taking place reflected older problems that James was implicated in. Ashwood Garvey challenged his hubris. James’ interaction with African students (facilitated and made possible by Ashwood Garvey and her club) shaped his organizing. With an evolving racial consciousness, he gained a new conception of black people. He took advantage of the city’s networks, utilized public spaces to put forth the program of the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE). At this time, Black radicals were engaged in thinking about the relationship between colonialism and fascism. According to Ashwood Garvey, black people were what stood in between Europe and fascism. Ashwood Garvey was the central figure in IAFE, encouraged West African Student Union to establish ties with Ethiopian community. According to IAFE, Ethiopia could only be saved by the actions of Ethiopians and marginalized communities all over the world. IAFE starts thinking about expanding operations beyond Ethiopia. The IAFE became the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and served as a socialist organization that disseminated info about Africa. The motto of one of their revolutionary periodicals, The International African Opinion, read “Educate Cooperate Emancipate, neutral in nothing effecting African peoples”. The IASB supported African rights and self-determination, and provided a link between Africans in Africa and Africans abroad by exchanging information between the two and theorizing the struggle. The struggle against fascism in Africa and against colonialism in Africa is central to struggle against fascism in Europe. Colonialism is fascism. The group had a small membership, but the core membership consisted of prolific writers. Of these, James was the most prolific. James convinces a publisher of the need for Marxist books that aren’t linked to the communist party, because this would give internationalism and Trotskyism a chance to influence people. The first of the books that James writes to fill this need is World Revolution. The ideas on which book are based are the fundamental ideas of Marxism. He offers a critique of the popular front. He argues that the clash of interests over Ethiopia created fractures in socialism, and that the Third International had missed its best opportunity in years to strike blow against colonialism and rally the mass of workers. He compares the leaders of the Communist Third International to Mussolini and fascism. James rethinks Marxism through the colonial question.
His next book, Black Jacobins, marks shift in British intellectual thought. He ultimately concludes that the center of revolution is Africa because Africans are the most similar to Haitian revolutionaries. On the eve of World War II, Africans are the most advanced proletariat in the war and the Haitian Revolution is a prelude to an African revolution. James situates Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, within the train of European enlightenment thought, so that the failures of Toussaint L’Ouverture are the failures of the Enlightenment. The failings of the Caribbean are the failures of modernity and colonial thinking. Colonial thinking had confined Afro-Caribbeans to a narrow strip of territory. To advance, Afro-Caribbeans must (1) go abroad and (2) let go of the idea that anything African is degraded.
James critiques colonial modes of thought and he is able to think through the racial matrix of capitalism. But he is only able to arrive at this position within the Black diasporic and socialist community in 1930s London. Amy Ashwood Garvey was as central to rethinking colonialism as George Padmore. She is a central figure in London’s Black internationalist community. The IASB had a broad, long-term impact and we can only think about this in the context of the social networks created and made possible by Amy Ashwood Garvey’s restaurant and social club.
Question and Answer
Q: What’s the broader impact of this story?
A: The activity becomes international. It has long-term effects on the ground in the US. In US, black radicalism wasn’t crushed by McCarthyism, but instead it goes underground and moves into clandestine organizations, and you see it emerge later in movements like the Black Panthers. It’s important to see Black radical activity as being rooted in black radicals’ own activity, not in the Comintern. You see it again in the 1940s and 1950s with the labor uprisings in Caribbean, which signal the end of the English in the Caribbean. These groups were in communication with Black radicals and they were organizing with transatlantic organizations. You also see Africans coordinating with England and elsewhere.
Q: How aware are the black radicals that there is non-white colonialism? How knowledgeable are they? How do they account for the fact that non-whites are involved?
A: I would say they understood it well. They were talking about Japanese imperialism from day one and engaging in discourses about Chinese workers being exploited in Japan. They saw it in the same light as European imperialism. They didn’t see things done by people of color as being different than when it was done by whites. In their discussions, Tokyo was folded into European colonial centers.
Q: Could you please further develop the connection between diaspora community and their understanding of what it means to be Black?
A: In the US, Afro-Caribbeans are primarily concerned with getting away from the divisions separating one another. They didn’t want to make distinctions between where people were from and the darkness of their skin. They advanced a notion of political Blackness as being similarly positioned at the bottom of the racial hierarchy regardless of where the individual is. This helps to create a unified movement, but it could also work against it by allowing people to position themselves as more modern or better while still claiming solidarity. Confronting difference helps James rethink modernity and the west. My work show a vibrant moment in 1930s London where Black radicals can relate to Indian radicals and Asian radicals. This seems to open up the possibility of breaking out of dominant racial discourses, but it falls apart in the 1940s and 1950s.
Q: What’s the locus of resistance? Where is “nation” in your story?
A: The fundamental element of the Comintern is nation. Black internationalists are trying to build ties across national boundaries. They don’t try to move against nation as a form, but their language suggests a gesture towards getting rid of the nation when they argue for inter-colonial networks. But their primary concern is ending the colonial/fascist relationship.
Q: Could you go into more detail about Amy Ashwood Garvey’s role in the movement? Was she an equal with the men in giving speeches and writing pamphlets, or was her role more in organizing and being a mother figure?
A: It was more akin to the latter. Frankly, she doesn’t have time to write because she is busy running the institutions. The diasporic population in London is so small that you can’t have larger institutions like you see in Harlem and Paris. So her work is vital in creating the time and space and, Makalani suspects—though he hasn’t been able to find any documentation to substantiate it—providing the money that allows them to do what they are doing. She is also a formidable intellectual. She is absolutely central intellectually and organizationally, even if she doesn’t write herself. In fact, her main conflict with her ex-husband Marcus Garvey is that she was more radical and she refused to take a secondary role. She is owed a much more central place in intellectual history. Rewriting the intellectual history of the movement may compel historians to expand their definition of what constitutes intellectual activity.
Q: How do you teach diaspora?
A: I’m actually teaching a class on diaspora right now. I try to look at how people are developing relationships to one another, how they are negotiating differences, and how we see people of African descent being able to build connections across those lines. You look at markers of difference and how people negotiate those differences. At a graduate student level, you try to find ways of understanding their politics when they aren’t naming themselves as diasporic. You look how similar communities are engaged in similar struggles and you track how people are dealing with diaspora as a formation and as an analytic framework.
Q: What counts as politics? You seem to be offering more of an intellectual history, but what about the role of the soldiers and sailors? What is engaged in the domain of politics in the relationship between metropolitan intellectuals and, say, armed insurrections on the streets of Singapore?
A: Intellectuals are recognizing these people and spaces as already very politicized. Since maritime workers have access to other parts of the world, they are able to transmit information or facilitate exchanges that might not occur otherwise. With soldiers, they try to radicalize the soldiers. Radicals see soldiers as having great import in social struggle.