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  • Soviet poster depicts African liberation fighter breaking the chains of colonialism.

    Soviet poster depicts African liberation fighter breaking the chains of colonialism. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Published 7 November 2017
Once the Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s, several prominent figures traveled to see first hand the construction of socialism.

The Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917 was welcomed by Africans and those of African heritage, who saw in it a path to their own liberation. Perhaps not surprisingly then, many of the main political figures of the 20th century, in Africa and elsewhere, have been communists, or at least inspired and influenced by the October Revolution.

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These include such diverse figures as André Aliker, Aimé Césaire, Angela Davis, W.E.B Du Bois, Elma Francois, Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, Nelson Mandela, Audley Moore, Josie Mpama, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Paul Robeson, Jacques Romain, Thomas Sankara, Ousmane Sembène, Lamine Senghor and Walter Sisulu.

The earliest African supporters of the Russian Revolution may well have been combatants during World War I, who were contacted by revolutionary Russian troops demanding an end to the global conflict, or those impressed by the position of the Bolshevik government which exposed the secret treaties of the big powers in late 1917. 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 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." There was thus an early admiration for the revolution from the perspective that it heralded the possibility of an alternative which would be to the advantage of those who were oppressed in the United States and the Caribbean, as well in Africa.

These were the perspectives of those early 20th 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.

Once the new Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s, several prominent figures traveled to see first hand the construction of socialism and remarked on the absence of racism and national oppression. Indeed, this was a common theme in the eyewitness 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 and activist Du Bois publicly acknowledged, "I stand in astonishment at the revelation of Russia that has come to me … if what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik."

The significance of the October Revolution, 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 in 1919 as the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern. The aim of the Comintern was to create the conditions for revolutionary transformation in other parts of the world and from its inception it took a very keen interest in Africa and other colonies, as well as in what came to be referred to in those times as the Negro Question — the question of how Africans and those of African heritage could liberate themselves from colonial rule 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 those of African descent for their own liberation.

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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. There was a widespread view that the Comintern was the revolutionary 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.

Indeed, the Comintern’s approach resonated globally. After all, it was Vladimir Lenin himself who had first raised this Negro Question for discussion at the Comintern’s first congress and whose views on the importance of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles emerged from his and the Bolsheviks’ experience of uniting workers of many different nationalities to overthrow the Tsarist ‘prison of nations’ in Russia.

Just as in Russia, where Lenin called for an alliance between the working class and the largely non-Russian peasantry, he also called for an alliance between the revolutionary movement of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries and the anti-colonial movements and oppressed peoples globally to undermine and destroy imperialism. The importance of the Negro Question, whether in relation to Africa or the diaspora, therefore appeared to be one of some importance and to have a direct relationship to the experience and victories of the October Revolution.

The Comintern took special measures to assist and strengthen the global struggle for African liberation. Here the agency of Black communists themselves was important, taking a lead in demanding a specialized organization under the auspices of the Profintern, which became knwn as the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers.

The importance of the ITUCNW, its publication, "The Negro Worker," as well as others, was that the revolutionary politics and impact of the October Revolution and of the Comintern were spread throughout the world, and particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in Europe, throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. Thanks to the ITUCNW, activists emerged in many countries and many traveled to see the results of the revolution and to study in the Soviet Union. In the period between the two world wars, hundreds made this journey including leading anti-colonial figures such as Isaac Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone, Jomo Kenyatta, a future president of Kenya, and Albert Nzula, the first Black general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa.

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 WWII and 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.

Hakim Adi is the author of "Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939," and a contributor to Black Perspectives.

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