“Negro Workers, Defend the Soviet Union and the Chinese Revolution!” – The International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers and the Political Rhetoric of The Negro Worker

Cov­er of the April 1932 issue of the Negro Work­er

Introduction

The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers (ITUCNW) was an ini­tia­tive by the Red Inter­na­tion­al of Labor Unions (RILU, also known as Profin­tern) to attract and orga­nize the black work­ing class – or toil­ers, accord­ing to an old­er mil­i­tant vocab­u­lary – in the African Atlantic dur­ing the inter­war peri­od. Estab­lished in 1928 as the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of the RILU, it belonged to a group of new com­mit­tees and orga­ni­za­tions formed dur­ing the so-called Third Peri­od, when the Third (Com­mu­nist) Inter­na­tion­al or the Com­intern inau­gu­rat­ed its new “class-against-class” pol­i­cy. Among oth­er things, this pol­i­cy was a broad­side attack against reformist and social-demo­c­ra­t­ic trade unions and par­ties, tar­get­ing them as “social fas­cist.” In com­par­i­son to the pre­vi­ous “unit­ed front from below” tac­tics, which had opened up a lim­it­ed space for co-oper­a­tion between com­mu­nists and social-demo­c­ra­t­ic or reformist labor orga­ni­za­tions over the course of the 1920s, the new tac­tic called for vig­or­ous “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” oppo­si­tion­al pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly with­in the labor unions.1 

These “class-against-class” tac­tics were to be ful­ly applied in those coun­tries where Com­mu­nist par­ties exist­ed and/or where Com­mu­nists were mem­bers of trade unions. While this was the case through­out Europe, a large part of the Amer­i­c­as, and Asia, a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion pre­vailed in the Black Atlantic.2 Although the Com­intern had rec­og­nized the impor­tance of “Negro work” in the Unit­ed States and in South Africa dur­ing the 1920s, oth­er parts of the Black Atlantic, such as sub-Saha­ran Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca, the Caribbean, or Europe remained blank spots on the men­tal map of the Com­intern lead­er­ship. In addi­tion, the activ­i­ties of the Com­mu­nist Par­ties in the Unit­ed States and in South Africa still left large sec­tors of the black pop­u­la­tion untouched.3 In this emp­ty space, rad­i­cal Pan-African­ist orga­ni­za­tions such as the Unit­ed Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion (UNIA) or the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple count­ed thou­sands of black activists in their mem­ber­ship rolls and espe­cial­ly the for­mer orga­ni­za­tion had fol­low­ers and admir­ers through­out the African Atlantic.4 

Key Pan-African­ist thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois or Mar­cus Gar­vey stressed that black peo­ple all over the world were oppressed and exploit­ed. Du Bois had declared that racism, seg­re­ga­tion, and dis­crim­i­na­tion sep­a­rat­ed black and white peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and claimed that the black pop­u­la­tion could only over­come its plight by unit­ing and agi­tat­ing for civ­il rights and racial jus­tice. Gar­vey, the leader of the UNIA, went even fur­ther by call­ing for a “back-to-Africa” move­ment and prop­a­gat­ed the slo­gan for a “Unit­ed Africa.”5 

The Pan-African­ists’ focus on racial oppres­sion was a chal­lenge for the Com­mu­nists. On the one hand, from its begin­nings the Com­intern had declared its sup­port for the nation­al inde­pen­dence of all “semi-colo­nial” and colo­nial nations: the for­mer being first and fore­most Chi­na, the lat­ter includ­ing all Asian and African colonies. But what about oppressed peo­ple with­in a nation, such as the African Amer­i­cans in the Unit­ed States or the black pop­u­la­tion in South Africa? Mat­ters became even more com­pli­cat­ed in 1928 when the Com­intern launched the so-called Black Belt the­sis, i.e., the idea of an autonomous black repub­lic in the U.S. South.6 As an added dif­fi­cul­ty, Com­intern the­o­rists in Moscow soon had to come to grips with the stark fact that few of the down­trod­den and oppressed black toil­ers in the African Atlantic were Com­mu­nists; at best, they were luke­warm to the mes­sage of the Com­mu­nist par­ties in their respec­tive nations and seemed to have lit­tle inter­est in join­ing Com­mu­nist sec­tions of the labor unions. 

The foun­da­tion of the ITUCNW was the first step in a sus­tained effort by the Com­intern and RILU to build an alter­na­tive, rad­i­cal for­ma­tion in the African Atlantic. In con­trast to the Pan-African­ist orga­ni­za­tions which direct­ed their mes­sage to black peo­ple in gen­er­al, the ITUCNW pre­sent­ed itself in the African Atlantic as a class orga­ni­za­tion whose exclu­sive, but expan­sive, con­cern was the black pro­le­tari­at.7 The first part of this brief intro­duc­to­ry arti­cle will track the rhetor­i­cal strat­e­gy deployed in in The Negro Work­er, the organ of the ITUCNW, with an analy­sis of the call for a glob­al unit­ed front dur­ing the Manchuri­an Cri­sis of 1931–32.8 How­ev­er, since I only have access to copies of the jour­nal from 1928 to mid-1932, I will be unable to cov­er any rhetor­i­cal shifts after August 1932.9 While in ear­li­er essays I have high­light­ed the dis­cur­sive cen­tral­i­ty of class by main­ly using unpub­lished mate­r­i­al from the Com­intern Archives in Moscow, in this arti­cle I will sole­ly con­cen­trate on texts pub­lished in The Negro Work­er.10 

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, a “class-before-race” argu­ment is strong­ly elab­o­rat­ed in The Negro Work­er, its main thrust direct­ed towards lead­ing Pan-African­ist activists and orga­ni­za­tions. While such an empha­sis may seem crude in light of urgent con­tem­po­rary efforts to artic­u­late the rela­tion­ship between class and race, a close exam­i­na­tion of this focus on the black work­ing class reveals more com­plex ten­den­cies at play: indeed, a sub­ter­ranean his­to­ry of inter­na­tion­al­ism and anti-impe­ri­al­ist analy­sis.11 As Har­ry Hay­wood lat­er not­ed in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Black Bol­she­vik, the ICUTNW itself was “the first attempt to bring black work­ers togeth­er on a world scale,” and the organization’s found­ing con­fer­ence was “the first time black work­ers from Africa and the Amer­i­c­as had got­ten togeth­er.”12 And despite the struc­tur­al con­straints of Third Peri­od Com­intern ide­ol­o­gy, The Negro Work­er drew atten­tion to the sheer het­ero­gene­ity of the black pro­le­tari­at in the African Atlantic, and pos­si­ble spaces where sol­i­dar­i­ty could be forged between a wide set of actors.13 The key­word often used across its pages, “black toil­ers,” encom­passed a vast range of labor forms, sites, and polit­i­cal sub­jects, from rail­way­men in South Africa, rub­ber work­ers in Liberia, dock­work­ers in Euro­pean ports, to min­ers and share­crop­pers in the U.S. South. In C.L.R. James’s assess­ment, the pub­li­ca­tion pro­vid­ed “infor­ma­tion, advice, guid­ance, ideas about black strug­gles on every con­ti­nent” – a pre­cious hub of polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and edu­ca­tion for both orga­nized and unor­ga­nized work­ers.14 

Under the edi­tor­ship of Trinida­di­an and CPUSA mem­ber George Pad­more dur­ing the peri­od cov­ered below, The Negro Work­er ran reports and arti­cles from ITUCNW mem­bers on the exten­sive con­stel­la­tion of anti-colo­nial and anti-impe­ri­al­ist activ­i­ties (strikes, revolts, upris­ings, emerg­ing labor move­ments, and con­fer­ences) tak­ing shape in Africa, Europe, the Unit­ed States, and the Caribbean, even reach­ing into India and Chi­na.15 In Minkah Makalani’s assess­ment, Pad­more uncov­ered and devel­oped a “pro­duc­tive ten­sion” between “Moscow’s man­dates” – with a recog­ni­tion of the mate­r­i­al impor­tance of the Com­intern to anti-colo­nial strug­gle – “and an expan­sive cov­er­age that had African lib­er­a­tion,” includ­ing African dias­poric lib­er­a­tion, “at its core.”16 In so doing, he and the oth­er inte­gral ITUCNW activists con­struct­ed an impres­sive transna­tion­al for­ma­tion, which con­test­ed the glob­al process­es of inter­war cap­i­tal­ism and estab­lished spa­tial­ly stretched alliances and polit­i­cal net­works span­ning metro­pole and periph­ery.

But this inter­colo­nial focus and black inter­na­tion­al­ist out­look ran into real lim­its. In their inter­nal cor­re­spon­dence and in their cor­re­spon­dence with oth­er (white) Com­mu­nists, the lead­ing fig­ures of the ITUCNW, includ­ing Pad­more, the African Amer­i­can labor union activist James W. Ford, and the Suri­namese activist and CPUSA mem­ber Otto Huis­woud were high­ly crit­i­cal about the racist atti­tudes they found among lead­ing Com­mu­nists in the Unit­ed States and in Europe.17 Nev­er­the­less, while Pad­more was an espe­cial­ly staunch crit­ic of the bla­tant racism he faced in the British and French Com­mu­nist Par­ties, none of the black Com­mu­nists voiced their crit­i­cism in texts pub­lished in The Negro Work­er dur­ing this peri­od. While Pad­more began to open­ly crit­i­cize the Com­intern and the Com­mu­nist par­ties for racial atti­tudes after his break with the Com­mu­nists in 1933–34, Ford and Huis­woud did not.

The Class Rhetoric in The Negro Worker

The Negro Work­er was the mouth­piece of the ITUCNW. Ini­tial­ly, it was edit­ed and pub­lished by the “Inter­na­tion­al Negro Work­ers’ Infor­ma­tion Bureau” in Moscow. This Bureau was in effect the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the RILU as James W. Ford, the first edi­tor of the jour­nal, informed his read­ers in 1928.18 Ford stressed that the RILU includ­ed in its ranks work­ers of all races, and fur­ther under­lined that its aim was to com­bat all forms of reformism and white chau­vin­ism. There­fore, he con­clud­ed, the RILU had decid­ed to estab­lish a new umbrel­la orga­ni­za­tion – the ITUCNW of the RILU – which includ­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from black work­ers in the Unit­ed States, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin Amer­i­ca.19 At this point, the vision in Moscow seems to have been to estab­lish a kind of a Black Inter­na­tion­al. How­ev­er, these plans were shelved in Octo­ber 1931 when the Exec­u­tive Bureau of the Com­intern decid­ed that the activ­i­ties of the ITUCNW were lim­it­ed to the British, French, Bel­gian and Por­tuguese colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.20

The polit­i­cal lan­guage and rhetoric used in The Negro Work­er was that of the Third Peri­od, but with spe­cif­ic objects of crit­i­cism and audi­ences: all issues con­tained attacks against “reformism” and Pan-African­ists, as well as calls for a inter­na­tion­al unit­ed front of work­ers irre­spec­tive of their col­or. In April 1930, African Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Har­ry Hay­wood made an appeal to com­bat all forms of “nation­al reformism among Negro toil­ers,” name­ly the British Labour Par­ty, the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ties, the Inde­pen­dent Labour Par­ty, the Ams­ter­dam Inter­na­tion­al, and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor, in addi­tion to the “Negro mid­dle class­es and intel­li­gentsia.”21 One month lat­er, RILU Sec­re­tary gen­er­al Alexan­der Lozovksy declared that “the Negro work­ers are part and par­cel of the whole inter­na­tion­al pro­le­tari­at,” under­lined the inter­na­tion­al strug­gle of the work­ing class for social, nation­al, and racial lib­er­a­tion and con­clud­ed that “with­out the class strug­gle it is impos­si­ble, nor can it be pos­si­ble, to abol­ish race oppres­sion.”22 In fact, the first offi­cial procla­ma­tion of the ITUCNW after its (re-) estab­lish­ment at the First Inter­na­tion­al Negro Work­ers Con­fer­ence in Ham­burg in July 1930, end­ed with a gen­uine “class-against-class” line: “Down with the Social-Fas­cists and Reformists from the Sec­ond and Ams­ter­dam Inter­na­tion­als, lack­eys of cap­i­tal­ism and trai­tors of the work­ing class!”23 George Pad­more put forth a sim­i­lar mes­sage a few months lat­er: “The social-fas­cist par­ties and trade union orga­ni­za­tions, whether affil­i­at­ed with the Ams­ter­dam and II Inter­na­tion­al or the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor in the Unit­ed States, have not defend­ed the inter­ests of the black and white work­ers.”24 

How­ev­er, the main ene­mies and tar­gets of the ITUCNW were the “Negro bour­geois lead­ers” who were brand­ed as trai­tors of the black pro­le­tari­at. Brand­ed as the “tools of the bour­geoisie impe­ri­al­ists,” Mar­cus Gar­vey and “Gar­vey­ism” were sin­gled out as pro­mot­ing reac­tionary utopias among black pro­le­tar­i­ans.25 Pad­more was very frank when he declared that “Negro reformism,” most notably “Gar­vey­ism,” was the biggest obsta­cle for sen­si­tiz­ing the class-strug­gle among the black work­ing class in the African Atlantic: “Reformism among the Negroes has its social basis in cer­tain sec­tions of the Negro mid­dle class and intel­li­gentsia. […] In the strug­gle between the impe­ri­al­ist rul­ing class­es, and the oppressed Negro work­ers and peas­ants there can be no mid­dle road, but only the road of class strug­gle.”26 The chal­lenge of the ITUCNW was to expose the “Negro reformists,” under­lined Otto Huis­woud, denounc­ing them for join­ing the impe­ri­al­ists and white cap­i­tal­ists “in their attempt to sup­press the revolts of the Negro mass­es,” par­tic­u­lar­ly in West Africa, Bel­gian Con­go, South Africa, and in Haiti.27 

“Negro, White and Indian toilers, form a united front with your Chinese class brothers!”

Time and again, The Negro Work­er was to high­light the pow­er of a glob­al unit­ed front of the mul­tira­cial work­ing class. “Of para­mount impor­tance is the ques­tion of link­ing up the strug­gles of the Negro toil­ers with those of the toil­ers of oth­er nation­al­i­ties and races,” declared Hay­wood, who then con­clud­ed: “The Negro work­ers must become con­scious of the fact that their strug­gle are not the strug­gles of the Negroes alone, but that they are an inte­gral part of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary upsurge of the toil­ing mass­es of all nations tak­ing place in the present peri­od as a result of the ever deep­en­ing cri­sis of world cap­i­tal­ism and the con­se­quent efforts of the impe­ri­al­ists to place the main bur­den of the cri­sis upon the toil­ers in gen­er­al.”28 The mes­sage was clear: it was class sol­i­dar­i­ty, in its het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion, over racial sol­i­dar­i­ty that mat­tered.

A test case for the class rhetoric in The Negro Work­er and its pos­si­ble polit­i­cal effects came with the Japan­ese inva­sion of Manchuria in autumn 1931.29 Com­mu­nist response to the Japan­ese aggres­sion was orches­trat­ed by the Comintern’s West Euro­pean Bureau as well as the Euro­pean Bureau of the RILU.30 Gior­gi Dim­itrov, the head of the West Euro­pean Bureau, sent a mes­sage to Moscow and urged the Com­intern to issue an order to all Com­mu­nist par­ties to step up a cam­paign against the war dan­ger and in defense of the Sovi­et Union. How­ev­er, the Com­intern head­quar­ters was slow to react. Only in Novem­ber did the Com­intern issue an appeal where it warned that the Far East­ern con­flict might lead to a world war and that the Japan­ese were prepar­ing to attack the Sovi­et Union. The appeal includ­ed a call to estab­lish Chi­na aid com­mit­tees and to orga­nize protest meet­ings and demon­stra­tions against Japan­ese aggres­sion.31 

The over­ar­ch­ing strat­e­gy of the com­mu­nist-led “Hands off Chi­na” cam­paigns was to call for a trade union boy­cott on com­merce with Japan. The core group to be mobi­lized were the anti-war cells of dock­ers and sea­men, their task being to block ship­ments of ammu­ni­tion and war mate­r­i­al to the Japan­ese troops in Chi­na. To fur­ther strength­en the cam­paign, the Euro­pean Bureau of the Profin­tern issued in Feb­ru­ary 1932 a direct call to all met­al and har­bor work­ers to pre­vent the trans­porta­tion of mil­i­tary sup­plies des­tined for the use against Chi­na and the Sovi­et Union.32 At this point, the “Hands off Chi­na” cam­paign had been incor­po­rat­ed by oth­er com­mu­nist orga­ni­za­tions, such as the League Against Impe­ri­al­ism, the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Sea­men and Har­bour Work­ers, and the ITUCNW.

A first mis­sive for inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty was pub­lished in The Negro Work­er in late 1931. In line with the Com­intern the­ses on the forth­com­ing Impe­ri­al­ist War, name­ly that the impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers were con­stant­ly prepar­ing for an attack upon the Sovi­et Union, the Black toil­ers were called to act against the Japan­ese aggres­sors and to defend the Sovi­et Union.33 Fol­low­ing its ear­li­er attacks on “Negro reformism,” the call made a vehe­ment claim for the effi­ca­cy of class-based strat­e­gy:

Class – not Race War. This new war of enslav­ing the Chi­nese peo­ple and steal­ing their coun­try points an impor­tant les­son to the Negro work­ers and toil­ers of oth­er dark­er races. It expos­es the whole mis­lead­ing reformist pro­gramme of the Negro cap­i­tal­ists, land­lords and intel­lec­tu­als in Amer­i­ca who try to hide up the class pol­i­cy of Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ists behind idle talk of “uni­ty of the dark­er races.” Nev­er will all the peo­ple of any race be unit­ed under cap­i­tal­ism, where there is rich and poor, exploiters and exploit­ed. These fak­ers know this, but in order to make the poor work­ing class blacks for­get their mis­ery, the so-called Negro lead­ers are try­ing to cre­ate the impres­sion among Negro mass­es that all peo­ple with a dark skin, whether they belong to the cap­i­tal­ist or work­ing class, have the same inter­est.”34

In con­trast to the mes­sage of the Pan-African­ists, the author of the call – pre­sum­ably lead edi­tor George Pad­more, although it is like­ly that the text had been draft­ed in Moscow – made it clear that the exploita­tion of the poor, down­trod­den, and col­o­nized was a glob­al phe­nom­e­non and could only be under­stood as a class strug­gle. Exploita­tion tra­versed racial lines, and the only way to fight exploita­tion was to build a multi­na­tion­al, anti-impe­ri­al­ist unit­ed front:

Rich Chi­nese, Japan­ese, Indi­ans and Negroes exploit the poor of their own race in just the same way as white cap­i­tal­ists oppress the white work­ers. Exploita­tion knows no colour-line. A cap­i­tal­ist and land­lord is the same blood­suck­er, no mat­ter what colour he might be. This is what every Negro work­er must rec­og­nize in the present con­flict in Manchuria; for only in this way will the Negro mass­es be able to expose the decep­tive plans of their own cap­i­tal­ists, land­lords and oth­er schemers who, like Mar­cus Gar­vey, in order to build up their cap­i­tal­ist busi­ness enter­pris­es in Amer­i­ca and Africa are try­ing to get the mass­es of this race to believe that all black peo­ple have the same inter­ests – whether they be cap­i­tal­ists, land­lords or work­ers.35

The Negro Work­er was to car­ry a call to the black toil­ers in the African Atlantic to join the “Hands off Chi­na” cam­paign in each issue dur­ing the spring of 1932. In March 1932, it ral­lied behind a res­o­lu­tion of the Inter­na­tion­al of Sea­men and Har­bour Work­ers and urged black dock­work­ers and sea­men to stop the trans­porta­tion of war mate­r­i­al to Japan.36 Still, when­ev­er pos­si­ble, the call was used to attack the “Gar­veyites” and denounced them for back­ing Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ism:

We have a tremen­dous task at the present moment in fight­ing the ide­ol­o­gy of the Gar­veyites who are telling the Negroes that Japan has start­ed to make the world supreme for the dark­er races. When one takes up the dai­ly papers and reads how the Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ists are mas­sacring thou­sands of Chi­nese work­ers and peas­ants, with their women and chil­dren it seems hard to believe how any twist­ing of words might give what the “Gar­veyites” would make the Negro mass­es think. Yet the sit­u­a­tion exists, and with the help of the pam­phlets which I hope you will send me and the courage of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers of the world, we young work­ers will fight until we have com­plete­ly exposed the Negro reformists.37

This was a time­ly analy­sis, as it uncov­ered the link between Pan-African utopi­anism and Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ism – Japan had been held in high esteem among black intel­lec­tu­als in the African Atlantic as it pro­vid­ed a mod­el for non-West­ern mod­ern­iza­tion.38 

The onslaught in The Negro Work­er against the “Negro bour­geoisie” con­tin­ued over the next months. In August 1932, Cyril Brig­gs, found­ing mem­ber of the African Blood Broth­er­hood and CPUSA mem­ber, pub­lished a direct attack on Mar­cus Gar­vey, accus­ing him for hav­ing betrayed the black toil­ers.39 The “class-before-race” rhetoric, with an anti-colo­nial bent, was high­light­ed in the same issue by Pad­more when he pub­lished yet anoth­er force­ful, vivid call for glob­al, cross-racial sol­i­dar­i­ty in defense for the Sovi­et Union:

We must orga­nize today and join forces with the white work­ers of Europe and Amer­i­ca, the yel­low work­ers of Chi­na and Japan, the brown work­ers of India and oth­er lands and tell these impe­ri­al­ist mur­der­ers, these cap­i­tal­ist ban­dits and cut-throats, these human scav­engers who thrive upon the dead and the liv­ing, these scourges of human­i­ty, – that we will build an iron ring around the Sovi­et Union, that we will refuse to fire one shot against our hero­ic com­rades of the Sovi­et Union who are show­ing us the path to free­dom and eman­ci­pa­tion.40

Concluding Reflections

A close read­ing of the dis­course of the lead­ing fig­ures of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union of Negro Work­ers in their jour­nal The Negro Work­er reveals that it high­light­ed a “class-before-race” per­spec­tive. This does not come as a sur­prise – the Red Inter­na­tion­al of Labor Unions had estab­lished the orga­ni­za­tion dur­ing the so-called Third Peri­od. Start­ing in 1928 and offi­cial­ly end­ing in 1935, the Com­intern and its var­i­ous sub-units, com­mit­tees, and sym­pa­thiz­ing mass orga­ni­za­tions fol­lowed the “class-against-class” pol­i­cy, fierce­ly attack­ing reformist, Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic, and Social­ist lead­ers and par­ties. The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union of Negro Work­ers was no excep­tion to this line: it was to be an orga­ni­za­tion for the black toil­ers and work­ers only, not for the black bour­geois lead­ers or activists. Its main tar­get was Mar­cus Gar­vey and his Unit­ed Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion, which was the lead­ing Pan-African orga­ni­za­tion in the ear­ly 1930s.

Such a mes­sage inevitably comes across today as dat­ed, sim­plis­tic, even mis­guid­ed in its strate­gic impli­ca­tions. And yet, the sheer scope of the regions and sec­tions of the work­ing class encoun­tered in its pages deserves our atten­tion today. As con­tem­po­rary activists fig­ure out and debate how to artic­u­late shared con­cerns and “con­nect” their respec­tive strug­gles, after the heady times of the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ments, this black inter­na­tion­al­ist focus and imag­i­na­tion retains con­sid­er­able rel­e­vance. The Negro Work­er sur­veyed the geo­gra­phies of colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism through the labor regimes which marked the uneven devel­op­ment of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism, and in doing so also plot­ted the dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries and strate­gies of anti-colo­nial strug­gles (like the posi­tion of mar­itime work­ers in the “Hands off Chi­na” cam­paign). The res­o­nances of this effort to map and ana­lyze the var­ie­gat­ed spaces where rela­tions of pow­er and antag­o­nism arise can be seen in the study guides, doc­u­men­taries, and pam­phlets pub­lished by anti-impe­ri­al­ist col­lec­tives of the 1960s and ‘70s, like the U.S.-based Africa Infor­ma­tion Ser­vice or Africa Research Group – a sub­al­tern form of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. Today we need to chart the dis­tance not only from the plan­ta­tion to the assem­bly line, but from the dif­fuse, often racial­ized, ter­rains of waged and infor­mal employ­ment in the met­ro­pol­i­tan cores to the fac­to­ry-com­plex­es, export pro­cess­ing zones, and oth­er sites of inten­si­fied cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion of the post­colo­nial world.41 

Padmore’s cor­re­spon­dence with read­ers across the African Atlantic reveals, at least in part, the reach of the pub­li­ca­tion. Some read­ers sent anti-colo­nial man­i­festos, or report-backs on their imme­di­ate strug­gles, which they hoped that Pad­more would pub­lish in The Negro Work­er.42 One of those read­ers was Qua­coo Hamil­ton, from the Gold Coast. Only the last page of his let­ter can be found in the archives, but the few remain­ing para­graphs reveal a polit­i­cal­ly con­scious per­son who ful­ly backed the rad­i­cal mes­sage of The Negro Work­er. The tone of Hamilton’s text reads like a con­vinced Black Bol­she­vik, a future par­ty cadre com­mit­ted to fight­ing the class strug­gle:

New Blacks born let us have human feel­ings in our hearts. Let us save our sit­u­a­tions. Let us fol­lows [sic] our com­rades in U.S.S.R. The only land of new civil­i­sa­tions, no race prej­u­dice, abol­ished of feu­dal sys­tems and all sorts of crooked ways which cap­i­tal­ist of old Tsarist Rus­sia cre­at­ed to dim the eyes of our Russ­ian com­rades. Long live Lenin if he could be seen!!! The sav­iour of human [?]. Long lives the work­ers of U.S.S.R., may Stal­in also live long and to guides U.S.S.R. into invaders in time of cap­i­tal­ist u[n]expected attacks.43

How­ev­er, such dec­la­ra­tions seemed to have been rare, and the effec­tive appeal of the polit­i­cal rhetoric of the Negro Work­er is unclear. By 1935, the attacks on the black bour­geois lead­ers and orga­ni­za­tions were to cease; and as an out­come of the Sev­enth World Con­gress of the Com­intern, the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers was to be trans­formed and envi­sioned as a Black Inter­na­tion­al. Nev­er­the­less, this plan could nev­er be real­ized. An eval­u­a­tion of the Comintern’s “Negro work” con­duct­ed in Moscow in 1936 mere­ly stat­ed what was already obvi­ous: The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers was not and had nev­er had been a mass orga­ni­za­tion; its only impact in the African Atlantic had been through its jour­nal, The Negro Work­er. Back in Moscow, the Com­intern qui­et­ly liq­ui­dat­ed the orga­ni­za­tion in 1937.44 


  1. On the Third Peri­od, see Matthew Wor­ley, ed., In Search of Rev­o­lu­tion. Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Par­ties in the Third Peri­od (Lon­don and New York: I.B. Tau­ris, 2004). On the RILU, see Rain­er Tosstorff, Profin­tern: Die Rote Gew­erkschaftsin­ter­na­tionale 1920–1937 (Pader­born: Schoenigh, 2004). 

  2. John Callaghan, “Storm Over Asia: Com­intern Colo­nial Pol­i­cy in the Third Peri­od,” in In Search of Rev­o­lu­tion. Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist Par­ties in the Third Peri­od, ed. Matthew Wor­ley (Lon­don and New York: I.B. Tau­ris, 2004), 18–37. 

  3. See fur­ther Edward T. Wil­son, Rus­sia and Black Africa Before World War II (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1974); Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Uni­ty. Com­mu­nists and African Amer­i­cans, 1917–1936 (Jack­son: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 1998); Mari­ka Sher­wood, “The Com­intern, the CPGB, Colonies and Black Britons, 1920–1938,” Sci­ence & Soci­ety 60, no. 2 (1996): 137–63; Jacob A. Zumoff, The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al and US Com­mu­nism, 1919–1929 (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014). 

  4. Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Free­dom: Rad­i­cal Black Inter­na­tion­al­ism from Harlem to Lon­don, 1917–1939 (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2011). 

  5. See fur­ther, Hakim Adi and Mari­ka Sher­wood, Pan-African His­to­ry. Polit­i­cal Fig­ures from Africa and the Dias­po­ra since 1787 (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2001). 

  6. See Oscar Berland, “The Emer­gence of the Com­mu­nist Per­spec­tive on the ‘Negro Ques­tion’ in Amer­i­ca: 1919–1931. Part One,” Sci­ence & Soci­ety 63, no. 4 (1999–2000): 411–32 and Oscar Berland, “The Emer­gence of the Com­mu­nist Per­spec­tive on the ‘Negro Ques­tion’ in Amer­i­ca: 1919–1931, Part Two,” Sci­ence & Soci­ety 64, no. 2 (2000): 194–217. 

  7. Hol­ger Weiss, Fram­ing a Rad­i­cal African Atlantic. African Amer­i­can Agency, West African Intel­lec­tu­als and the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014); Hol­ger Weiss, “Between Moscow and the African Atlantic: The Com­intern Net­works of Negro Work­ers,” monde(s) his­toire, espaces, rela­tions 10 (Novem­ber 2016): 89–108. For a Pan-African per­spec­tive on the his­to­ry of the ITUCNW, see Hakim Adi, Pan-African­ism and Com­mu­nism: The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, Africa and the Dias­po­ra, 1919–1939 (Tren­ton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2013). See fur­ther the round­table dis­cus­sion on Pan-African­ism and Com­mu­nism in Black Per­spec­tives, July 25, 2015. 

  8. See fur­ther, Susan Camp­bell, “The Negro Work­er. A Com­intern Pub­li­ca­tion 1928–1937: An Intro­duc­tion.” 

  9. Dig­i­tized PDF-ver­sions of The Negro Work­er are made avail­able by His­tor­i­cal Papers Research Archive in Johan­nes­burg, South Africa, which con­tains issues orig­i­nal­ly deposit­ed in the South African Insti­tute of Race Rela­tions, Atlantic Phil­an­thropies Foun­da­tion

  10. Hol­ger Weiss, “Glob­al Ambi­tions, Struc­tur­al Con­straints and Mar­gin­al­i­ty as a Choice: The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers,” in Inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nism and Transna­tion­al Sol­i­dar­i­ty. Rad­i­cal Net­works, Mass Move­ments and Glob­al Pol­i­tics, 1919–1939, ed. Hol­ger Weiss (Leiden/ Boston: Brill, 2017), 318–62. 

  11. David Feath­er­stone, Sol­i­dar­i­ty: Hid­den His­to­ries and Geo­gra­phies of Inter­na­tion­al­ism (Lon­don: Zed Books, 2012). 

  12. Har­ry Hay­wood, Black Bol­she­vik: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of an Afro-Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist (Chica­go: Lib­er­a­tor Press, 1978), 329. 

  13. See for exam­ple, Garan Kouyaté’s (under the pseu­do­nym G. Kouy­at­te) series on unit­ed actions between har­bor work­ers in France: “Black and White Sea­men Orga­nize for Strug­gle,” Negro Work­er 1, no. 12 (Decem­ber 1931): 19–20; and “Sol­i­dar­i­ty between White and Coloured Sailors,” Negro Work­er 2, no. 2 (March 1932): 27–28. 

  14. C.L.R. James, “Notes on the Life of George Pad­more,” in The C.L.R. James Read­er, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Lon­don: Black­well, 1992), 290. 

  15. Mal­colm Ivan Mered­ith Nurse, alias George Pad­more (19001959), was born in Trinidad. He had a mid­dle-class back­ground, and worked in the ear­ly 1920s as a jour­nal­ist. In 1924, Nurse left the island and went to the Unit­ed States and enrolled at Fisk Uni­ver­si­ty in 1925. In the fol­low­ing year, he shift­ed to the Law School at Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and, in 1927, to Howard Uni­ver­si­ty. Liv­ing in New York, he start­ed to engage with rad­i­cal African Amer­i­cans in Harlem and joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1927. In Decem­ber 1929, he arrived in Moscow where he stayed until his trans­fer to Ham­burg in Octo­ber 1931. He was in charge of the ITUCNW head­quar­ters until August 1933. In late 1933–early 1934 he had a rift with the Com­intern, result­ing in his expul­sion from the Com­intern and CPUSA. For more on Padmore’s life, work, and polit­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry see Leslie James, George Pad­more and Decol­o­niza­tion from Below: Pan-African­ism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire (Lon­don: Pal­grave, 2014). There is also a valu­able dis­cus­sion of Padmore’s turn away from the Com­intern in Makalani, In the Cause of Free­dom, chap­ters 6 and 7. 

  16. Makalani, In the Cause of Free­dom, 176. 

  17. James W. Ford (18931957) had been a union activist in the Chica­go Postal Work­ers Union dur­ing the ear­ly 1920s. In 1925, he was enlist­ed in the new­ly found­ed Amer­i­can Negro Labor Coun­cil. One year lat­er, in 1926, Ford joined the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in Chica­go and became an indus­tri­al orga­niz­er in the city’s South Side. Otto Huis­woud (18931961) had immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1910 and had been a char­ter mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Amer­i­ca in 1919. In Novem­ber 1922, Huis­woud attend­ed as an offi­cial del­e­gate the Fourth Con­gress of the Com­intern in Moscow. In 1929, Huis­woud was in charge of the new­ly found­ed Negro Depart­ment of the Par­ty and belonged to the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Par­ty. How­ev­er, due to inter­nal rifts in the Par­ty, Huis­woud was removed from the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Par­ty and was placed in charge of the New York Dis­trict Negro Depart­ment. He retained this posi­tion until the end of 1930 when the Par­ty sent him to Moscow. When Pad­more was trans­ferred to Ham­burg in Octo­ber 1931, Huis­woud took over his posi­tion at the RILU Negro Bureau. Huis­woud reor­ga­nized the activ­i­ties of the ITUCNW in April 1934 and head­ed the orga­ni­za­tion until it was liq­ui­dat­ed by the Com­intern in 1937. 

  18. Estab­lished in 1928 as the bul­letin of the “Inter­na­tion­al Negro Work­ers’ Infor­ma­tion Bureau in Moscow,” the jour­nal appeared as The Inter­na­tion­al Negro Work­ers’ Review pub­lished by the ITUCNW in Ham­burg in Jan­u­ary 1931. How­ev­er, already in March 1931, the jour­nal was once again pub­lished as The Negro Work­er. Ford’s and Padmore’s ambi­tion was to estab­lish The Negro Work­er as a mass pub­li­ca­tion. Each of the first eight issues of The Negro Work­er was print­ed in 1,000 copies. In ear­ly 1932, Pad­more decid­ed to dis­trib­ute the jour­nal for free in order to speed up its dis­tri­b­u­tion. The cam­paign was suc­cess­ful, the cir­cu­la­tion steadi­ly increased, and had reached 5,000 copies per issue by the end of 1932. How­ev­er, deci­sions made in Moscow to cut the fund­ing to the var­i­ous units of the Com­intern and RILU that had been relo­cat­ed from Ger­many after the Nazi takeover in 1933 also affect­ed the cir­cu­la­tion of The Negro Work­er. When Huis­woud took over as edi­tor-in-chief in March 1934, he had to reduce the cir­cu­la­tion of the jour­nal to 2,000 copies as an attempt to cut down costs. The last issue of the jour­nal was pub­lished in Octo­ber 1937. See fur­ther Weiss, “Between Moscow and the African Atlantic,” 103. 

  19. “The Organ­i­sa­tion of an Inter­na­tion­al Negro Trade Union Bureau by the RILU,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Negro Work­ers’ Infor­ma­tion Bureau 1, no. 2 (August–September, 1928): 1. 

  20. See Weiss, Fram­ing a Rad­i­cal African Atlantic, 292–98. 

  21. Har­ry Hay­wood, ”For­ward to the Lon­don Con­fer­ence of Negro Toil­ers,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the R.I.L.U. 3, no. 6 (April 1930): 1–3. 

  22. Alexan­der Lozovsky, “Negro Work­ers Awak­en­ing,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the R.I.L.U. 3, no. 7 (May 1930): 1. 

  23. “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Greet­ings to the First Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of Negro Work­ers,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the R.I.L.U. 3, no. 9 (June 1930): 7. 

  24. George Pad­more, “Report & Res­o­lu­tion on the Eco­nom­ic Strug­gles and Task of Negro Work­ers,” The Negro Work­er, Vol 3 – Spe­cial Num­ber: The Ham­burg Con­fer­ence (Octo­ber 15, 1930): 7. 

  25. J. Reed, “Anti-Impe­ri­al­ist Strug­gle of the Negro Work­ers,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the R.I.L.U. 2, no. 5 (Decem­ber 1929): 1–2.; H. Hay­wood, “For­ward to the Lon­don Con­fer­ence of Negro Toil­ers,” The Negro Work­er: Bul­letin of the Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Com­mit­tee of Negro Work­ers of the R.I.L.U. 3, no. 6 (April 1930): 3. 

  26. George Pad­more, “Report & Res­o­lu­tion on the Eco­nom­ic Strug­gles and Task of Negro Work­ers,” The Negro Work­er, Vol 3 – Spe­cial Num­ber: The Ham­burg Con­fer­ence (Octo­ber 15, 1930): 7. 

  27. O.E. Huis­woud, “The Eco­nom­ic Cri­sis and the Negro Work­ers,” The Negro Work­er 2, no. 4 (April 1932): 25–27. 

  28. Har­ry Hay­wood, “For­ward to the Lon­don Con­fer­ence of Negro Toil­ers,” 1. 

  29. On Japan­ese impe­ri­al­ism and the attack on Manchuria, see Prasen­jit Duara, “The New Impe­ri­al­ism and the Post-Colo­nial Devel­op­men­tal State: Manchukuo in com­par­a­tive per­spec­tive,” The Asia-Pacif­ic Jour­nal: Japan Focus 4, no. 1 (2006): 1–17. 

  30. Appeal by the West Euro­pean Bureau of the ECCI and the Euro­pean Sec­re­tari­at of the RILU on the Japan­ese Inva­sion of Manchuria, pub­lished in Inpreko­rr 11, no. 93 (Sep­tem­ber 29, 1931): 2080. 

  31. Jonathan Haslam, Sovi­et For­eign Pol­i­cy 1930–1933: The Impact of the Depres­sion (Lon­don and Bas­ingstoke: MacMil­lan 1983), 86–87. 

  32. Rote Ein­heits­front gegen den räu­berischen Über­fall auf Chi­na und gegen das impe­ri­al­is­tis­che Kriegskom­plott gegen die Sow­je­tu­nion und Sow­jet-Chi­na. Kampf gegen die eige­nen Aus­beuter und ihre Helfer”[For a Red Unit­ed Front Against the Preda­to­ry Attack on Chi­na and the Impe­ri­al­ist War Plot Towards the Sovi­et Union and Sovi­et Chi­na. Down with the Exploiters and Their Sup­port­ers], Reich­skomi­tee Agit­prop, Feb­ru­ary 1932; R1501/20442 Reichsmin­is­teri­um des Inneren, KPD – Rev­o­lu­tionäre Gew­erkschafts­be­we­gung, Jan­u­ary 1932 – May 1932, Bun­de­sarchiv Berlin, fol. 469. 

  33. See “Extracts from the The­ses of the Eleventh ECCi Plenum on the Tasks of the Com­intern Sec­tions in Con­nex­ion with the Deep­en­ing of the eco­nom­ic Cri­sis and the Devel­op­ment of the Con­di­tions Mak­ing for a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cri­sis in a Num­ber of Coun­tries,” in The Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al: Doc­u­ments, 1919-1943, vol. 3, ed. Jane Degras (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2014 [1965]), 152–64. 

  34. “The War Dan­ger. War in the East. Negro Work­ers, defend the Sovi­et Union and the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion!,” The Negro Work­er 1, no. 10–11 (1931): 3. 

  35. “The War Dan­ger,” 3–4. 

  36. G.P. [George Pad­more], “War in the East,” The Negro Work­er 2, no. 3 (March 1932), 9. 

  37. E.L.B., “Gar­veyites Prepar­ing Work­ers for Can­non-Fod­der,” The Negro Work­er 2, no. 3 (March 1932): 31. 

  38. See, for exam­ple, J. Calvitt Clarke III, “Seek­ing a Mod­el for Mod­ern­iza­tion: Ethiopia’s Japaniz­ers,”; Don­ald N. Levine, “Ethiopia, Japan, and Jamaica: A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al­ly Linked Mod­ern­iza­tions,” The Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Ethiopi­an Stud­ies 3, no. 1 (2007): 41–51. 

  39. Cyril Brig­gs, “How Gar­vey Betrayed the Negroes,” The Negro Work­er 2, no. 8 (August 1932): 14–18. 

  40. George Pad­more, ”The World Today,” The Negro Work­er 2, no. 8 (August 1932): 4. 

  41. See Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bi­no and Devi Sac­chet­to, “The Shift­ing Mael­strom: From Plan­ta­tions to Assem­bly-Lines,” in Beyond Marx: The­o­ris­ing Glob­al Labour Rela­tions of the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry, eds. Mar­cel Lin­den and Karl Heinz Roth (Lei­den: Brill, 2013), 89–119. 

  42. The “Work­ers’ Cor­re­spon­dence” sec­tion of issues of The Negro Work­er was pre­sent­ed as a forum for black work­ers to share and cir­cu­late their expe­ri­ences and griev­ances. See a rep­re­sen­ta­tive exam­ple, I. Hawkins, “Negro Leader Tells About Ter­ror in Ken­tucky,” Negro Work­er 2, no. 2 (March 1932): 29. One can draw par­al­lels with this form of “work­er writ­ing” with the Bar­ba­di­an mar­itime labor orga­niz­er and organ­ic intel­lec­tu­al Chris Braithwaite’s col­umn, “Seamen’s Notes,” in the Pad­more and CLR James-edit­ed jour­nal, Inter­na­tion­al African Opin­ion, first appear­ing in 1938. See Chris­t­ian Høgs­b­jerg, Chris Braith­waite: Mariner, Rene­gade, & Cast­away (Lon­don: Red­words, 2014). 

  43. Qua­coo Hamil­ton, Gold Coast, to Pad­more, no date [first page(s) miss­ing], Archives of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, Russ­ian State Archives of Socio-Polit­i­cal His­to­ry, Moscow (RGASPI) 534/3/756, fol. 113. 

  44. Weiss, Fram­ing a Rad­i­cal African Atlantic, 691–716. 

Author of the article

is Professor of general history at Åbo Akademi University, Finland, and Guest Professor of history at Dalarna University, Sweden. His research focuses on Global and Atlantic history, West African environmental history, and Islamic Studies (with a special focus on Islam in Ghana). His publications include (ed.) Social Welfare in Muslim Societies in Africa (Nordic Africa Institute 2002); Obligatory Almsgiving: An Inquiry into Zakât in the Pre-colonial Bilād as-Sūdān (Finnish Oriental Society 2003); Begging and Almsgiving in Ghana: Muslim Positions towards Poverty and Distress (Nordiska Afrikainstitutet 2007); Between Accommodation and Revivalism: Muslims, the State and Society in Ghana from the Precolonial to the Postcolonial Era (Finnish Oriental Society 2008); Framing a Radical African Atlantic. African American Agency, West African Intellectuals and the International Trade Union of Negro Workers (Brill 2014); (ed.) Ports of Globalisation, Places of Creolisation: Nordic Possessions in the Atlantic World during the Era of the Slave Trade (Brill 2015); and (ed.) International Communism and Transnational Solidarity: Radical Networks, Mass Movements and Global Politics, 1919–1939 (Brill 2017).