Padmore and CLR James

Cyril Lionel Richard James and Malcolm Nurse were good friends and playmates as young boys in Trinidad. In London as an adult in the early 1930s, James emerged as a leading publicist for colonial independence, and prominent member of the Independent Labour Party. He began writing his most important and enduring work, "The Black Jacobins," and a more doctrinaire companion volume, "The History of Negro Revolt," to show "how the African revolution would develop." He also wrote a play, "Toussaint L'Ouverture," on the Black Jacobins subject, in which Paul Robeson performed the lead.

Meanwhile James's boyhood friend, now better known as George Padmore, had become the chief of the Communist International's African Bureau and author of "The Life and Struggle of Negro Toilers." Padmore quit the Comintern after being instructed to play down anti-imperialist agitation in deference to the requirements of the Popular Front. He joined James in London, where their circle included Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta, Karl Korsch, Daniel Guerin, Boris Souvarine, Sylvia Pankhurst, and another friend from their Trinidad childhood, Eric Williams.

In 1935, this group formed the International African Friends of Abyssinia. James volunteered to enlist in Haile Selassie's army to fight the Italian invasion. Although his offer was ignored, Black aviators from Harlem and Mississippi performed with valor in the war against the fascist invaders. Without the level of solidarity and volunteer support that arose two years later in defense of Spain, the Ethiopian forces were quickly crushed with barely a nod from Marxists. (Marxist historians of that war have written that it was the fascists' rehearsal for Spain, just as Spain was their rehearsal for World War II.) As has occurred so often in our history, an issue that drew huge rallies and protest marches in Black communities from New York to New Orleans failed to evoke significant interest among white radicals, delaying and enervating the inevitable battle against fascism.

Afterward, C.L.R. James and George and Dorothy Padmore reconstituted their organization as the International African Service Bureau, organizing public protests against British imperialism, and publishing a journal dedicated to colonial liberation, "International African Opinion." By then James had become a Trotskyist, had participated in the founding conference of the Fourth International, and had become the FI's orator on "The Twilight of the British Empire." He relocated to the United States (including a stint organizing sharecroppers in the BootHeel of Missouri) while the Padmores carried on the work in London.

James met Kwame Nkrumah in 1943, when Nkrumah was a student at Lincoln College in Pennsylvania. They met several times during the war to discuss politics and strategy. In his autobiography, Nkrumah credited James with having taught him the method of clandestine organization. James gave Nkrumah a letter of introduction to Padmore, and from that beginning Padmore's headquarters became the exile home of Ghana's Convention People's Party.

James and Padmore's group continued its political scholarship throughout the war, although Padmore was abandoning Marxism in favor of neutralist, social- democratic Pan-Africanism. (See his book, "Pan-Africanism or Communism.") Eric Williams's book "Capitalism and Slavery" appeared in 1944. (Several years ago Marty Glaberman showed me the copy that the author had inscribed, "To Jimmy [James] from Bill [Williams].")

In those days, Nkrumah and his party provided the greatest hope to Padmore and James. By the time I met James, Nkrumah had become his greatest disappointment. Nevertheless, among his followers, James's manuscript "Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution" was virtually a secret document for internal consumption only except for scattered published excerpts. It was not published as a book until 1977.

Several members of our group had challenged the book as a departure from Marxist orthodoxy, because James had attributed so much of the potential for socialism in Ghana to Nkrumah personally, and had blamed the failure solely on Nkrumah's disastrous policies. But this was consistent with his lifelong understanding of the relationship between a revolution and its leadership, whether the latter was Toussaint, Lenin, Nkrumah, or Castro. His position is summarized in the chapter he wrote for the 1960s revision of Black Jacobins, "From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro."

During our informal discussion of those texts 25 years ago, George Rawick commented that C.L.R. agreed with and drew inspiration from Karl Marx's most anti-"stageist" text, his 1877 letter that refuted a mildly favorable (but "stageist") review of Capital. In a passing phrase, Marx had written that the emancipation of serfs in Russia had provided the greatest missed opportunity in history for a society to proceed directly to socialism without first having to undergo the throes of capitalist development.

However, one consequence of this view, if it is correct, is the correspondingly greater vulnerability of such movements and particularly their leaders to imperialist conspiracy and intrigue [pace Carrol], whether the target is Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, Herbert Chitepo, Walter Rodney, or Chris Hani. When I exposed Padmore's biographer James Hooker as a lifelong CIA agent, C.L.R. was at first unwilling to believe it. For two decades Hooker had been trusted by London liberation movement exiles' inner circle. His book "Black Revolutionary: George Padmore's Path from Communism to Pan-Africanism" had been gospel to a generation of SNCC intellectuals. George Rawick had persuaded Paul Buhle to publish Hooker's political writing in Radical America, further enhancing his credibility. (But these considerations also led both James and Rawick to support the focus of my political activity on anti-repression work and writing for CovertAction.)

As a Marxist participant in the top rank of the national-liberation intelligentsia, James was no sectarian. If anything, he subordinated his own politics too much, participating in the Eric Williams government of Trinidad until after Williams had negotiated the continuation of the U.S. military base at Chaguaramas. But once the break came, a lifetime of personal friendship evaporated in an instant as James busied himself organizing a new left opposition party.

James's view of (Pan-)African socialism was a vision that embraced revolutionary movements from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, emphatically including Cuba. (For better or for worse, he regarded the socialisms of Algeria, Libya, and [Nasserite] Egypt as provinces of the Arab revolution, more akin to Southern Yemen than to Mozambique, facing a different set of historical and cultural obstacles, and imbued by a separate common tradition.)

I met C.L.R. for the first time shortly after Julius Nyerere had issued the Arusha Declaration, which had immediately become the new beacon of African socialism. Anticipating a new opening for Pan-African socialism, part of James's reason for delaying publication of his critique of Nkrumah was to avoid creating splits with activists who were still enamored of Nkrumahism.

In 1973 James was among those who issued the call for the Sixth Pan-African Congress, hosted by Nyerere at Dar es Salaam, and one of its tireless organizers. But he broke with Nyerere two weeks before it occurred, after Nyerere declared that it was to be a congress of regimes, not insurgents, and excluded such groups as the New Jewel Movement of Grenada and James's followers in Trinidad. Not surprisingly, the congress produced nothing of enduring value, and essentially squandered the last major effort to rekindle African socialism.

Shortly after that fiasco, James authorized the publication of his book on Ghana, by then implicitly a critique of Nyerere as well. Wistfully one can imagine what might have been, had Nyerere been bold enough to sponsor a truly radical congress on the eve of the wave of liberation that swept across central and southern Africa over the following 20 years. Failing that, African socialism slumbers, awaiting its call.

Ken Lawrence