In a major interview for roape.net Hakim Adi discusses his research, activism and politics. Adi has spent years researching the African diaspora, Pan-Africanism and communism in the 20th century. On the anniversary of the 1917 revolution he explains that the significance of 1917 is not so much how it helps us understand the past, or as a way of understanding Africa’s history, but rather that it shows that the alternative can be created in the present and future.
Can you tell us about your earlier involvement with activism and history? Can you speak a little about these experiences? What have your experiences been as a researcher and activist in UK Higher Education?
I suppose it could be said that it’s impossible to be concerned with the history of Africa and Africans without also having to struggle against the prevailing Eurocentrism not just in Higher Education but throughout the education system and beyond, especially in this country. I have certainly found that struggle to be necessary and as Fredrick Douglass said without struggle there is no progress.
When I finally embarked on my own research on the history of African anti-colonial activism in Britain it soon became obvious that there was very limited academic interest in such history. It was certainly not considered British history but then again it was not considered ‘proper’ African history either. It remains almost totally marginalised and of course barely taught at the university level anywhere in Britain. What is also evident is that someone has decided that there should be a divide between the history of Africa and that of the African diaspora. That is the way that matters are presented in my experience, so African history is considered rather unimportant but the history of the African diaspora, especially in Britain, is not considered at all. As the history of Africans is marginalised in higher education it is, or was, almost totally neglected at the school level too. In other words, young people in Britain are being mis-educated about the history of the world in which they live and the lessons to be learned from that history. This has a profound impact on all young people but perhaps most of all on those of African and Caribbean heritage, who see themselves, or people who look like them, totally removed from history. The statistics show the consequences, as today only agriculture and veterinary science are less popular than history as a subject choice for black undergraduates.
So our ‘activism,’ starting in the 1980s, was to attempt to change this situation, to change the national curriculum, to encourage more research, to work with museums, archives, libraries, teachers, as well as in universities, so that the history of Africans (as well as those of Caribbean and Asian origin in Britain) assumed its rightful prominence. It has its own history but this is not the place to elaborate on it in detail. Suffice to say that there have been some advances and I think we have seen some significant changes in the last thirty years, the recent BBC TV series for example, but there is still a very long way to go. There are, for instance, still very few historians of African or Caribbean heritage in Britain and, at the moment, only one professor.
There has been a well-documented political retreat of the left in the UK and US academy, how would you see this? Has it affected the field of historical research you have worked in?
I’m not sure about such a retreat of the left. I think there is a general global retreat of revolution, if that is what is meant, and therefore the powers that be have been on the offensive in the recent period, especially in the Anglo-American world. This period has now been in existence for some time, it is certainly not the same now as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. It has certainly made a difference to academia in general, to job insecurity for example, but I’m not sure how much difference it has made to the field, in the sense that there are still so few people working in the field in Britain. It would be easy to say that perhaps historians approach the field from different perspectives today than they did 30 years ago, but I’m not sure that much has changed, perhaps it is about to change as more young scholars enter the field but time will tell.
You started writing years ago about the history of the African diaspora particularly in the twentieth century. Can you talk a little about what you have written and how it has deepened our understanding of militant, left history outside (and inside) the continent?
My research has been mainly concerned with how those in Africa and the diaspora organised anti-colonial and anti-imperialist action in the twentieth century. I see history as the study of change and of people as the agents of that change and I’m interested in what approaches have been adopted by Africans to solve problems connected with liberation and empowerment in the past. My earliest work looked at how mainly West African students organised themselves politically in Britain during the colonial period in the early twentieth century. I found that that some of the most significant anti-colonial activists Kwame Nkrumah and Wallace-Johnson, for example, were as politically active in Britain as they were in the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. It was therefore impossible to fully understand the anti-colonial movement in West Africa without some understanding of its connection with the British anti-colonial movement. At the same time Nkrumah and Wallace-Johnson were Pan-Africanists, part of networks and in touch with other activists based in other parts of Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, as well as other parts of the world. They would have considered themselves internationalists too, concerned with the global human struggle for progress and of course both were strongly connected with the international communist movement. Wallace-Johnson like Kenyatta and others during the 1930s was partly educated in Moscow. So my research interests broadened to include the history of Pan-Africanism and the relationship between the communist movement and the anti-colonial struggle in Africa, as well as elsewhere.
There are several points that can be made about all of this. One is the important and often leading role played by Africans in the history of radicalism and the working class movement in Britain. This was the case long before the 20th century. The earliest African political organisations, such as the Sons of Africa formed in the 18th century, played a key role in the abolitionist movement, one of the first and largest working class movements in Britain’s history. The other is the importance of what used to be referred to as scientific socialism as a weapon in the liberation struggle in Africa even before 1917 but certainly after, and the impact this has had on anti-colonialism, Pan-Africanism, national liberation and the struggles for empowerment and for an alternative today.
Recently you have written on Communism and Pan–Africanism on anti-colonial activism in Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939. Can you speak about the major thrust of this history and what new light it sheds on the period? One of arguments you make is that pan-Africanism and Communism were not such completely separate currents in the inter-war period but became briefly, to some extent, connected in the struggle for black and colonial liberation. Is this correct?
As I indicated above, if we look at the struggle for African liberation and advancement in the twentieth century at every stage the role of the communists, of the communist movement, of Marxism, assumes some importance. To some extent the same can be said about Pan-Africanism. With many, although not all, of the key Pan-Africanists, Padmore, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Wallace-Johnson, Césaire, for example, one finds a connection with the communist movement, even if seemingly by accident as in the case of Kenyatta. Then there are other major personalities, Fanon, Cabral, Mandela, Sisulu who were influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Marxism. It can now be said that the latter two were communists but almost nobody presents them in this way. It could also be said that their adherence to Marxism did not prevent them adopting a Pan-African orientation at times if this served to advance things. Sisulu is an interesting example, since he planned to hold a major Pan-African congress in Africa in the 1950s around the same time that he visited the Soviet Union and China.
In 1956 the Pan-Africanist and former Communist George Padmore, wrote a book entitled Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa in which he argued that Pan-Africanism was a kind of third way, and in complete opposition to Communism. He was and still is an influential figure so his views still enjoy some credibility, even if the facts seem to suggest something rather different. The other thesis that Padmore advances is that communist activity in Africa was simply in the service of Soviet Foreign policy, even though he had been one of the leading communist activists. Of course, Padmore’s book was written at the height of the Cold War and he had his own agenda for writing it, in Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939, I aimed to establish the facts, as best I could, in addition to reviewing Padmore’s own communist career.
The main point that the book makes is that for a period the Communist International itself adopted a Pan-Africanist approach towards the question of how those in Africa and the African diaspora would liberate themselves. This was the so-called Negro Question and from its earliest days the Comintern developed an approach to the Negro Question which recognised that Africans and those of African descent faced common problems and a common enemy and that in some ways their struggles were interrelated. It established special bodies to investigate and analyse this question and established an International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, at one time led by Padmore, with its own publication, designed to work with the various communist parties to address this question. The Comintern’s orientation was particularly important in South Africa, where the only communist party in Africa was situated at the time, but it also made important interventions in West Africa, especially in the British colonies, amongst the African diaspora in Britain and France, as well as amongst African Americans and in the Caribbean etc.
In South Africa, as is well known the Comintern demanded that the Communist Party must be a mainly African party including its leadership and that the mobilisation of the masses of the people for liberation and ‘majority rule’ was more important that the struggle of white workers for socialism. The perspective of the communists, that the masses of the people had to be organised and play a leading role in the anti-colonial or anti-imperialist struggle gradually became the accepted view not just in South Africa but throughout the continent. Similarly many anti-colonial activists and Pan-Africanists recognised the need for the alternative to a capital-centred economy and a Eurocentric political system, issues also raised by the Communists, although as we have seen since, recognition is one thing and implementation another.
What does your book tell us about the early days of the communist movement and its relationship to Africa/anti-colonial struggle? How might this help us today?
One of the important questions analysed by the early communist movement, and in particular by Lenin, was the relationship between the liberation struggle in the colonies and that waged by the working class in the most developed imperialist countries. Lenin’s analysis of imperialism led him to stress the important role that the struggle of oppressed nations played in the anti-imperialist struggle, not just those oppressed nations in Europe such as the Irish but also the millions oppressed by colonialism in Africa, as well as elsewhere. Lenin called for an alliance between the revolutionary movement of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries and the anti-colonial movements and oppressed people in the colonies, including Africa, to undermine and destroy the imperialist system of states, pointing out that this system could be breached at its weakest link. In other words, there were no first and second class revolutionary struggles, it was not up to the those in Europe or the US to liberate Africa and Africans but one humanity and one struggle, we are all our own liberators. I think that even today there is perhaps not enough discussion about this issue and the relationship between the struggles for empowerment in Africa and in Britain for example.
The analysis of the Comintern was very important, one could say that it elevated the importance of the anti-colonial struggle for every communist party. One of the 21 conditions for admission to the Comintern stressed that a communist party in a country possessing colonies, such as Britain, must demand an end to colonial rule, support every anti-colonial movement in words and deeds and cultivate a truly fraternal relationship between the workers and those in the colonies. To what extent this was implemented is perhaps another matter but the Comintern was the only international organisation to act in this way and adopt such a position. In the inter-war period it had a very significant impact on those Africans who came in to contact with the communist movement and pointed to a way forward, exposing the widely promoted view that colonialism was a ‘civilizing mission’ that at most merely needed reform.
Of course, the communism of 1917 or the 1930s is not the communism of today. That communism was addressing the particular problems of the time and attempting to find solutions to them. The situation in the world is rather different today but not completely so, since in most African countries the anti-colonial struggle was not carried through to the end, it is the capital-centred economic system which predominates and Eurocentric political institutions. What was also emphasised at the time of the old communism was the great need for theory, that is for the summation of experience and I’m not sure how much of that goes on today. In some ways, it could be said that there is a need for a summation of the entire 20th century, or certainly the period since 1945. Of particular importance are the national liberation struggles where new people-centred states have been established, sometimes in partially liberated areas, in Guinea for example, or more recently in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Very little of this work seems to have been done. In Ethiopia, to mention one example the experience of the TPLF is only just being thoroughly analysed and presented. But if this is not done where is the guide for the future not only in individual countries but as a contribution to modern African political theory?
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution. What is the significance of this anniversary for our understanding of 20th century African history?
As everyone knows the Russian Revolution was the most significant event of the 20th century. It divided the world into two, a division between the old and the new. Most importantly perhaps it showed that those who produced the wealth, who added value, could empower themselves, create their own political institutions and a people-centred economy which was the most advanced the world had ever seen. These revolutionary changes were of particular interest to Africans since they showed that even in relatively economically undeveloped parts of the world great strides forward could be made. There were also indicators of a new approach to what was referred to as the ‘national question,’ how to guarantee the rights of nations and minorities in a multi-national state. In this regard, even those who were critics of the Soviet Union at the time, such as Padmore and Clement Atlee recognised that significant advances had been made which further exposed the oppressive nature of the British empire. Yet in Africa few of these changes have been possible with the exception of the right of nations to self-determination which is enshrined in the constitution of Ethiopia.
As mentioned above the success of the Russian Revolution ushered in the prospect of a new world that had a great attraction for many in Africa. It also served to further highlight the oppressive nature of colonial rule and exposed the secret treaties made by the colonial powers for the further division of Africa. The Soviet Union, which emerged from that revolution, especially in the first half of the 20th century, was the most steadfast opponent of colonial rule in Africa and was also a champion of anti-colonialism in the early years of the UN. The revolution also gave rise to the Comintern and its approach, as mentioned above, which had its own impact on Africa’s history. So one can look at the role of all those forces connected with the Comintern in regard to the anti-colonial struggle, or the fascist invasion of Ethiopia, for example, and evaluate the positive role they played. Then there is also the period of the defeat of fascism during the Second World War and the prospects that opened up for Africa and Africans. All of these things are very important.
Having said that, Africa’s history has to be understood in its own terms, of course. In the twentieth century that history is mainly concerned with the struggle against colonial rule and its legacy, with the ways in which Africans have acted to empower themselves to bring about political change and create new societies which are people-centred. So we can then ask ourselves how the revolutionary transformations in the world have impinged on those struggles for empowerment and change. Such a question would compel us to consider not just the first 50 year of the century but also the bi-polar division of the world, the role of Cuba and Cuito Cunavale, as well as the current role of China, also consequences, to some extent and in various ways, of the 1917 revolution.
To my mind 1917 reminds us all that another world is possible and that world includes Africa. I think of some of my own family in Africa and what life holds for them – the prospect of selling second-hand clothes in order to survive, pay medical fees and try put a son through university. Or returning from a job that has been without pay since the start of the year to a darkened dwelling that has not seen a regular power and water supply for an even longer period. There is no doubt that the existing capital centred system offers next to nothing in compensation and is accompanied with the almost total disempowerment that is referred to as representative democracy. This is the fate of those in one of Africa’s richest economy and largest democracies. So, I think that the significance of 1917 is not so much as how it helps us understand the past, or as a way of understanding Africa’s history, but rather that it shows that the alternative can be created in the present and future. Revolutionary change is not just a hope or a theoretical possibility but, it could be argued, an inevitability in certain circumstances, as has been demonstrated many times since 1917. Those circumstances and conditions, 1917 continues to show us, can be created by the actions of the wretched of the earth themselves, if they can organise themselves appropriately, and find ways to deprive those who currently deprive them of power of the means to do so.
What is the challenge of a journal like ROAPE today and how can it contribute to the debates and research in radical African studies?
I would say that the challenge is how to make a difference, or to put it another way the question might be posed as to how to do more than just interpret the world but rather to seek ways to contribute more effectively to changing it. I suppose many of us struggle with this question and what it means to those of us in academia. It is particularly important at the present time, I think, when there is so much disinformation about everything. So even the struggle against disinformation, making a contribution to the dissemination and discussion of enlightened views about Africa, upholding academic rigour, etc., etc., all this can be considered very important and therefore a challenge. It may not be the stated aim of ROAPE to change anything but it’s certainly an inferred concern. Perhaps it’s a question that should be raised and discussed more often.
Professor Hakim Adi teaches African history and the history of the African diaspora at the University of Chichester in the UK. He is widely regarded as the international expert on Pan-Africanism and communism and the history of the African diaspora. Adi’s recent book Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 was published by Africa World Press in 2013.
Excellent interview. 100 years later an accurate understanding of these events is essential. I was particularly interested in the marginalisation of the relevant histories and therefore especially pleased to read about the author’s body of work.
Excellent piece of work that every African must read!