George Padmore was one of the most important figures in Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial politics during the twentieth century. Born in Trinidad, he subsequently moved to London, where he became a key organizer of networks that brought together some of Africa’s future leaders in the struggle against European domination.
Padmore became a high-profile communist activist in the 1920s, although he later broke with the movement when he believed that it was downplaying the struggle against imperialism. Yet Padmore continued to draw on Marxist ideas and stressed that liberation from colonial rule should involve a radical transformation of society, not just a new flag and anthem.
The Color Line
Malcolm Nurse, who would later become famous as George Padmore, was born in Arouca, in Trinidad’s East–West Corridor, on June 28, 1903. Trinidad was a British colony defined by a clear racial hierarchy. Nurse belonged to the black middle class and was acutely aware that racism and colorism would limit his prospects.
As C. L. R. James, Nurse’s childhood friend, observed of the Trinidad of their youth:
Socially racial lines were clear. The whites, the browns and the blacks each kept their own company. The best positions were shared (very unequally) by the first two . . . It was on the black as opposed to the brown middle class that the discrimination fell hardest and George was a member of that class.
Nurse was not simply born in Trinidad — he was born into a world of white imperialist domination. Trinidad was one corner of a world divided, for the most part, between European colonial empires. The world’s three independent black-led nations — Ethiopia, Haiti, and Liberia — each enjoyed a fragile sovereignty that the Western powers would challenge over the coming years.
In 1900, the delegates of the First Pan-African Conference convened in London. The conference set out to find solutions to the problems that black people faced across the world. Surveying the global scene, the African-American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois declared at the end of the conference that the twentieth century’s great issue was “the problem of the color line.”
Africans and people of African descent soon made significant contributions to the Allied war effort during World War I. Many of these people hoped that their service would lead to greater freedoms after the war, only to be faced with further violence, repression, and discrimination. Black dissatisfaction and disillusionment found expression in the massive global popularity of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as the international networks forged through Du Bois’s interwar Pan-African Congresses.
Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led to a surge in support of communism across the world. For many black people, the Soviet Union stood in stark contrast to the racist exploitation that marked the United States and the European empires.
Padmore and Communism
Nurse left Trinidad to study in the United States in 1924. In 1927, while a law student at Howard University in Washington, DC, he joined the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). He adopted the name George Padmore to mask his Communist activities, which included writing for the CPUSA’s Daily Worker and editing its Negro Champion. He quickly made a name for himself, and in 1929 was recruited to work for the Communist International in Moscow.
The Sixth Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during the summer of 1928, set the tone for Communist activism over the following years. It marked a sharp turn in Communist policy away from seeking united fronts with social democrats and toward uncompromisingly revolutionary — and highly sectarian — “Class against Class” politics. The congress also committed the Communist International to support proletarian-led anti-colonial struggles more enthusiastically. As part of this realignment, it launched the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW).
Padmore was a crucial figure in organizing the ITUCNW’s International Conference of Negro Workers, held in Hamburg in July 1930. Its resolutions called for the “immediate evacuation of the imperialists from all colonies” and a revolutionary challenge to the global order:
The spontaneous struggles of the Negro workers for equal wages, against forced labor, segregation and colour bars, etc., must be developed into a conscious struggle against imperialism and the whole system of capitalist and colonial exploitation.
In keeping with Communist “Class against Class” politics, the gathering denounced all reformists, whether black or white.
Shortly after the conference, Padmore moved from Moscow to Hamburg to take up the editorship of the ITUCNW’s journal, the Negro Worker. He also published a short book, The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931), which was the most thorough expression of his political thought while working for the Comintern. Building on Vladimir Lenin’s theory of imperialism, he elaborated on the role that black workers and peasants played in a global capitalist-imperialist system.
For Padmore, the “Negro toilers,” oppressed along both class and race lines, would be a central plank in a future world revolution. From Marx, he borrowed an aphorism that he would use countless times throughout his life: “Labor in the white skin cannot free itself while labor in the black is enslaved.”
Breaking With the Comintern
However, Padmore’s association with the Communist movement would not last much longer. In August 1933, he published an article announcing his departure from the Negro Worker. The Communist International proclaimed his expulsion in March 1934.
According to the Comintern, Padmore was expelled
for contacts with a provocateur, for contacts with bourgeois organizations on the question of Liberia, for an incorrect attitude to the national question (instead of class unity striving towards race unity) and for not handing over the affairs of the committee on which he had worked.
Padmore, for his part, argued that he found himself “in no conflict with the fundamental principles of our movement,” but accused the Comintern of sacrificing anti-colonial struggles so as to appease the British and French governments.
While Padmore’s claim that the ITUCNW had been “liquidated” was exaggerated, the Comintern’s subsequent pivot to the Popular Front strategy vindicated the essence of his complaints. Spooked by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, the Soviet Union regarded Nazi Germany as an existential threat. It joined the League of Nations (which Lenin had previously characterized as a “thieves’ kitchen”) in September 1934, and signed a treaty of mutual assistance with France in 1935.
The Comintern’s Seventh Congress in 1935 formalized the Popular Front strategy, as the international Communist movement made clear that its priority was making alliances with “democratic” and “progressive” forces in opposition to fascism, regardless of their position on colonialism. Padmore identified in this new Communist position a belief that “the colonial peoples living under the yoke of British, French, and American Imperialisms must forgo their struggle for self-determination and line up in defence of ‘democracy,’ something they have never known.”
By this time, Padmore was living in London, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. He arrived in the summer of 1935, during one of the many great crises of the decade. It had been clear for some months that fascist Italy had designs on Ethiopia, which eventually culminated in an invasion in October 1935 and the capture of Addis Ababa in May 1936.
In London, Padmore joined the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE), a group that his fellow Caribbean activists Amy Ashwood Garvey and C. L. R. James had founded to campaign for Ethiopia’s continued independence. The black activists who comprised the IAFE understood Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia to be emblematic and symptomatic of a wider capitalist-imperialist system underpinned by racist ideologies.
The future president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was traveling through London when news of the invasion broke. He later remembered feeling “almost as if the whole of London had suddenly declared war on me personally.”
During these early years in Britain, Padmore published How Britain Rules Africa (1936) and Africa and World Peace (1937), while also founding the International African Service Bureau (IASB) out of the remnants of the IAFE during the spring of 1937. He was joined in the IASB by the likes of James, Chris Jones (from Barbados), Jomo Kenyatta (from Kenya), T. Ras Makonnen (from British Guiana) and I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson (from Sierra Leone). The organization’s work was greatly supported by Padmore’s British-Jewish partner, Dorothy Pizer.
There was a remarkable continuity in the political thought of Padmore during his Communist and post-Communist days, as he continued to espouse a Leninist understanding of imperialism, as well as stressing the interdependence of metropolitan and colonial revolutions. The IASB’s “Manifesto Against War” (1938) addressed the following words to the British working class:
Though you have neglected us in the past, today in this hour of common crisis, we want you to know that we Blacks bear you no ill-will. The Imperialists are our common enemy. . . . Our freedom is a step towards your freedom.
Padmore also attacked the Comintern’s distinction between “democratic” powers (like Britain and France) and “fascist” ones (like Germany and Italy), and he began to describe various British and French colonial laws and practices as “fascist” in order to illustrate his point. He was exasperated that so many erstwhile comrades were willing to overlook one form of racially stratified authoritarian rule in order to fight another.
Moreover, he argued, colonialism and fascism shared a root cause: capitalism. As Padmore wrote in Africa and World Peace:
“Democratic” Imperialism and “Fascist” Imperialism are merely interchanging ideologies corresponding to the economic and political conditions of capitalism within a given country on the one hand, and the degree to which the class struggle has developed on the other.
While Communists proclaimed the need for a Popular Front “against fascism and war,” Padmore argued that the fight against fascism and war could only be won through a more direct struggle against capitalism and colonialism — a struggle that the Popular Front strategy had subordinated.
When World War II came, Padmore’s political activities were greatly limited. Most of the IASB’s members had left London, and Padmore himself was afflicted with a throat ailment that prevented him from undertaking any public speaking during the early 1940s. Nevertheless, Padmore, alongside comrades like Chris Jones and the South African writer Peter Abrahams, who arrived in London in 1940, continued to make the case for anti-colonial revolution.
They urged black and other colonized people not to contribute to the war efforts of their European oppressors and to use the war instead as an opportunity to achieve independence. Padmore also became increasingly immersed in the networks of the British Independent Labour Party, whose wartime “Socialist Peace Offensive” owed much to Padmore’s analysis of the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism, and war. At the same time, Padmore was aware that the Communist position was at the mercy of the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy, and as such shifted dramatically according to events like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
At the war’s conclusion, Padmore played a leading role in organizing the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, the achievement for which he perhaps remains best known. Eighty-seven delegates — including three future African presidents: Hastings Banda, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah — and around two hundred observers packed into Manchester’s Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall over the course of a week in October 1945.
The congress invoked the lineage of Du Bois’s interwar congresses, while eschewing the bourgeois nature of these earlier gatherings. Abrahams remembered the Manchester congress as “the first truly representative one,” while Padmore called it an “expression of a mass movement.” The meeting’s “Challenge to the Colonial Powers” declared:
We condemn the monopoly of capital and the rule of private wealth and industry for private profit alone. We welcome economic democracy as the only real democracy.
The Bandung Spirit
The movement for the independence of the Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana) occupied much of Padmore’s time and attention after World War II. He played a mentorship role to Nkrumah, who led the country to independence in 1957. Nevertheless, despite this focus on the Ghanaian nation, Padmore — like Nkrumah — was convinced of the need for Pan-African liberation that aimed at achieving socialism and went beyond national borders.
In a 1956 letter to the African-American writer Richard Wright, Padmore explained that his “concentration” on Nkrumah was a result of Nkrumah’s Marxist analysis. He added that leaders like Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria’s future president) were “only the Kerenskys,” in reference to the Russian leader whom the Bolsheviks had overthrown. James remembered that Padmore
spoke ironically of nationalist politicians who were satisfied with “a flag and a national anthem” . . . African independence did not mean for him a mere repetition of the European experience.
As the Cold War deepened, Padmore believed that nonalignment offered the most realistic prospect of meaningful African independence. His last book, Pan-Africanism or Communism? (1956), was written very much in the spirit of the 1955 Bandung Conference.
Padmore played a strategic Cold War game and exaggerated the historical divergences between Pan-Africanism and Communism. He argued that Pan-Africanism would pose little threat to the West if African leaders like Nkrumah were left to build their own brand of socialism, but that Pan-Africanists might turn to Moscow if the European powers did not grant their colonies independence.
However, despite his continued criticisms of the contemporary Communist movement, Padmore continued to defend the Leninist legacy. He wrote, for instance, that during the Russian Civil War, the “reactionaries failed largely because Lenin’s bold anti-colonial strategy paid such rich dividends.”
Padmore moved to Ghana in 1957 to act as Nkrumah’s adviser on African affairs. However, his time in Ghana was short and frustrating. In declining health, he returned to London, where he died from cirrhosis on September 23, 1959. His ashes were interred at Christiansborg Castle in Accra the following month. A CIA-backed right-wing military coup overthrew Nkrumah’s government in February 1966.
James wrote of Nkrumah: “Like Cromwell and Lenin, he initiated the destruction of a regime in decay — a tremendous achievement; but like them, he failed to create the new society.” Padmore was a key figure in the destruction of the old regime and longed to see a new society free from capitalism and imperialism. While Padmore and his comrades failed to create that new society in the twentieth century, his life and works remain instructive if we are to accomplish the task in the twenty-first.