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In Africa the ‘collapse’ of the Soviet block had profound implications. At that time in the late 1980s and early 1990s Africa, and particularly Southern Africa, was involved in a process of decolonization by way of armed struggle, in which the Soviet block played a decisive role.  The contribution of the Soviet block and Cuba to the decolonization of Africa remains a testament to the progress of humankind.

[This lecture was delivered at the international symposium of ‘The 7th World Socialism Forum: Marxism in the 21st Century’, co-organized by The Social Sciences Press, for The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and The World Socialism Research Centre, Beijing, China, 21-22 October 2016. Dedicated to Bennie Bunsee.]

‘They are slaves who fear to speak

For the fallen and the weak.’ G. Padmore

The events leading to the demise of the area formerly known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), now known as The Russian Federation,  did not signify the end of Socialism, but did lead to the collapse of the Soviet block. Many say that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end a certain interpretation of political philosophy and its application. This meeting in China at this moment in world history signifies that although the days of the Soviet block are over, China led by the Communist Party of China, implementing socialism with Chinese characteristics, holds high the banner of Socialism. What that teaches some is that Socialism in China is implemented learning from the experience of China, knowing that Socialism is adaptable to the realities of the place of application. The experience of China has seen its ups and downs. China continues to chart its way in an international environment not of its choosing.

In Africa the ‘collapse’ of the Soviet block had profound implications. At that time in the late 1980s and early 1990s Africa, and particularly Southern Africa, was involved in a process of decolonization by way of armed struggle, in which the Soviet block played a decisive role.  The contribution of the Soviet block and Cuba to the decolonization of Africa remains a testament to the progress of humankind. Questions will be raised by historians and political scientists as to the nature of the solidarity provided by the Soviet block in the decolonization of the African people and as to whether this solidarity reflected people-to-people relations or more Cold War rivalry, and questions will be asked about the social relations within the block itself and its individual members. For instance the situation in Cuba is a matter of acute interest as it assisted Africa to defeat militarily imperialism with soldiers of African descent.

This paper will confine its attention to the African experience with the Soviet block, but more particularly with the Soviet Union. It is inspired by the Chinese example of the importance of the application of Socialism with the characteristics of the locale. It also reflects the concern of these times for national unity, otherwise known, in the African setting, as Pan-African national unity. China advances a political concept of scientific Socialism with Chinese characteristics, drawing on its long history as a nation.

There are currently 155 ethnic autonomous areas in China designated in accordance with the Constitution and laws, five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties. There are also more than 1100 autonomous townships. These areas enjoy extensive autonomy, as prescribed in the Constitution and the law on regional ethnic autonomy. This framework for national unity is logical. It was conceived differently from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The late George Padmore, who was born 28 June 1903 in Guyana as Malcom Nurse, arrived in Moscow  on 8 January 1930 on his first official visit functioning amongst others as a journalist and representative of the United States Communist Party. He was coming from the United States of America (USA) where he had been active with the  Workers ( Communist ) Party of the USA and stayed in the USSR till the end of 1931. He was the first person of black African descent to serve on the august Soviet foreign policy body, the Comintern (Communist International). His arrival coincided with a ‘turn to the Left’ in Comintern strategy, known as the Third Period, endorsed at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern  in 1928, which foresaw world revolution as imminent and adopted a ‘class against class’ approach to international affairs. This would impact the South African Communist Party. This was at the time of the Great Depression. At that time the work of the Comintern in Africa was focused on the trade unions in South Africa. Padmore followed the line of Harry Haywood and James La Guma supporting the cause of a ‘Native Republic’ in South Africa. We shall see that through the remainder of his life he never waivered from this position as regards the struggle in South Africa, whereas the Soviets, particularly during Stalin’s leadership, took a contrary position

Padmore was critical of the Comintern line of ‘anti-fascism before anti-imperialism’, prioritizing anti-fascist alliances over anti-imperial activity. In his work Padmore clearly defined the role of imperialism and its different actors and the workings of race and class in Africa, all of which remains highly relevant today, especially as we seek to understand how in South Africa today, a country constituted by a majority of African descent, a white minority rules via economic leverage.  Africa, according to Padmore, had no sizable bourgeoisie, the beginnings of an industrial proletariat and in the international setting strong race chauvinism preventing white workers from uniting with black workers. To quote Leslies James, ‘Padmore’s position on the centrality of racial chauvinism in the anti-imperial struggle came directly from his Marxist education’, as for him racism was part of capitalism. Racism was a social construct. Rather for Padmore  ‘Africans for Africans’  rather than ‘class against class’  best served the African revolution. Like his close friend Nkrumah, Garvey’s refrain on Africans was part of his ideological make up.

Despite the twists and turns of life Padmore dedicated his life to the unity and progress of black Africans through socialism. As Leslie James states in George Padmore and decolonization from below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War and the end of Empire’ p 28, Padmore’s arrival at that moment in Moscow allowed him ‘ to move towards alternative views of black liberation that remained within a Marxian analytical framework’. It led to his disillusion with certain aspects of the Soviet Union, particularly its approach to imperialism. Being in the Comintern he was afforded insights, which allowed him to formulate a well articulated ideological position on Socialism from a Third World perspective . He became a harsh critic of Stalin and the racism in the Soviet party.

In 1938 Padmore indicted the ‘betrayal’ of Stalinism towards colonial struggle. His break with the Comintern took him to Hamburg where he was involved with the recruitment of black workers into the socialist movement.  The Nazis deported him from Germany in 1934. Thereafter he moved between Paris and London, where he settled in 1935. James Hooker, Padmore’s biographer, describes Padmore’s response to his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1934 as ‘silence under attack’. It was the cautious reaction of one troubled as to how the Soviet system was developing.  

In 1935 Padmore was outspoken on imperial ambitions in the Italo-Abyssinian crisis and on the re-division of what ‘has already been parceled out ( South West Africa )’. His concerns were Africa-wide, including the Diaspora. Pan-Africanism was a product of his Marxist education and Leninist understanding of the world order. Leslie James states that with the encouragement  of his close friend, the Caribbean ideologue C.L.R James, Padmore  read  Trotsky which assisted him in formulating a ‘coherent position towards the Soviet Union’. Padmore’s key role in the 5th Pan-African Congress (PAC) of 1945 in which he promoted Du Bois as leader, is acknowledged . His role and Nkrumah’s, behind the scenes, were  critical. He remained a Marxist and as Hakim Adi stated, he maintained his belief in the value of a ‘Marxist interpretation of history’.

1945 also announced a shift in Padmore’s thinking towards non-violence as the preferred mode of struggle. Since the 1930s he had said that Africans had to win their own freedom and that nobody could win if for them, which was reflected in his 1956 publication Pan-Africanism or Communism, the title of which might appear contradictory, but in which he saw no dichotomy, rather complimentarity. He placed high value on socialist society and supported the Soviet Union as a state of workers. Its defense was essential in support of the working class and socialist goals.

The end of the war saw the decomposition of European empires and Padmore found himself gravitating to Africa, rather than the Caribbean from whence he originated. Together with persons such as Kwame Nkrumah, then a student in London, Padmore was involved in the detail of the 5th PAC. This engagement led to his arrival in Accra, Ghana, in February 1951. It was in Ghana with Nkrumah that Padmore applied the lifetime learning he had acquired. Before his arrival he had been fully engaged in London on global issues of decolonization, such as in India, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.  He had been advising Nkrumah in two main areas – Pan-African unity and the direct implementation on the ground in the Gold Coast of socialist strategy. Once in the Gold Coast he worked on key areas such as the work of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), the party newspaper, the Foreign Affairs Department and the Department of Political Education. In the book Leslie James states at page 133 that from 1951 to 1954 ‘Padmore directed Nkrumah’s induction of a political philosophy based on socialist principles and applied to the Gold Coast’.

The period 1957, being the date of Ghana’s independence, till September 1959, the date of Padmore’s death, have been described as his months in power. It was in this period in Ghana that Padmore served as Kwame Nkrumah’s Advisor on African Affairs. In this role of supporting African liberation and Pan-African unity, there was at the same time the task of building African socialism. His schema was for the unity of modern postcolonial states transcending colonial borders, integrating race, tribe and ethnicity. Upon death Padmore was described by those who opposed him in the metropolitan capitals as the  ‘political theorist to the Pan-African Movement’.    

The Socialist agenda in Africa: Revival or new ways of sustained work ?

The global perspectives on Socialism, place projections in the realm of historical prognosis. George Padmore in 1957, along with Kwame Nkrumah, saw independence as a step towards African socialism. What they might not have been able to gauge was the strength of the opposition their project would attract. With the vantage of what we have seen in Africa since 1957 and before, imperialism has not changed and as Nkrumah was to explain, colonialism became neo-colonialism. It is now clear that there never was and never will be a reduction in the exploitation of underdeveloped countries.

With the advent of self-government in Africa many said Africa was ripe for revolution, as indeed it was. The observation was long made that imperialism systematically eliminated the first crop of visionary leaders, either by coup d’ etat or by assassination. In Indonesia and Latin America progressive sectors of society were physically liquidated. Countries were tamed by financial bondage through the Bretton Woods organizations and progressive leaders were constrained by a system which inhibited any other option than neo-liberal democracy. Those countries able to accede to sovereignty by armed struggle after 1990 were the last past the gate, since most had been facilitated earlier by the Soviet block. Some were caught, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and had to reconfigure their support base, to continue their struggle by other means after the Soviet disintegration. 

The international environment has changed and democracy is the mantra, human rights and free and fair elections. In the neo-liberal democracies in the developed countries socialist parties contest elections alongside fascist parties. This is western democracy at work and the people/electorate make their choices. This system has been introduced in the least developed part of the world, in Africa. The study of history teaches us that there is the Left and the Right. On this issue Central and South America is instructive. Socialism is a universal philosophy. The Baath Party is an example. Socialism is found in India, in Australia, in North America and is of old duration in Senegal.

Within Africa those who profess socialism, like anywhere else, are struggling for what they believe in. This is why it is important to understand what happened in South Africa, where so much was expected from the Left. Any political party which professes socialism must be seen to deliver what Cabral states ‘the Africans want’…’self-determination and independence’ (Cabral 2008, p 64), neither of which are much on offer in Africa.

Application of Padmore’s lessons

The application of Padmore’s  lessons to the South African struggle brings us to the Mandela debacle. What follows is an explanation arrived at after some insights and experiences culled from a privileged view in Botswana, Angola, Namibia and South Africa in the period 1980-2016. It is an overview as to how Padmore’s correct opposition to the Soviet policy of ‘class against class’, his support for the ‘Native Republic’ in South Africa and his support for the prioritizing of the anti-imperial line over the anti-fascist line were correct, but went unheeded by South African Communists. If it had been otherwise the outcomes of the liberation struggle of the South Africa would have been different.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded on 8 January 1912 by John Langalibalele Dube in Bloemfontein as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC). It had as its main goal the maintenance of voting rights for Coloreds (persons of mixed race) and black Africans in the Cape Province. The founding of the SANNC was in direct response to injustices against black South Africans at the hands of the government then in power. It can be said that the SANNC had its origins in a pronouncement by Pixley ka Isaka Seme who said in 1911, ‘Forget all the past differences among Africans and unite in one national organization’. The SANNC was founded the following year.

The government of the newly formed Union of South Africa began the systematic oppression of black people. The Land Act was promulgated in 1913 forcing many non-whites from their farms into the cities and towns to work, and to restrict their movement within South Africa. By 1919, the SANNC was leading a campaign against passes (an ID which non-whites had to possess). However, it then became dormant in the mid-1920s. During that time, black people were also represented by the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union and the previously white-only Communist Party. In 1923 SANNC  became the African National Congress.

By 1927, J.T. Gumede (President of the ANC) proposed co-operation with the Communists in a bid to revitalize the organization, but he was voted out of power in the 1930s and the ensuing victory of the conservatives left the party small and disorganized through the 1930s. This led to the ANC becoming largely ineffectual and inactive, until the mid-1940s when the ANC was remodeled as a mass movement.

J.B. Marks, Chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, in a 1972 issue of The African Communist dedicated to him, provides some introductory notes on the SACP. Marks was eighteen years old when the party was formed in July 1921 in Cape Town City Hall. It was the first Communist Party in Africa and was founded by D.I. Jones, S.P. Bunting and W.H. Andrews. From 1920, Marks tell us, Jones was in Moscow and assisted Lenin found the Third Comintern. At that time Marks was a sharecropper working on a white farm. For him the SACP struggle was part and parcel of the world anti-imperialist struggle waged by the Soviet Union, the socialist countries, the revolutionary working class and its allies for national freedom.  

After its foundation it would have been fair to call the ANC an African nationalist party. Later, with the establishment of the SACP, the ANC moved towards the Soviet approach to Communism, as encountered within the Soviet Party. By this we mean that the approach to race within the ANC in South Africa is traced to the influence that the SACP and the Soviets had on the race issue, particularly the Stalinist line. Within the SACP race was not discussed - it was taboo. Those who insisted/persisted on raising the race issue were called racists and many were excluded from the ANC. If a person insisted on the validity of race and class analysis, as many did, who distinguished themselves in African liberation, such as C.L. R James and Amilcar Cabral et al, that person was considered by the Soviets and the SACP as unorthodox and possibly subversive. This was the long-standing ideological stance on race within the SACP/ANC alliance.

After the foundation of the SACP the ideological influence of the SACP in the ANC grew to the point that the SACP monopolized the formation of ideological positions within the ANC, to the extent where we could see that the ‘mind’ of the ANC was controlled by the SACP, many members of which held dual membership of the SACP and the ANC. By 1990 although the ANC was a ‘broad church’, the general perception was that it was a social semocratic party. It had long ceased to be an African nationalist party at its core leadership level. With the unbanning of the SACP, it attracted black youth who joined in large numbers.

It has to be said that this skewered thinking on race was not unique to Southern Africa. It was to be found in large parts of what was called the Socialist block in those times. A certain incoherence had been noted in Eastern Europe vis a vis African liberation and this is illustrated by the experiences of African students studying in eastern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Your writer had visited the Southern USA and Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1960s. The anti-black racism witnessed in Sofia was more severe than that seen in the USA. It was also violent. An initial conclusion from experience would be that the Soviet block in those days claimed a world devoid of race and that class against class was the motor for human endeavor, but at home their social approach increased the incidence of racism.

* Bankie F. Bankie writes from Windhoek, Namibia. [email protected].


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C. Moore, Castro, the Blacks and Africa, University of California, USA, 1988

E.M. Dominguez, Race in Cuba – essays on the revolution and racial equality, Monthly Review Press, USA, 2013

K.K. Prah, The African Nation – the state of the Nation, The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), South Africa, 2006

L. James, George Padmore and decolonization from below – Pan-Africanism, the Cold War and the end of Empire, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2015

H. Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Comintern, the ‘Negro question’ and the First International Conference of Negro Workers, Hamburg, 1930, African and Black Diaspora 1, No 2, 2008

G. Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism, Dennis Dobson, UK, 1936

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China Academy of Translation and China International Publishing Group, Key words to understand China, in Chinafrica, p 29, vol 8, China, July, 2016



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