Looking for Padmore

By Jeremy Taylor

George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary,
ed. Fitzroy Baptiste and Rupert Lewis
Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-350-4, 210 pp

George Padmore’s reputation still sails high, at least in corners of academia. C.L.R. James’s judgement — that Padmore belongs up there with Mao, Lenin, Gandhi, and Nkrumah, men who broke the power of imperialism — is recalled more than once in this book. He is hailed as a central figure in twentieth-century Pan-Africanism, the movement’s chief theoretician, the forgotten hero of the Caribbean, the mentor of Kwame Nkrumah, the father of today’s African Union.

Yet beyond academia, Padmore has disappeared, even from Caribbean consciousness. This seems to be the first Padmore book of any substance since 1967, when his biographer James R. Hooker published Black Revolutionary: George Padmore’s Path from Communism to Pan-Africanism. All his books seem to be out of print. Even Hooker’s biography seems to be out of print: by way of an alternative, Amazon suggests Story of a Teenage Hooker for £43.70, The Horny Hooker for a mere £20, or The Immoral and Pernicious Tendency of Error by Asahel Hooker, 1806, currently unavailable.

So there is a lot of ground to make up if Padmore is to retain his place in the pantheon. A new popular biography would be a good start. The earnest essays in Pan-African Revolutionary are useful, but are not aimed at a general readership. They assume some previous knowledge of Padmore’s life and work, tolerance of the Marxist-Leninist jargon he was so fond of, and some enthusiasm for Pan-Africanism of the mid-twentieth-century variety. As a collection, they are uneven, and one or two ought not to have reached print in their present form.

The ten essays themselves, with an introduction by Rupert Lewis, professor of political thought at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, began life as papers delivered at a 2003 conference in Trinidad. There’s a good deal of overlapping, which the editors have not removed. The book does not attempt a solid biographical background: there are big gaps in the story, and disagreement even on some of the dates. Sad to say, while there are solid pieces from the more senior contributors, other parts of Pan-African Revolutionary are simplistic and badly written. My favourite piece of comic-book history asserts that at his death

the indefatigable and legendary Padmore had emboldened activists, intellectuals and [sic] was an inspiration for trade union leaders and millions of working class Blacks. Corrupt, unjust, and oppressive leaders cowered as Padmore continuously exposed their heinous actions and schemes. The forgotten hero of the Caribbean was resilient and determined to build a crusade to liberate countries. He must be credited for having sown the seeds of anti-colonialism.

After that, it seems almost right that the back cover blurb should end halfway through a sentence:

This Pan African legend is still a source of inspiration to students and scholars who continue to organise, debate and vocalise in advancing the

Sic, as they say.

Whatever he was like in real life, Padmore emerges here as a rather tedious ideologue, dedicated but strangely innocent and humourless, toiling tirelessly in the anti-imperialist cause: organising, networking, lecturing, distributing, and always writing, writing, writing.

Padmore was born in Arouca, Trinidad, in 1902, or maybe it was 1903, or even 1901. Comfortable childhood, prestige school, journalism with the Trinidad Guardian, a falling out with the editor. In 1924, off to the United States to study: was it law or medicine or both? Fisk or NYU? Then, black student leader at Howard, expelled for insulting Britain’s imperial ambassador (or did he just drop out?). Radicalisation and activism, anyway. He joined the American Communist Party and changed his name from Malcolm Nurse to George Padmore in 1927 (or was it 1928?). In 1929, relocation to Moscow, the world centre of radical anti-imperialism, as it seemed at the time, and five years as a Soviet apparatchik. His Negro Worker newspaper widely read; contacts and networks built. His first big book is published, Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, with an aggressive anti-Garvey message.

Then, in the mid-1930s, with Hitler rising, the Soviet Union’s strategic interests change, and Padmore is told to stop attacking British, French, and American imperialism (Japanese imperialism is still OK). Moscow is less enthused now about the black masses as part of an international proletariat. Padmore takes umbrage, quits Moscow and heads for London. He becomes passionately anti-communist; he de-links Pan-Africanism from communism, though he retains a Marxist outlook and continues to use Marxist language.

By Pan-Africanism, Padmore meant

the attainment of the government of Africans by Africans, with respect for racial and religious minorities who desire to live in Africa on a basis of equality with the black majority. Economically and socially, Pan-Africanism subscribes to the fundamental objectives of Democratic Socialism, with state control of the basic means of production and distribution. It stands for the liberty of the subject within the law and endorses the Fundamental Declaration of Human Rights, with emphasis upon the Four Freedoms.

In London, for twenty years, Padmore evangelises for the Pan-African cause. He works with James, Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere. He runs the International African Services Bureau and the International African Opinion newspaper with James, and is a leading light in the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945. He is a masterful organiser and energises a generation of budding politicians.

Then in 1957 Ghana gains its independence, and he moves to Accra. He becomes a personal adviser to Nkrumah, edits the Voice of Africa. For two years, the work continues; then, suddenly, death in London in 1959. He was only 57. Or maybe 56, or 58.

Political biography, particularly in fragmented form, is an unsatisfying genre. It excludes as much of the personal as possible: it pretends that a man or a woman can be known and understood through their actions and writings. (This is a very male collection, incidentally; eight of the ten contributors are men, and women barely feature in Padmore’s life.)

There are many useful things in these essays: examinations of Padmore’s relationships with James, Nkrumah and (such as it was) Garvey, the way he put publishing to work for the cause, the 1945 Manchester Congress, the evil machinations of the Brits, the Pan-African vision, tentative political assessment. One contributor, Vincent Thompson, examines Padmore in terms of his contradictions. But the overall effect is of individual scholars each inspecting a separate piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The big picture is missing. Granted, that is not what the book sets out to deliver: but perhaps it should have. It would not have been too hard for the editors to weld these contributions together to form the basis of a real biography.

That is not the academic way, of course. It is also why academic work doesn’t usually reach a general readership, and why the campus can afford to ignore the community in which it operates. It may seem perverse to want a book to be other than it is. But consider how much Pan-African Revolutionary does not say about George Padmore. It does not examine his name change, his wives (two, apparently), his life in Moscow, how he distributed newspapers on several continents (despite colonial attempts to stop him), how he supported himself in London, his travels, his skill at “networking,” or the personality that combined tireless work with rigorous, set ideas. All the reader is offered is this:

He travelled widely and worked secretly in many parts of the world from the Soviet Union to Europe to Africa to the Caribbean and the US. Many of his books and pamphlets were banned in the colonial world and travel restrictions were also imposed on his movement.

Padmore’s Moscow sojourn is a puzzle. He arrived soon after Trotsky’s exile; he would have watched the land grabs, the collectivisation, the anti-Semitism, the show trials and party purges, the fear, the deportations and resettlements, the mass deaths from famine; he must have sensed the approach of Stalin’s “great terror.” Did he react to any of this, then or later? There’s no hint in these pages that he even noticed.

It is not clear either when this Pan-Africanist first set foot in Africa, or whether he actually lived there at all before moving to Ghana 1957. Why did he feel so bitter about the Caribbean? (James remembered him saying “I don’t want to have anything to do with those people.”) The reader is left with no idea what was wrong with his health, to cause such a sudden death; or what “papers” of his have been lost, and how that affects the reconstruction of his life and work. Sir Arthur Lewis’s observation that “it is primarily due to George’s efforts that there is hardly a communist in British Colonial Africa or the West Indies” says more than pages of political commentary.

There is no good reason why a biographical dimension should be beyond the scope of academic work or the confines of political biography. Perhaps the real constraint is that it would require much more research, among people rather than texts.

The essays in this collection are generally laudatory, but from time to time a startling assessment emerges, enlivening the narrative. Here’s Lewis, one of the book’s editors:

. . . ideologically [Padmore] remained within the European framework, seeing Africa as being blank, with tribes and heathen people, and ready for advanced political thought. In this sense he was no different from Christian missionaries.

George Padmore as missionary: there’s a thought. Elsewhere it is cautiously suggested that Padmore was used by the colonial powers, who came to see that colonial liberation movements might be bulwarks against communism, and profitably bought off. They might even form a neocolonial elite ready to step into the shoes of departing colonisers, a process clearly foreseen by Frantz Fanon.

Vincent Thompson actually dares to challenge Padmore’s writing: he finds a “thoroughly bad chapter,” thinks Padmore a “bad psychologist,” charges him with “distorted history,” “jaundiced ideas,” and “misreading African history.” “Change,” he writes sternly, “should be guided empirically not by dogma borrowed from another context and not easily assimilable or applicable to the people who have to be liberated.”

These are things that cry out for exploration. For all his passion and vision, Padmore, like most idealists, does seem naive when it comes to realpolitik. For all the talk about “the people,” his Pan-African vision was arguably and ironically based on a European, Marxist model, and he spent his life trying to make African realities fit inside it.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2009

Jeremy Taylor was born in the United Kingdom, and has lived in Trinidad for over thirty years. He is a writer, editor, broadcaster, and publisher. Many of his essays and reviews are collected in Going to Ground (1994).