Activating The Past

George Padmore & The Historical Present

By Dr. Leslie James (University of Birmingham)

September 13, 2016         Picture: Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique’s September/October 2016 Issue “The Bright Continent: Illuminating The Challenges, Opportunities & Promises Of A Rising Africa”.

I begin with two recent interrogations on two poles of the African continent. The first materialised on the pristinely repurposed white walls of an old factory building in the district of Maboneng, Johannesburg, on June 10, 2016. Pasted onto a piece of cardboard and hanging on the wall was a photograph of Mohammed Ali, arm stretched across his powerful frame in the upward swing that had just knocked Sonny Liston to the mat and won him the heavy-weight title. Scrawled in red magic marker across the photograph was the question: “Does reactivating the past help us to change the now”?

Was mourning the death of Ali a simple act of respect, a collective ritual of tribute to a great man? Or could the re-entry of Ali’s image and message actually serve as an active force in present struggle? Created as part of two weeks of “Emergency Art”,[1] where artists produced pieces on a daily basis that responded to immediate issues, Thierry Colonel Geoffroy’s focus upon the global mourning of Ali’s death on 3 June, 2016, highlights several resilient aspects of African contemporary life, including: the continuing connection between the diaspora and Africa, the uses and abuses of physical force, and the significance of history in the present conjuncture. What did it mean, in June 2016, for people to be confronted with this image and to assess the life and legacy of this strong, proud, determined black man who defied every attempt to rein him in – both inside and outside the boxing ring? In the United States, the utter disregard for black life and black bodies is on stark display as police and citizen violence continues to mount. In June 2016 South Africans also faced the physical and psychological debasement of black life with the fortieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. What does it do for the present when the past enters that space, when narratives are reformed and reconceptualised as frames of reference coded with both past and present meaning?

The second interaction provides a kind of addendum to the first. On a quiet Saturday morning in Accra, Ghana, as the city recovered from the previous evening’s Republic Day celebration, I listened over our shared breakfast as two middle-aged men reflected upon the decision by independent Ghana’s first political leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to refashion Ghana as a Republic on July 1, 1960, three years after it gained political self-government from Britain. As they spoke, they also considered the commemoration of that act in present-day Ghana, and the legacy of Nkrumah’s most important political mentor, George Padmore. Though Padmore passed away in September 1959, before Nkrumah declared himself President of a new Republic and well before the active memory of these men, both were familiar with Padmore’s basic biography and his work with Nkrumah.

Born and raised in Trinidad, Padmore studied in the United States in the mid-1920s before joining the Communist Party and moving to Moscow, where he led the Red International Labour Union’s “Negro Bureau” in the early 1930s. After breaking with the international communist movement in 1934, Padmore moved to London where he remained a committed Marxist outside the bounds of the communist party. He helped organise the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and later the Pan-African Federation, and was the major force behind the 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress. Over a three decade career of political organising, Padmore’s apartment in London served as a base for the instruction of numerous individuals interested in Marxism, colonial politics and history. He expressed his political philosophy by way of hundreds of newspaper and journal articles printed in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, and through seven books focused mainly on the history and politics of British Africa and the Anglophone African diaspora but also covering Europe’s empires, Russian and Soviet history. After a decade of close political partnership with Kwame Nkrumah, he accepted Nkrumah’s invitation in March 1957 to move to Ghana and serve as the new Prime Minister’s Adviser on African Affairs.

Nkrumah’s initiative to make Ghana a vocal proponent of pan-Africanism was at least on vivid cultural display in the Republic Day events of 2016. These included the third Ghana Carnival, which was launched with the cooperation of the Ghana Society UK and held in Black Star Square (a reference to Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line).[2] The costumes, music and dance combined Ghanaian regional cultures with Caribbean and American rhythms and reference points, and included floats from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Nigeria, among others. And while Padmore’s specific vision of African Socialism and a United States of Africa faltered after his death in 1959, the African Union’s recent June 13 announcement of a new single African e-passport indicates that Padmore’s concerted plans have not altogether disappeared.[3] Yet if Padmore’s efforts to sketch out a philosophy of pan-Africanism are perhaps the most well-known, this was not the legacy my breakfast companions held up as the most important. Instead, it was Padmore’s foresight to make a collection of Africa’s past, to record African history and to document the struggle for independence that most impressed these men. Indeed, the stated purpose of Padmore’s most well-known work, Pan-Africanism or Communism (1956), was “to record the rise and growth of the contemporary Negro political movements”.[4] Padmore’s work, they argued, embodied the maxim that “If you know your past, you can forge your future.”

[Editor’s note: For more on Padmore, read Dr. Leslie James’ “George Padmore and Decolonization from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold War, and the End of Empire” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015)]. 

Both of these interrogations spotlight the significance of the past as a present actor in Africa. There is the question of what narratives are selected, as well as how these narratives are told and thus how they furnish meaning for peoples’ lived reality. These are profound today. How reactivating the past alters “the now” strikes at the core of the continuing campus debates in South Africa and the UK organised around the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the “Decolonising our minds” projects. While many have tried to isolate the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) movements into single issue demands (the removal of Rhodes’s statue; a 0% increase in tuition and the removal of fees more generally) these movements have always articulated their protests within a much wider social and epistemological critique. The demand to remove the Rhodes statue from Oxford’s High Street and place it in a museum was not, as critics have virulently labeled it, an attempt to “erase” the past but to address, as an RMFO blog has recently reiterated, the question “not [of] whether Rhodes is remembered, but how.”[5]

The issue of narrative selection was also crucial for those who argued for independence from European colonial rule. In 1949, as Britain intensified its programme of raw material production in Africa through its “development and welfare” policy, Padmore produced a book that sought to show how “politically-minded Africans are meeting this challenge of the new Economic Imperialism”. He did so by emphasizing that while post-1945 Africa faced a new system of resource exploitation orchestrated not only through British colonial policy but also American-influenced “Dollar Imperialism”, Africans drew on a “longer tradition” of political nationalism “than is generally realized.”

The narrative he wove recorded that tradition in each British African colonial and trust territory. His first book, The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, was more expansive. In it he argued that, whether officially under imperialism or not, the condition of all black workers was the same.[6] This was a crucial articulation of black transnationalism that placed imperialism at the centre of the black experience. Padmore used the language of enslavement to describe black labour wherever it may be: in Africa, the West Indies, Latin America, and the United States. Using government reports, decrees, and journals, Padmore transposed the colonial logic from one of development to one of oppression. The book outlined the central fact of labour as the means of exploitation in each of the four regions, and then revisited each geographical area to proclaim instances of popular revolt, its violent and aggressive suppression, and the “conscious effort on the part of these Negro masses to consolidate their fighting forces”.

Padmore was intimately familiar with the powerful established narratives that sought to whitewash or erase the darker side of Britain’s presence in Africa. The majority of Padmore’s work focused upon exposing the false narrative of a benevolent British Empire. For example, in the summer of 1944 he reported the House of Commons statistic that Britain spent an average of one penny per year for each inhabitant of its African colonial territory. In November 1944 he also reported the news of a wartime profit by the British Government of over £3 million from West African cocoa.

After the Labour Government came to power in 1945, he meticulously recorded the statements of Labour politicians in order to prove that while Labour had previously criticised British colonial policy, once in power “there never was a time when British Imperialism had so many apologists and defenders, even in the ranks of the Left”. After the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940, the old language of “responsibility” received a new lease on life. Yet for every speech by a colonial “expert” or government minister explaining how British plans would benefit Africans, Padmore republished quotations like that by Minister of Economic Affairs, Sir Arthur Cripps, declaring that “the whole future of Britain and the sterling group, and its ability to survive, depends…[on] a quick and extensive development of our African resources.” Development, Padmore reiterated, was nothing but a “euphemism” for economic imperialism.

For Padmore imperialism was “a political and economic system of violence”. After the conclusion of the Second World War, Padmore became increasingly concerned with the militarisation of African troops. He reported discussions in the House of Commons for a “big African army” that would serve as “mercenaries” who would be deployed by Britain, France, and Holland to quell colonial unrest wherever it manifested itself. In 1947 he reported that because ongoing fighting in Indo-China weakened French forces they deployed Senegalese troops to crush a rebellion in Madagascar. In 1949, to address continuing troubles in Uganda, he reported that Britain deployed troops from Kenya in order to reinforce local police. In September 1949 he reported that West African authorities were being advised to improve their own security by studying tactics used against nationalists and trade unionists in Malaya where guerrilla fighting had been going on for two years.

Padmore ultimately advocated Gandhian non-violent tactics as the most effective strategy for Africans. But to a European audience, he maintained that the greatest violence and injustice in the colonies was perpetrated not by guerrilla fighters but by the colonial power. In the early 1950s, Padmore’s analysis of the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya and France’s Algerian crisis aimed to redirect accusations about the use of violence from the Africans to the settler populations in both Kenya and Algeria. In Padmore’s narrative the settlers were primarily responsible for the actual violence, and the colonial administration primarily responsible for the incarceration and unjust policies towards the African population. In 1939 he asked a colleague how he supposed Britain “acquired [its] empire? Was it not violence? How is it being maintained? Is it not by violence? When Jamaican Negroes ask their white masters for a few coppers are they not met by violence? Why, it seems to me that violence is the high priest of imperialism.”


Changing the conversation

In order to shift the narrative then, Padmore needed to link specific cases to the entire “social system” of imperialism. While the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements were initiated and gained wider publicity over specific demands, those who remain in the movement insist that the conversation is about something more. It is about interrogating a fundamentally unequal and diseased vision not only of what role education serves in society, but who can/does have access to it, as well as how students and learners enter and interact in that space of learning. What is education? And who does it serve?

Padmore’s plan for African Socialism in Ghana after 1957 called for “a whole new educational system” that would “be geared to producing a different kind of citizen from the one we know: one who will know his history, his background and his socialist future”.[7] Throughout his life Padmore repeatedly criticised the colonial education system’s focus on elite training of a few lawyers and doctors that left African colonies socially fractured and dependent upon European “advisers” to run the economy and organise infrastructure.

For Padmore, revising education was part of the socialist project to remove dependency and diversify African professional life. It was also, however, part of a vanguardist style of political leadership adopted by Nkrumah and the Convention Peoples Party. This ultimately led to a different kind of elite educated class and the active stifling of any oppositional voice. Padmore and Nkrumah adopted a vanguardist mode as a mechanism for ensuring unity and discipline in the face of active hostility to an independent African state as well as mid-century Cold War international politics.

“We must have no illusions about this battle for economic freedom, which will be even more difficult than the struggle for political freedom, since it will be more subtly and covertly carried on. Moreover, while the imperialists were able to enlist only a few reactionaries in opposing our struggle for independence, there are many Africans who are ready to assist them in keeping us economically enslaved as long as they personally get a few crumbs from the overladen table of foreign capitalism. Black capitalists are as much our enemies as white capitalists.”[8]

Opposition to their project came from all directions; they met this opposition by attempting to close ranks. In contrast, the fractures within RMF, FMF, and the decolonising education movements have been more visible because they have attempted to function within more egalitarian, discussion oriented modes of leadership.

If the outcome of these current conversations is the disintegration of these movements then that would be a great loss. But the debate and dispute that is occurring is not inherently bad. The brightest aspect of these movements is precisely the attempt to open up and face the messiness of debate. As Wits Lecturer Danai Maputso has argued, “What I see out of #FeesMustFall is that commitment to do the work, and to have compassion – a political compassion – for each other, even when we disagree and are angry.”[9]

Padmore’s philosophy in this regard is contradictory. On the one hand, in the 1950s he moved very clearly to a vanguardist model of tight control within a political party structure in Ghana. Whatever his personal debates and disagreements with African political figures, he rarely criticised them in public, especially in front of a white audience.

On the other hand, he advised Eric Williams to name his new party in Trinidad the People’s National Movement as a way of fostering a less top-down structure. He spent most of his life facilitating debate and discussion between people from diverse class and racial backgrounds by organising community groups, meetings, rallies, and instructing from his home. He cooperated with English, American, and European comrades on a regular basis while always ensuring that it was black voices and black opinions that were the origin and substance of discussion.

There are obvious convergences – in the broad issue of tackling structural anti-black racism as well as in political method – between RMF and FMF in South Africa, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, and Black Lives Matter movements in the United States and Canada. Indeed, these specific names are only one representation of a wide and continually swelling conversation. At the same time, each movement is organised to specifically address locally vital issues.

The art of understanding and tackling discrete problems within larger structural and ideological paradigms requires a conscientious process. Padmore was studious in his documentation of each colonial regime in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. His 1939 book How Britain Rules Africa – a concerted attempt to widen the scope of British anti-fascist alliances to include anti-colonial action – was a methodical survey of British rule across the African continent. Taking each territory in turn, he outlined the territory’s history, how people live, work, distribute land, organise political and legal processes.

In doing this, Padmore explained what each unique situation meant for the local population as well as how each case informed an understanding of how the British rule. In South Africa, “Land is the pivot around which all the burdens, tribulations, hardships and sufferings of the Bantu people revolve.” Strikes in North and South Rhodesia, Kenya, and South Africa in the 1930s tied land and labour problems together with “the denial of elementary rights of citizenship”. While West Africans did not face a plantation system and a white settler population like in Kenya, “let us not rejoice too quickly”. For “the Native agriculturalists have not completely escaped the far-reaching tentacles of that octopus – finance capital.” The “intricate capitalistic organism known as the monopoly trading company” still meant that exploitation was rampant. “Every facility is rendered these companies by the State, such as building harbours and docks for their ships, railways and motor-roads”. In Nigeria the close working relationship between government and private capital through the railways and coal mines meant that the Nigerian Criminal Code was “the most oppressive body of laws in operation in the British Empire outside India.” (352) Comparing and contrasting each territory and making distinct arguments about each case, Padmore tied all the territories together through the themes of land policy, legal codes, racial exclusion and violence, and resource extraction.


Philosophy as praxis

Questions about history, education, leadership, and pan-African unity are just some of the ways that Padmore’s thinking retain their relevance in the present. The issues Africans face today and the questions they are asking strike at the core of many of the problems that African and diaspora peoples wrestled with in the first half of the twentieth century. The extraction of minerals and the production of agricultural crops in Africa might have some new players, but the question of African control and ownership over the resources of its land and peoples remains. Africans seeking jobs, security and stability in Europe are dying by the thousands in the Mediterranean because of racist immigration policies [See Sager for a discussion of the refugee crisis]. Those who make it to Europe or, less likely, to Britain, face debasement on the streets or violent attacks at the hands of far-right groups and individuals whose politics of xenophobia and hate rehearse fascist attitudes and practices. Whether or not these groups and activities are “fascist” – and there are important arguments for retaining the historical specificity of the term – we can only understand these events within a history of fascism.[10]

In the 1930s, Padmore argued that fascism was not the anomaly that British anti-fascist’s wished to view it as. The denial of citizen rights based on race, freedoms of speech and movement, concentration camps and forced labour, the expropriation of land, and attacks on worker rights and unions were all present in some form in Britain’s African and Caribbean territories. The Italo-Abyssinian crisis brought fascism directly to Africa and electrified pan-African sentiment across Africa and the diaspora. But Padmore also argued that people should not ignore “the quieter Fascist tendencies within the British Empire”.[11] The point of Padmore’s argument about what he called “Colonial Fascism” was to draw attention to the African situation and to make clear the fact that African experience was not divorced from political ideologies in Europe.

Yet it is worth re-emphasizing that Padmore’s knowledge and prescriptions were rarely made in general terms. He outlined the specific situation of each territory in Africa. Reading through his corpus, it is extremely difficult to lift quotations and apply them directly now. Padmore’s historical moment – and thus the specific ideas and strategies he articulated – were a different time and place. So much has passed in between, which cannot be glossed.

And so, while Padmore’s political and intellectual work grappled with similar overarching questions and issues, I want to suggest that the most relevant aspect of his political philosophy for Africa today is less any specific argument, idea, or programme – even though his many assertions can certainly be mined for insight – but his practice. Indeed, while Padmore was notorious for his outspoken polemic (he declared in the 1949 Introduction to Africa – Britain’s Third Empire that “as a life-long Anti-Imperialist, I make no pretence to impartiality”), the core of Padmore’s “philosophy” was not articulated via intellectual argument but by action.

I have already shown how Padmore’s ideas emerged out of a methodical recording of the black situation in all its unique complexity across Africa, as well as in the Caribbean, the United States and Europe. The wisdom, strength, and vitality of African peoples was in how they responded to their economic and social reality – this is what he recorded and disseminated. Most accounts of Padmore by those who knew him describe an encyclopedic mind whose knowledge of African history and politics – and ability to relate these to international affairs and make global comparisons – was unrivalled. The point, for Padmore, was to disseminate this information through newspaper articles and to offer theoretical training to African nationalists through study groups and discussion. The point was to activate the present through enquiry and dialogue.

One of the fundamental features of Padmore’s political philosophy was adaptation. “The great mistake which so many so-called Marxists have made is to turn their master’s teachings into dogma instead of using it as an intellectual instrument for understanding the evolution of human society and a guide to chart the course of future social development.” Pan-Africanism’s “characteristic features”, he argued, should be “adoption and adaptation” and its adherents “must be flexible in mind”.

Padmore’s pan-Africanism emerged-out-of dialogue. This dialogue was complicated and sometimes lopsided in its inclusivity. In a letter rejecting an invitation to take a leadership role in organising the 1956 First International Congress of Black Writers, organised by Presence Africaine, Padmore explained that the organisers should look to young Africans instead:

“I am emphatic on this… Personally, I have a feeling that I am out-of-date in my thinking. I might be too far ahead or too far behind. What I want to find out is what young Africans and Negroes generally are thinking. How do they see the problems of their country and race in the contemporary world setting? And how [do] they intend to tackle them? Only they can give the answer and thereby enable old reactionaries like myself to make the adjustment…We, too, need to re-evaluate our lives. Otherwise we become sterile and doctrinaire, just repeating old, worn-out phrases”.

There were two key issues for Padmore’s pan-African dialogue in the second half of the 1950s. Both emerged as he became more engaged with the challenges of forging a future in independent Ghana. The first related to his concerns about “counterrevolutionary forces” undermining Nkrumah’s socialist programme for a politically and economically independent country. Padmore resolved this, as we have seen, by emphasising organised theoretical training and vanguard leadership. The second involved the fact of his diaspora citizenship. Since Padmore was born in the West Indies and lived almost all of his life outside Africa, his position within African liberation movements was always contentious. When he moved to Ghana, despite some apprehension, Padmore ultimately refused to give in to pernicious accusations that he should not serve in Ghana because he was an “outsider” and a “non-African”.

Both of these issues remain a feature of present debate in Africa. The conversations about education, which are most prevalent in South Africa but are present across the continent, spotlight fundamental questions about how to deal with oppositional voices when confronting entrenched and systemic institutional restructuring. How should differences of ideological opinion, local perspective, and systems of belief be facilitated? Who has authority to speak? When? How is opinion weighed in a heterogeneous conversation? What determines the priorities for action?

At a recent roundtable in Cape Coast on “Global Ghana and the African Diaspora”, participants responded to the question of how to define the meaning of liberation in this historical moment. The priorities identified were wide and varied. What role those from the African diaspora should play in the Continent was contested. As all of the audience and discussant thoughts came together, historian Carina Ray offered a compelling conclusion that also pointed forward: “We don’t let go of each other easily and that is the seed of our liberation.” We might take this proposition to apply just as much to continental as well as diaspora discussion.

In our present conjuncture, the unceasing determination to continue conversation – across religious, regional and transAtlantic, gender and sexuality, and ethnic divides – in order to determine the parameters of what liberation actually means for Africa, is one of the continent’s greatest strengths.

Footnotes & References




[4] George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism (NY: Anchor Books, 1956), xiv.


[6] Padmore, Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, p. 46.

[7] George Padmore, “A Guide to Pan-African Socialism”. In African Socialism, eds. William H. Friedland and Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), p.233.

[8] Padmore, “A Guide to Pan-African Socialism,” p.237.


[10] For recent useful treatments of anti-colonialism and anti-fascism see John Munro, “Anticolonialism, Antifascism, and Imperial History”. Published 29 June 2015.

For a thoughtful engagement with fascism in India and its contemporary resonances, see the Special Issue edited by Benjamin Zachariah, “Volkisch and Fascist Movements in South Asia” South Asia 38, no. 4 (2015).

[11] George Padmore, “The Government’s Betrayal of the Protectorates,” Controversy (June 1938). Transcribed at:


George Padmore. Africa: Britain’s Third Empire. London: Dennis Dobson, 1949.

—. How Britain Rules Africa. London: Wishart Books, 1936.

—. Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers. London: Red International of Labour Unions, 1931.

—. Pan-Africanism or Communism? London: Dennis Dobson, 1956.

Benjamin Zachariah, “Volkisch and Fascist Movements in South Asia” South Asia 38, no. 4 (2015).

Leslie James
Leslie James
Leslie James is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Birmingham. She has recently published articles on British racism and black anti-colonial activism in Callaloo [], and on black radical print networks in African Print Cultures []. She is the author of George Padmore and Decolonization from Below (Palgrave, 2015) and co-editor of Decolonization and the Cold War (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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OUIDAH, BENIN - JANUARY 07:  A man enters a state of trance during a Voodoo ceremony on January 7, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. Ouidah is Benin's Voodoo heartland, and thought to be the spiritual birthplace of Voodoo or Vodun as it is known in Benin. Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, Voodoo was acknowledged as an official religion in Benin in 1989, and is increasing in popularity with around 17 percent of the population following it. A week of activity centred around the worship of Voodoo culminates on the 10th of January when people from across Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria decend on the town for the annual Voodoo festival.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Trinidad-born journalist Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901 ? 1989), 1989. (Photo by Steve Pyke/Getty Images)