The Russian Revolution, Africa and the Diaspora

This article is part of Black Perspective’s forum, “Black October,” on the Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora.

Hakim Adi

From the time of the Great October Revolution in 1917, Africans and those of African heritage around the world gravitated towards the revolutionary events in Russia and Communism, seeing in them a path to their own liberation. Perhaps not surprisingly then, many of the main black political figures of the twentieth century, in Africa and elsewhere, have been Communists, or at least inspired and influenced by the international communist movement. These include such diverse figures as André Aliker, Aimé Césaire, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, W.E.B Du Bois, Elma Francois, Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, Alex la Guma, Audley Moore, Josie Mpama, Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, Paul Robeson, Jacques Romain, Thomas Sankara, Ousmane Sembène and Lamine Senghor.

African Americans and those in the African diaspora were impressed by the prospect that the Revolution might spread globally and signal the end of the capital-centered system and all that went with it including racist oppression. The Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay therefore referred to the October Revolution as “the greatest event in the history of humanity,” and Bolshevism as “the greatest and most scientific idea in the world today.”1 Another Jamaican, Wilfred Domingo wondered, “will Bolshevism accomplish the full freedom of Africa, colonies in which Negroes are the majority, and promote human tolerance and happiness in the United States?”2 There was thus an early admiration for the Revolution from the perspective that it heralded the possibility of an alternative to the capital-centered system which would be to the advantage of those who were oppressed in the United States and the Caribbean, as well as in Africa. These were the perspectives of those early twentieth century organizations, which were inspired by the October Revolution such as the African Blood Brotherhood in the United States, which subsequently included many leading black communists such as Otto Huiswoud, Cyril Biggs, Harry Haywood and Grace Campbell.

Singer and actor Paul Robeson during his tour in Moscow in August 1958. Credit: Anatoliy Garanin/Sputnik, via Associated Press

Once the new Soviet Union was more firmly established in the 1920s, several prominent figures traveled to see at first hand the construction of socialism and remarked on the absence of racism and national oppression. Indeed, this was a common theme in the eye-witness accounts of visitors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. As early as 1926, on his return from the Soviet Union, the prominent African American scholar-activist Du Bois publicly acknowledged, “I stand in astonishment at the revelation of Russia that has come to me…If I what I have seen with my eyes and heard with my ears is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” Even the famous Pan-Africanist George Padmore, a former communist from Trinidad who had parted company with the communist movement, wrote a major book in 1945, How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire, over a decade after his expulsion. Padmore still felt compelled to publish what was, in effect, a celebration of the revolutionary transformation of 1917 and the elimination of national oppression which in the author’s view was a consequence of it.

The significance of the October Revolution was not just in the event itself, but the fact that it gave rise to the construction of a new political and economic system in the Soviet Union and to a new international communist movement organized from 1919 in the Third (Communist) International, or Comintern. The aim of the Comintern was to create the conditions for revolutionary transformation outside the Soviet Union and from its inception it took a very keen interest in Africa and other colonies, as well as in what came to be called the ‘Negro Question’–the question of how Africans and those of African heritage could liberate themselves and put an end to all forms of racist oppression. In fact, there was no other international organization that took such a stand, that was openly opposed to both colonialism and racism and attempted to organize all people of African descent for their own liberation.

The fact that the Comintern grappled with the ‘Negro Question,’ included in its ranks Communists of all nationalities and took a strong stand in opposition to colonialism and racism endeared it to many in Africa and beyond, even when there was some dissatisfaction with the communist parties in Britain, France, the United States and South Africa. To some, these parties appeared to be dragging their feet over the important Negro Question. There was a widespread view that the Comintern was more revolutionary, the custodian of the legacy of the October Revolution and therefore more concerned about such matters than some of its constituent parties. This certainly seemed to be the case when the Comintern demanded that the Communist Party in South Africa should be a party of the masses of the people of that country, led by Africans, and that it should first champion the rule of the majority in what was considered a colony of a special type, even if many of the leaders of that party had a contrary view. The decisions of the Comintern were similarly firm and controversial in relation to the orientation to be adopted for the African American struggle for self-determination in the so-called ‘Black Belt’ in the United States. Whatever may be said of the Comintern’s policy, it undoubtedly raised the profile, significance and centrality of that struggle and, as recent historical accounts have shown, laid many of the foundations for the later struggles for civil rights and Black Power. What is more, the Comintern’s position had an impact outside of the United States, influencing communist parties in Cuba and other Latin American countries. Eventually, Black Communists took a lead in demanding the creation of a specialized organization–the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW).

The importance of the ITUCNW, its organ Negro Worker, as well as other publications, was that the revolutionary politics and impact of the October Revolution and of the Comintern were spread throughout the world– particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as in Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s. As part of the work of the ITUCNW workers and others were recruited from the British colonies in West Africa, as well as from South Africa and in time, students were sent from many parts of Africa to the Soviet Union. Others traveled to see the consequences of the October Revolution from the Caribbean and from the United States. In the period between the wars, hundreds made this journey including leading anti-colonial figures such as Isaac Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone, Jomo Kenyatta, future prime minister of Kenya, and Albert Nzula, the first black general secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP).

Black Communists in the Soviet Union in the 1930s

Perhaps the most important legacy of the October Revolution was the theory that emerged from it and the experience of building a new social system while surrounded by a capital-centered world. What was demonstrated was that another world was possible and that those who were the producers of value could be their own liberators and could construct this new world themselves. This alternative and the prospect of liberation continued to inspire individuals and organizations in Africa and the diaspora throughout the inter-war period and particularly during the Second World War thereafter–when the Soviet Union led the defeat of fascism and created the possibility of national liberation and the restoration of sovereignty in those countries that languished under colonial rule.

For some, this theory was embodied in the personality and work of V.I Lenin, who continued to inspire many. In 1970, during a visit to Kazakhstan, Amilcar Cabral–the famous leader of the national liberation struggle in what was then Portuguese Guinea–is reported to have said, “How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” Cabral was far from alone in voicing his admiration from Lenin’s work and contribution. Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary leader from Burkina Faso, not only expressed his admiration for Lenin’s writing, which he claimed to have read in its entirety, but was rather more specific in his praise of the ‘great revolution of October 1917 [that] transformed the world, brought victory to the proletariat, shook the foundations of capitalism and made possible the Paris Commune’s dreams of justice.”3 In 1984, he concluded, “the revolution of 1917 teaches us many things.”4

The world has changed considerably since 1917. The Soviet Union and the construction of socialism in some other countries have been terminated. Communism – the doctrine of the conditions for the liberation of the wealth producers has not and cannot be terminated, although clearly there is a need for a modern Communism providing solutions for modern problems. The October Revolution demonstrated that another world is possible, that this alternative is not a utopia, and that we can all be the agents of change and the makers of history.

  1. Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013), 12.
  2. Ibid., 13.
  3. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 (London: Pathfinder, 2015), 165.
  4. Ibid., 135.

Hakim Adi is the author of “Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939,” and a contributor to Black Perspectives

Black October Reading List: The Russian Revolution and the African Diaspora


Jennifer Wilson and Jennifer Suchland

Otto Huiswoud (left) and Claude McKay (right) at the Fourth Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1933. Photo: Claude McKay Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Black October reading list is an invitation to think about the centennial of the Russian Revolution through the rich and expansive entanglements between the Black diaspora, Bolshevik Russia, and the Soviet Union. The readings below ground and expand upon the Black October online forum, which draws upon the expertise of scholars working in the fields of Black history and Soviet cultural studies. This reading list retains that interdisciplinarity, offering readings both on how Black intellectuals and activists responded to the Russian Revolution and on how Bolshevik Russia (and later the Soviet Union) imagined an international Black proletariat. Other topics include Afro-Asian solidarities (and the de-centering of Soviet Russia within global Marxism), Black Marxist feminist interpretations of the Russian Revolution (and its consequences), the impact of the Cold War on African independence movements, and the conceptualization of race (as distinct from national identity) in Russia and the Soviet Union. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but offers an introduction to the topic for readers interested in learning more. Feel free to add additional suggestions in the comments section.

The Russian Revolution in the Black Radical Imaginary

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Colonialism and the Russian Revolution” New World Review 24:10 (1956) 18-21.

McKay, Claude. “Soviet Russia and the Negro.”

James, C.L.R.. World Revolution 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “The Negro Question: Red Dreams of Black Liberation” in
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

Rodney, Walter. 1917.

Russell, Shana. “‘I Wanted to See for Myself the First Land of Socialism’: Black American Women and the Russian Revolution.”

Imagining the Black Diaspora in Revolutionary Russia

Blakely, Allison. Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought.

Bogdanov, Konstantin. “‘Negroes’ in the USSR. The Ethnography of an Imaginary Diaspora,” Forum for Anthropology and Culture 11 (2015) 97-134.

Clark, Katerina. “The Representation of the African American as Colonial Oppressed in Texts of the Soviet Interwar Years, The Russian Review 75:3 (July 2016) 368-385.

Forsdick, Charles and Christian Høgsbjerg. “Sergei Eisenstein and the Haitian Revolution: ‘The Confrontation Between Black and White Explodes Into Red,” History Workshop Journal 78:1 (October 2014) 157–185.

Kiaer, Christina. “African Americans in Soviet Socialist Realism: The Case of Aleksandr Deineka,” The Russian Review 75:3 (July 2016) 402-433.

Matusevich, Maxim. “An exotic subversive: Africa, Africans and the Soviet everyday,” Race & Class 49:57 (2008) 57-81.

McKay, John. True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society.

Eds. Nepomnyashchy, Svobodny, Trigos. Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness.

Black Writers, Artists, and Cultural Sojourners to the USSR

Baldwin, Kate A. Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963.

Carew, Joy Gleason. Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise.

Lee, Steven. The Ethnic Avant Garde.

Matusevich, Maxim. “Journeys of Hope: African Diaspora and the Soviet Society,” African Diaspora 1:1 (2008) 53-85.

Mukherji, S. Ani., “‘Like Another Planet to the Darker Americans’: Black Cultural Work in 1930s Moscow” in Africa in Europe: Studies in Transnational Practice in the Long Twentieth Century.

The Soviet Afterlives of Black Sojourners

Ismailov, Hamid. The Underground [Novel].

Johnson-Artur, Liz. “Black in the USSR: the Children of Soviet Africa Search for their Own Identity,” The Calvert Journal (June 6, 2014).

Khanga, Yelena. Soul to Soul: A Black Russian Jewish Woman’s Search for Her Roots.

Salys, Rigmaila. “The Pattersons: Expatriate and Native Son,” The Russian Review 75:3 (July 2016) 434-456.

African American Communists and the Red Scare

Horne, Gerald. Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party.

McDuffie, Erik. “The March of Young Southern Black Women: Esther Cooper Jackson, Black Left Feminism, and the Personal and Political Costs of Cold War Repression” in Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement: Another Side of the Story.

Woods, Jeff. Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968.

Zeigler, James. Red Scare Racism and Cold War Black Radicalism.

Black Feminists and the Soviet Union

Davies, Carole Boyce. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones

Gilyard, Keith. Louise Thompson Patterson: A Life of Struggle for Justice.

Gore, Dayo. Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War.

Harris, Lashawn. “Running with the Reds: African American Women and the Communist Party in the Great Depression” Journal of African American History 94:1 (Winter 2009) 21-43.

Lorde, Audre, ”Notes from a Trip to Russia,” in Sister/Outsider.

McDuffie, Erik. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of the Black Left.

Umoren, Imaobong. “Anti-Fascism and the Development of Global Race Women, 1928-1945” Callaloo 39:1 (Winter 2016) 151-165.

African Independence During the Cold War

Adi, Hakim. Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939.

Namikas, Lise. Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo 1960-1965.

Popescu, Monica, Cedric Tolliver and Julie Tolliver (eds). Alternative Solidarities: Black Diasporas and Cultural Alliances during the Cold War.

Popescu, Monica. “On the Margins of the Black Atlantic: Angola, the Second World, and the Cold War.” Research in African Literatures, 45:3 (Fall 2014) 91-109.

Sissako, Abderrahmane. “Rostov-Luanda.” [Film]

Afro-Asian Communist Ties

Djagalov, Rossen and Masha Salazkina. “Tashkent ‘68” Tashkent ‘68: A Cinematic Contact Zone,” Slavic Review 75:2 (Summer 2016) 279-298.

Frazier, Taj Robeson. The East Is Black: Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination.

Ho, Fred and Bill V. Mullen (eds). Afro-Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African-American and Asian-Americans.

Etsch, Betsy and Robin D.G. Kelley. “Black Like Mao, red China and black revolution,” Souls 1:4 (1999) 6-41.

Makalani, Minkah. In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939.

Moore, David Chioni. “Colored Dispatches from the Uzbek Border: Langston Hughes’ Relevance, 1933-2002,” Callaloo 25:4 (2002) 1115:1135.

Wilson, Jennifer. “Queer Harlem, Queer Tashkent: Langston Hughes’s ‘Boy Dancers of Uzbekistan,” Slavic Review 76:3 (Fall 2017) 637-646.

Wright, Richard. The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference.

The Concept of Race in Russia

Cvetkovski, Roland and Alexis Hofmeister. An Empire of Others: Making Ethnographic Knowledge in Imperial Russia.

Law, Ian. Red Racisms: Racism and Communist and Post-Communist Contexts.

Slavic Review 61: 1 (Spring 2002) (special issue on race).

Zakharov, Nikolay. Race and Racism in Russia: Mapping Global Racisms.