The following article on Trinidadian revolutionary, George Padmore, written by Perry Blankson, was first posted by the Tribune.
REMEMBERING GEORGE PADMORE
Trinidadian socialist George Padmore was born in 1903. His Pan-African organising helped to build the struggle against colonialism in the West – and to push independence struggles towards Marxism.
Of all the many figures of revolutionary Pan-Africanism, few have rivalled the giant that is George Padmore. A staunch anti-imperialist and architect of the Pan-African movement of the mid-twentieth century, the name George Padmore deserves to be placed alongside his better-known contemporaries such as C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon.
Born Malcolm Evan Meredith Nurse on 28 June 1903 into a middle-class family, a young Nurse would find work as a journalist after first graduating from St. Mary’s College and Pamphilon High School in Port of Spain. On 10 September, a twenty-two-year-old Nurse married Julia Semper. For the man who would become one of the most prominent anti-colonial agitators of the early twentieth century, it seemed an unlikely marriage. Semper’s father was the most senior Black man in Trinidad’s colonial constabulary, and the reception took place in the police barracks.
Although growing up under colonial rule meant that he was no stranger to the reality of British imperialism, it was not until he attended university in the United States shortly after his marriage that Nurse first began to become seriously involved in radical political activism. Leaving his pregnant wife behind, Nurse enrolled in Fisk University in Tennessee, initially to study medicine, but would soon find himself at New York University, and later Howard University. Two years after his wife gave birth to their daughter Blyden, she joined him in the States to find her husband was fast becoming a new man.
Ensconced within the burgeoning Black community of Harlem, New York, Malcolm Nurse joined the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) in 1927 and became the editor of the Negro Champion, the newspaper of the CPUSA’s American Negro Labor Congress. It was during his time at the CPUSA that Malcolm Nurse shed his old name and adopted the name George Padmore, marking the beginning of a storied career as an anti-colonial political operator.
Padmore’s seemingly non-stop writing and ceaseless involvement in the organising of Black workers in the US quickly garnered the attention of prominent figures within the CPUSA, and he was invited to Moscow to hold lectures on the state of Black American union activity. Identified as a rising star within the Party, the early 1930s saw Padmore elected to the Moscow City Soviet, soon after helping establish the Comintern’s International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW).
This marked the birth of Padmore’s complex and shifting relationship with Soviet Communism. Through his writing, activism, and political activity, Padmore acted as a voice for the voiceless, challenging the hegemonic imperialist status quo while building an extensive network of contacts that spanned the globe. In the words of historian Leslie James, Padmore ‘had political contacts not only in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States but also in poles as far apart as Denmark, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Singapore.’
From Moscow to Hamburg
During his time with the Communist Party in Moscow, Padmore was commissioned by the RLIU to compose pamphlets explaining the exploitation of African workers to a European audience. One of the major products of this task was his 1931 The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers, which, according to Padmore, was written for three purposes:
[To] briefly to set forth some of the conditions of life of the Negro workers and peasants in different parts of the world… to enumerate some of the struggles which they have attempted to wage in order to free themselves from the yoke of imperialism… and to indicate in a general way the tasks of the proletariat in the advanced countries so that the millions of black toilers might be better prepared to carry on the struggles against their white imperialist oppressors and native (race) exploiters, and join forces with their white brothers against the common enemy—World Capitalism.
In Toilers, Padmore centred the violence of imperialism while also including practical advice for readers to resist said violence. The final chapter, entitled ‘What Must be Done’, laid out practical, tangible steps for both African and European workers to conduct class struggle and make common cause against imperialism. Unsurprisingly, Toilers was banned by colonial authorities, marking a theme of censorship which would persist across his career.
Toilers appeared as an article in The Negro Worker, the organ of the ITUCNW, of which Padmore was editor. Due to its censorship by colonial authorities, the historian Hakim Adi notes that the publication was often ‘smuggled around the world mainly by black seamen sometimes disguised as a religious tract.’ Censorship often had the inverse effect of boosting the profile of a publication, however, and it is a testament to the organisational and propagandistic value of The Negro Worker that widespread censorship orders were in place across Africa and the West Indies.
Soon after Toilers was published, Padmore was transferred to Hamburg where he was tasked with recruiting Black workers. It was in Hamburg where his relationship with the Communist Party began to fray. He found himself at odds with his European comrades who dismissed the serious level of risk and danger he was exposing himself to by organising African workers and disseminating Communist propaganda in what was rapidly becoming Nazi Germany. His time in Hamburg was cut short when the ITUCNW offices were raided in February 1933, a mere two weeks after Adolf Hitler took power, and Padmore was interrogated before being deported to Britain.
Pan-Africanism in the Heart of Empire
Padmore’s deportation to Britain following his strained relationship with the Party marked the end of his relationship with Soviet Communism. Disillusioned due to the subconscious racism of his European comrades and alienated by the decision of the Soviet Union to soften its relationship with the colonial powers in the build up to war with Nazi Germany, Padmore became a staunch critic of Stalin but remained a lifelong Marxist and continued to admire Lenin. No longer a militant of the Communist Party, George Padmore began to devote all of his energy to Pan-African organising.
Upon arrival in London, Padmore wasted no time in establishing a vibrant network of like-minded Pan-African and anti-colonial agitators. In a twist of fate, it was in the heart of empire where he reunited with his childhood friend C. L. R. James, who had been busy alongside Jamaican Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey establishing the International Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE). The invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy provided the impetus for fervent Pan-African agitation, and as Leslie James describes,
…by May 1937 Padmore, James, their new Guianese comrade Ras Makonnen, the West African Robert Broadhurst (who had participated in the 1911 and 1921 Pan-African Congresses in London), and other important radicals, like the Barbadian seaman Chris Jones and the Sierra Leonian trade union organizer I.T.A. Wallace Johnson, had transformed the germ of the IAFE into the International African Service Bureau (IASB).
In line with Padmore’s internationalism, the IASB called upon both colonised subjects and the European working classes to join forces in order to defeat capitalism and imperialism. IASB publications were again, unsurprisingly, banned by colonial authorities, and each of the individuals involved in the organisation found themselves under heavy surveillance from the Colonial Office and Special Branch.
Alongside his comrades at the IASB, one of Padmore’s defining achievements was his involvement in organising the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in October 1945. Even among towering figures of anti-colonial and Pan-African agitation such as future Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and future Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, W. E. B. Du Bois himself remarked that George Padmore was the ‘organising spirit of the Congress.’ It is thanks to Padmore that we have the details of the Congress proceedings, as he took it upon himself to record and publish a History of the Pan African Congress in 1947.
Sensing that the colonial powers were vulnerable after over half a decade of war, the Fifth Pan-African Congress was where African and Caribbean luminaries seized the moment to begin seriously preparing for the decolonisation of their respective countries. In the decades that followed, a wave of decolonisation swept across Africa, spurred in large part by the Pan-African Congress in Manchester. It was also at this critical moment that Nkrumah was introduced to Padmore by James, and the two childhood friends were present at the birth of the first independent Black African nation, Ghana, in 1957.
Twilight in Ghana
Padmore acted as a mentor to Nkrumah, with the two exchanging frequent correspondence (often first glanced upon by Special Branch officers) before Padmore moved to Ghana upon Nkrumah’s invitation soon after independence. In failing health, however, Padmore soon returned to London for medical care in September 1959, where he died a few days later on 23 September from liver disease.
Known for his vast political networks, his boyhood friend C. L. R. James said of Padmore in his memorialisation Notes on the Life of George Padmore that ‘Padmore had more knowledge of African movements and more personal contacts and relations with African politicians than any man living.’ In fact, it was said that the first words upon the lips of any Pan-African agitator on arrival in London were ‘Where can I find George Padmore?’
Today, Padmore’s legacy lives on through the George Padmore Institute in North London, founded and named after him by West Indian activist John La Rose. Hakim Adi, Marika Sherwood, and Leslie James are some of the few historians who have done invaluable work in documenting his fascinating life, but Padmore remains something of a ‘forgotten man’ in comparison to his fellow West Indian intellectuals.
George Padmore lived an extraordinary life, the intricacies of which cannot be fully conveyed in a brief biography. However, Leslie James’ snapshot of his early political career provides us with some measure of the man:
By the time Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, George Padmore had witnessed the great post-war strikes in Port of Spain in 1919, experienced life in the United States Jim Crow South, stood with Stalin in Red Square on May Day, survived arrest and interrogation by the newly elected Nazi regime just two weeks after Hitler came to power, been expelled from the Communist Party to which he had committed five years of his young life, raged against the League of Nation’s complacency as Ethiopia was invaded by fascist Italy, and led rallies in Trafalgar Square in solidarity with striking Caribbean workers in 1937 and 1938.
While many fighting struggles for liberation may not know it, the foundations built by Padmore continue to shape and inspire those seeking to fight colonialism and imperialism across the world.
Perry Blankson is a Tribune columnist and a project coordinator at the Young Historians Project. He is a member of the Editorial Working Group for the History Matters Journal.