Internationalizing the Third International: the African Blood Brotherhood, Asian radicals, and RACE, 1919-1922.

Author:Makaliani, Minkah

In the September 1920 issue of the radical black monthly the Messenger, the anti-colonial activist-intellectual W. A. Domingo concluded a series of articles on black liberation and socialist revolution by asking, "Will Bolshevism Free America?" Though his question suggested a focus on the United States, Domingo took as his purview a much broader field. A prominent Harlem radical, Domingo began his political journalism and pamphleteering in Jamaica, then continued in the United States, first as a member of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), then in the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), a small cadre of activist-intellectuals formed in Harlem in 1919 by fellow Caribbean journalist Cyril Valentine Briggs. In the ABB, Domingo helped theorize the relationship between race and class beyond a doctrinaire left view of race as merely a bourgeois subterfuge. By 1920 the ABB focused increasingly on the importance of anti-colonial struggles in India and China to African diasporic liberation and socialist revolution. It was from this vantage that Domingo proposed an international, anti-colonial struggle of all oppressed races for socialism in Africa and Asia. Thus Bolshevism represented "the greatest danger to imperialism and the greatest hope to the Negro race everywhere ... the only weapon that can be used by Negroes effectively to clip the claws of the British lion and the talons of the American eagle in Africa, the British West Indies, Haiti, the Southern States and at the same time reach the monsters' heart ... in London, Paris, New York, [Tokyo] and Warsaw." (1)

Domingo expressed the optimism of many radical New Negroes about socialism, a sentiment fueled by the Third Communist International's (Comintern) 1919 declaration to the colonized peoples in Africa and Asia: "The hour of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe will strike for you as the hour of your own emancipation." Less obvious, though possibly more important, was his suggestion that African diasporic struggles, rather than the European proletariat, would usher in socialism. That he believed the struggles of racial groups in Asia would also contribute to socialist revolution was reflected in the ABB's attempt to outline the international dimensions of race, and see African and Asian liberation as constituting a single struggle against capitalism and white supremacy. Domingo and several other ABB members had been socialists, and they developed ties to the Japanese radical Sen Katayama, a longtime activist who in 1920 headed the small New York-based Japanese Communist Group (JCG). ABB members' interactions with Katayama and JCG radicals provides some context for Domingo's argument, and the internationalist orientation that led Briggs to declare that "the cause of freedom, whether in Asia or Ireland or Africa, is our cause." (2)

It was around this time that Asian radicals in the Comintern also began to challenge the privileged role assigned European workers in socialist thought. (3) At the Comintern's Second Congress in 1920, Asian radicals inverted the prescribed axiom by proposing that Asian liberation would signal the hour of European workers' liberation. Though that argument had little impact on the "Theses on the National and Colonial Question" adopted at the congress, it nonetheless influenced how the Comintern approached national liberation, prompting it to establish communist parties throughout Asia and to create its "Eastern Commission." Thus in 1921 when the ABB first praised the Comintern's support for liberation movements in the colonial world and its members began joining the communist movement in appreciable numbers, they were responding to an emergent inter-colonialist discourse initiated by Asian anti-colonial radicals that had opened up important theoretical space within the Comintern. When ABB members Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay attended the Comintern's Fourth Congress in 1922, the first black radicals to do so, they met with Asian members of the Eastern Commission and drew on their arguments to discuss "the Negro question" as part of a global system of oppression that any socialist revolution would have to address.

Until recently, scholarly treatments of the ABB tended to be part of larger studies of communism or black nationalism. But the works of Robert Hill and Joyce Moore Turner have helped rescue the ABB from being a mere footnote in these larger histories. The efforts of historians Mark Solomon and Winston James to demonstrate the brotherhood's early independence from American communism and its theoretical novelty in merging black nationalist and socialist thought has also brought the ABB to the historiographical foreground. James is especially suggestive in observing that when ABB radicals became communists "they did not join the American party, they had joined the Comintern," a testament to their global vision as well as the Comintern's appeal to black radicals. (4) Yet the impact of these radicals on the Comintern's pronouncements about "race" and "nation" has received little attention. Further, James's suggestion that the ABB's anti-imperialism led its members, almost naturally, to the Comintern misses their initial hesitancy toward the Bolsheviks. As Cyril Briggs recalled years later, for him "the Negro was the acid test of any program," and no one in the ABB was sure that the Comintern's anti-imperialism would translate into a program for African liberation. (5) Indeed, Domingo's 1920 Messenger article discussed above never endorsed the Communist International. And in the three-year run of the ABB's magazine the Crusader [1918-1922], the Comintern is only mentioned in three of its final five issues.

What has gone unremarked in histories of African Americans in communist movements is how Asian radicals, in challenging the privileged position accorded white workers by the Comintern, opened up the Third International so that black radicals might see it as a vehicle for Pan-African liberation. Unlike many on the left who tended to see race only within the precincts of North America, ABB radicals spent considerable time thinking and writing about the global dimensions of race--in Africa, Asia, and South America--seeing it, in short, as a component of colonialism. Black radicals stepped into the theoretical breach opened by Asian radicals to raise the importance of race in international communist thought, to outline a vision of the coherence of African diasporic and Asian liberation struggles, and to push internationalism beyond Europe to address oppressed racial groups and colonized peoples.

This essay attends to the resonances in black and Asian radical thought to consider how they elaborated parallel visions of a world proletarian revolution that internationalized the Third International. Examining the ABB and Asian radicals together alters the standard narrative arc of accounts of Africans and African Americans in organized Marxism by allowing those early black communists a history outside the white left. (6) This departs from the view that Soviet Russia provided these radicals their radicalism, and in doing so echoes Cedric Robinson's earlier claim that black radicalism is not simply "a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black." (7) Yet I part too with Robinson's contention that black intellectual engagements with Marxism signaled a detour from black radicalism, and that their attempts "to reconcile their social consciousness to the priorities of 'historical materialism' led them" to critique Marxism and "their eventual encounter with the Black radical tradition," which they discovered "first in their history, and finally all around them." (8) Monumental and nuanced as Robinson's study is, in assigning a specific quality, a definite politics to black struggle, it renders black radicalism a concept so broad that it loses theoretical coherence and analytical value and risks losing sight of black radicalism as a politics that took shape over time, changed at different moments, and addressed different concerns in different societies. My concern instead is with how black and Asian radicals, by placing anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles at the center of socialism, revised and reformulated Marxism so that, as historian Bill Mullen observed, "colored people themselves, particularly peoples of African and Asian descent, would often come to supplant the international (i.e., European) working class." (9)

Such revisions and reformulations occurred in Comintern policy debates, a space in which black and Asian radicals came together to articulate what historian Brent Hayes Edwards calls intercolonial internationalism, an "alternative universality ... written both against the grain of the universalist pretensions of high Western bourgeois culture and also against the grain of the communist institutional discourse challenging that culture." Intercolonialism formed "a kind of limit case or horizon to an emergent Comintern discourse of internationalism" that generally ignored the possibility of socialist revolution in the colonized world. (10) Edwards's discussion of Nguyen Ai Quoc (later Ho Chi Minh) and Lamine Senghor in Paris highlights their sense of the linkages between Asian and African colonial peoples within the French empire. I build on this approach to consider how the ABB theorized the international dimensions of race to pursue similar linkages across empires. Intercolonialism thus represented a sustained attempt by black and Asian radicals to rethink the proletariat and proletarian revolution beyond the white working class and envision an internationalism that reached beyond the normative European coordinates of western Marxism.


The African Blood Brotherhood's importance to New Negro Movement radicalism was disproportionate to its size. Though it was a national organization with branches or "posts" in Chicago, Tulsa, New Orleans...

To continue reading