Marcus Garvey and the socialists

Submitted by AWL on 24 November, 2020 - 9:09 Author: Stephen Wood
Marcus Garvey

When in our predecessor paper Workers’ Action (no.117, 1978) Colin Waugh wrote about Marcus Garvey he noted, I think rightly, that Garvey is a figure known now more by reputation than by belief. In the recent Black Lives Matters demonstrations, “Garveyism” as an entire political outlook has certainly been marginal. But “Garveyite” beliefs persist. His legacy is probably more readily accessible to people in the popular consciousness via Roots Reggae and Hip Hop.

Garvey led for a short period the largest black organisation of its day, the United Negro Improvement Association And African Communities League (UNIA). It boasted hundreds of thousands of members, and in almost every nation with a black population.

It would be easy to write off Garvey’s connection to the left based on his avowedly bourgeois outlook, the fact he himself was a capitalist, and that fundamentally for him the division in society was one of race.

Writing from prison in 1925 Garvey said the “Negro should keep shy of Communism or the Workers’ Party of America.” But that was because he thought those roused up by his agitation might well go on to look at revolutionary socialism. It would be too simplistic to write him off as forever a committed anti-socialist. There is a great deal of history between Garvey, the left, and prominent socialists in the USA, and within the UNIA itself, that makes an examination worthwhile. Even without that more complex and not-well-told history, there is much to learn from the rise and fall of “Old Marcus Garvey”.

Born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887, to a family that was middle class but struggling due to legal difficulties, Garvey became a printer’s apprentice, moving to Kingston and becoming a foreman. During an early strike he sided with the workers. That was the last time he backed a strike, at least explicitly. He then lost his job, became disillusioned with Jamaica and did a number of jobs, mostly in the fruit industry across Latin America. He started publishing a paper and newsletter there. He was increasingly angered by the treatment of him and other workers by the United Fruit Company. He abandoned Latin America, at first for London.

While in the UK he headed to Speakers’ Corner to hear arguments from Pan Africanists and socialists, religious preachers (Garvey was a lifelong Roman Catholic), and others. He made the acquaintance of Dusé Mohamed Ali, an early Pan-Africanist. He worked for his magazine, and spent time studying at Birkbeck and reading in the British Museum. It was there he read Booker T Washington’s Up from Slavery and decided he wanted to meet him.

On his return to Jamaica, aboard a ship for three weeks, he met a couple returning from Basutoland (present day Lesotho) who influenced his view that black people had their own interests to fight for, as a race, and that those were tied up with the future for black people in Africa.

In 1914 in Jamaica he founded the UNIA. With the slogan “One Aim. One God. One Destiny,” Garvey sought to “establish a brotherhood among the black race, to promote a spirit of race pride, to reclaim the fallen and to assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa.”

His attitudes to Africa, which owed a lot to those of the British Empire, seemingly never shifted. He never set foot on the continent throughout his life. The UNIA first saw itself as a self-improvement, charitable movement rather than a political one. Its commitment to “repatriation” came later.

Booker T. Washington

At first Garvey hoped to follow the lead of Booker T. Washington and set up a college or university. The UNIA was loyal to the British Empire, going so far as to support the call for more Jamaicans to sign up to fight in World War 1. He angered many Jamaican blacks with a condescending attitude and denouncing “coloured” men as well as fuelling his own ego, winning his own competitions, seeking patronage from the white elite in Jamaica.

Garvey was quite deliberate when he chose the name Universal Negro Improvement Association. In Jamaica a majority of black workers were governed by a small white elite who ensured Jamaica’s continuing loyalty to the British empire. Another layer of mixed-race so-called “quadroons” and “octoroons”, alongside Chinese traders and Middle Eastern tailors, acted as a kind of middle class.

The use of the term Negro offended many Jamaican blacks because it denoted a “purity” of the black race. Garvey and the UNIA were against mixed marriages, particularly when they produced “mixed-race” children. For Garvey “coloured” was not a euphemism for “black”, as in the US. Garvey associated a particular pride with being dark-skinned.

Realising his organisation was unlikely to grow, he decided to head to the United States. He hoped to meet Washington, but Washington died just before Garvey arrived in 1916. Like many black people from the Caribbean, Garvey settled in Harlem. He set about building the UNIA there.

Harlem had seen a growing surge of migration of Southern and rural blacks to the North, often through the army, others for work. Harlem and the North were not like the Jim Crow South but racism was still rife. A number of friendly societies, the left, and others, had set up organisations competing for the black population’s allegiance. The UNIA soon became one of the largest, and in its own way most militant. It was by far the largest of the strictly black nationalist organisations.

Setting up newspapers

Garvey had previous experience setting up newspapers and he soon launchedThe Negro World as the paper of the UNIA. Printed on the Socialist Party’s printing press and with a Jamaican socialist, Wilfred Domingo, as the editor,The Negro World was widely read and was soon to be banned in several countries. Domingo was an important figure in the Harlem branch of the Socialist Party, and did not hide his convictions when editing the paper. He was never a member of UNIA, and Garvey eventually removed him as editor of the paper following a wave of “red scare” agitation from the state against Domingo.

It was through Domingo that Garvey met A Phillip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of The Messenger. All of them, despite their very different views, were initially able to collaborate.

The UNIA was held together by its paper, which was unique for black papers at the time. It carried no adverts for hair relaxing products or skin lighteners. The UNIA itself through charitable and welfare work and bombastic assertiveness continued to grow. Its speaker tours and rallies were able to draw huge crowds. Upwards of 20,000 people would come to Madison Square Gardens for month-long conventions.

The Socialist Party and later the Communist Party saw the conventions as an opportunity. The Socialist Party had never been able to get crowds like that in Harlem. Black members like Owen, Randolph and Hubert Harrison (later an editor of The Negro World) were strong critics of the “colour-blindness” of the SP. Nationally the SP refused recognise the oppression of black people in the USA as anything more than as a result of the black working class being some of the most highly exploited. Some SP branches were segregated, and while the leadership opposed that, they did not intervene to stop it.

The UNIA was important enough that both Eugene V Debs and Morris Hillquit attended conventions. Garvey himself gave the UNIA endorsement to socialist candidates in elections, if they were black . Garvey believed that he could cooperate with the left, where it benefited him, though he had little sympathy for its class and economic analysis. Even beyond material necessities and some ideological common ground, Garvey did not show reservations or fear of association with the radical Left. He did not perceive socialist convictions as an impediment to cooperation.

And similarly Garvey was not always opposed to collaboration with white organisations. “I am not saying that the Negro must not be a radical if he wants to, but he should be a radical on a programme of his own... Sometimes he may have to cooperate with other people and other movements, but this should be done only to the extent of winning his cause...” Garvey viewed early collaboration with the socialists, more practical than ideological, as a useful tool for him at the time.

In some ways he admired the labour movement, not for its principles but for its organisation. “[The] fair example to us as Negroes” to learn from the labour movement is “the immediacy of organisation”, which is “that force that has changed the destiny of governments and races. [W]e must be as solidly organized as labour is today.”

Garvey had little sympathy with the Bolsheviks or the Russian Revolution, which he saw as primarily a white people’s conflict. He said that Marxism was an ideology of the “white man’s making”, and that nowhere were black capitalists in control, so how could Marxism address the issues for the black population. But he was fascinated by what kind of upheaval Bolshevism might provide for him and his movement.

“The aristocracy that once ruled the common people must be destroyed according to the will of the common people. They have started to destroy that privileged aristocracy in Russia, in Germany, in Austro-Hungary … the equality of man has become indisputable.”

Part two will look at more of Garvey’s beliefs and how his relationship to the left completely broke down in the 1920s.

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