SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 124 - December-January 2008-09

Pan-African pioneer

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey

By Colin Grant

Published by Jonathan Cape, 2008, £20

Reviewed by Hugo Pierre

THE NAME Marcus Garvey may not mean anything to many young people today – not even black youth – apart from a name-check from a sampled song. During the 1970s and 1980s, however, his name was popularised through the music of Bob Marley and others from the burgeoning rebel music reggae scene under the conditions of the mass alienation of black youth. He was also known to a section of white youth, victims of the first post-war rise in youth unemployment.

The teachings of Garvey were kept alive by the small, at the time, Rastafarian sect in Jamaica. Garvey’s influence, at its height, numbered hundreds of thousands of blacks worldwide and was considered to be such a threat that the US state infiltrated this movement, eventually destroying it and Garvey himself.

This book charts the history of Garvey and his movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), in an accessible and enjoyable way. The UNIA, founded in Jamaica, was launched in the US in New York but, under the conditions of segregation in the southern US states, and vicious city race riots in the industrial north in 1917 and the red summer of 1919, was able to build a national movement demanding blacks ‘back to Africa’ and to develop Pan-Africanism in the West Indies, Central America and West Africa. The rise of Garvey is even more astonishing when you consider that he was born in rural Jamaica and received little formal education. The rapid rise in this movement – and its destruction – is rich in lessons for Marxists who will have to develop a powerful force among black workers to join them in struggle with the wider working class to build a socialist society and end racism once and for all.

Grant does an excellent job of describing how Garvey’s character was forged, a key feature in the development of the UNIA. He developed a self-confidence and determination, marrying this with a thirst for knowledge and education. Early 1900s Jamaica, however, was in the straitjacket of colonial rule and poor rural boys were not allowed at the top table. This turned Garvey into a fierce critic of the ruling elite.

Garvey’s experiences made him a disciple of Booker T Washington and his Tuskagee Institute. This was an educational establishment formed to develop the best ‘black minds’ into a leadership for American blacks. Educational self-improvement was, for Garvey, the foundation upon which blacks would be raised from their lowly position in the colonies and the USA.

This idea is still proposed regularly by black leaders today. Socialists demand an education for all free of charge, with extra resources targeted at all the layers of society that capitalism fails to reach. Current black leaders blame poor education for all the problems facing blacks, from gun crime to the large number of single mothers. Under capitalism, however, especially in times of crisis, education is cut back particularly for the working class and poor, in which blacks are over-represented.

Garvey’s initial aim in New York was to raise enough funds to establish his own version of Tuskagee. That meant building an organisation to attract the required financial backing. In doing so, he developed his skills as an orator on the streets of Harlem. In regular battle with other street orators of the time, Garvey came out on top, attracting into his fledgling organisation a wide range of key black figures.

By the end of 1917, Garvey had assembled a leadership of major black church pastors, one or two black millionaires, some black journalists, and a number of black socialists. His UNIA was also infiltrated by J Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Information (BOI) – forerunner of the FBI. The US ruling class was gripped with the fear of Bolshevik revolution being imported by soldiers returning from the first world war.

By 1918 the organisation had mushroomed, but without any democratic structures. Garvey ruled without discussion and was ruthless against those he deemed had betrayed the aims of the UNIA. His organisation was founded on the dollars and cents of black workers and his appeal was directly to them. However, most of those he grouped around him for the leadership were from the layer of black professionals and those lucky to have accumulated wealth. The UNIA programme which, from the early days, had a business arm, the African Communities League, set its sight first on black nationhood through the Versailles peace talks after the war, and then on the Black Star Liner venture, to re-establish a nation free from imperialism on the west coast of Africa.

Garvey was dismissive of the Bolshevik revolution, the greatest episode in human history. He addressed an editorial in his paper, Negro World, in March 1919: "The Russian people have issued a proclamation of sympathy… towards the labouring people of the world… We are not concerned as partakers in these revolutions, but we are concerned in the destruction that will come out of the bloody conflict between capital and labour, which will give us a breathing space to declare our freedom from the tyrannical rule of our oppressive overlords".

The massive base Garvey built in the post-war period, in particular among working-class blacks, was to be squandered. The plan to establish a cruise line, the Black Star Liner, was again part of Garvey’s black self-improvement philosophy – improvement under capitalism. Garvey tapped into a burning desire among blacks, who were the first to be put on the scrapheap by US capitalism after the first world war, to find work and lift themselves out of poverty. Garvey’s solution was a black version of the American Dream. The philosophy that, ‘if only black capitalism could be given a chance’, is still argued today.

In Africa, capitalism has failed so miserably under the stewardship of black leaders that many states are deemed ironically to be failing states. Capitalism has failed in these countries as raw materials are sucked out for rock-bottom prices, giving revenue only to a corrupt elite. In the US, the small number of black rich, such as Oprah Winfrey, or the few who have climbed the greasy political pole, such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, have supported the attacks on the working class that have hit black workers the hardest. It is still an indictment of US capitalism that there are more young black males in prison than are studying for degrees in college.

Garvey’s Black Star Liner was an attempt at black capitalism. Although it raised the hopes of millions, it led to the destruction of his organisation. The money from bonds bought by ordinary blacks was poorly administered. This was seized upon by the BOI, which had seen in Garvey’s movement a ‘Bolshevik plot’. Under investigation, Garvey took action to purge the UNIA of socialist ideas by sacking the socialist-leaning leader writer of the Negro World.

Grant reveals that Garvey had led a strike of Jamaican print workers in 1908 for better pay but he never drew the appropriate lessons from the strike’s defeat, or any socialist conclusions. When faced with a plantation workers’ strike in Costa Rica in 1910, where he had gone to work, he stayed on the sidelines. However, Grant gives the impression that had Garvey not been so autocratic and had placed more competent people in charge of the Black Star Liner then he may have been successful.

Grant is critical of some of Garvey’s political decisions, in particular, his decision to open discussions with the Ku Klux Klan. But the UNIA did not fail for these reasons alone. Grant is less critical of Garvey’s central philosophy: Pan-Africanism, which for Garvey was based on a black version of capitalism. Even at the height of the movement, many black socialists opposed Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ message. In 1919, a group of them met. One of them, Claude McKay, stated later that their aim was "to discuss the possibility of making the UNIA more class-conscious", but they were not able to build a broader group.

Garvey’s movement failed because he did not develop a class conscious organisation or absorb the lessons of the Russian revolution and help organise the hundreds of thousands of black workers and peasants into a force for socialism. Grant’s book is an excellent read, full of information on many of the black figures of the time. Garvey had a major influence on future black leaders – Malcolm X’s father was a UNIA member. This book is a must-read for anyone wishing to study one of the main proponents of black nationalism.


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