R.J. Stephens: Global Garveyism

Global Garveyism.

Stephens, Ronald Jemal; Ewing, Adam
352 S.
€ 114,29
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Margaret Stevens, Division of Humanities, Essex County College, Newark

Garveyism was the most overtly popular political movement that black people engaged in during the course of the twentieth century. As an organization and/or ideology, its impact reverberated around the world, resonating even today from the halls of academia to the mass consciousness of black people on every continent. Global Garveyism offers an edited volume of expansive, pioneering articles that place Marcus Garvey as an individual, Garveyism as an ideology, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as an organization, and/or the Black Star Line (BSL) as a business enterprise, at the center of twentieth century world history. Moreover, the volume reaches even further back in time to place Garvey’s theorizations into the centuries-old trajectory of black radical political thought that was the revolutionary underpinning of the Enlightenment. While the volume offers no continuity on the ‘definition’” of Garveyism, there is a profound editorial insight into the meaning of Garveyism as a “revolt against the West” (p.7), and several articles pay tremendous attention to where it fell on the spectrum of black radical activism of its time. The critical area of tension that this edited volume presents is: Garveyism’s easily quantifiable popularity in numbers never reflected an equally qualitative advance in its ability to challenge the system of global racist oppression that black everyday people have historically desired to mitigate. This volume offers a highly complex and deeply researched set of discussions on Garveyism’s disruption of gender norms, trade unionism, Enlightenment theory, global racism and colonialism, but it ultimately points to an overall birth of theorization around the fundamental failures of this movement to challenge racist capitalism at its core. If two central conditions for modern racist oppression are destruction of antiracist, international unity of workers on one hand and political acquiescence to capitalist economic relations on the other hand, both were ultimately reinforced rather than challenged by Garveyism, and this text offers insufficient critical engagement with this historical fact.

The volume admittedly “reveals the geographical and temporal depth of Garvey’s influence” while acknowledging that there are major regions of the world where its influence is not discussed. Its contents are brilliantly framed with both an opening and closing by Michael O West who posits Garveyism as a discourse on one end and as a praxis on the other. West rigorously traces Garvey’s place in an intellectual tradition founded in part by Haitian revolutionary and abolitionist pioneer Toussaint L’Ouverture in the opening pages and the implications of Garvey’s political imaginary for the present and future as evidenced through Kwame Nkrumah’s United States of Africa movement and finally Walter Rodney’s praxis of Black Power based on the Caribbean experience. And yet, while West most astutely cautions against the co-optation of Garveyism, most notably with its Black Star Line which was at one point apparently majority owned by Israelis (p. 270), he concludes with a celebration of Garveyism’s place in the bourgeois academy as the quintessential representation of present-day antiracism which is, at a minimum, a troubling assertion.

Constraints in the volume’s framing of Garveyism notwithstanding, the articles offer very valuable insights into some global dimensions of Garveyism and the contradictions at local levels that this movement brought to bear. The articles about the UNIA in Australia and Trinidad by Maynard and Montes de Oca, respectively, both reveal how Garveyism as an ideological position was often seen as ‘the public enemy number one’ to colonial authorities who were seeking to retain the status quo. The fundamental reality was that Black workers with any ideology of any kind that countered self-hate and submission to cultural, political or economic oppression were considered a hindrance to control. But in many instances, Garveyism was present and conceived as being largely responsible for the resistance. This was evident in the 1919 attacks by the colonial regime in Trinidad and Australia alike that are described in the volume. Sullivan’s analysis of the UNIA in Cuba offers refreshing insights into Garveyism as a method for mass mobilization and places it in a long history of mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations and club movements that scholars have been bringing to light for the past several decades. As a tool to primarily, though not exclusively, bring together a largely Anglophone Caribbean migrant labor population on the island, the UNIA offered a sense of belonging, continuity and inclusion for many alienated workers whose daily struggle for a livelihood was predicated on the exploitation of black labor--foreign or domestic. Blain’s chapter on black women Garveyites refocuses the energy away from individuals and focuses on those who were making political formulations in the 1940s from “below”. She focuses less on the well-known women ideologues of the movement and instead on lesser known figures, and, in addition, asserts that rather than focusing primarily on the fifth Pan African Congress of 1945, we should consider the 1940s as a decade. This intervention challenges both a male-centric and cult-of-personality-centric approach to black radical history which has been so prevalent in intellectual research.

Essentially, this volume presents yet another academic exercise in how to write about black people’s visions of freedom in the twentieth century without considering in fact the fundamental, though contradictory, impact that global communist organizations as praxis and the Soviet Union as material force played in this process. Garveyism is positioned on one end and both the Communist International (Comintern) and global white supremacy and colonialism are positioned on the other end. Indeed, there is an implication that the Comintern itself served as yet another manifestation of the global white supremacist order, though of an avowedly anti-capitalist variety. The problems attendant with this rhetorical stance are various and sundry, but for present purposes, the key concern is simply that the false dichotomization of Communism and black nationalism again undermines the historical interplay of individuals, struggles and networks in which these movements often overlapped and sometimes integrated.

In short, Garvey attracted great numbers but had a poor political message. Communism appealed to much smaller numbers and had a much more advanced praxis for fundamental political change. Tens of thousands of black workers moved in and out of UNIA chapters on myriad levels of activity and commitment, thousands more had heard of and travelled along the BSL, and millions more around the world had heard of Garvey, his plans, his vision, and his movement ‘Back to Africa’. But “what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right,” said Albert Einstein. When mass antiracist consciousness becomes a global phenomenon that is committed to overturning the capitalist world order, even the bourgeois academy will be shirking from embracing the theoretical interrogation that arises therein.

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