George Padmore was born Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse on June 28th 1903 in Arouca, Trinidad, then part of the British West Indies. His paternal great-grandfather was an Ashanti warrior who was taken prisoner and sold into slavery at Barbados, where his grandfather was born. His father, James Alonso Nurse, was a school teacher, who had originally been born into slavery.
After leaving school, Nurse went into journalism, working briefly as a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian before travelling in 1924 to study law at FiskUniversity in Tennessee and then New YorkUniversity, before transferring to HowardUniversity. He had become an active member of the Workers (Communist) Party in 1927, rising quickly in its ranks and becoming ‘George Padmore’ in the process. Highly active in its mass organisation targeted at black Americans, the American Negro Labor Congress, Padmore was a fraternal delegate from this body to the 6th National Convention of the CPUSA, held in New York City. He was editor of the `Negro Champion’, later to be called the Liberator, a Communist Party newspaper in Harlem.
He dropped out of studying but his talents as an organiser and writer meant he was soon to be put to good use. Padmore was sent to Moscow to deliver a report on the formation of the Trade Union Unity League in the USA to the Communist International in 1929. A consequence of Padmore's stay in the Soviet Union was an end of his time as a resident of the United States, as a non-citizen he was effectively barred from re-entry.
Following the delivery of his report, Padmore was asked to stay on in Moscow to head the Negro Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU or, from its Russian initials, the Profintern). He was even elected to the MoscowCity Soviet, an institution roughly equivalent to city councils in the west.
He was the Communist movement’s leading agitator for colonial revolution, travelling widely and organising an elaborate network of thousands of anti-colonial militants throughout the Caribbean and Africa in particular. As well as editing the Negro Worker, Padmore wrote prolifically, and his `The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers’ (1931) was particularly influential. He helped to produce pamphlets and contributed articles to Moscow's English-language newspaper, the Moscow Daily News. He was also used periodically as a courier of funds from Moscow to various foreign Communist Parties.
In July 1930, Padmore was instrumental on behalf of the League Against Imperialism
in organising an international conference in Hamburg. Germany was where the Western Secretariat of the Comintern was located and Hamburg had excellent sea-links with the Americas and the coast of Africa.This conference launched a Comintern-backed international organization of black workers’ organisations called the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW). Padmore lived in Vienna during this time, where he edited the monthly publication of the new group, `The Negro Worker’, but in 1931, he moved to Hamburg, continuing to produce the magazine, and writing a couple of dozen pamphlets that year alone.
The offices of the Negro Worker were ransacked almost immediately following the Nazi seizure of power and Padmore was detained for some months. It seems that the British MI6 collaborated with the Nazi security forces in checking whether Padmore’s “yellow trunk” of papers contained anything of interest to Britain in containing its own domestic revolutionary threat.
Eventually, Padmore was deported to Britain by the German government. In view of the crisis all this placed the work in, activity focused on the ITUCNW and the Negro Worker was suspended in August 1933. At first, Padmore only cited the ITUCNW’s supposed financial troubles as his reason for leaving its employment. Then he abruptly and sharply severed his connections, causing the Comintern's disciplinary body, the International Control Commission (ICC), to ask him to explain his behaviour.
Although the American Communists were asked to vouch for Padmore, his only potential ally, Jim Ford, was scathing in his criticism of Padmore. [James W. Ford (1893 – 1957) was the Vice-Presidential candidate for the Communist Party USA in 1932, 1936, and 1940. A Party organiser from New York, he was the first black American in history to stand for high office in his country.]Only now did Padmore begin criticising the Comintern for what he claimed was acynical abandonment of the cause of colonial workers, in the interests of boosting rapprochement with Britain and France. On his still refusing to explain himself, the ICC expelled him from the Communist movement on February 23, 1934.
However, the rise of fascism led the Soviet Union to join the League of Nations and seek new diplomatic and military ties with Britain and France. The focus on Europe that followed meant that Communists called for a more considered and longer term approach to the empires of potential enemies of Nazi Germany. Padmore was outraged, since he now considered the Comintern’s earlier concern for mobilising the people’s of enslaved nations as a cynical exercise. Resigning in disgust, he moved to Paris and now worked with the wealthy white heiress, Nancy Cunard, who had recently published the monumental anthology `Negro’.
He moved to Britain in 1935 and, from hereon, Padmore’s politics evolved into Pan-Africanism, although his contact with Communists and support for left politics in general did not entirely disappear by any means. In London, he began working with the Camden Town-based West African Student’s Union. He wrote his `How Britain Rules Africa’ in 1936 and formed the International African Service Bureau in 1937, a network of Caribbean and African intellectuals, which later became the Pan-African Federation. His book, `Africa and World Peace’, published in 1937 examined the Ethiopian crisis.
Contrary to the misconceptions of some who have sought to diminish the role of Communists, Padmore may have fell out with the leading figures of international communism but he had not necessarily dumped the ideology at all. In 1940, in an arctile entitled “Hands Off the Soviet Union”, he wrote that “the Russo-Finnish conflict makes it imperative for the international working-class movements in the capitalist countries to re-evaluate their position towards the Soviet Union.” That evaluation meant support for the gains of October even if what he saw as Stalin’s adventurism should not be supported. Above all, there should be no western embroilment in Finland.
Indeed, in the immediate post-war era, he produced `How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire: A Challenge to Imperial Powers’, which described how the USSR had developed its minority nations. Padmore thought that this approach might even be a model for the Western empires to decolonialise, since after all they were allies with Soviet Russia, at least when he was writing the book. Naturally, as we now know well, within only a couple of years of the end of the war the US and the UK were leading the west into the cold war, a major objective of which was to enable a new form of imperialist relations with the undeveloped world to emerge through economic and military dominance.
In 1945 he was central to organising the important Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, attended by KwameNkrumah, JomoKenyatta, and W. E. B. Du Bois, which helped partially to set the agenda for decolonisation in the post-war period.
He wrote `The Gold Coast Revolution’, on Ghana, in 1953 and his book, `Pan-Africanism or Communism?’, came out in 1956.
Padmore’s greatest claim to success arose from the close links he had with KwameNkrumah, who led the Gold Coast from British colonial rule to independence as Ghana in 1957. Although Nkrumah was rather more supportive of Communists , whom he widely recruited from Britain as professional who would aid Ghana. British architects, town planners, economists, doctors, and teachers who were Party members all went to work in Ghana in the period before the 1966 coup that ousted Nkrumah. Padmore also moved to Ghana and served as an advisor to Nkrumah.
After a short illness, Padmore died in London, where he had gone for medical treatment, on September 23, 1959, aged only 57.At Nkrumah’s request, his ashes were flown to Ghana to be interred.
A blue plaque was unveiled outside his flat in SomersTown in 2011.
Sources include: Camden New Journal 30th June 2011; Left, No. 41, February 1940; James Hooker, Black Revolutionary: George Padmore's Path from Communism to Pan-Africanism (1967).
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