"Great Garvey's Ghost!": On the Grandeur and Weakness of Black Leadership

"As revolutionary nationalists in the 21st century, we need sympathetic accounts of Garvey and of Black leadership that don't descend into crass hagiography..."

"Great Garvey's Ghost!": On the Grandeur and Weakness of Black Leadership
"I believe the intellectual origin of the Black movement must rest with Dr. Du Bois – a man with a range of scholarship, practical activity, and ambition for the development of humanity which is not exceeded by anybody in the twentieth century. But his chief concern was to appeal to and get in contact with intellectuals, historians, organizers, etc. When Du Bois was finished, Garvey began, so to speak, and Garvey made Black emancipation something popular, which it had never been before. So both of them, although they may have had conflict, they played a political role. Du Bois made it an intellectual discussion, posed the question, Garvey made it a popular question. When Garvey was finished, everybody knew there was a Black question: both white people knew and Black people all over the world knew. And that is what Garvey did, despite the mistakes that he made, that is to his great credit."

~ CLR James,
in an interview on The Black Jacobins,
with Studs Terkel (1970)
"In order to avoid [the] pitfalls [of dictatorial rule] a persistent battle has to be waged to prevent the party from becoming a compliant instrument in the hands of a leader… The driver of people no longer exists today. People are no longer a herd and do not need to be driven. If the leader drives me I want him to know that at the same time I am driving him. The nation should not be an affair run by a big boss."

~ Frantz Fanon,
The Wretched of the Earth, 127

In the welter of last century’s first imperialist war, Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association rose from modest beginnings in a cramped Harlem bedroom, to become a movement counting millions of members and associates throughout the colonial world.

Garvey himself was of humble origin – a printer and former timekeeper with the United Fruit Company, with little more than his brief tenure with the Africa Times and Orient Review, and a failed attempt at the Tuskegee model in Jamaica, to recommend his leadership and world outlook.

Yet this same anonymous visionary, of despised race and with few formal credentials, would in a few short years send electrifying waves through the imperialist world, his propaganda blowing a storm-cloud of anti-colonial revolt over the sea of Africa’s toiling masses. And drawing, too, the wrath of Western capitalist governments, the rancorous abuse of would-be Communist liberators, and the jealousy of established, petty-bourgeois race leadership.

Advance fifteen years from the movement’s 1920 International Convention, with its tens of thousands of attendees, its great institutions and pageantry, its embryonic all-African government. Garvey’s international organization is now on its last legs, being plundered by opportunistic leaders, and poached by pseudo-Garveyite rivals. Garvey himself is being hushed and harangued by anti-colonial voices, like Isaac Wallace-Johnson of Sierra Leone, who first learned Africa’s freedom song at his knee. Not unlike his great predecessor Toussaint Louverture, the Afro-Caribbean prophet now lies exiled in dreary Europe, bound by personal debts and political missteps to match Toussaint’s more literal chains.

Within five years, a brain hemorrhage will lay him low; he lives long enough to read his own premature obituary, penned by his rival George Padmore, before giving up the ghost weeks later, on June 10, 1940. Little remains of the worldwide movement he’d held together through force of personality, political genius, and the uncompromising goals of African independence and unified government. Yet within the next few decades, the first fruits of the African independence struggle and the Black Power movement will miraculously drop from the UNIA’s long-dead branches.  

How to make sense of this strange and romantic career of Garveyism? This dip from the exhilaration of Black Power’s birth and coming-of-age, down into the prose of its founder’s poverty, into his disavowal by freedom fighters who themselves were indebted to his work? Many people who lay claim today to Garvey’s legacy speak of his leadership in ways that reveal they haven't studied what accounts for its successes and failures. As revolutionary nationalists in the 21st century, we need sympathetic accounts of Garvey and of Black leadership that don't descend into crass hagiography, if our nationalism would avoid becoming a farce under changed historical conditions.

And the first obvious point in this connection is that Garvey didn't achieve his mass movement alone, in spite of his prescience and his outstanding personal qualities. At the height of his power – represented by the 1920 International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World – his organization counted over 800 branches worldwide (Martin, Race First, 13). The UNIA encompassed a broad spectrum of people with wide ideological differences and discrete class interests, reflecting the great variety of opinion in the Black world. It included atheists, Christians, Communists, Black Jews, Muslims, domestic workers, stevedores, professionals, capitalists, ex-soldiers, sharecroppers, and trade-unionists in its ranks (Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement, 10). When, however, Garvey began cracking down on smaller factions from 1920-onward in favor of a stronger central authority, this fueled the factionalism that tore the UNIA apart with the help of BOI (early FBI) and Attorney General's plots (Grant, Negro With a Hat, 311-312, 346-347).

Some of Garvey’s suspicions of the factions within the UNIA were justified. But the highly sympathetic scholar Tony Martin has himself indicated Garvey’s preference for an autocratic leadership style, even as he gestured toward social and economic democracy along Labour Party lines (Race First, 54-55). If today we want organizations with the potential to reach the masses to the same extent that Garvey did, then we must suppress the tendency among neo-Garveyite factions today to build up great individuals as the only ones with the correct solution for African liberation.

Garvey had a lot of help, including some from people who didn't agree with him about everything. Any mass movement along nationalistic lines that wants to reproduce Garvey’s successes must resist the temptation to fall under the exclusive control of an all-knowing, individual leader. It must grasp that a plurality of views, within a flexible organizational framework, was not only the key to the early UNIA’s growth, but that it was also the only effective guard against the tendency toward factionalism and fratricide. The assassinations of JW Eason and Princess Kofey by pro-Garvey zealots, in their enervating effect for the Garvey movement and for its connection to the broader streams of interwar Black life, eloquently testify that point.

Another, equally instructive fallacy, is the false division between Garveyism as a strictly working-class movement, and the competing civil rights organizations as led by white-gloved intellectuals. Since the question of the Black intellectual’s role is usually given short shrift in nationalist movements in the US, and is usually bound up with false ideas about the intellectual’s relationship to the working masses, I have decided to give it special consideration in these reflections on the contradictions of twentieth-century Black leadership.

The UNIA’s appeal to the African working class lay:

  1. in its construction of an alternative economy and organizational apparatus, controlled by Black people,
  2. in its racial mass-propaganda, which popularized tropes about Black history and aesthetics that were already common coin with the Black intelligentsia, and
  3. in its inversion of nationalist, even imperialist, values with which the Black masses would already be familiar from the dominant white world.

It did not consist in anti-intellectualism. In spite of its overwhelmingly working-class membership, the UNIA had many prominent Black intellectuals in its ranks or its orbit, like John Edward Bruce, Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, St. Clair Drake, and J. A. Rogers.

Garvey himself was, quite literally, an intellectual: the majority of his work was in producing propaganda, speeches, and texts, and performing administrative tasks. His widow, Amy Jacques Garvey, highlights the importance of education for her husband’s worldview with an extended quote, reproduced in her own paradigmatic text, Garvey and Garveyism:

"Read! read! read! and never stop until you discover the knowledge of the Universe. If you don't understand the compass of your own world, how can you navigate properly? ...Spend a little less on food and a little more on books and newspapers, for today it is a struggle of wit against wits, brain against brains..."

Garvey, then, was no anti-intellectual, even for all his suspicion of the existing Black leadership, which by default was composed of petty-bourgeois figures (including the intelligentsia).

Furthermore, while he came from the middle layers of the working class, and cut his teeth in politics by siding with Black labor in Central America, Garvey's own attitude toward organized Black labor was at best equivocal: when he visited Trinidad in 1937, he sadly blamed the oil workers' strike there on the malign influence of George Padmore’s IASB (Grant, 443). His increasingly conservative attitude toward African labor militancy, along with his suspicion of Communists, his approving remarks on Fascism, and his impolitic tirades against Haile Selassie during the Italo-Abyssinian War, all led working-class nationalist organizers like Isaac Wallace-Johnson to finally denounce him as behind the times, as the African independence movement gathered momentum for the post-war struggles (Adi, Pan-Africanism: A History, 31, 39-40).

Whatever were Haile Selassie’s faults, the African masses felt that Mussolini’s invasion was not the occasion to point them out. Garvey could have seen this more clearly, had his personal snub by the Emperor not jaundiced his view. His instinct for mass politics, then, was not infallible, and it tended to betray him the more he tried to impose his personal beefs and idiosyncratic reading of world events on the masses themselves.

The tragic disconnect between working-class and intellectual currents within Black movements of the last century reflects contradictions of the global division between mental and manual labor, the basic division of labor within the world capitalist system. And since the global division of labor also runs along racial lines, it only makes sense that the movements most popular with Black people – by and large manual laborers – would develop a healthy suspicion of the intelligentsia, who as a class are overwhelmingly white, or integrated with white society; who are therefore economically invested in maintaining the class domination of white society over the Black masses.

However, as Frantz Fanon points out in his classic testament, The Wretched of the Earth (121), even that judgment needs qualification in the anticolonial context. There is a segment of the Black intelligentsia, Fanon asserts, whose class and cultural background makes them equally suspicious as the workers of the decadent aims of the opportunist, petty-bourgeois sections in newly "independent" nations. WEB Du Bois, the “father of Pan-Africanism” (Cabral), pointed to the liberatory potential of this class as early as his 1933 essay, “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (WEB Du Bois: A Reader, 543); and Garvey historian Ted Vincent alerts us to Du Bois’s own theoretical contributions that, in other circumstances, could have added to the ideological basis of the UNIA’s nationalist program (Vincent, 37-48).

Yet, there is the rub.

In much Black Power rhetoric, Du Bois is treated straightforwardly as Garvey’s great antithesis – and that, for irreconcilable differences of philosophy as much as of personality. And these differences tend to run along that very line, between intellectual and manual labor, which on an undialectical reading of Black history, admits of no synthesis. Since their contradiction is so emblematic of contradictions of Black leadership, and since the mythology surrounding it has been so carefully curated by what can only be called the neo-Garveyite wing of the Black Power movement, I think it may be useful to conclude this discussion with a brief assessment of the Garvey/Du Bois struggle.

I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Amy Jacques Garvey. In addition to her being personally responsible for the assembly and editing of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, and a tireless worker on behalf of the UNIA and advocate for her husband, she was also an important activist and thinker in her own right, particularly around feminist causes. Yet there are real problems with her important work, Garvey and Garveyism; problems that I believe stem from being too close to her subject; and whose unfortunate consequences radiate through mid-20th century Black Power discourse, right into the present.

A good example can be found in her treatment of Du Bois and the Pan-African Congress. Any good Du Bois scholar will tell you that Blaise Diagne was not a principled collaborator with Du Bois: that theirs was a merely tactical unity, made across sharp ideological differences, which finally opened into outright polemics at the Belgian session of the Second Congress, when Du Bois and his camp denounced Diagne's beloved French imperialism (Lewis, WEB Du Bois: A Biography, 413-414). Yet Amy Jacques treats them like a perfect duo, which only helps her anti-Du Boisian cause, when later she cites Diagne's apologetics for forced labor in Africa (74).

She also seems to think that the Pan-African Congress, successor to the Pan-African Conferences, dating back to 1900, was merely a response to the 1920 International Convention of the UNIA. She supports this with the flimsy evidence that in newspaper reports, the Congress members were at pains to distinguish their movement from Garvey's. But that is only because they felt that the UNIA – the more visible movement at the time – took the wrong approach toward the same goal (a successful appeal to the League of Nations for self-determination on the African continent); and that a too close identification of the Congress with Garveyism would halt their progress with the Western powers.

(Here a neo-Garveyite will want to point out that this is an "Uncle Tom" approach – as though Garvey's own explicit program was for the revolutionary liberation of the Continent, or as if Du Bois had not himself published warnings about the impending anti-colonial revolutions that for their violence could rival anything printed in the Negro World. See for example the conclusion to “African Roots of War” from 1915 – before Garvey arrived in the US – or his much-neglected 1938 article, “Black Africa Tomorrow”.)

Considering that nominal Pan-Africanism had existed since 1900, and that Du Bois had preserved it almost single-handedly since before Garvey reached Harlem, it's a bit unreasonable to treat the Congresses as a conservative reaction to the UNIA. Like the Garveyites' own appeal to the League of Nations, the real motive for convening the Congress at that time should be sought in the opportunity opened by the First World War: the weakened condition of the imperial powers, and the ambiguous fate of Germany's former African possessions. But the notion that Du Bois, who was speaking of "Pan-Negroism" back in 1893 and African self-rule in 1915, would need Marcus Garvey to suddenly begin thinking of the need for African unity in these conditions, is, with all due respect to Amy Jacques, a lot of nonsense.

I think that Amy Jacques was less concerned with the historical Du Bois than with the composite of assimilationist Black leadership that he unfairly became in her late husband's eyes; and this shows in the fact that she doesn't ever deal honestly with his own works – only with the NAACP, which was the work of more than one person. She usually talks about Du Bois in connection with that layer of Black leadership that was ashamed of African history, of Negro spirituals, and that desired to be closer to white people.

But any casual historian can tell you that Du Bois was a pioneer in African historiography, seeing Africa's status as inseparable from that of Afro-America (publishing The Negro in 1915, the same year as the groundbreaking "African Roots of War" essay); that he'd been one of the very first to highlight the beauty of Negro spirituals, against the embarrassed objections of the Negro middle class (see "Of the Sorrow Songs" in Souls); that he'd argued for preserving the unique racial character of Afro-Americans in one of his earliest essays, "The Conservation of Races," and that he admitted very few white people into his actual private life. Du Bois didn't want to be white, or to lose himself in whiteness; he'd said very insulting things about the culture and even the looks of white people, in texts like Darkwater, Dark Princess, and Dusk of Dawn. According to his leading biographer David L. Lewis, Du Bois would not even walk with a woman who could pass for white in public, lest someone mistake it for an interracial affair.

One last instructive misconception about Du Bois that has made its way into contemporary Black Power discourse, is that he was an adherent across his whole career, to the Talented Tenth thesis. As if that elitist idea were his original and sole contribution to the theory of Black leadership; and as if it were a token of his integrationist, "sellout" thinking, in contrast with Garvey's more democratic nationalism.

In the first place, Du Bois was hardly the first elitist Black leader. Martin Delaney, George Washington Williams, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Alexander Crummell before him, had all believed that the Western-educated Black middle class were the key to the salvation of the race. Crucially, each of them played a seminal role in the Black nationalist discourse against which Du Bois's integrationism is usually contrasted (Robinson, Black Marxism, 184-195).

In fact, EW Blyden, the "Father of African Nationalism" and foremost intellectual influence of Marcus Garvey, even anticipated the expansion of British colonialism on the African continent: particularly for its educational benefits for Black leadership, which he considered indispensable to the uplift of “backward” Africa (Adi, 12-13). Du Bois's thesis draws its historical importance from its contrast with the Tuskegee philosophy, that depreciated the cultivation of Black intellectuals, not from its originality of conception.

Secondly, though Du Bois held onto this idea for much longer than his socialist convictions should have allowed, it's important to remember that he did finally abandon it, particularly in the face of growing government persecution, and his ostracism from the NAACP and the Black bourgeois set in the early years of the Cold War (Robinson, 197).

It should also be kept in mind that the Talented Tenth ideal was partly shaped by the same Prussian-bureaucratic model of nationalism that Du Bois shared with Garvey, who himself was deeply influenced by the Bismarckian leadership style, long after Du Bois had consciously abandoned it. Garvey had a far better sense than Du Bois for mass politics and propaganda that would reach "down" to the masses, and was more cavalier in his public rhetoric of self-defense (depending on the period under discussion) than was his great opponent. But as his response to blues and jazz music, his imperialistic-aristocratic pretensions, the class composition of his UNIA leadership, and his conservative stance toward the claims of Black labor as against capitalists of any race all testify, Garvey was no greater exponent of economic or cultural democracy than was Du Bois (Grant, 426-427; Henry, Caliban’s Reason, 208).

Pace Amy Jacques, I tend to agree with Hegel, that the grave errors made by world-historical figures are more so an indictment of their time, than of their subjective intentions; with CLR James, that Du Bois and Garvey were equally foundational for Black liberation in the 20th century; and with Cedric Robinson and Frantz Fanon, that the masses are the real makers and breakers of Black leadership, be it intellectual or popular.

As twentieth-century Garveyism demonstrated, Black radical theorists need a mass movement that explicitly responds to the latent nationalism of the broad masses of our people, rather than advancing it by implication and threat, as did the more cautious Du Bois. But any twenty-first century Garveyism of practice, must ruthlessly criticize the fetishism of leadership in theory – a task for the intellectual, who is consciously rooted in and constantly responsive to the movements of the Black masses.