J.R. Johnson

Marcus Garvey

(June 1940)

Originally published in Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 11, 24 June 1940, p. 3.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 114–116.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Articles in every newspaper and editorials on Garvey have borne witness to the great impression which this extraordinary man made on American life in less than ten years stay in this country. The revolutionary movement is woodenly obtuse to the immense significance of his career. Thereby it shows itself still dominated by the powerful prejudice which belittles or ignores all action and achievements by Negroes. Garvey landed in America some time during the war and agitated for his organization, the UNIA, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He had a fantastic program of Back to Africa, fantastic, because Britain, France, and Germany would not fight wars for Africa and then hand it over to Garvey. It is doubtful whether he believed it himself. It is possible that when he began he took the idea seriously, but before long he must have become convinced of its impracticality. But Garvey’s ideas are not important.

The first thing to note is that he burst into prominence in the post-war period, when revolution was raging in Europe and the workers were on the move everywhere. The Negro masses felt the stir of the period, and it was that which made Garvey. The next great movement of the American working class was the pro-Roosevelt movement in 1936. It swung hundreds of thousands of Negro votes from the Republican to the Democratic Party. The third great movement of the American workers was the CIO. It swept hundreds of thousands of Negroes into unions for the first time. In every great step forward of the American masses since the war, the Negroes have played their part. Yet the biggest response was to Garvey.

Why? Garvey was a reactionary. He used fierce words but he was opposed to the labor movement and counseled subservience to bosses. One reason for his success was that his movement was strictly a class movement. He appealed to the black Negroes against the Mulattoes. Thus at one strike he excluded the Negro middle class which is very largely of mixed blood. He deliberately aimed at the poorest, most down-trodden and humiliated Negroes. The millions who followed him, the devotion and the money they contributed, show where we can find the deepest strength of the working class movement, the coiled springs of power which lie there waiting for the party which can unloose them. Garvey, however, was a race fanatic. His appeal was to black against white. He wanted purity of race. A great part of his propaganda was based on the past achievements of blacks, their present misery, their future greatness.

With that disregard of facts which characterize the born demagogue, he proclaimed there were 400 million Negroes in the world, when there are certainly not half as many. Who does all this remind us of? Who but Adolph Hitler? The similarity between the two movements does not end there. The Negroes were too few in America for Garvey to give them excitement by means of baiting whites as Hitler baited the Jews. But his program had a nebulousness similar to the the Nazi program. Was this the reason that long before Hitler, he anticipated the Nazi leader in his emphasis on uniforms, parades, military guards, in short, the dramatic and the spectacular? Stupid people saw in all this merely the antics of backward Negroes. Recent events should give them an opportunity to revise their judgements. Everything that Hitler was to do afterwards in the way of psychological appeal, Garvey was doing in 1921 His array of baronets, etc., with himself as Emperor of Africa was a hangover from his early life in the West Indies.

In one important respect, the Garvey movement was the most remarkable political mass movement that America has ever seen. Note that Garvey promised the Negroes nothing and at the same time everything. His organization was not a trade union which offered higher wages, nor was it a political party which could offer prospects of realizing a program. All he did was to speak of Africa, and near the end of his career he bought one or two leaky ships which made one or two streaky voyages. Yet so deep was the sense of wrong and humiliation among the Negroes and so high did he lift them up that they gave him all that they did, year after year, expecting Garvey to perform some miracle. No revolution is ever made except when the masses have reached this pitch of exaltation, when they see a vision of a new society. That is what Garvey gave them.

Personally, Garvey was one of the great orators of his time. Ill-educated, but with the rhythms of Shakespeare and the Bible in his head, he was a master of rhetoric and invective, capable of great emotional appeals and dramatic intensity. In his late years he could hold English crowds spellbound in Hyde Park while he told them that God would save black Ethiopia because Simon the Cyrenian, a black man, helped Jesus on the way to Calvary. As the great poet says, it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Yet this remarkable movement and the remarkable figure who led it remain unstudied by American Marxists.

Every two-cent revolutionary who has talked to Negroes in cafeterias and therefore knows the Negro question, points out Garvey’s errors and absurdities and thinks that thereby a contribution has been made to knowledge. More than in all the theses of the Comintern, a basis for the building of a real mass movement among the Negroes lies in a thorough study of this first great eruption of the Negro people.

Last updated on 25.8.2012