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The Role of the USSR in the Liberation of Africa

by Ian Beddowes

The role of the USSR in the liberation of Africa from direct colonialism was immense, both indirectly and directly. That influence still remains despite the counter-revolution of 1991.

The slave trade, first in West Africa and then in East Africa destroyed production and destroyed social infrastructure. Then, in 1885, the imperialist powers carved up Africa between themselves making borders cutting right through ethnic boundaries, ending up in many cases with people of the same language and culture on different sides of the colonial border and in other cases ethnic groups historically hostile found themselves within the same borders.

It should never be thought that Africans did not fight back. Resistance to colonial settlement was fierce, the British army was defeated by the Zulus at Isandlwana in South Africa in 1979 and by the supporters of the Sufi religious leader known as the Mahdi (Muhammad Ahmad 1844-1885) in Sudan who took Khartoum and killed General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). But spears and swords could not defeat the Maxim machine-gun.

El-Mahdi Muhammad Ahmad

In the Americas, major slave revolts occurred in Brazil, the USA, and the Caribbean islands. To the horror of Europe, the slaves of Haiti rose up and declare independence for Haiti in 1804.

But revolutionary change did not come from the remnants of the old Africa but from the intelligentsia firstly in the USA and then those educated in the mission schools in Africa. Probably the most important people in the pan-African movement, both of whom adopted scientific socialism as they progressed were W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) of the USA and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (1909-1972).

The pan-African movement grew up parallel with the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia and each influenced the other. The first Pan-African Conference held in London in 1900 was a polite affair organized by a lawyer from Trinidad, Henry Sylvester Williams (1869-1911). But from 1919 till 1945, there was a series of Pan-African Congresses organized mainly by W.E.B. Du Bois and increasingly influenced by the Third (Communist) International, the Comintern.

The Comintern was formed in 1919, at the behest of Lenin, bringing together revolutionary forces prior to the formation of most Communist Parties. The Congress declared that among conditions for parties from imperialist countries wishing to affiliate, they had the obligation of:

“…exposing the dodges of its ‘own’ imperialists in the colonies, of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies, of cultivating in the hearts of the workers in their own country a truly fraternal relationship to the working population in the colonies and to the oppressed nations, and of carrying out systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples.”

The following year, 1920, the much bigger Second Congress was presented with Lenin’s famous booklet on tactics ‘LeftWing’ Communism an Infantile Disorder and the very important Report on the Committee of the National and the Colonial Questions were presented by Lenin after discussions with Indian Communist M.N. Roy (1887-1954) and Dutch/Indonesian Communist Comrade Maring (Henk Sneevliet 1883-1942). This document affirmed the position of the Comintern towards all national liberation movements. But there were no delegates from Africa.

Henk Sneevliet & M.N. Roy (left to right)

In 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois organized the First Pan-African Congress (as opposed to Conference) in Paris, France, and in 1920 the flamboyant, charismatic Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIAACL) held its first international convention at Madison Square Garden in New York, 20,000 delegates attended. These events influenced the Comintern, the foreign policy of Soviet Russia, and later the foreign policy of the USSR.

David Ivon Jones

The 3rd Congress of the Comintern was in 1921. For the first time, there was a delegate from the African continent, David Ivon Jones (1883-1924), born in Wales was the delegate from the newly formed Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The CPSA had been formed by militant white workers and there was only one black member, T.W. Thibedi (1888-1960). Under the direction of the Comintern, the demographics of the CPSA were to change within a very few years. At the Congress, Jones, who was by far the clearest of the early South African Communists, apologized for there being no black delegate to the Congress and stayed in what was soon to become the USSR working for the Comintern until his death from tuberculosis in 1924.

At the 4th Congress in 1922, the first two black delegates were sent by the Workers’ Party of America (the Communist Party had been made illegal). These were Otto Huiswoud (1893-1961) and Claude McKay (1890-1948). Huiswoud was born in Surinam and McKay in Jamaica. At the Congress, they led the Negro Commission, and Huiswoud drafted the Thesis on the Negro Question adopted by the Congress. This statement emphasized the centrality of colonialism and racism to the survival of capitalism, and therefore the critical need for the Communist movement to build links with black struggles in the United States, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. The Comintern also created the Negro Bureau, led by Huiswoud, to establish roots in sub-Saharan Africa and across the African diaspora. David Ivon Jones also worked with the Negro Bureau till his death in 1924.

Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay (left to right)

Also at the end of 1922, the Egyptian Socialist Party transformed itself into the Egyptian Communist Party and joined the Comintern. Africa then had a Communist Party at each end of the continent.

At its Conference in 1924, the Communist Party of South Africa resolved to concentrate on recruiting the black majority, by the late 1920s, African and Coloured (mixed-race) South Africans became a majority. Among those recruited was James La Guma (1894-1961) from Cape Town, who in February 1927 was delegated to the Congress of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels, Belgium organized by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). He was accompanied by the ANC delegate, J.T. Gumede (1867-1946); after the Congress, La Guma and Gumede went to Germany where they were enthusiastically received at a rally of 10,000 German Communists. Gumede returned to South Africa as a firm friend of the Communists, and in June 1927 was elected as President of the ANC, with CPSA member E.J. Khaile elected as Secretary-General.

In November 1927, La Guma and Gumede made another joint trip, this time to the USSR. This trip was to have far-reaching consequences for both the CPSA and the ANC. Gumede returned in February 1928, addressing a large crowd in Cape Town which had come to welcome him said:

“I have seen the new world to come, where it has already begun. I have been to the new Jerusalem. I have brought the key which would unlock the door to freedom.”

Quoted: Dr. Raymond van Diemel, I Have Seen the New Jerusalem: Revisiting and re-conceptualising Josiah T. Gumede and Jimmy La Guma’s USSR visit of 1927 (2001)

However, there were other forces at work within the ANC. The reactionary wing could not — and did not — remain neutral to the remarks and development of Gumede. One chief warned:

“The Tsar was a great man in his country, of royal blood like us chiefs and where is he now?.. If the ANC continues to fraternize with them [the communists] we chiefs cannot continue to belong to it.”

Another chief said:

“It will be a sad day for me when I am ruled by the man who milks my cow and ploughs my field.”

Quoted: Biography of J.T. Gumede, www.anc.org.

James la Guma and J.T. Gumede

In 1930, the chiefs and elitists removed J.T. Gumede from his post as ANC President, and the position was taken by Pixley ka Isaka Seme (C1881-1951), one of the original founders of the SANNC. Under Seme’s leadership, the ANC withered away, and by 1935 had almost disappeared; it was revived in 1937.

During their visit to the Soviet Union, James La Guma was also busy. He met the leadership of the Comintern. The result was, in the following year, 1929, the Resolution on the South African Question adopted by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) following the 6th Congress of the Comintern, this stated:

“…the Communist Party of South Africa must combine the fight against all anti-native laws with the general political slogan in the fight against British domination, the slogan of an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic, with full equal rights for all races, black, colored, and white.”

And to achieve this goal:

“The Party should pay particular attention to the embryonic national organizations among the natives, such as the African National Congress. The Party, while retaining its full independence, should participate in these organizations, should seek to broaden and extend their activity. Our aim should be to transform the African National Congress into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organization…”

In January 1929, the Communist Party of South Africa became the first South African organization to call for a ‘Native Republic’. Unfortunately, the CPSA went through a period of sectarian stagnation; intervention by the Comintern following its 7th Congress in 1935 helped Moses Kotane (1905-1978) to become General Secretary in 1939. He was not the first African to have the formal title of General Secretary, but he was the first African to become the leader of the Party in reality. Kotane was one of several South African Communists to be taught at the Lenin School in Moscow.
A report on him read:

“His training and ideological development at the Lenin School indicate on the basis of his past record that he will prove one of the most valuable of the leading cadres.”

Report to Comintern: Information Re the Leading Cadres CPSA (8th June 1933)

Moses Kotane

Kotane played a major role in the revival and building of the ANC and has been called ‘Chief Architect of the Struggle.’ When in 1950 the apartheid government put the Suppression of Communism Bill
though parliament making membership of the Communist Party a criminal offense with a 10-year prison term, Kotane persuaded the Central Committee to dissolve the Party before the Bill became law.
Then, in 1953, the Communist Party of South Africa was secretly reconvened as the South African Communist Party underground. Moses Kotane and his close Comrade, J.B. Marks (1903-1972), were the products of the Lenin School in the USSR.

Following the Second World War, the 5th Pan-African Congress was convened in Manchester, UK. Its leading figures were W.E.B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and George Padmore (1902-1959) of Trinidad, all strongly influenced by Communism and the USSR. Many future African leaders attended the Congress. The Soviet victory in the Second World War had enthused many Africans. Du Bois who had started as an elitist, talking of the ‘talented tenth’ of the African-American population was moving ever closer to the position of Scientific Socialism, and by 1945 had become the acknowledged leader of the Pan-African movement. His protege was Kwame Nkrumah who was to become President of the first British colony south of the Sahara to achieve independence. On the death of Stalin in 1953, Du Bois wrote a eulogy in his honor and in the same year spoke at the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, sent to the electric chair by the US government for spying for the Soviets. Du Bois joined the CPUSA in 1961 at the age of 93 before departing for Ghana where he spent his two remaining years of life.

Du Bois and Nkrumah

In 1952, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Egyptian army to stage a coup against King Farouk. Egypt at that time was a semi-colony of Britain. Nasser officially became President of Egypt in 1956, but he had been in control since 1952. At first, Nasser tried to play both sides, but the seizure of the Suez Canal by Britain, France, and Israel in 1956 pushed him into the Soviet camp. The Soviet Union provided money for the Aswan High Dam and trained Egyptian engineers. The Soviet Union also provided Egypt with arms and military training.

In Algeria, the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched a war of liberation against French occupation in 1954, it was the first major armed struggle against colonialism in Africa in the post-Second World War era. In 1958, the FLN formed the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria in exile. This was immediately recognized by the USSR and other socialist governments which provided arms and training to the FLN and also began training people for administration and necessary technical work for after independence which took place in 1962 when the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria was established.

By the end of the 1950s, the two major imperialist powers, Britain and France had recognized that direct colonialism was no longer an option and launched the neo-colonial agenda. France had learned a hard lesson in Algeria; the uprising of the Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) led to large-scale, savage repression by the British Army in Kenya. Direct colonialism was expensive to maintain in money terms and more expensive in the loss of prestige. African countries were given ‘Independence’ very rapidly, but with the imperialist center keeping control of their economies.

Ghana became independent from Britain in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, first as Prime Minister, then from 1960 as President. Nkrumah was a convinced follower of the principles of Scientific Socialism and non-racial pan-Africanism.

“It is the elimination of fancifulness from socialist action that makes socialism scientific. To suppose that there are tribal, national, or racial socialisms is to abandon objectivity in favor of chauvinism.”

Kwame Nkrumah, African Socialism Revisited (1967)

Ghana has extensive bauxite deposits (the ore for aluminum). Nkrumah planned to industrialize Ghana by creating an aluminum industry. Bauxite was semi-processed into alumina to reduce bulk costs. But no aluminum was produced in Ghana. The main source of revenue came from cocoa and Nkrumah used this revenue to begin building industry. The other major producer of cocoa was Ghana’s western neighbor, French-controlled Côte d’Ivoire. Released documents now show that Britain and France colluded to bring down the cocoa price and prevent Ghana from industrializing. In 1966, Nkrumah was brought down by a British organized military coup.

Kwame Nkrumah played an important role in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 and was the leading figure in the creation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963.

Guinea, under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré, was given independence from France in 1958. Guinea refused to join the French Community. In response, France removed all money from the banks, destroyed all records, and physically destroyed infrastructure.

Britain and France demonstrated to Africa that any kind of genuine economic independence would not be allowed. It was during this period that the USSR gave increasing support to African independence movements.

In 1960, the Belgians followed the French giving, suddenly and unexpectedly independence to Belgian Congo under the name ‘Republic of Congo’ (later ‘Republic of Zaire. and currently ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’). In an election run according to all the norms of western bourgeois democracy, Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister While Kasa-Vubu became ceremonial President. Within two weeks the paramilitary police revolted and copper-rich Katanga Province broke away under the guidance of the Union Minière mining company supported by the Belgian government. Moise Tshombe was declared ‘President of the Republic of Katanga’. Belgian troops were sent in to support the breakaway.

Lumumba first asked for assistance from the USA. There was no response. Then he asked for support from the USSR which sent trucks. He also asked for support from the UN (then under Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold). Among the troops sent in were Ghanaians who were sent by Nkrumah to try to assist Congo. In a move to humiliate Nkrumah, Hammarskjold deployed Ghanaian troops to occupy the radio station in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in a move to block Lumumba from appealing to the Congolese people among who he was extremely popular. The US-backed army commander, Joseph Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) arrested Lumumba in front of UN troops. Lumumba was then taken, flown to Katanga, murdered and his body dissolved in acid.

The USSR threatened to leave the UN over this issue. The People’s Friendship University in Moscow, opened in February 1960 was given the extra title of Lumumba University following the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba. It served to train Africans and others from poor countries in necessary development skills.

Students at Lumumba University

In discussing the assistance given to Africa by the USSR we cannot forget the role of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (1909-1989), to this day a hero among progressive Africans, nicknamed ‘Mr. Nyet’ (Mr. No) by imperialists at the United Nations, as a member of the Security Council he persistently used the veto to block the misuse of the UN for reactionary imperialist purposes. He assumed office in 1957 and remained until 1985 when he was removed by the traitor Gorbachev.

Andrei Gromyko addressing the UN General Assembly

In their African colonies, the Portuguese had no intention of adopting the neo-colonial model. They insisted on direct control. Very early in the 1960s, the USSR gave massive military and other forms of aid to the liberation movements Guinee-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe (ZAPU — not ZANU), Namibia, and South Africa.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union gave the responsibility of southern Africa liaison and operations to Vladimir Shubin who has written a number of books about his experiences. The African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa received 80% of its funding from the USSR between 1961 and 1987 when Gorbachev withdrew it.

Perhaps the most spectacular victory was that of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988. Cuban and Angolan troops using Soviet equipment, in particular, Katyusha Rocket Launchers (Stalin Organ Pipes) defeated the South African apartheid army leading to the rapid evacuation of Namibia by apartheid forces. However, by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

To tell the whole story of the armed struggle in southern Africa would take volumes, But the resurgence of Communist Parties in Africa, with the Communist Parties of Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Kenya being formed in recent years, testifies to the continuing influence of the USSR.

Cuito Cuanavale: Cuban tank crew with Soviet tank