The Influence of Maoism in the Pan-African Struggle

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I wrote briefly about the role of revolutionary China in From Colin Kaepernick to Donald Trump: A New Age of Crisis. In that fictional exchange between Eddie Wilson (a Pan-African activist who represents my views) and Tony Baker (the Marxist-Leninist), Wilson acknowledges that Chairman Mao Zedong of China was a revolutionary who significantly influenced a number of revolutionary African leaders. Some of the examples which I gave included Malcolm X, Walter Rodney, the Black Panther Party, and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Despite this, Wilson offers some criticisms of aspects of China’s policies in Africa, particularly China’s support of UNITA in Angola

I will build on that exchange in this essay by demonstrating that the revolution which Mao led did have a significant influence on the Pan-African struggle, but that Mao also adopted some counterrevolutionary policies in Africa. As Tony Baker explained in the exchange, China often found itself siding with the imperialists where Africa was concerned. As I will explain, this largely due to China’s ideological feud with the Soviet Union.

Assata Shakur explained in her autobiography that she began thinking of herself as a socialist, but she could not join any of the socialist groups which she came into contact with. She explained that she could not “stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in those groups.” She also explained that she “couldn’t relate to the idea of the great white father on earth any more than i could relate to the great white father up in the sky.”

Africans who were engaged in the socialist struggle had to confront the fact that the theories of Karl Marx were developed in Europe by a European man. This created the feeling that, as Shakur explained, Europeans “had a monopoly on Marx and acted like the only experts in the world on socialism came from Europe.” For this reason, it was important for African socialists to be able to look to Third World revolutionary leaders who had embraced socialism. Shakur gave the example of Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Agostinho Neto as Third World revolutionaries who made contributions to the revolutionary socialist movement. Mao was another such individual.

When Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party visited Beijing in 1970, she commented on how the revolution had improved the lives of the people: “Old and young would spontaneously give emotional testimonies, like Baptist converts, to the glories of socialism.” A year later she returned with Huey Newton, who described his visit to China as a “sensation of freedom — as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense of pretense or the need for explanation.”

African American leaders in the 1970s found great inspiration in what they found in China, but the international connection with China had been developing prior to this. W.E.B. Du Bois had visited China in 1936 and then returned to China again in 1959. Upon his second trip to China, Du Bois was struck by the transformation that he witnessed. He explained that China “has arisen to her feet and leapt forward. Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Act! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun.”

China was viewed as being part of the revolutionary movement of the non-white people of the world who were subjected by European imperialism. The Bandung Conference, which was held in 1955, was a conference which was attended by African and Asian nations. Malcolm X spoke about this conference in his “Ballot of the Bullet” speech. Malcolm explained that those who attended the conference had differences, such as religious differences. Despite this, the thing that united them was that they were not white. Malcolm explained: “The number-one thing that was not allowed to attend the Bandung conference was the white man. He couldn’t come. Once they excluded the white man, they found that they could get together. Once they kept him out, everybody else fell right in and fell in line.” Malcolm also explained: “They realized all over the world where the dark man was being oppressed, he was being oppressed by the white man; where the dark man was being exploited, he was being exploited by the white man. So they got together on this basis — that they had a common enemy.”

Malcolm expressed the view that whenever white people were engaged in a revolution, that revolution was fought on the basis of white nationalism. Malcolm explained: “The American Revolution was white nationalism. The French Revolution was white nationalism. The Russian Revolution too — yes, it was — white nationalism. You don’t think so? Why do you think Khrushchev and Mao can’t get their heads together? White nationalism.” Here Malcolm is expressing the view that whenever white people engaged in a revolution, it was done on the basis of asserting white interests and that Russia was no different.

By the 1960s, there was a sense that non-white people around the world were engaged in a common struggle against white domination. There was certainly a class aspect of this as well, which I will address, but the point to be understood here is that some saw a connection between the African struggle and the Chinese struggle since both people were oppressed and exploited by white people. Indeed, African Americans came to view their struggle as being connected to the struggles of colonized people in the “Third World.” Harold Cruse explained that the American Marxists’ failure “to understand the bond between the Negro and the colonial peoples of the world has led to their failure to develop theories that would be of value to Negroes in the United States.”

China itself had helped to foster this connection to people of African descent. Two years after the meeting in Bandung, China formed the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity organization. To further demonstrate his support for the struggles of African people, Mao invited Du Bois to spend his ninetieth birthday in China and Mao issued a statement criticizing America’s racism against African Americans. Mao stated that colonialism and imperialism “arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people.” In 1963, Chinese delegates in Tanzania proclaimed that Russians had no business being in Africa because they are white.

The revolution in China was a source of ideological inspiration for a number of black organizations. Robin Kelley and Betsy Esch explained that “Mao not only proved to black folks the world over that they need not wait for ‘objective conditions’ to make revolution, but his elevation of the cultural struggle profoundly shaped debates surrounding black arts and politics.”

The Black Panthers were one of the Marxist organizations at the time which drew inspiration from Mao. Eldridge Cleaver, who was a member of the Black Panther Party, explained that the Panthers were a Marxist-Leninist party, but also explained that with the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 “something new was interjected into Marxism-Leninism, and it ceased to be just a narrow, exclusively European phenomenon. Comrade Kim Il Sung and Comrade Mao Tse-Tung applied the classical principles of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of their own countries and thereby made the ideology into something useful for their people.”

Amiri Baraka (formerly known as Leroi Jones) was another black leader at the time who drew influence from Mao. Baraka founded the Maoist-inspired organization, the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL). Baraka was himself a cultural nationalist, but he shifted towards Marxism-Leninism. This was partly due to his experiences with “petty bourgeois” black politicians. In 1970, Baraka had assisted with the election of Kenneth Gibson, who was the first black mayor of Newark. This was followed by a period of increased police repression, including attacks on demonstrators from the Congress of African Peoples. By 1974, Baraka broke with Gibson.

It was mentioned before that Mao had denounced America’s racism. China had not been devoid of racism either, as some African students complained about racism there. Moreover, China’s foreign policy towards African people was mostly strategic, rather than being rooted in a genuine desire to assist the revolutionary liberation struggle in Africa. This can be understood by the split between China and the Soviet Union. This split led China to position itself against the Soviet Union in Africa. For example, Chinese Representative Lai Ya-li spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in 1975. He used this opportunity to denounce the Soviet involvement in Angola: “However, despite the termination of the Portuguese colonial rule, it has not been possible to form a government of national unity, and an unfortunate situation of division and civil war has emerged in Angola after independence. This is entirely the result of the contention between the two superpowers, and particularly the undisguised explosion and crude interference by that superpower which flaunts the signboard of ‘socialism.’” He continued to state: “It is intolerable that the Soviet Union has carried out sabotage by every conceivable means and has even come out undisguisedly with repeated efforts to intimidate and exert pressure on some African countries. Obviously, the spearhead of the Soviet Union is directed not only against individual African countries, but against the O.A.U. and the African people as a whole. Such acts on the part of the Soviet Union have evoked the antipathy and indignation of many African countries and the broad masses pf the African people. We resolutely condemn Soviet social-imperialism for its hegemonic acts of hostility towards Africa.”

Lai Ya-li stated further: “The Soviet Union harbours ulterior motives in its wanton sabotage of the liberation cause of the Angolan people. […] the Soviet Union has set its mind on placing Angola under its control and turning it into an important stronghold in its rivalry with the other superpower over southern Africa and for command of the south Atlantic. Moreover, it has long cast a covetous eye on the abundant resources of Angola, anxious to have a hand in their plunder.”

Although Lai Ya-li made refences to the United States, the bulk of the criticism was directed at the Soviet Union. Ya-li even went so far as to charge the Soviet Union of “splitting the Angolan liberation organizations” as part of the plot to further divide Africa. Ya-li made no mention of the role that that apartheid state of South Africa played fueling division between the differing organizations in Angola. In fact, China and South Africa supported the same side of the division. Both provided support for UNITA, which was a rival organization to the Soviet supported People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Apart from China’s support for UNITA, Vice-Premier Li Xiannian suggested that dialogue with the regime in South Africa was better than armed struggle.

In January 1973, China hosted Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Mobutu came to power in a Western backed coup, which resulted in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. China had only recently normalized its relationship with Zaire in November of the previous year. The revolutionary government of China found itself hosting one of the most brutal and reactionary dictatorships in Africa. China’s opposition to the Soviet Union placed China in a position where it was essentially adopting a pro-Western position in Africa by supporting regimes in Africa which the Soviet Union was opposed to.

China’s reactionary policies in Africa would adversely impact Maoist organizations in the United States. The African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) was a committee which consisted of representatives of several organizations, including the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party of which Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) was a member of. There were internal disagreements which weakened the ALSC and China’s foreign policy in Africa put the black Maoists in the organization in a very difficult position. The ALSC collapsed within three years.

Kelley and Esch explained that the significance of Maoism is that it provided black people with “a non-Western model of Marxism that placed greater emphasis on local conditions and historical circumstances than canonical texts. China’s Great Leap Forward challenged the idea that the march to socialism must take place in stages or that one must wait patiently for the proper objective conditions to move ahead.” Indeed, Mao’s revolution in China did provide a source of influence to African people, yet, as was previously noted, China’s opposition to the Soviet Union caused China to adopt a foreign policy in Africa which was actually counterrevolutionary because it supported the imperialist forces which had been exploiting Africa.

For more information on Maoism and the Pan-African struggle see “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” by Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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