Rescuing the lost history of anti-colonial fighter and Communist W. Alphaeus Hunton
Alphaeus Hunton, second from left in the foreground, along with Petitioners Julian Mayfield, Alice Windom, W.A. Jeanpierre, and Maya Angelou Make, deliver a petition to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, in 1963. | New York Public Library

In the past few years, Tony Pencinovsky has written or edited several books which serve to highlight the experiences of communists and the Communist Party. These include Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA (2019) and Faith in the Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA. (2020). His latest book, The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker 1944-1946, recently released by International Publishers, continues this work.

Hunton, a prominent member of the Communist Party and a leading figure in the struggle for African American equality and against colonialism, was a well-known figure from the 1930s through the 1950s. However, the silencing of the history of African American communists, beginning with the McCarthy era, has left Hunton’s life unexamined by historians. Pecinovsky begins the process of correcting this erasure by re-introducing Hunton through his columns in the Daily Worker and placing his theoretical and political contributions within the context of a world on the verge of decolonization.

Pecinovsky’s book has three parts. First, an introduction, which provides a historical background to the political climate in which Hunton lived. Secondly, a brief biography of Hunton. And third, a selection of columns written by Hunton in the Daily Worker newspaper.

The introduction sets the historical framework within which Hunton operated. Drawing upon scholarly works on this era, Pecinovsky analyzes the historical development of colonialism throughout the world in the late 19th and early 20th century as well as the attendant rise of the anti-colonial movement. Focusing on the role of the Soviet Union and the activities of the Communist International, the author describes the links between the communist movement and the anti-colonial movement.

These links included material and educational support for the struggles against the imperialist powers. Many leaders, including African American activists, attended training schools in the Soviet Union where they studied methods of organization, propaganda, and theory. These included future leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, William Patterson, and George Padmore. He also gives brief descriptions of anti-colonial and national liberation movements in Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa.

Having illustrated these connections between communists and national liberation movements, in the second portion of the book Pecinovsky provides a brief biography of Hunton. Hunton was a leader in the National Negro Congress and the Civil Rights Congress and later served as the educational director of the Council on African Affairs, founded in 1937 by W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Max Yergan.

After World War II, Hunton began focusing on colonialism in Africa. For several years, he wrote a regular column in the Daily Worker, which often centered on the struggles to end colonialism and the possible pathways forward in building the economic structures of newly independent countries. These columns make up the heart of Pecinovsky’s book. They represent journalistic interventions in what Hunton would flesh out more fully in his book Decision in Africa (recently reissued by International Publishers).

The bulk of Hunton’s Daily Worker columns reprinted here cover the years between 1944 and 1946. Writing toward the end of World War II, Hunton’s analysis of the international situation was greatly influenced by the increased world legitimacy of the Soviet Union, as it had taken the brunt of the damage—and had inflicted the greatest toll on Nazi Germany. Hunton wrote:

“With their increasing knowledge of the Soviet Power, African leaders are more frequently citing the contrast between the failure of the European colonial administration, during a half century or longer, to provide any appreciable social advancement for the masses of Africans under their rule, and the remarkable success of the Soviet government in bringing social well-being and economic efficiency to millions of heterogeneous peoples who 25 years ago were in a state of colonial serfdom comparable of that to the most ‘backward’ Africans” (p. 186).

Hunton recognized that the end of the war was leading to increased demands for an end to colonialism. His outlook was that there was an alternative path of development for the colonial countries—which would later be referred to as the “non-capitalist path of development”—and that the Soviet Union offered an historical example of the success of this path toward economic and social development.

In his columns, Hunton repeatedly emphasized the role of labor within the colonies and the dominant role workers could play in the transition from colonialism. He often pointed to the newly developed labor movements in Nigeria and South Africa as examples that could be followed by other colonies as they began their march toward independence.

In relation to South Africa, Hunton wrote:

“Through their trade unions and their people’s organizations like the African National Congress, and supported by the Communist Party and a wide range of progressive elements among the Europeans, the Africans have pressed their demands for better working conditions and trade union recognition, for abolition of the pass laws, for better education” (p. 215).

Hunton’s columns cover the anti-colonial movements throughout Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, as well as the internal politics of the colonial powers, with titles such as “Greece and the Issue of Colonial Policy,” “Anglo-Ethiopian Relations In the Spotlight,” and “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Colonies.”

Hunton was addressing these issues at a time when the colonial world was just beginning to search for new ways to development as nations. In an attempt to continue their grip on the colonial territories, many imperialist powers were seeking to invite their colonial “possessions” into some type of relationship with the “mother country.” Hunton made clear that the primary issue was one of self-determination.

In a 1945 column on “Self-Determination and Colonial Policy,” Hunton favorably quotes Stalin, noting that, “The question of the right of nations freely to secede must not be confused with the question that a nation must necessarily secede at any given moment…. A people has a right to secede, but it may or may not exercise that right, according to circumstances.” Hunton concludes, “This is what we mean by the principle of self-determination” (p. 261).

Hunton was writing at a time when these issues were at the center of discussions throughout the world. Activists and scholars interested in the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-20th century would do well to study Hunton’s analyses. Pecinovsky has done a great service by bringing Hunton’s work to the public.

The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946

Edited by Tony Pecinovsky

International Publishers: New York, 2021


CONTRIBUTOR

Timothy V. Johnson
Timothy V. Johnson

Timothy V. Johnson is the former director of the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.

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