The frustrations of Africans in the face of colonialism did not escape the attention of the very recently emerged Soviet Union. It had come into being in 1917 when there was still a year more of The First World War to go.
The Russian Revolution had swept through Imperial Russia toppling the Emperor and ruling class. The leader of the revolution, Lenin, was convinced by Karl Marx's theory that capitalism would collapse and give way to a socialist society run by the workers, with no exploitation and equality for all.
Marxist theory in Africa
It was difficult applying Marxist theory to Africa. With the exception of South Africa and North Africa, the continent was largely rural, with no large-scale industry. There was trade but it did not amount to capitalism. There was scarcely any banking system and no significant urban working class. But there was colonialism and imperialism, both of which Lenin, and his successor Stalin regarded as evidence of European capitalism in its death throes. So Africa was included in the Marxist Leninist vision.
"Not only the vegetable and mineral rich materials of the colonies are essential to the imperialists. They also need compliant human material, and there's no shortage of that in the colonial and semi-colonial territories. They need obedient and cheap workers... the dutiful young lads who make up the recruits for the so called 'coloured forces'. And these the imperialists throw into action against their very own revolutionary workers without any hesitation. This is why they call their colonies the 'inexhaustible reserve.'"
- Joseph Stalin, The Strategic Importance of the Colonies.
Early Communism in Africa
By the 1920s Africa's first Communist Parties were established in Egypt and South Africa respectively. The Communist Party of South Africa was formed in 1921. Initially it only had white members. By 1928, the majority of its members were black. In 1927, the ANC President J.J. Gumede visited the Soviet Union. Three communists, J.B. Marks, E. Mofutsanyana and Moses Kotane went to Moscow in 1932. By this time, Stalin was in power in the Soviet Union.
The Trinidian revolutionary, George Padmore, was editing the Negro Worker, a publication, inciting people of African origin to throw off colonial rule. He distributed the publication throughout the black Diaspora by merchant seamen. Padmore broke with Moscow in 1934 and later became a close friend and mentor to Kwame Nkrumah.
"The Negro Worker takes pride in the fact that despite all obstacles, the message is penetrating the slave pens of British Imperialism and is causing discomfort to the exploiters.
We can assure the gallant and noble colonial secretary and his ilk that we shall leave no stone unturned to break through the barriers erected and carry to the native toilers the message of revolutionary struggle as the only way out of the barbarous slave exploitation and national oppression to which they are subjected by the British ruling class."
- Editorial, The Negro Worker, Sept 1934.
West Africans and socialist ideas
Meanwhile in America, a young Ghanaian student Bankole Awoonor-Renner first came across socialist thought, when he attended a Negro Workers' Conference in 1925, which was supported by the Communist party in the Soviet Union. Another point of contact was made by the Sierra Leonean radical Ita Wallace Johnson, who went to study in Moscow. There he met George Padmore.
Soviet support for nationalism
With the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union moved from being a key ally in the war, to being in opposition to the western powers. Large parts of Eastern Europe had fallen under the Soviet army and now they remained under Soviet control, including half of Germany. The Soviet Union, while it had few historical connections with Africa, increasingly offered support and encouragement to African nationalists, whenever they met with indifference or persecution from the colonial powers.