Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was a Black nationalist whose ideas were at the peak of their popularity in the late 1910s/early 1920s. While the movement that he led consisted of a cross-class alliance of urban Black people, his ideas were fundamentally petty bourgeois, pro-entrepreneurial, individualist stuff that rejected the politics of solidarity or radically transforming society for the better.

He was born in Jamaica in 1887 to a middle class family, and spent his young adult years travelling. While in England, he encountered Pan-Africanism, which he took to. The Pan-Africanism of this era was heavily influenced by colonialism, seeing that as essentially fundamental to “civilising” African people, and seeing themselves (as Black people in the New World) as already “civilised” and therefore ideal for becoming the new rulers of Africa. In fact, Garvey took this a step further and believed the majority of Black people in Jamaica weren’t “civilised” enough, either; a large part of his project was about “uplifting” Black people by teaching them to be more Western and capitalist.

Garvey went to the US in 1916, and quickly decided that this was the country where his ideas were most likely to catch on. In the late 1910s, there were a few things going on politically – liberals like W.E.B. Du Bois were encouraging Black people to shut up and just fight valiantly in the First World War to prove they “deserved” more rights (which did not work, and led to disappointment); the WW1-era labour shortage ended, meaning that Black people got pushed out of the “better” jobs they’d been able to get access to during the war and the racist mainstream union movement refused to admit them; and there were race riots in cities like St Louis. Garvey adapted his rhetoric to focus more on confrontation with white people, which resonated in an environment where non-violent political avenues seemed closed off, and grew massively in popularity. C.L.R. James criticised Garvey’s platform as “pitiable rubbish”, but recognised that his power lay in channelling and expressing the legitimate frustrations Black people were experiencing.

Garvey decided to found a steamboat company, the Black Star Line, which would operate Black-run trade routes between the US and the West Indies. To do this, he needed to raise significant cash, which he did largely by taking donations from well-paid Black workers in the industrial cities of the American northeast and midwest. As such, while the core of his movement was utterly petit bourgeois, he was required to engage in populist rhetoric in order to stay popular with Black workers, who because of their numbers were necessary to keep his whole enterprise afloat. Nonetheless, Garvey was extremely anti-trade unions (on principle, not merely anti-the racist ones) and anti-collective organising, proclaiming that Black people should be happy to work for lower pay than whites until they’d built up the capital to become small business owners.

His organisation, UNIA, met in August 1920; at this time they proclaimed Garvey the Provisional President of Africa (obviously without asking anyone in Africa, lol) and also set forth a Declaration of Negro Rights, which in many ways was pretty similar to what other civil rights organisations like the NAACP were putting forth at the time. His Black Star Line also owned three ships, albeit ones in poor shape which were about to become huge money pits. Anyway, this was the peak of his popularity.

Shit started to collapse pretty fast after that. Workers of the Black Star Line were poorly treated, often paid in company scrip instead of in money, and anyone who questioned Garvey’s leadership (including ship captains) was sacked. Because of Garvey’s focus on individual advancement, the organisation of the UNIA was poor and people drifted apart quickly once they started getting disillusioned. Then it came out that Garvey had been doing backroom deals with the Ku Klux Klan in the South, which pissed off a lot of Black people, naturally. Civil rights groups started campaigning against Garvey, even calling on him to be deported back to Jamaica. In 1922 the FBI arrested him for “mail fraud”; after a five-year prison sentence he was, indeed, deported back to Jamaica.

He attempted to keep organising in the West Indies, but with limited success. The Caribbean working class was becoming increasingly militant and aware of its own power, organising readily into trade unions; Garvey went around trying to organise against the unionised workers, which pissed people off. The head of the UNIA in Trinidad outright told him he wasn’t welcome there any more. He returned to the UK in 1935, and kept trying to give speeches and shit but didn’t make much headway, and ultimately died in 1940.

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