Was Marcus Garvey capitalist minded?
He certainly said enough to have us believe he viewed Capitalism as essentially to human advancement and progress overall.
When many Pan-Afrikanists engage in conversations about Marcus Garvey and the achievements of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), they usually express unbridled praise for the economic development approach of the organization and its founder. But the devil is always in the details.
Marcus Garvey was born on August 17, 1887 in a racist, colonial environment that was hostile to the interests of Afrikan-Jamaicans. During the years 1910-1914, Garvey travelled to a number of countries in Latin America and Europe and this experience brought a high level of awareness of the exploited condition of Afrikans. Garvey created the UNIA in July 1914 in Jamaica and went to the United States in March 1916.
The United States became the organization’s headquarters and prime site of its success and failure. According to Garvey in the book, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, by 1921 the UNIA had “900 branches with an approximate membership of 6,000,000”. Garvey’s claim about the number of members has not been independently confirmed.
Garvey’s commitment to self-reliance and liberation of the global Afrikan community led him to place a strong emphasis on business development. In Philosophy and Opinions, he declares: “Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people. Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of freedom.”
Self-reliant economic development is actually a key element of an oppressed group’s strategy to develop the alternative economic institutions and practices today, which will serve as the seeds of the liberated society of tomorrow. Collective self-reliance will bolster the extent to which an oppressed group or country is able to withstand the pressure or punishment of its enemies.
In the promotion of self-reliance and economic development, Garvey presented a compelling vision of racial upliftment to the labouring classes. He believed that the Afrikan working class could be mobilized behind an anti-colonial project.
C.L.R. James remarked on Garvey’s ability to inspire and organize the Afrikan masses:
“He deliberately aimed at the poorest, most downtrodden and humiliated Negroes. The millions who followed him, the devotion and the money they contributed, show where we can find the deepest strength of the working class movement, the coiled springs of power which lie there waiting for the party which can unloose them.”
Even before the independence movements or national liberation struggles in Afrika and the Caribbean, Garvey demonstrated the possibility of bringing the people onto the stage of history. However, Rupert Lewis reported in his text, Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion, that the now defunct Workers Party of Jamaica saw the Garvey movement as an “alliance of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie albeit under petty bourgeois leadership”.
In the effort to “create a new people”, Garvey practised a race-first economic development framework. The late Garvey scholar, Tony Martin, provides a scope of the UNIA’s portfolio of businesses in his book, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Improvement Association. The UNIA operated laundries, tailoring business, grocery stores, a printing press, a doll making company, the Negro World newspaper, a hat making establishment, a shipping company, restaurants and a hotel. It had assets such as trucks and buildings and hundreds of employees.
The range of businesses operated by UNIA is still impressive to many Pan-Afrikanists, but they are not mindful of the lessons that should be learned from the UNIA and Garvey’s business practices.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ article “Marcus Garvey” in the book Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, outlines Garvey and the UNIA’s loose financial management practices, inexperience in the shipping business that led to buying unworthy ships at inflated prices and Garvey’s top-down management and leadership style, and lack of knowledge of the investment of capital. Du Bois also said that Garvey “had few trained and staunched assistants” to operate the Black Star Line, the flagship enterprise of the UNIA.
In spite of the positive elements of economic Garveyism, it is not appropriate for Afrikan liberation in the 21st century. Many current Garveyites tend to ignore the fact that Garvey’s economic development approach was based on reproducing the exploitative system of capitalism, which would continue to oppress the Afrikan working class.
Our engagement with capitalism, as enslaved Afrikans and wage slaves today, provides us with lived experience of this economic system that puts profit before the needs of the people. Furthermore, capitalism enables the ruling class minority to economically, socially and politically dominate the working class majority.
Garvey was quite insistent that capitalism was the path to economic development. In the book Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy, he had this to say about capitalism:
“As a fact, the capitalist of today was the labourer or worker of yesterday… Hence, the man who wants to go into business commercially, industrially or agriculturally, and win a fortune for himself, cannot and should not be a Communist, because Communism robs the individual of his personal initiative and ambition or the results thereof. Democracy (interchangeable with capitalism), therefore, is the kind of government that offers the individual the opportunity to rise from a labourer to the status of a capitalist or employer.”
In Philosophy and Opinions, Garvey asserts: “Capitalism is necessary to the progress of the world, and those who unreasonably and wantonly oppose or fight against it are enemies to human advancement.”
Garvey naively called for the state to place constraints on “capitalistic interests”. He might have been unaware of the fact that the state serves and protects the interests of the economic elite.
Du Bois’ “new economic solidarity” proposal of the 1930s is still relevant to Afrikan liberation. It called for the creation of a network of consumer and worker cooperatives in order to meet the need of Afrikan-Americans for goods, services and employment. Du Bois promoted his program as a way to advance Afrikan political empowerment and challenge the dog-eat-dog system of capitalism. You may explore Du Bois’ cooperative economic thoughts in “A Negro Nation Within the Nation” in the book, W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks: Speeches and Addresses, 1920-1963. Dr. AJAMU NANGWAYA