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Possibility and peril: Trade unionism, African Cold War, and the global strands of Kenyan decolonization

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JournalJournal of Social History
DateSubmitted - May 2018
DateAccepted/In press - 13 Mar 2019
DatePublished (current) - 27 Nov 2019
Issue number2
Number of pages30
Pages (from-to)348-377
Original languageEnglish


Trade unionism was at the leading edge of African freedom struggle in the 1940s and 1950s. It was an incubator where different visions of decolonized futures vied for ascendency after WWII. This article analyzes international labor networks and trade union activism in Kenya to explore the entanglements of decolonization and Cold War from Africa in the 1940s to 1960s, an era when competing modes of anticolonial internationalism laid paths to independence. This story is told in two phases. Through Makhan Singh, the article assesses the influence of Indo-African connection, Marxism and the radical left on labor organization over the 1940s. Then, through Tom Mboya, the article charts Kenyan affiliation to the anticommunist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) from the early 1950s. It shows how this internationalist volte-face transformed Kenya’s trade union landscape, propelled anticolonial agitation and, by the late 1950s, wrought irreparable fractures in fledgling pan-African institutions over the very nature of postcolonialism. The article argues that mobile African labor leaders coproduced, domesticated, and molded Cold War networks—that the conduits of early global Cold War agency ran both ways. Singh and Mboya were interlocutors in pluripotent world conversations marshaled for African decolonization. They also helped delineate the terms of global dialogue at a moment of neocolonial peril and decolonizing opportunity. This calls on historians to define alternative chronologies of globalist possibility masked by the tighter constraints placed on African states in the later twentieth century.

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