rs21 member Neil Rogall reviews a new book that rediscovers the central role played by black socialists in Britain fighting against colonialism and empire.
Theo Williams, Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement Before Decolonisation. Verso 2022. 288 pp, £20.
Four years have passed since Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019) was published. That wonderful study looked at the impact and influence of radicals in and from Britain’s colonies on political thought and political activity in the imperial centre. It turned upside down the cliched and self-serving argument that British imperialism brought ‘western’ ideas of democracy and freedom to their poor benighted black and brown subjects in the colonies.
The most interesting parts of Insurgent Empire for me were the chapter on Shapurji Saklatvala, the Indian communist who was MP for Battersea North in 1922-23 and again in 1925-29, and the chapter on the black Trinidadian revolutionaries CLR James and George Padmore both of whom spent many years of their adult life in Britain and who are at the centre of this new book by Theo Williams.
Theo in this fascinating and revealing study shakes up conventional assumptions on the left about the role of black radicals in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. His focus is on the group of black anticolonial activists who coalesced to form the International African Service Bureau in 1937 and the Pan-African Federation in 1944: James, Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Ras Makonnen and Kwame Nkrumah and Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey.
In fact, one of the significant aspects of the book is the contribution that radical women, black and white, made to the movement. Garvey, Dorothy Pizer (Padmore’s partner) and Nancy Cunard, a member of the shipping line family who devoted much energy and money to anticolonial activity, are all discussed in depth. However, it is clear that their contribution was relatively unacknowledged, and their male comrades were complicit in this.
Most standard histories of the British left before the era of decolonisation are all white affairs. But Theo insists that the history of black anticolonial radicals in Britain is central to the history of the left. Far from black activists being passive spectators of the British socialist movement these ‘racialised outsiders’ actively contributed to it in the interwar years and helped shape a revolutionary understanding of anticolonialism in Britain.
Two left organisations are looked at in detail. Firstly, the British Communist Party in the years of the Communist International’s ‘Third Period’ 1928-33. The Third Period is usually portrayed quite correctly as the years when the Communist parties around the world were instructed by the Comintern to follow the destructive policy of ‘class against class’. The Comintern and its satellite parties labelled any non-Communist left organisations as ‘social fascist’ – socialist in words, fascist in deeds. This disastrous policy left the massive German Communist Party, the KPD, in the years of Hitler’s rise, refusing to call for joint defence activity with the massive German Social Democrats, the SPD. This, when Nazi street gangs were physically attacking all workers’ organisations in the years prior to Hitler being appointed Chancellor in 1933.
But the Third Period also saw the Communist parties turn, for the first time to work amongst black workers in the deep south of the USA and to attempt systematic anti-imperialist work and agitation in the colonies. These of course were the years of the Great Depression and in Britain of a Labour government from 1929 until its collapse in 1931. This turn to an anti-imperialist strategy by the Comintern attracted a layer of black activists based in Britain: George Padmore, (then in the US), Jomo Kenyatta, the future prime minister and then president of independent Kenya and the Barbadians Chris Jones and George Ward, who became deeply involved in the League Against Imperialism and the International Negro Trade Union Committee.
Britain, and London in particular, was an important meeting place for political refugees from the British colonies. This was where anticolonial activists from Asia, Africa and the West deeply repressive colonies where all political activity by the ‘natives’ was generally forbidden.
These black activists in the orbit of the CP were not just passive recipients of the party line but attempted to shape and direct it. However, in 1934 the Comintern abandoned the Third Period and turned to the ‘popular front’. Faced with the victory of Nazism in Germany, and the threat it posed to the Soviet Union, the Stalinist leadership of the USSR and the Comintern now sought a defensive alliance with the imperial democracies of France and Britain. This meant that the Communist parties now abandoned serious work in the colonies for fear of antagonising the ruling classes that Stalin wished to ally with. When Padmore arrived in London he told James that the Comintern had ordered him to distinguish between ‘fascist’ and ‘democratic’ imperialism.
In Britain many of the black radicals were horrified at this abandonment of agitation in the empire. Many accounts of George Padmore portray him as now breaking with communism and Marxism. But the author convincingly shows that Padmore believed that the Communist Party had broken with Marxism and he continued to view himself as a Marxist.
In fact, Padmore and his comrades in the International African Service Bureau (the IASB) still attempted to work with sections of the Communist Party even as late as 1938 in joint anticolonial work but in the end the Communist Party’s commitment to its popular front strategy meant this got nowhere. This became worse during the Second World War after Russia’s entry into the war. Then the IASB and Padmore were routinely denounced as Trotskyists and the author even cites an instance of Padmore being described in outright racist terms. In fact, Bill Rust, the then editor of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party paper was known for his racist outbursts
The other main focus of the book is the Independent Labour Party (ILP), an organisation which I doubt many younger socialists will have even heard of. When I first became involved in revolutionary politics the ILP was a miniscule but wealthy group whose glory days were decades behind it. The most I knew was that the ILP had been in alliance with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (the POUM) during the Spanish Revolution as members of the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity.
In fact, the ILP founded in 1893 was one of the key groupings that helped found the British Labour Party but retained its own organisation within it. After the debacle of the 1929-31 Labour government which ended with the Labour prime minister Ramsey McDonald forming a national government with the Tories, the ILP disaffiliated from the Labour Party. It was a small but significant organisation of some 5000 members with four members of parliament, the most well-known being the ‘Red Clydesider’, James Maxton. The ILP is usually described by Marxists as a centrist organisation meaning that it vacillated between reformism and revolutionary politics. When Padmore arrived in Britain in 1934 he grew close to the ILP writing for its publications and speaking at meetings although he never formally joined.
CLR James, arrived in England in 1932 from Trinidad, to live in the Lancashire town of Nelson in 1932. He had come to help his friend, the West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine, write his autobiography. James did join the ILP in 1934 along with a small Trotskyist group he had by then become involved with.
Both Padmore and James, childhood friends, viewed the ILP as fertile ground for anticolonial agitation. They both attempted to influence the party’s leadership as well as its membership. One good example of this was the response to Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935. Abyssinia under the autocratic rule of Emperor Selassie was still a pre capitalist society. The arguments around the left on Abyssinia have uncanny parallels with current arguments about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ILP leadership were pacifists and took the position that there should be no arms sent to either Mussolini’s fascist army or to those fighting it, the Abyssinian army. In contrast, the Communist Party was calling on the League of Nations and the British government to implement sanctions against fascist Italy. CLR James, a member of the ILP at this point, had a distinctive position. He opposed both the plan of the League of Nations to deploy European experts to help govern Abyssinia, as well as government-imposed sanctions against Italy. He argued that these actions would strengthen the aims of British imperialism and lead to Ethiopia becoming a colony in all but name. Instead, there should be workers’ sanctions against Italy implemented from below. He praised the trade unions in South Africa who were refusing to handle goods destined for Italy. But the ILP took the position that ‘workers’ sanctions’ were indistinguishable from government sanctions and would lead to another European war.
At the 1936 conference of the ILP in Keighley, James won his position by 70 to 57 votes. However, the ILP MPs now threatened to resign from the party – their position was that there was no difference between the regimes of Mussolini or Selassie, both were dictatorships. One of these MPs, John McGovern, went so far as to say that the Ethiopian regime was ‘more brutal’ than fascist Italy. The leader of the left in the ILP, Fenner Brockway, now feared the party would split and proposed a compromise conference resolution which called for there to be a vote of the membership on sanctions from below. This was passed by a large majority, the day after the original vote. The membership eventually voted 809 to 354 on a resolution that opposed providing any support or war materials for either side.
Both James and Padmore took the ILP very seriously, although James left it in December 1936, horrified at a new alliance between the ILP, the CP and the Socialist League (a left group inside the Labour Party). At the same time as running first the International African Friends of Ethiopia and then the African Bureau they wrote articles and opinion pieces for the ILP press on the fight for freedom in the colonies. The ILP wanted to see the end of the British Empire, but they viewed freedom as the gift of enlightened Europeans to the oppressed natives. It was the arguments of Padmore and James in their articles, books and speeches that won the party away from this patronising liberalism to a position of supporting struggles from below in which the colonised were architects of their own liberation. This was at a time when the Communist Party refused to support anticolonial struggles for fear of upsetting their putative allies in the popular front with Russia.
The war dispersed this remarkable group of black radicals. James moved to the US, Garvey to New York and Jamaica, Kenyatta to Sussex, although Padmore stayed in London and continued to write for the ILP press and run the IASB. As the war was drawing to an end, the IASB formed the Pan African Federation along with a number of other black organisations. Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of independent Ghana who had now moved to London became involved with the Pan African Federation. He had met CLR James in New York City, although it is clear that James did not have a high opinion of him.
The Pan African Federation’s great achievement was to organise the fifth Pan African Congress held in Manchester in October 1945, just after the war’s end. There were 87 delegates present and 200 observers from around the world. The Congress was chaired by Amy Ashwood Garvey, the first wife of Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B. Du Bois, who had organised two previous Pan African Congresses
The Congress insisted in its debates and resolutions that the oppressed and exploited in the colonies, not the European left, had to be leaders of the struggle against empire, and this had to be a fight for not just for independence but for socialism too.
The Pan African Congress epitomised Padmore’s aspirations now that the war had ended. In his writings he advocated the transformation of the British Empire into a socialist commonwealth based on his somewhat flawed understanding of the Soviet Union’s relationship with its formally independent republics in Asia.
But the reality was otherwise. Although John McNair, the ILP general secretary opened the Pan African Congress, the ILP was on the verge of irrelevance as many of its leading members, including Fenner Brockway, returned to the Labour Party now that it was in office again, imagining that they could shape its progress. But despite the myths common on the left about the 1945 Labour government, this was a government that became a cheerleader for the Cold War. When it was faced with a wave of industrial action it sent in the army to break more strikes than any other twentieth century government in Britain. Furthermore, this was a government that was desperate to hold onto the empire, particularly after India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947.
This book’s importance is that it shows how the development of anticolonial and anti-imperialist politics inside the British working-class was black led. It is now impossible to tell the story of British labour without the story of the black radicals within it – not in the days of the Chartists, not today, nor in the first half of the 20th century.
I do have some unanswered questions raised by the book. I would have liked to know a little more about George Padmore’s criticism of the ILP and its social composition, in particular how rooted in the working class and the unions it was. I am not completely convinced about the radicalism of the ILP; as late as 1942, Brockway was still telling Africans that there could be no ’national liberation’ without socialism in Britain.
Theo does convincingly demonstrate that, contrary to previous interpretations, George Padmore did not break with Marxism after he left the Communist Party, but I do wonder whether Padmore ever thoroughly broke with the Stalinised Marxism that he imbibed during his membership. His belief that the USSR had successfully solved the national question, and that its method of industrialisation could provide a model for postcolonial states suggests otherwise – though to be fair such views were widespread on the anticolonial left.
Nevertheless, this is a must read for anyone interested in the role of black radicals in the socialist movement in twentieth century Britain.