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A Great Wall to Batter DownAdom Getachew
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Vol. 42 No. 10 · 21 May 2020

A Great Wall to Batter Down

Adom Getachew

4054 words
Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent 
by Priyamvada Gopal.
Verso, 607 pp., £25, June 2019, 978 1 78478 412 6
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On​ 3 February 1960, Harold Macmillan ended a four-week tour of the African continent with a speech to the South African parliament in which he described the rise of anticolonial nationalism as the ‘wind of change’. He had tried out the phrase on an audience in Ghana a few weeks earlier, and it was soon taken up as a metaphor for decolonisation: 17 states gained independence in 1960, the ‘year of Africa’. Macmillan used his speech to signal Britain’s growing diplomatic and political distance from South Africa, which had obvious implications for British settler colonies like Rhodesia. While it was Britain’s ‘earnest desire’, he said, to give South Africa, a fellow member of the Commonwealth, its ‘support and encouragement’, ‘some aspects of your policies … make it impossible for us do this.’ ‘Our policy,’ he added, quoting a speech made by his foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, to the United Nations a few months earlier, ‘is non-racial.’

Macmillan attempted to soften the blow. The rise of national consciousness wasn’t a repudiation of South Africa or of Britain. On the contrary, the wind of change was only the latest of ‘the processes which gave birth to the nation-states of Europe’. In fact, ‘the first of the African nationalists’ had been the Afrikaner and British founders of the Union of South Africa in 1910. It was, he assured South African MPs, as exemplars of Western civilisation that ‘you and we and the other nations of the Western world are ultimately responsible’ for the continent’s revolt against colonial rule.

No matter how carefully Macmillan chose his words, the ruling National Party recognised this as a sudden and outright betrayal of their cause. His account, however, was in keeping with ways of thinking about the end of empire that had been gaining ground in Europe for decades. The term ‘decolonisation’ was first used during the French conquest of Algeria in the 19th century, and as the historian Stuart Ward has shown, was widely adopted after the First World War by European intellectuals as they reckoned with imperial decline. From their perspective, decolonisation was the natural telos of empire, and the rise of a post-imperial world order would represent not its defeat but its finest achievement.

Within a few weeks of giving his speech, Macmillan was sounding a more cautious note. The ‘wind of change’, he said on 16 March, was ‘not the same thing as a howling tempest which will blow away the whole of the new developing civilisation. We must, at all costs, avoid that.’ A few days later, at Sharpeville in South Africa, police opened fire on protesters against the pass laws, which restricted freedom of movement; 69 people were killed. A state of emergency was declared and mass arrests followed. When Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah, addressed the UN in September 1960, he singled out South Africa’s ‘policy of racial discrimination and persecution which in its essential inhumanity surpassed even the brutality of the Nazis’. In South Africa, as in the rest of the continent, Nkrumah concluded, ‘the true solution lies in the application of one principle, namely, the right of a people to rule themselves.’ By the end of the year, postcolonial states had enshrined the right to self-determination in UN Resolution 1514. Britain abstained. The following year, in the face of an emerging international consensus on racial equality and self-determination led by former Asian and African colonies, South Africa was forced out of the Commonwealth. Decolonisation, as Nkrumah saw it, was no mere wind, but a ‘hurricane of change’ that was ‘razing to the ground the many bastions of colonialism’.

A ‘wind of change’, a ‘howling tempest’, a ‘hurricane’: each of these metaphors represents a distinct position in the politics of decolonisation, but they are alike in reiterating a ‘rise and fall’ narrative of empire, in which chaos suddenly overthrows order. That is ‘misleading’, Priyamvada Gopal argues in Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, because it suggests that there had been ‘a long period of stability followed by a sudden end’. Gopal surveys the hundred-year period between the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857 and the British suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, tracking the rebellions and revolts that shook the empire, and in doing so uncovers a pattern: the demands of colonial subjects, she finds, were met over and over again with an excessive response. From the execution of George William Gordon, a member of the Jamaican National Assembly, for allegedly inciting the 1865 rebellion at Morant Bay, to the conviction for conspiracy of the Meerut defendants in India in 1933 for organising a railway strike, the dynamic of rebellion and repression generated a series of political crises that repeatedly called into question the empire’s legitimacy.

There is a danger that in representing these various moments of rebellion as ‘anticolonial resistance’ Gopal is reading the mid-20th-century consensus on national independence back onto earlier political projects. In describing the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion as a ‘significant moment of ground-clearing in which oppositional tendencies emerged’, she risks conscripting it for a narrative whose culmination will be the later ‘rejection of empire’. More striking is the way in which, in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, colonial subjects tried out various strategies to secure participation and equal inclusion within imperial frameworks before rejecting them altogether. The Jamaican James Williams, a former slave, used imperial justice against the repressive ‘apprentice’ system that persisted after the abolition of slavery; the Indian liberal Dadabhai Naoroji criticised ‘un-British rule’ in the hope of realising the economic prosperity that ‘true British rule’ promised. When such approaches were rebuffed, anticolonialism and independence gradually came to seem the more likely route towards self-rule and equality. But as late as the interwar period these two routes remained entangled: even Marcus Garvey, a figure closely associated with the rise of Pan-Africanism, remained committed to imperial citizenship. ‘I shall claim my right of [British] citizenship,’ Garvey insisted in 1918, ‘and I shall go to Trafalgar Square, as Mrs Pankhurst went there, as Ramsay MacDonald went there; as all the other fighters for the cause of liberty went there.’

Gopal’s focus, however, isn’t on the ways colonial subjects negotiated, resisted and reclaimed the empire, so much as on the ways in which imperial crisis awakened dissent at the metropolitan centre. She mounts a powerful challenge to the notion that anticolonial resistance was born of an education in British notions of liberty. The ‘well-worn “Caliban” model’, as she puts it, in which the slave denounces slavery in the master’s language, reinforces a Whig history in which the British Empire can claim credit for its own dissolution. This myth ‘choked and stifled’ British politics, C.L.R. James argued. The possibility of remaking imperial relations was constantly thwarted by the inability of the colonial class to imagine that anything that happened in the colonies could ‘instruct or inspire the peoples of the advanced countries in their own management of their own affairs’.

‘Reverse tutelage’ is Gopal’s term for the influence of colonial rebellion on British dissent. ‘The votaries of imperial tutelage in nationalism,’ she writes, ‘also became the beneficiaries of an education in anticolonial resistance.’ She pays particular attention to late Victorian and Edwardian travellers, such as Wilfrid Blunt, who encountered colonial resistance first hand and grappled with its meaning for the empire. Blunt’s study of Egyptian politics and culture had left him sceptical of the ‘tale of Oriental corruption and Oriental tyranny’, but he remained broadly committed to ‘assimilating Arab society to British liberal values’ until 1881, when he spent time in Egypt. After meeting Ahmed Urabi, the leader of the effort against the British occupation, he declared Egypt ‘a second patria’. Blunt joined a group of anti-war critics who protested against the policy of occupation at home, and later demanded a fair trial for Urabi when he was arrested for rebellion.

Blunt ‘had turned from being a mere sympathiser’, Gopal writes, ‘into a man who would see himself as an Egyptian nationalist’. Britain had betrayed its ‘messianic rhetoric of spreading liberty’, with imperial expansion increasingly tethered to narratives of national interest and grandeur. In 1852 Benjamin Disraeli had described the colonies as ‘a millstone round our necks’; they were burdens on the motherland and impediments to free trade. But by the end of the century Cecil Rhodes’s view that imperial expansion was a ‘bread and butter question’ for the nation dominated official and public discourse. Blunt saw that the connection between nation and empire wasn’t merely material. The idea of empire had been invested with an almost religious zeal: ‘We shall be called on to fall down as a nation and worship our own golden image.’ The metropolitan anti-imperial critic, he wrote, had to speak ‘against this self-worship … against this shameless self-praise, this painting in every gaudy colour of the imperial idol in which Englishmen, each day of the week, behold the image of their own imperial faces.’ The question of how this sentiment might be redirected towards more cosmopolitan ends, and what he might personally have to contribute to this, occupied him:

I have a thing to say. But how to say it?
I have a cause to plead. But to what ears?
How shall I move a world by lamentation –
A world which has not heeded a Nation’s tears?

Gopal thinks Blunt’s sense of self ‘veers into bombast’, but his question is central to Insurgent Empire: ‘How can the case against imperial power be made?’ – and made from the metropole. As Gopal makes clear, the story of British anti-imperial dissent she has recovered is a ‘minority tradition’. It rarely triumphed either as a matter of public opinion or imperial policy. She doesn’t give a full account of the reasons for that, or consider whether the obstacles faced by metropolitan anti-imperial critics were surmountable, or which kinds of criticism were likely to win wider support. But she does succeed in tracing the ways these critics continually reframed the relationship between nation and empire in their effort to dislodge an ideology which held that imperialism was always in service of the nation.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Blunt’s lamentations gave way to more substantial manifestations of solidarity. In India, the Swadeshi (‘of one’s own country’) movement, which agitated for non-co-operation and people’s rule, erupted in response to the partition of Bengal in 1905. In the 1906 general election, the Labour Party had its first successes, winning 29 seats. Its leader, Keir Hardie, promised the party’s ‘strenuous backing’ for the ‘Indian cause’. Hardie, his fellow Labour MP Ramsay MacDonald and the journalist Henry Nevinson travelled to India to observe the new nationalist movement and met the Swadeshi leaders, including Aurobindo Ghose. Ghose was sceptical that such men could play much of a role in anticolonial politics. ‘So far as an Englishman can help India,’ he wrote, referring to MacDonald, ‘and that under present circumstances is hardly at all, he certainly wishes to help. It is not his fault that the blindness of his countrymen and the conditions of the problem in India make men like him, perforce, little better than sympathetic spectators.’ The self-assertive anticolonial politics he envisioned weren’t intended to appeal to the British public. At the same time, he worried that Hardie, MacDonald and Nevinson would face an indifferent if not hostile domestic audience.

In an attempt to remedy the ‘blindness’ of their countrymen, British critics of empire often touched on the long-standing anxiety that trouble in the colonies would come home to roost. Edmund Burke, writing at the end of the 18th century during an earlier imperial crisis, warned that unless Parliament restrained the East India Company ‘the breakers of the law in India’ could become ‘the makers of law in England’. The agents of imperial conquest were ‘the destroyers of the nobility and gentry of a whole kingdom’:

They marry into your families; they enter into your senate; they ease your estates by loans; they raise their value by demand … and there is scarcely a house in the kingdom that does not feel some concern and interest that makes all reform of our eastern government appear officious and disgusting; and, on the whole, a most discouraging attempt.

By the mid 19th century, concerns about imperial lawbreakers had given way to fears that colonial resistance – and imperial repression – would have consequences for domestic political struggles. During the Sepoy Mutiny, the Chartist leader Ernest Jones saw the Indian insurgents as a model for the revival of working-class politics in England. The Chartist movement, then in decline, could, he hoped, find new energy once the effects of ‘Indian mismanagement’ were ‘felt in our mines and mills, our farms and factories’. The mutiny had shown Jones that a shared cause and enemy united the English people and ‘their Hindu brethren’.

The jurist and Positivist Frederic Harrison drew a very different lesson from conflict in the colonies. ‘What is done in a colony today,’ he wrote when Governor Eyre declared martial law during the Morant Bay rebellion, ‘may be done in Ireland tomorrow and England hereafter.’ Edward Beesly, a member of the parliamentary Jamaica Committee, compared the rebellion to the Hyde Park demonstrations in support of universal male suffrage in 1866, and concluded that Harrison’s prediction was already a reality: ‘In both instances, wealth and respectability employed the executive apparatus to put down the lower orders.’ At public meetings and protests against the welcome banquet held on Eyre’s return, the suppression of Jamaican resistance was linked to the absence of working-class representation in the House of Commons. While Charles Kingsley celebrated Eyre as an embodiment of ‘the English spirit of good nature, of temper … of knowing how to manage men’, the protesters declared that the people of England ‘did not identify themselves with acts which had disgraced the British name’.

Harrison and others, including his tutor, the Positivist Richard Congreve, sought to disrupt what Burke had called the ‘geographic morality’ that warped people’s capacity to sympathise with the fate of colonial subjects. ‘Open any map of the world,’ Congreve wrote in response to the Sepoy Mutiny, ‘and see the relative positions of the two countries: it constitutes a strong presumption against their union. Then estimate their relative population, their differences of culture, language, religion, manners and customs and have you not so many additional presumptions?’ Such figures have been depicted as having a pre-existing commitment to ‘cultural relativism’: the claim, as Gopal puts it, is that they ‘simply chose not to be ethnocentric’. According to this interpretation, Congreve’s critique of empire was in keeping with an imperial discourse whose primary idiom was benevolence, and which presumed possession of the power to adjudicate the meaning of cultural difference and to decide who did, and who did not, share in that common humanity.

There is a different way to interpret Congreve’s position, however, to argue that he was promoting the kind of ‘imaginative labour’ that might engender common cause from a shared experience of domination. Speaking to the working men of England, he insisted that they ‘can judge of the bearing of the English in India by the bearing of the same classes at home, by the bearing of your aristocracy, whether commercial or landed, by the bearing of your middle class’. The working classes already knew ‘the hard indifference of the latter, the haughty neglect of the former, the reckless way in which both satisfy their personal tastes and feelings, and take no care of yours’. To sympathise with the cause of India, his audience had only to see clearly the excesses of these classes, shorn of the national ties that ‘soften the relation’ at home. In India, the British were ‘conquerors of another colour, another language and another religion’ endowed with ‘contempt’ for those they ruled.

In​ the interwar period Britain, and London in particular, became home to a growing number of colonial subjects, who found they now had greater latitude to press the cause of anti-imperialism. The rights to free speech, to organise collectively and to hold elected office had been denied to them in the colonies, yet were available to them at the heart of the empire. Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist endorsed by the Labour Party, was elected MP for Battersea North in 1922. He was the third Indian to take his seat in the House of Commons, after Dadabhai Naoroji and Mancherjee Bhownaggree in the 1890s. (Yet the Simons Commission, set up while Saklatvala was in Parliament to study constitutional reform in British India, didn’t have an Indian representative.) Saklatvala accepted what Gopal calls ‘a dual but intertwined representational responsibility’: he spoke, he said, as ‘one of the conquered and enslaved subject races’ as well as ‘representing the interests of the British electors’. Echoing Jones and Congreve, he argued that the fate of colonial labour was closely connected to the position of the British working class. The labour movement, in cynically accepting unequal standards across the empire, had facilitated a ‘race to the bottom … a rapid Indianising of the large working class in Britain’. At the same time, in his dealings with Indian nationalists he emphasised the need to infuse the growing anticolonial movement with a sense of the global class struggle. The democratisation of India, he told Gandhi, depended on labour and trade unions leading the anti-imperial cause.

These interventions don’t appear to have had much effect on Gandhi, but Saklatvala’s dual strategy, and his efforts to promote alliances between the metropolitan labour movement and anticolonialists, would be taken up by a network of colonial subjects in the metropole. The Jamaican poet and communist Claude McKay believed that the years following the Russian Revolution, which were marked by a growth in radical labour movements and an insurgent anticolonialism, made possible new forms of solidarity. In a letter to Marcus Garvey, who was sceptical of the prospects for a united front, McKay noted that radical and left formations in the metropole were ‘the great destructive forces within while the subject races are fighting without … We have a great wall to batter down, and while we are working on one side, we should hail those who are working on the other.’ This struggle depended on figures like McKay and the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore, but also on comrades within the British establishment: Sylvia Pankhurst, Nancy Cunard and Fenner Brockway, sometime Labour MP and leader in the 1930s of the Independent Labour Party, which, in its various publications, amplified colonial voices on the British left.

After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and with another war on the horizon, Padmore, C.L.R. James and others worked – especially through the ILP and its newspaper the New Leader – to recast the relationship between the British nation and its empire. They introduced the phrase ‘colonial fascism’ to signal the continuity between the British Empire and the regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. The colonies, Padmore insisted, were ‘the breeding ground for the type of fascist mentality which is being let loose in Europe today’. Any fight against fascism limited to Europe was futile. Since colonial subjects would once again be required to take up arms in defence of the empire, Padmore sought to put ‘the right of all colonial peoples and subject races to self-determination’ at the centre of the political agenda. ‘Down with fascist rule in the colonies,’ Jomo Kenyatta declared in an article for the New Leader in 1937. Just as British workers had supported anti-fascist efforts ‘in Spain, Germany, Austria and other countries,’ Arthur Ballard wrote, ‘why not a fund to assist the colonial workers and peasants in the struggle against British imperialism?’ Ballard’s suggestion that the British left play a supporting role indicates that the lessons of recent history, from the Swadeshi to the 1930s Caribbean labour strikes, had been learned: the end of empire would ultimately be achieved by the colonised, not the colonists.

After the war, nationalist movements grew up across the empire. In 1954, Brockway founded the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF) to offer assistance from London. Along with his parliamentary colleagues Leslie Hale, Arthur Creech Jones, Barbara Castle and Aneurin Bevan, Brockway consistently raised the crisis in Kenya in the Commons, earning himself the nickname ‘the Member for Africa’. In 1962 he presented a petition to Parliament ‘on behalf of 158,642 citizens of the Protectorate and Colony of Kenya’, demanding that they ‘immediately be allowed to occupy and farm the large unused areas’ reserved for Europeans.

At its height, the MCF claimed the support of nearly a hundred MPs and about twenty trade unions. It arranged for representatives of nationalist movements to meet union leaders and MPs, gathered audiences for their speeches and organised a campaign for Kenyatta’s release after the colonial authorities imprisoned him on trumped-up charges. Though its main interest was anticolonial solidarity, the MCF also saw ending empire as essential to securing a democratic, egalitarian British nation. It rejected Cold War militarism, linking a ‘growing military budget and the constant threat of world war’ to the winnowing of recently won rights of social citizenship. And it was active in its opposition to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, which curtailed the rights of Commonwealth citizens to migrate to the UK.

But as Gopal notes, Brockway’s description of the MCF as a ‘mass movement against imperialism’ had ‘a touch of hyperbole’. Even if it had some influence in Parliament, it remained part of a ‘minority discourse’. She recovers its history as part of her effort to ‘build an archive of dissidence, opposition and criticism in relation to the British Empire – one which might serve to caution us against … self-serving assumptions about the past’. The value of such an archive at a time of imperial nostalgia and racist xenophobia – of which the expulsion of members of the Windrush generation was an egregious example – is clear.

Anti-imperial dissenters wanted to be more than merely part of a minority discourse. For Brockway and those who preceded him, it was vital to believe that a wider coalition of citizens could be won over to the cause. The project continually altered its focus and tactics as political conditions changed. In 1970 the Movement for Colonial Freedom changed its name to ‘Liberation’. ‘We must recognise,’ Brockway argued, ‘that our image has lost public support because of our contribution towards ending political dependence. Even friends query our name: the Middle East, the Nigeria/Biafra war, Latin America, racial discrimination, world poverty are not obviously covered by the name MCF.’ Liberation became involved in the struggle against apartheid and white minority rule throughout southern Africa, and against the wider threat of neocolonialism, especially where it took the form of economic dependence.

Jeremy Corbyn is the contemporary political figure most closely associated with the tradition of British anti-imperial dissent. As a young man in the late 1960s he spent a year in Jamaica teaching geography in Kingston. There he witnessed the growing popular resistance to the government of Hugh Shearer, which culminated in protests in October 1968 after the Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney was permanently barred from visiting the island. In London in the early 1970s, Corbyn was part of the circle surrounding Liberation and the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Asked about Jamaican demands for reparations while leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn struck a different note from previous party leaders: ‘The wealth of this country, the UK, came from Jamaica … The wealth of the City of London came from there. We owe a lot to the Jamaican people.’

Corbyn’s acknowledgment of Britain’s imperial history and his critique of the new imperialism that has ravaged the Middle East drew on a rich history of left internationalism that refuses the false opposition between national isolation and imperial extension. To his detractors, Corbyn’s position was out of sync with the times: it was too simplistic, they said, in the 21st century, to divide the world between imperial powers and oppressed nations, and anyway morality shouldn’t be confused with the task of political persuasion. The force of these arguments should be admitted even by those who reject the politics behind them. To ‘smash our own imperialism’, as Ballard put it, will require both a recalibrated analysis of the relationship between the domestic and the international and a continued commitment to building mass movements.

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