Envisioning the postcolonial world: The Communist Party of Great Britain and post-imperial relationships

One of the overarching aspects of my research is the anti-colonial (and anti-imperialist) activism of the Communist Party of Great Britain from the 1920s to the 1970s. Part of my current research project looks at how the CPGB worked within the British Empire/Commonwealth and how these imperial structures impacted upon how the Communist Party conducted its own affairs. This is something that I touched upon in my PhD research and will be presenting a paper at the British Scholar conference this June in Newcastle (UK) on the subject. This forthcoming conference paper will be on the CPGB’s Special 25th Congress in April 1957, which is most well-known for the fallout after the crises of 1956, but less well-known for the debate over the Party’s anti-colonial programme between Party heavyweights Rajani Palme Dutt and Emile Burns. This post will give a little bit of background to this debate and look at how the CPGB envisioned postcolonial relationships with Britian’s former colonies from the 1930s to the 1950s.

During the 1920s, the CPGB developed the thesis that colonial independence was necessary for the struggle for socialism and that the victory of socialism in Britain was inherently tied to the victory of national independence in the colonies. As this 1924 resolution on colonial independence stated:

In our struggle with British Imperialism therefore, apart from the immediate tasks of organising the workers for revolutionary struggle in Britain, it is of the utmost importance that our struggle should be linked up with that of the workers in these Colonies and Crown Dominions. The extent to which those nations held in subjection by Great Britain struggle for autonomy and separation, to that extent is the hegemony of Imperialism rendered more precarious. We have a duty to assist directly and indirectly in the struggles of the workers in the Colonies and Crown Dominions. The continued enslavement of the Colonial people makes our own freedom in this country absolutely impossible, hence it is necessary in the interests of our own struggle here that assistance should be rendered to the workers in the Colonies. Every act, of repression should be exposed, continuous agitation conducted to secure for the workers of these Colonies the same rights as have been won for the workers here and a propaganda must be carried on with a view to educating the masses in this country to oppose relentlessly the military oppression of these people.

But by the 1930s, the Communist Party seemed to have become concerned with the practicalities of these colonies breaking away from the British Empire/Commonwealth and what impact this would have on Britain. In several publications aimed at convincing British workers to support the CPGB, the Party attempted to convince the British worker that the national independence of the colonies would not economically upset the British way of life and that it would actually benefit Britain materially. The assumption was that Britain, if free of its colonies, would still require raw materials and goods from its former colonies and that these former colonial territories would want to be involved in trade with Britain and become consumers of British-made goods. A 1933 pamphlet by Ralph Fox stated:

Not only would the granting of freedom to the Colonies mean that every factory in England would be kept busy supplying them with textiles and articles of consumption, but it would also mean that the industrialisation of these countries would for many generations keep British heavy industry working to capacity. [Ralph Fox, The Colonial Policy of British Imperialism (London: Martin Lawrence Ltd, 1933) p. 118]

The 1935 CPGB manifestoFor Soviet Britain, said in the section under industry:

In addition, an immense export market will develop when colonial countries like India, liberated from the yoke of British Imperialism, are freed from the burden of interest on imperialist loans and the upkeep of British forces. The British engineering industry, under workers’ control, will be able to propose co-operation with the colonial peoples, who will be able at last to build their own economy and develop their own industry and transport. They can get the iron and steel and machinery they require from Britain and other such countries in exchange for the foodstuffs (tea, rice, etc.)and raw materials (cotton, rubber, etc.) which cannot be obtained in such countries as Britain.

In the manifesto’s section on the British Empire, it declared:

After taking power, the British Workers’ Councils will immediately proclaim the right of all countries now forming part of the British Empire to complete self-determination up to and including complete separation. The British Workers’ Councils will hand over, free of charge, all docks, buildings, railways, factories, plantations, canals, irrigation works, etc., etc., that have been constructed from the sweat and blood of the colonial workers and peasants. The immediate guarantee of this will be the withdrawal of all British armed forces and police, and the cancellation of all the claims of British Imperialist finance…

Because of the freeing of all parts of the present Empire from the burden of interest on loans, profits taken away by British concerns, and heavy taxation to maintain the British military and civil authorities, it will be possible for the less industrially developed countries to exchange their products for the machinery and other industrial equipment they require in order to build up their own industries. But only in so far as the British workers repudiate imperialist rule and imperialist ideology now, will the colonial countries be willing to exchange their products for British Soviet goods. Given this outlook on the part of British workers, then, in spite of the deep hostility that Imperialism has generated in the colonies, there will be friendly relations with the British Soviets and fraternal interchange of products, whether in fact these former colonies also set up Soviet Governments at once or not.

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A 1938 pamphlet by J.R. Campbell, assistant editor of the Daily Worker, the Party tried to reassure potential recruits that colonial independence would not mean the end of trade between Britain and its former colonies. The pamphlet said:

Communists are for giving the Colonies the right of self-determination, which includes the right to break away from the British Empire. This would certainly deprive the British ruling class of the right to rob the people of the Colonies.

It would not deprive the British workers’ government of the possibility of obtaining colonial food-stuffs, and raw materials in exchange for British manufactured products…

All the alleged advantages of Empire – the obtaining of tropical foodstuffs for our people and raw materials for our industries – could be got in the ordinary way of exchange between this country and the former colonies. (J.R. Campbell, Questions & Answers on Communism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1938) pp. 12-14)

This position remained in the post-war era as the decolonisation process got underway and was enshrined in the first version of the Party’s new manifesto, The British Road to Socialism, published in 1951. The new manifesto proposed:

All relations between the peoples of the present Empire which are based on political, economic and military enslavement must be ended, and replaced by relations based on full national independence and equal rights. This requires the withdrawal of all armed forces from the colonial and dependent territories and handing over of sovereignty to Governments freely chosen by the peoples.

Only by this means can Britain be assured of the normal supplies of the vital food and raw materials necessary for her economic life, obtaining them in equal exchange for the products of British industry, needed by those countries for their own economic development.

This would provide the basis for a new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire. Only on this basis can true friendship be established between the peoples of the present Empire to promote mutually beneficial economic exchange and co-operation, and to defend in common their freedom against American imperialist aggression.

In 1951, the Party’s outlook was very positive, looking at the implementation of the welfare state in Britain under Labour and the ‘victories’ of communism in Eastern Europe and China, and thus believed that a socialist Britain was not that far off. The Party anticipated that a socialist victory in Britain would be complemented by anti-colonial victories in the Commonwealth, but by the mid-1950s, national liberation movements had been far more successful than the CPGB and this became a problem for how the Party saw postcolonial foreign relations between Britain and its former colonies. In 1954, General Secretary Harry Pollitt spoke of the ‘new, close, fraternal association of the British people and the liberated peoples of the Empire’ as only coming into being when socialism had been victorious in the domestic and the colonial sphere. He wrote:

The fraternal association cannot be built while any vestige of the present oppression and exploitation of the colonial peoples ermines, but only after the joint fight of the British and colonial peoples has resulted in all the peoples of the present Empire achieving their complete independence. 

The fraternal association can only come into being in the future as a result of the fighting alliance of the British and colonial peoples now. (Harry Pollitt, ‘The National Independence of the Colonies’, World News, 10 July, 1954, p. 543)

But others within the Party started to think that now independent former colonies, such as India, Pakistan and Burma, would want to keep close relations with Britain, even though the socialist revolution had not occurred, and that this current arrangement (through the Commonwealth) could be used to build this ‘fraternal association’ in the future. Emile Burns approvingly suggested that:

many formerly subject countries have won independence, but they are remaining in the Commonwealth. Why? For economic and political reasons, even though Britain is imperialist…

When we win a socialist Britain, there will be in existence an association with other countries in the Commonwealth, even though every colonial country has won independence. (Emile Burns, Contribution to ‘From a Discussion’, World News, 18 May, 1957, p. 316)

This was a significant problem for those CPGB members who were from these colonies, now residing in Britain. The Party’s West Indian Committee was the strongest proponent of changing the Party’s stance on postcolonial relations between Britain and its former colonies. The WIC stated that the position outlined in the 1951 version of the The British Road to Socialism:

(a) Does not take into consideration that the freed colonies may wish to associate more closely with other countries for geographical and other reasons, e.g. Malaya.

(b) Smacks of imperialism in a new way… It is necessary to recognise the acute distrust which colonials have of British imperialism and the feeling which exists that no British Government can be trusted to treat colonials or coloured people fairly. (West Indies Committee, ‘Recommendations of West Indies Committee on The British Road to Socialism’, n.d., CP/IND/DUTT/07/05, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester)

The WIC suggested an alternative for the new version of the Party’s programme:

Instead of proposing a close alliance, we should think in terms of fraternal relations, which the former colonies could enter into with any and all countries which respect their equal rights.

This proposal by the WIC was taken up by Rajani Palme Dutt and in the lead-up to the 1957 Congress, the pages of World News and the Daily Worker featured debate over the Party’s relationship with the former colonies and the wording of the Party programme. Dutt promoted changing it, while Burns headed the campaign to keep the wording the same. Dutt argued that maintaining the current position:

inevitably creates the impression that we envisage the continuance of the role of the countries of the Empire as an agrarian hinterland for an industrial Britain – the very system against which the colonial and dependent peoples whose economic development has been retarded by imperialism are in revolt. (R. Palme Dutt, ‘Future Relations of Countries of the Present British Empire’, World News Discussion Supplement, p. 18)

Contributing to the debate, John Williamson, a Scottish-American member of the CPGB, agreed with Dutt, claiming:

there are still some remaining formulations which could given the impression of a paternalistic relationship, with a socialist Britain still being the “Big Brother” that must look out for the welfare of the peoples of the former colonies. (John Williamson, letter to discussion on The British Road to Socialism, World News Discussion Supplement, 26 January, 1957, p. 14)

Speaking at the Congress, Burns replied, ‘This is not big brotherism any more than the Soviet industrialisation of Asia was big brotherism’, but Dutt’s warned:

Our Colonial comrades, including the West Indian and West African branches, in the overwhelming majority support the minority formulation… We should not lightly ignore their opinion.

Since 1951 no Communist Party in the Empire has accepted or taken up our formulation of fraternal association. If the Communist Parties of the Empire were putting forward this proposal, that would be a different matter.

But if only the British Party, at the centre of imperialism, is putting it forward and all our brother Parties are turning away from it, then we should think twice. (Daily Worker, 22 April, 1957)

In the end, a vote to change the wording was passed by 298 votes to 210. The 1958 edition of The British Road to Socialism thus stated:

An essential part of a Socialist Government’s policy would be the ending of all relations with colonial peoples which are based on British economic, political and military domination. This involves in the first place the withdrawal of all armed forces from colonial and dependent territories or occupied spheres of influence and the handing over of sovereignty to governments freely chosen by their peoples. All natural resources and assets owned by the Crown or British capital in the former colonies must be handed over to their peoples.

In the gigantic tasks of reconstruction on which the former colonial peoples will be engaged to end the heritage of colonial economy—to industrialise their countries, modernise agriculture and raise living standards—British industry can play a valuable part through technical and economic aid and the supply of machinery and technicians.

The carrying out of this policy will be the effective recognition of the complete independence and right of self-determination of all countries in the Empire. A Socialist Government in Britain can seek to promote close voluntary fraternal relations for economic, political and cultural cooperation of mutual benefit, on the basis of national independence, equal rights and non-interference in internal affairs, between Britain and the former colonial countries and existing Commonwealth countries willing to develop such relations.

BRS 58

As I will argue in my conference paper, this colonial migrant members rebellion by the of the Party, predominantly in the West Indian Committee, demanded that the CPGB leadership pay more attention to the desires of those seeking independence from Britain and respect the agency of the colonial citizens in the decolonisation process. With the support from Dutt, the subsequent edition of the Party programme included a much stronger commitment to anti-colonialism and should be remembered as a rare victory of rank-and-file CPGB members in changing party policy from the grassroots level.

See you in Newcastle in June!

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