With the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War this week, this post is an extract from a paper that I am writing on the Communist Parties in South Africa, the United States and Australia and their agitation for black soldiers to join the war effort after the Soviet Union joined the Allies in June 1941. This part of the paper actually looks at the ‘imperialist’ war phase, between September 1939 and June 1941, when the international communist movement rejected the war as an inter-imperialist battle.
After the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in late August 1939, the Soviet Union shifted from its prominent anti-fascist stance that it had taken since the beginning of the Popular Front period. When Britain and France declared war on Germany, the Soviets declared that the war was an ‘imperialist’ war to maintain British and French colonial possessions. Individual Communist Parties followed the Soviet lead and by October/November 1939, denounced the war as an imperialist war and pushed for ‘peace’ between the European powers. Australia and South Africa soon joined the British war effort (which was at first welcomed, then criticised by the respective Communist Parties), but the United States remained out of the war until December 1941. In the USA, the Communist Party’s main slogan was, according to Harry Haywood, ‘Keep America out of the imperialist war!’
This opposition to the war reframed the anti-racist activism of the Communist Parties in all three countries, but predominantly in South Africa and the United States (partially owing to the fact that the Communist Party of Australia was banned from June 1940 to December 1942). The argument of the Communist Parties became that for non-white people, there was little difference between fascism and the imperialism of Britain and France, or particularly the discrimination faced by black people in the US or South Africa. The CPSA asked rhetorically in their Party organ in June 1940, ‘What is the difference to the Non-Europeans between the Nazi regime in Europe and the Union Government in South Africa?’, which was followed by ‘How can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?’ The Communist Party argued that it was hypocritical of white South Africans to ask their non-white countrymen to fight for the Union (and the wider British Empire) when they did not enjoy the rights of their white contemporaries. A 1940 flyer produced by the Party stated:
It is an insult to the intelligence of the African, Coloured and Indian people to ask them to fight against a system of Nazi tyranny when they themselves suffer under terrible oppression and injustice.
In February 1940, General Secretary of the CPSA, Moses Kotane, argued in Freedom that for Africans, there was ‘no enthusiasm among them for the war’, while a pamphlet produced by the Johannesburg District Committee alleged that ‘the Coloured and African peoples are generally in a hostile frame of mind’, compared with the indifference of the Afrikaner population.
However this hostility towards the war effort did not mean that Africans did not join the South African armed forces after the Union narrowly voted to go to war in October 1939. Despite the discrimination and segregation faced by Africans in the armed forces, David Killingray and Martin Plaut have calculated that more than 70,000 Africans enlisted into the Native Military Corps. Although the CPSA was opposed to the war, they still campaigned for those non-Europeans who entered the armed forces to be treated as equals with white soldiers. Recognising that the armed forces offered a way out of unemployment for non-Europeans, the Party declared, ‘If the Government wants the non-Europeans to fight for it, let it give them the same rates of pay and chances of promotion as the Europeans.’
Although the United States did not enter the war until after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, during the ‘imperialist war’ phase, the CPUSA warned of the ‘so-called liberal bourgeoisie’ who were seeking to ‘enlist the Negro’s support for American imperialism in this reactionary war’. The CPUSA reminded its readers that African-American soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary Wars, the American Civil War and the First World War and had gained little from it, so while the ‘Negro masses [were] ever ready to fight for liberty, for real democracy’, they were not ready ‘to die again for the benefit of the swollen coffers of imperialist hangmen’. This reflected broader trends in the attitudes of African-Americans towards the US armed forces in the lead up to America’s involvement in the conflict. As Daniel Kryder has noted, recruitment of African-Americans into (and retention within) the armed forces prior to Pearl Harbour was poor, with ‘widespread discontent’, so that by 1943, only one-fifth of black males eligible for service were successfully recruited (compared with one-third amongst eligible white males).
Much more than the natives of South Africa and African-Americans, there was an initial enthusiasm amongst indigenous Australians (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) to join the armed forces, although they were predominantly recruited to be support labour, rather than actual soldiers. When Australia entered the war in 1939, Noah Riseman reminds us that ‘[t]he Defence Act had no restrictions against enlistment of Aboriginal people’, although they were ‘exempt from call-up and from compulsory training’. The Army had no little interest in actively recruiting indigenous people or the formation of indigenous units, but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did join up (approximately 3000 and 850 personnel respectively), with some seeing it as a way on encouraging the Australian Government to give its indigenous population citizenship rights. Explaining the position of the influential Australian Aborigines’ League, Robert A. Hall summarised, ‘If Australia were to take seriously its fight against fascism,… then it had to take steps to end repression of Aborigines at home.’ However this recruitment was short-lived and in 1940, the government ‘explicitly prohibited the enlistment of all nonwhite persons into the army and navy’, although this was reassessed the following year as the threat of the Japanese loomed bigger. By this time, the Soviet Union had entered the war and the position of the Communists in Australia, as well as everywhere else, had changed.
 V. Molotov, Soviet Peace Policy (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1941) p. 30.
 Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978) p. 496.
 ‘The War and Segregation’, Freedom, June 1940, p. 7. Italics are in the original text.
 ‘Non-Europeans and the War’ (Cape Town: CPSA flyer, 1940) BC 1081/O18.10, Ray and Jack Simons Collection, University of Cape Town Library.
 Moses Kotane, ‘The Africans and the War’, Freedom, February 1940, p. 7.
 J. Morkel, The War and South Africa, (Johannesburg: CPSA pamphlet, 1940) p. 5.
 David KIllingray with Martin Plaut, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currie, 2010) p. 72.
 ‘Non-Europeans and the War’.
 Theodore R. Bassett & A.W. Berry, ‘The Negro People and the Struggle for Peace’, The Communist (April 1940) p. 326.
 Bassett & Berry, ‘The Negro People…’, p. 326.
 Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War”
 Noah Riseman, Defending Whose Country? Indigenous Soldiers in the Pacific War (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2012) p. 10.
 Robert A. Hall, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1997) pp. 9-12; Riseman, Defending Whose Country? p. 10.
 Hall, The Black Diggers, p. 11.
 Riseman, Defending Whose Country? pp. 10-11. Italics are in the original text.