Pan-Africanism

South African progressives and the Suez Crisis of 1956

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On 29 October, 1956, the Suez Crisis began with an Israeli attack upon Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, with the UK and France intervening the subsequent days to ‘protect’ the Suez Canal. Many historians have viewed these actions as the last major ‘roll of the dice’ for the British and French governments hoping to stem the decolonisation process in Africa and the Middle East, and the drawing of the postcolonial world into closer ties with the Soviet Bloc.

From South Africa, progressives watched as imperialist forces invaded one of its former colonies to prevent a programme of nationalisation, occurring amidst the wider decolonisation process across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This worried the various progressive groups that still existed in South Africa in the mid-1950s. Eight years into Apartheid rule, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had been banned in 1950 and its membership driven underground (its successor, the South African Communist Party (SACP), was not officially established until 1960). The African National Congress (ANC) was still a legal organisation, but a month later, most of its leadership would be arrested and put on trial for treason by the Strijdom government. The remnants of the CPSA that remained in South Africa were often also members of the ANC, while other former CPSA activists coalesced around organisations, such as the ex-servicemen group, the Springbok Legion.

The Suez Crisis, coming at the same time as the Soviet invasion of Hungary, shocked these progressives as a blatant imperialist reaction to the decolonisation process, and an affront to the sovereignty of these newly formed postcolonial nations. In their journal Liberation, the ANC called the action a ‘blatant aggression’ and stated:

British, French and Israeli troops have invaded Egypt and occupied Egyptian territory by force of arms; a wanton, premeditated act of aggression taken in defiance of solemn undertakings under the United Nations Charter.

The reason for this invasion, the ANC declared, was control of the Suez Canal and the revenue generated from this, with the Israeli invasion providing a pretext for seizing control. The journal continued:

[T]hat in fact is exactly what the English and French imperialists are out for – loot. They want to grab the Suez Canal. The Israeli attack was just a feeble excuse (no doubt it was fixed up in advance with the Israeli Government)…

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Meanwhile, the newspaper New Age, run by a number of ex-CPSA members, such as Ruth First, published on its front page a statement drawn up by several progressive organisations in South Africa, such as the ANC, the Indian National Congress, the Coloured People’s Association and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). The statement read:

The invasion by the Israeli army and the decision of the British and French Governments to re-occupy the Suez Canal zone constitute a serious act of aggression against Egypt which will have world-wide repercussions…

These acts are in total disregard of the territorial sovereignty of the Egyptian people and cannot be justified by any alleged provocations. Britain and France have used Israel as a spearhead to re-establish themselves as masters of the Suez Canal in order to maintain their domination over colonial countries in Africa and the Middle East.

This idea of Britain and France reasserting their imperial dominance over the postcolonial world was something that was also highlighted by the ANC. As well retaking the Suez Canal, the ANC suggested that the Anglo-French aims were ‘to overthrow the Nasser Government and re-occupy Egypt as a colony’ in the short term, and ‘to teach the peoples of the colonies and former colonies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East “a lesson”’ in the long term. At this time, the British were fighting anti-colonial movements in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya, while the French were fighting the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

However the actions of the British and French were not successful and both countries were chastised by the United Nations. Both the ANC and those attached to the New Age newspaper celebrated the fact that Egypt had not been defeated by the imperialist forces. Two weeks after the fighting stopped, the New Age newspaper wrote:

The force of world anger at the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt has led to a cease-fire and brought to a temporary halt the use of naked aggression to crush the Nasser government. This is a victory for the forces of progress, but it is by no means a final victory.

The ANC were just as celebratory, writing:

The plot to conquer Egypt has failed; the “lesson” has turned out to be the greatest fiasco in modern history. As we write, the aggressors’ armies are still in Egypt, but we cannot doubt that the massive reaction of the peace-loving people of the whole world will compel them to withdraw unconditionally, and to compensate the innocent Egyptian people for the damage and suffering that they have caused.

From this, both publications expressed solidarity between the progressive and anti-imperialist forces in South Africa and the Egyptian people as allies in the fight against imperialism and racialism. The ANC declared that the Suez Crisis had inspired ‘the awakening millions of Britain’s African empire’ and ‘[i[nstead of frightening the colonial world’, the Anglo-French-Israeli attack had:

raised against themselves a storm of mass solidarity, indignation and determination that can only hasten the doom of imperialism and colonialism through-out the world.

The aforementioned statement on the front page of the New Age finished with this expression of solidarity:

On behalf of all peace-loving South Africans we demand an end to force and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Egyptian territory. We express our sympathy with the Egyptian people and our support for their just claim to sovereignty in the own country.

In an editorial contained in the same issue, the links between progressives in South Africa and the Nasser government in Egypt were reiterated:

As an African country we are closely involved in this invasion of Africa. As members of the liberation movement we are closely involved in this attack on a liberation movement. As opponents of national oppression and colonialism we are involved in this oppressive and imperialist war…

We dare not remain quiet. Our voices must be heard in the call for an end to the war in Egypt – in the demand for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of that country.

But while these various groups expressed solidarity in the face of imperialist attack, they did not all consider Colonel Nasser in the same light. Moses Kotane, the General Secretary of the CPSA and then the SACP, stated in New Age that Nasser was ‘no fascist’ as the Western media and politicians had described him, but was ‘an ardent nationalist whose main concern is the freedom, independence, progress and honour of Egypt and her 25 million inhabitants’. Kotane explained that Nasser played an important role in the worldwide anti-colonial movement, saying, ‘Colonel Nasser desires to see colonialism ended in Africa, Asia and the rest of the world.’ He concluded his outline of Nasser with this:

The South African people must clearly understand that the continued independence and progress of the Egyptian people means a lot to their own struggle against apartheid and injustices in this country.

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Lionel Bernstein, a comrade of Kotane in the CPSA/SACP and editor of the Springbok Legion’s Fighting Talk, was much more critical of Nasser and his government. The revolution that was led by Nasser and his fellow army generals was, according to Bernstein, simply passing Egypt ‘into the hands of the new dictatorship of the military junta, acting without consultation with the people, without elections, without any authority save the force they commanded’. Bernstein pointed to locking up of all political opponents, including Egypt’s communists, as a very negative aspect of the regime, but also pointed to positive changes, such as the creation of a ‘democratic’ constitution. However this constitution was deemed to be a constitution of the bourgeoisie – ‘the creation of the Nasser regime, of the middle-class revolutionaries representing the middle class of Egypt’. Teleologically it was moving the country ‘steadily away from military dictatorship towards bourgeois democracy’, but for Bernstein, the Nasser regime was not socialist.

On the other hand, Bernstein recognised Egypt’s commitment to anti-colonial solidarity:

It is a government of fighters against foreign subjection, taking the first steps against colonialism, against the backward heritage of imperialism. Let its enemies look to their own record in their own territory – in Kenya and Algeria, in Cyprus and in Malaya and Morocco and compare the record.

The Suez Crisis coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary and this led to a schism amongst communists, socialists and other progressives across the globe. Unlike other Communist Parties in the West, the fact that the CPSA had disbanded and gone underground meant similar open debates that occurred in the British, French and Italian parties could not happen, and in general, amongst South African progressives, the events in Hungary were seen as justified in comparison with the Anglo-French-Israeli actions in Egypt. In the New Age, it was pronounced that comparison between the two interventions was a ‘false analogy’, stating:

  • The Anglo-French aggression was directed against the Egyptian government; the Soviet [gave] assistance on the invitation of the Hungarian government.
  • The Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt. The Soviet forces were stationed in Hungary with the recognised responsibility of protecting Hungary’s independence and preventing her return to fascism.
  • Britain and France had no shred of legal right to invade; the Soviet armed forces were legally in Hungary in terms of the Warsaw pact.
  • Most important of all – the issue of Egypt is between imperialism and national liberation; the issue in Hungary is between socialism and reaction…

In the editorial of Liberation, the ANC made a similar case for the differences between Suez and Hungary:

we should not forget that the Soviet Union has not suddenly ‘invaded’ Hungary, as the British and French have invaded Egypt. Soviet troops have been in Hungary ever since the end of the second world war, and as a result of that war.

From these statements, it is evident that the progressive forces in South Africa were particularly concerned about other national liberation movements in Africa (and across the rest of the world) in their fight against imperialism and colonialism. Experiencing a severe racialist reaction against the decolonisation process in the form of Apartheid, South African progressives expressed solidarity with the Egyptian people and viewed the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion as part of a wider reaction by the global West against decolonisation. In the following years, southern Africa would be viewed as anomaly where the imperialist powers had not relinquished their stranglehold on these settler colonies, in the face of a generally decolonised African continent.

On the other hand, those progressives that were part of the SACP and ANC looked to the Soviet Union, as well as the Non-Aligned Movement (which had first met the previous year in Bandung) as guiding forces in the anti-colonial struggle. The ANC called the USSR ‘a great power openly and irrevocably hostile to imperialism’ that had ‘enabled the former colonies triumphantly to proclaim and consolidate their independence’. Criticism of the Soviets would come later on, but in 1956, there was little dissent amongst what the ANC and the underground SACP expressed towards the Soviet Union.

Like the putting down of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the Suez Crisis showed South African progressives that the British were unwilling to give up control of some colonies that had strategic value to them, or where they felt that communists could potentially take power. Although Harold Macmillan would speak of ‘winds of change’ across Africa a few years later, the long struggle against Apartheid and imperialism in southern Africa was only just beginning.

 

 

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Historical research into black power in Britain

This article in The Guardian today caught my eye, arguing that the history of the black power movement and radical black activism in Britain was in ‘danger of being forgotten’. The article was referring to a new biography of Darcus Howe, the black activist and editor of Race Today during the 1970s and early 1980s, by Robin Bunce and Paul Field. Bunce and Field argue that the history of black struggle has been overlooked in recent British history and it is true that scholarship in this area is not large, but I’m not sure that it is deliberate as Bunce and Field make out.

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Darcus Howe at the Mangrove Nine Trial in the early 1970s

Narratively, the history of black activism has been subsumed into the wider history of anti-racism in Britain and the story of radical black activism/black power, which rose in the late 1960s and waned by the late 1970s, often forms part of a longer narrative. Similar to the history of the wider anti-racist movement, radical black activism may have had victories in the 1970s, but the narrative arc ends with the implosion of radical politics in the 1981 riots and the crushing defeats under Thatcherism. (I have written about the convergence and divergence between black activists and the ‘white’ left in the 1970s and 1980s here)

Practically, researching the history of radical black activism and black power is made difficult by the (scarce) amount of resources that can be obtained by historians. Publications produced by black activists in Britain remain rather difficult to find and archival material of their campaigns is only recently been compiled. Collections such as the Black Cultural Archives in Lambeth, the Race Relations Archive at the University of Manchester, the Sivanandan collection at the University of Warwick Library and the Institute of Race Relations Library are important for helping historians begin to write this history. Although Bunce and Field have made use of archival material from the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police’ Special Branch, files relating to black power and radical black activism in the National Archives are rather few. A quick check of the National Archives’ catalogue shows that there are about 10-15 files on black power in the UK publicly available. (I am sure there would be much more available through FOI) The next step for historians interested in this area is to conduct oral history interviews with people involved in black activism during this time – something which the Organised Youth project have been doing lately.

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Before Bunce and Field’s recent monograph, there have been other studies on black power and radical black activism in Britain. The most recent would be Anne-Marie Angelo’s work on the British Black Panther Party (based on her PhD on the internationalism of the Black Panthers in the UK and Israel). But the others are now over a decade old. Another PhD from 2008, by Rosalind Wild, looked at black power in Britain and its origins from 1955 to 1975. Colin. A Beckles published an article in 1998 on the black activist bookshops in the UK, describing them as ‘Pan-African sites of resistance’. Kalbir Shukra and Brian Alleyne have both written about black politics, including black radicalism, but their books were published in 1998 and 2003 respectively. A. Sivanandan’s collection of his works from the 1970s to the present, Catching History on its Wings, has some material on radical black activism reproduced from Race & Class journal, of which Sivanandan was the founding editor.

In the period being discussed (the late 1960s to the early 1980s), the use of the term ‘black’ was a political term and often encompassed both Afro-Caribbean and South Asian people. In this period, there was significant crossover in activism between the Afro-Caribbean and South Asian communities, as well as with white activists, but there was also divergence, and activism that focussed on the problems specifically facing certain communities. There have been two books on radical activism within Britain’s South Asian communities. Anandi Ramamurthy has recently published Black Star which is a fascinating account of the Asian Youth Movements that started in Southall and spread across Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 2003, Rahila Gupta published a history of the Southall Black Sisters, a South Asian feminist organisation that emerged out of the anti-fascist protest against the National Front in 1979 (where Blair Peach was killed). While differing from ‘black power’, this shows that research into radicalism amongst Britain’s ethnic minority communities does exist and is growing.

I look forward to reading Bunce and Field’s book and I hope this spurs more research into the history of radical black activism in Britain.

Seminar at Flinders University October 24

This is just a quick post to remind anyone in the Adelaide area and interested in communist history that I will giving a paper tomorrow afternoon on my current research project. It will be the first time that I will publicly discussing my research so far. Details are on the flyer below:

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If you are able to come along, it’d be great to see you all there. I will hopefully be putting a version of the paper on this blog in the near future.

Desperately seeking sources: The Negro Worker 1933-1938

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One of the difficulties of conducting my research project, ‘Communism and Anti-Colonialism in the British Commonwealth’, is tracking down some sources, particularly those from the Comintern era. One important source that has been difficult to locate in Australia is The Negro Worker, a publication edited by George Padmore and affiliated with the Communist International. The document delivery service at my university has been able to source articles (contents for the journal listed here) from 1931-32, but later articles are proving harder (and more costly) to find.

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So I turn to my readers. Is there anyone out there with access (via hard copies or microfilm) to issues of The Negro Worker from the period 1933 to 1938 (and willing to make some copies for me)? Please let me know.

Some new acquisitions

These arrived in the post today:

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The top two are South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History (volume 1 and volume 2), edited by Allison Drew. The bottom left is Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfeld and the bottom right is Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress  by Marika Sherwood.

Now I’ve just got to find the time to read them!