Liberation struggles and workers’ internationalism

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance & British Dissent

By Priyamvada Gopal

Published by Verso, 2020 (pbk), £14-99

Reviewed by Brent Kennedy

The main points of Priyamvada Gopal’s book are that the colonial peoples repeatedly revolted against their exploitation and were themselves the agents of their own liberation; that they received solidarity from various quarters in Britain; and both learnt from it. It’s an answer to right wing academics like Niall Ferguson who repeat the old excuses for the British empire: that it was benevolent, civilising and prepared ‘backward peoples’ for the gift of independence when they were deemed ready for it.

A few figures would have helped. Under British rule 55 million people died from famine. India’s share of world GDP fell from over 20% to 5%, as the enforced flood of imports from Britain almost destroyed the main cotton and iron industries. Per capita GDP fell from $550 in 1700 to $520 in 1857, only reaching $618 after the world war two boom. And a simple fact: despite Churchill’s post-war edict “what we have we hold”, the British ruling class got kicked out of India (the last viceroy Louis Mountbatten even had to rush forward the handover date to avoid an armed liberation) and then the other colonies.

Gopal shows how the occupation of Egypt in 1882 under the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was meant to prevent precisely the progress of a modernising, national-democratic revolution based on poor peasants against the ‘oriental despotism’ of the Ottoman Empire, which threatened the privileges and profits of British finance capital. As the dissident liberal lawyer Frederic Harrison revealed, wars for bondholders were to protect “£150m or so of Western gold trembling for its dividends and interest”.

In 1857 what Marx called the First War of Indian Independence began with an army mutiny but spread to the masses made unemployed and impoverished by the East India Company and the native landlords and moneylenders who collaborated with it, leading to the seizure of their property and demands for land. Gopal quotes the historian Rudranghshu Mukherjee: “Two overlapping structures of domination – one native and the other foreign – were simultaneously attacked by the subordinated”.

Excesses by the mutineers were exaggerated by The Times to justify a reign of bloody terror by the army of the British ruling class. Gopal quotes moral critics such as the Positivist philosopher Richard Congreve and Harrison who saw the hand of the upper classes in the repression and logically expected support from the working class, which had nothing to gain in India. But of course they had no means of reaching the workers. That was up to trade unionists and the remnants of the Chartists, led by the editor of the People’s Paper, Ernest Jones, who declared “We bespeak the sympathy of the English people for their Hindu brethren… their cause is yours”.

This was the practical difference between paternalistic, charitable help from middle class, moralistic liberals and a two-way international workers’ solidarity based on common material interests against common exploiters. As the twentieth century Indian Swadeshi militant Bal Gangadhar Tilak would later say, “it must be a fool indeed who would sacrifice his own interest on hearing a philosophical lecture”. Jones called clearly for Indian independence and an end to the rule of the “merchant-robbers of Leadenhall St” and hoped a victory of the Indian masses would encourage a revival of the workers’ movement at home.

In the 1860s, despite the Lancashire cotton workers suffering hunger due to lay-offs, the British working class prevented the government from going along with the bankers, mill and ship owners in joining the American civil war on the side of the south to maintain slavery.

The economic and class basis for racism was revealed by the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica in 1865, and the response of different classes in Britain showed the material foundation for workers’ unity against racial division. Following strikes against poverty and a flat tax the former slaves petitioned Queen Victoria for some land, to produce crops in common. They were told to work for the planters, ie be wage slaves, not free farmers. That was the capitalist system. As one planter wrote to the subsequent Royal Commission, “I should be very glad if they would be dependent on my capital… their very independence is an evil”.

The governor, John Eyre, then unleashed a three-day wave of ‘wanton and cruel’ violence against the movement, killing hundreds of men and women, flogging 600, and burning down a thousand homes. An opposition assembly member, GW Gordon, was blamed and arbitrarily executed. Eyre was proud of his quick resort to martial law, which had prevented the loss of Jamaica or an “almost interminable war and an unknown expense”. His invented lurid horror stories of black violence against whites were spread by The Times, etc, fuelling racist prejudices to bolster the state.

But when the truth in all its horror dawned it caused a three-year crisis in London. A Jamaica Committee of famous intellectuals fought for Eyre’s prosecution, another defended him, with the scientist John Tyndall openly saying that disaffection could only be quelled “by making the name, power and determination of England terrible throughout the island”, and “we do not hold an Englishman and a Jamaican negro to be convertible terms”.

While the liberal committee played down the rebellion, the working class movement welcomed it as resistance to the exploitative system. One demonstration celebrated Gordon as a martyr, another burned Eyre in effigy. There was a clear awareness of common exploitation by a common foe, but also of the danger of the capitalist state using the same repression against British workers. Meetings were held across the country, including one of 600 in Manchester by the trade unionist paper, the Beehive, which reported one speaker saying “It made his blood run cold to think that an Englishman – for though black these were Englishmen – (cheers) – our fellow subjects, whose rights were our rights, as ours were theirs – (renewed cheers) – had been subjected to a court martial”.

This illustrates a general lesson: when the labour movement is on the offensive, workers’ class consciousness and self-confidence rise, they value the widest possible unity and recognise fellow workers engaged in struggle, weakening the effectiveness of the usual divide-and-rule propaganda of the ruling class media. This is our tradition. These workers were fighting for the right to vote and experienced repression themselves in the 1866 Hyde Park riot and the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland. The Manchester meeting explicitly drew the parallel of the Peterloo Massacre.

The ‘civilised’ beneficiaries of colonialism constantly used racism and nationalism to divert and disunite. Where their victims were white they used religion (Ireland) or language (Cyprus), in Asia and Africa they exacerbated religious or tribal differences. In the 1930s the Trinidadian George Padmore, disappointed by the Labour leaders and betrayed by the Stalinised Communist International’s cosying up to Anglo-French imperialism, despairingly claimed that “race is thicker than class”. The then Trotskyist West Indian CLR James explained realistically “the vast majority of the British people having no other view placed before them… have no other choice but to follow along the same lines of thought”. In other words, they lacked an independent socialist voice and a class alternative.

A positive example of this was given by Shapurji Saklatvala, from 1922 a Communist MP for Battersea, who linked campaigns for jobs, wages, housing and union rights here with Indian workers’ struggles and independence. Gopal gives much space to character sketches of British travellers and colonial exiles in London rather than details of colonial insurgencies (such as the Mau Mau struggle for Kenyan independence and the war crimes of the army still hidden today), but her section on this champion is very useful.

Imperialism, with or without colonies, is the export of capital, and the search for high profit rates at bayonet point led to industrial decline and unemployment at home. “It is the growth of… these huge industrial concerns in India which is beginning to tell its tale upon the workers of this country”. Calling for solidarity with Bengali miners striking against low wages, Saklatvala makes clear that “so long as this slave labour exists in the empire, so long the economic position of the British miner will be one of continual danger”. Analysing that previous period of globalisation, he saw “a rapid Britainising of a capitalist master-class in India and a rapid Indianising of the large working class in Britain”.

He challenged the reformist gradualism of the Labour leaders and of Mahatma Gandhi, who perpetuated the empire because they accepted the capitalist system which had spawned it. He told Labour MPs, “a transition from slavery to freedom can never be attained by gradual measures” and told audiences in India there were “one dominating, commanding, exploiting, monopolising West, and the other suffering, dictated, exploited and dispossessed West”. Gopal shows how the Russian revolution encouraged a wave of strikes and anti-landlord rent and tax boycotts by the Indian masses but in 1922 the bourgeois Gandhi sabotaged the whole Non-Cooperation movement rather than let it be led by workers and peasants. Saklatvala favoured revolution.

In 1929 thirty-two trade unionists, including three Britons, were charged with conspiracy to overthrow the sovereignty of King George in India. The prosecution explained their real crime was working to replace capitalism with communism, not even being nationalists like Congress but internationalists. A huge solidarity movement was organised in India and Britain, which made clear the equal threat to British workers’ rights. A touring play warned audiences “those who have jailed the workers of India are the men who cut your wages and enforce the Means Test in Britain”. The Meerut conspiracy trial became a huge boomerang which exposed the undemocratic and anti-worker reality of the empire, weakening its hold.

In the twentieth century the ruling class intensified racial and nationalist chauvinism to widen the distance between the colonial peoples and British workers. The backward fears and prejudices nurtured for generations still affect consciousness. But the Afro-American John Frederick explained in the 1930s that “European ignorance of the African Negro is monumental, and misinformation concerning the American Negro ridiculous, but in most cases not a bigoted prejudice but sheer lack of knowledge”.

It should have been the job of the Labour leaders to spread that knowledge, but their loyalty to capitalism forced them to be either pro-empire or ineffectual pacifists. When French troops occupied the Rhineland in 1920 the Labour MPs ED Morel and George Lansbury wrote in the Labour Daily Herald of the “Danger to German women from 30,000 Blacks” with “primitive sexual passions”, spreading unfounded allegations of rape. Apart from losing India, the Attlee government maintained the empire and refused to liberate the colonies, even sacking the Chieftain of Bechuanaland for the crime of marrying a white Englishwoman. Contrast that with the British troops in South Asia (who elected him) who sympathised with national liberation and mutinied against new wars of reoccupation.

Ironically it was the Tories who were forced by the changed world balance of forces and ubiquitous revolt to concede independence in the 1950s and early 1960s. An interesting passage on the admission of reality by the defender of empire Margery Perham completely answers the consoling myths of today’s right wing historians: “We have been beaten… our persistent delusion that other peoples like being ruled by us… obliged to make concessions we never meant to… we yield to pressures… wrested rather than conceded… independence is something that cannot be given but must be taken”.

Formal independence was mostly transferred to compliant elites, saddled with debts and unfavourable terms of trade which continued the plundering. The desires of the masses for land, equality and social progress were betrayed. Their real liberation – from class rule – is still to come.