Labour and Colonialism

The best traditions of the working class movement in Britain include its internationalism and opposition to all form of colonial oppression and exploitation. Such was the stand of the London Corresponding Society and others in regard to chattel slavery even in the late 18th century and of the Chartists, the first national political organisation of the working class in the middle of the 19th century. The Chartists, for example, maintained strong opposition to the colonial oppression of Ireland and specifically demanded the repeal of the union in the second Charter presented to Parliament in 1842. Commenting on the First Indian War of Independence in 1857, the Chartist leader Ernest Jones stated: "there ought to be but one opinion throughout Europe on the Revolt of Hindustan. It is one of the most just, noble and necessary ever attempted in the history of the world." Anti-colonialism was very much a feature of the early working class movement in Britain, which recognised the link between its own oppression and that carried out in the colonies.

The transition of capitalism to imperialism at the close of the 19th century saw a re-awakening in the working class movement and demand for its own political party. The Labour Representation Committee was formed in 1900 and, in 1906, because of anti-union and anti-working class legislation, it was decided that the workers had to have a party in parliament and the Committee adopted the name of the Labour Party and became a fully constituted political party. However, the Labour Party was a coalition of different political grouping and trade unions, and was also an alliance between different social classes. It accepted neither socialism as its aim, nor the class struggle as the basis of its tactics and was strongly infected with the jingoistic prejudices of the labour aristocracy, that section of the working class whose privileged existence was maintained out of the profits of colonial exploitation and empire.

The Fabians were one of the most influential of the groupings within the early Labour Party. Their attitude to colonialism was set out in the manifesto Fabianism and the Empire in 1900. The Fabians recognised that the partition of the world amongst the great powers was "a matter of fact" and concluded "whether England is to be the centre and nucleus of one of these great powers of the future, or to be cast off by its colonies, ousted from its provinces, and reduced to its old island status, will depend on the ability with which the empire is governed as a whole".

The workers and people of Britain needed a political party that would champion their interests at home and abroad but the leaders of the Labour Party performed the task of creating the illusion amongst the workers that the Empire was of benefit to them and thus attempted to encourage the view that the workers had the same interests of the big monopolies. This was particularly the case at the time of the outbreak of the First World War, when the Labour Party within a matter of days reversed its anti-war policy, voted for war credits and encouraged the workers to join the army as cannon fodder. The war, fought by the imperialist powers for the re-division of the world, brought the mass slaughter of the workers and, ultimately economic ruin, but greatly increased the power and the colonial possessions of the British capitalist state.

Following the First World War the Labour Party took a leading part in the re-establishment of the Second International in 1919. This was established on the basis of opposition to the path that had been opened up by the Great October Revolution in 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Republic. At this time the Labour Party was equally active in declaring itself against the revolutionary struggles of the peoples in the colonies of the British Empire, such as India. The same was true in relation to the revolutionary struggles of the Irish workers.

The first two Labour governments, in 1924 and 1929-31 attempted to ably govern the British Empire as the Fabians had suggested and did nothing that distinguished them from any other British government of the period. Colonial policy during the lifetime of these Labour governments continued to be based the exploitation of the inhabitants of the Empire and included the brutal suppression of anti-colonial uprisings in Palestine, Iraq, India, Nigeria and Burma.

The particular role of the Labour Party was to contribute to the myth that colonialism was part of the "white man's burden", of looking after the well-being of "backward peoples or peoples of primitive culture" who, it was claimed, were "not yet able to stand by themselves". In 1943 for instance, in The Labour Party's Post-War Policy for the African and Pacific Colonies, it was stated: "For a considerable time to come these peoples will not be ready for self-government, and European peoples and States must be responsible for the administration of their territories". According to the Labour Party, the big powers had what Lord Lugard, the first colonial governor of Nigeria, termed a "dual mandate" to act as the "trustees" looking after their colonial subjects and their territories and resources. At the time the Labour Party explained, "the territories should be administered as a trust for the native inhabitants."

The Labour Party actually maintained that in order to avoid inter-imperialist rivalry, the colonies should be developed not only in the interests of one imperialist power but in the interests of all the big powers. So the Labour Party, almost from its inception, advanced the view that "it is necessary to put all the States of the world upon a footing of economic equality in colonial territories, i.e. in regard to access to raw materials, markets and capital investment". In others words, all colonies were to be open to the exploitation of all the big powers under the enlightened supervision of an international mandatory body.

Upon the conclusion of the Second World War, the working class and people assumed an honoured position. The blood they had shed in defence of humanity against fascism and militarism won the working class and progressive people a predominant position in the public consciousness, most importantly in their own consciousness. The working class had become a class for itself with its own vision for the future. Both in the Soviet Union and in Britain and the other capitalist countries, the working class was ready to advance to the leadership of the society, to participate and lead in political, social and economic affairs. It had won the right to have a say in its future; the door to progress was open.

The capitalist class by contrast was in disgrace, seen as financiers and promoters of fascism and militarism. Capitalist money and its motive force to relentlessly, compete and exploit the resources of labour power of people throughout the world was largely recognised as the cause of the catastrophes suffered from fascism and war.

A great international solidarity of workers and peasants had emerged out of the heroism and sacrifices of the war. The anti-colonial movement was in full flower and the working class in capitalist countries upheld principles of sovereignty, socialism and social progress. A consciousness had emerged to move society forward to social responsibility without exploitation of humans by humans, a world without antagonistic social classes, without imperialist plunder and oppression. The blood of so many heroic people had forced open the door to progress and humanity was poised to step through that grand portal.

It was at this time, right after the defeat of Hitlerite fascism in 1945, that there was talk of a "third way" in Britain, the issue being to abandon class partisanship in the face of the sentiment of the working class and people for socialism at this time. There was a great impetus for basic and radical social change. However, in Britain the Attlee government of 1945-51 effectively side-tracked these aspirations and used the mechanisms of the command economy to sort out the post-war crisis in Britain, in part by shifting the burden of the crisis onto Britain's colonial subjects.

Clement Attlee's post-war government is sometimes presented as the government that began dismantling the Empire, but it was actually responsible for intensifying the economic exploitation of the colonies, in the interests of the big monopolies, under the guise of "partnership". The post-1945 Labour government continued to act in the interests of the big monopolies in regard to the Empire, but found it impossible to act completely in the old way, largely owing to the struggles of those in the colonies, the strength of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement internationally and the contention between the big powers themselves. The Labour government joined with the governments of the other imperialist powers and unleashed a combination of targeted violence and illusion mongering about the capacity of the capitalist system to reform itself. Every effort was made to derail the working class movement, both in Britain and internationally.

In order to maintain the Empire, in this period, the Labour government used military means to suppress the struggles for independence and national liberation in the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Iran, but especially in Malaya, where the Labour government waged a bloody colonial war for over three years.

In the post-war period the Labour government became the junior ally of the US government, seeing in this relationship the main means to retain a dominant role for British finance capital in the world. It welcomed the Marshall Plan in Europe, was a willing participant in the anti-communist "Cold War", directly attacked the progressive forces in Greece and other countries, and in particular joined in the aggressive and criminal war launched by the US against Korea in 1950, during the course of which the Labour government doubled military spending in the space of two years at the cost of much-needed investments in social programmes.

After 13 years of Conservative government, the first Labour government of Harold Wilson came to power in 1964. Wilson's government was presented as one better able to manage the "consumer society", to modernise capitalism and produce a "scientific and technological revolution" in Britain. But the "white heat of technological change" was not harnessed in the interests of working class and people. Rather than taking a modern and enlightened approach to Britain's economic and political problems, which required a government that broke entirely from the past and was truly internationalist, the Labour government's approach aimed to enable Britain to re-establish its role as a major world power following the exposure of Britain's relative economic backwardness, the Suez debacle and Britain's exclusion from the European Economic Community.

The Labour governments of Harold Wilson, which were in office from 1964-70, continued to adopt the orientation of their immediate predecessors, and remained the junior ally of the US, acting as its police force throughout the world, in an attempt to realise Britain's great power ambitions. This orientation, which put the interests of the big monopolies and the financial oligarchy, rather than those of the masses of the people, in first place created a severe economic crisis and made Britain even more dependent on the US.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that Britain must be a world influence and a world power or nothing, and his government viewed the continued alliance with the US as the means to make Britain great again. This alliance guaranteed Britain's support for the criminal aggression of the US in Vietnam and the Labour government's commitment to continue to ensure peace and security "East of Suez", while the US pledged to continue to provide Britain with economic support. It was an alliance that created only further problems for the working class and people at home and abroad. In the Indian Ocean in 1965, for example, a "colony" termed the British Indian Ocean Territory was formed and the inhabitants of the island of Diego Garcia were simply removed in order to make way for US military bases.
Throughout its two periods of office, Wilson's government remained a leading member of NATO, SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organisation) and CENTO (the Central Treaty Organisation) and a willing participant in the anti-communist "Cold War", in which Britain acted to support reactionary regimes throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, and openly intervened by military means, especially in Malaysia. In Vietnam, the Labour government often tried to present itself as the peacemaker and "honest broker", but it remained the staunch ally of the US. Wilson argued that any US withdrawal from its criminal war of aggression in Vietnam would have "incalculable results" and that it "might carry the danger that friend and potential foe throughout the world would begin to wonder whether the US might be induced also to abandon other allies when the going got rough".

In 1966 in a speech Wilson declared: " Africa? Is it really argued that we have no role there? If we abdicate responsibility who will exercise that role? America cannot. Nor can other European powers, except in a few localised areas. China? Russia? South Africa? A new and perhaps dangerous inward-looking African nationalism? What about India? Does anyone think India wants us to leave her to become a cockpit, forced to choose between Russia and America to protect her against China?"

The Labour government therefore maintained an openly colonialist approach to foreign policy throughout the world. It conspired with the US to prevent Cheddi Jagan from coming to power in British Guiana, for example, intervened militarily in Anguilla, Aden and Yemen and threatened military action in Cyprus. In Africa too the government pursued a reactionary course and despite much rhetoric while in opposition that it would cancel armaments contracts with the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Labour government once in office reneged on that commitment and permitted the regime to be supplied with 20 British-made Buccaneer fighter aircraft.
While openly advocating the use of force in the interests of the monopolies, or for other reactionary aims, the Labour government was always adamant that because of "kith and kin considerations", force would not be used against the illegal regime of Ian Smith in the British colony of Rhodesia. In 1965, Smith's openly racist government made its "Unilateral Declaration of Independence", pledging to maintain the rule of the minority of settlers of largely British origin, while denying the African population the right to govern and determine their own affairs. Wilson's government was content to impose economic sanctions, which were openly flouted with impunity by the big monopolies. Wilson initially pledged that the racist regime would be dealt with "in weeks rather than months", but it was the national liberation struggle of the people of Rhodesia that finally brought an end to the regime and not the Labour government.

However, the Labour government's commitment to its "East of Suez" role and intervention elsewhere placed severe strains on a British economy, which was already in crisis. Increasingly the Labour government was forced to scale down its intervention and military presence, particularly in the Middle East and Asia and to seek instead to strengthen its role in Europe.

Wilson's government held office during the 1960s, at a time when there was an increasing opposition to all forms of colonialism, whether in Africa or in Ireland, and a rising tide of revolutionary struggle both in Britain and abroad. But Wilson's Labour government's stood firmly in opposition to this trend, preferring to identify, as the "natural party of government", with all that stood in opposition to the new spirit of the times which was emerging.

(to be continued)


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