Civil War and United States Humanitarianism in Nigeria

Written by Jack Bennett.

Humanitarian intervention has become an accepted part of international relations, with global current affairs and news headlines from the Balkans in the 1990s to the current crisis in Syria and the Middle East. The origins of humanitarianism can be traced back to the Civil War which erupted in Nigeria in the decades following decolonisation and independence. 

During the 1960s, Nigeria was of huge importance to Africa. Population estimates suggest that 20% of the entire continent resided in the country. From the perspective of the United States and the Kennedy administration, Nigeria was seen as stable, moderate and in support of western ideological values in this Cold War geo-political climate. For instance, Edward Hamilton, who served in both Kennedy and Johnson’s administrations saw in Nigeria hope for Africa as a whole. However, underneath the surface of Nigeria, there were ethnic tensions which simmered throughout the 1960s, that boiled over in 1966 with two coups that rocked the country. Tensions were unresolved, leading to the secession of Biafra on May 30th 1967. Interestingly, this conflict seemingly fell under the radar of international politics, with Charles L. Sanders of the magazine Jet contemporaneously declaring it a war no one cared about. Nevertheless, Biafrans attempted to elicit international support for their cause through the global press and public relations initiatives, but to no avail. Even propagandistic journalism was endorsed to generate international attention for Biafra but this once again went unnoticed. For example, the British television journalist Allen Hart saw his own visit to Biafra as a waste of time, stating that we saw nothing worth seeing. Exhausted and frustrated, prior to departure back to Lisbon, the Irish Catholic priest Kevin Donaghy revealed to Hart the true extent of human tragedy gripping Nigeria. It was through this journey into the bush that Hart said: “it was through the holy ghost’s father that I was introduced to the reality and the horror and the nightmare of Biafra.” The scene that met Hart was one of starvation, malnutrition, disease and death – on an unprecedented scale, affecting millions during this time of conflict. 

The response of the United States to this humanitarian crisis came in the form of two levels. Firstly, that of the general population, with the formation of over two hundred organisations across the country, including: the actions of school students; and national initiatives such as the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive – formed in New York City by ex-Peace Corps Volunteers and students. Secondly, the U.S. government under President Johnson’s administration maintained a position of non-involvement. This humanitarian crisis, however, was to change everything. In response to domestic pressure, the Johnson administration sold eight relief airplanes to humanitarian organisations in December 1968. Edward Hamilton, in fact, wrote to the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk declaring that, because of the humanitarian crisis the slate had been wiped clean, allowing for greater U.S. involvement. By January 1969, Richard Nixon became President who was seen as sympathetic to the Biafra cause, declaring it an act of genocide during his election campaign. Upon assuming office however, Nixon assumed the same strategy as Johnson, separating politics from relief and the war from humanitarianism. This was most clearly manifested through the appointment of Clarence Ferguson as a special coordinator for relief to civilian victims of the Nigerian Civil War, who came to represent the duality of public humanitarian support and U.S. foreign policy objectives. 

The impact of the United States on humanitarianism is an area of continual debate. With perspectives ranging from the critical, declaring it an act of neo-colonial interventionism, to the more optimistic view of actions pertaining to greater political, economic and social stability and security. During the Nigerian Civil War, the U.S. provided more aid than any other country, accounting for around 75% of the total in terms of funding and tonnage of food sent to Biafra. At the same time, the problem of sovereignty was raised, and the issue of providing humanitarian relief against the will of the Nigerian government and the Biafran government. This revealed that politics could not in fact be separated from relief but were intimately interwoven, a gordian knot which had to be dealt with simultaneously. Furthermore, events took over that further impeded efforts to unravel this complex situation. In early 1969, Ferguson felt he was making clear progress to resolving this problem, but in May of that year a Swedish Count conducted a bombing mission on Nigeria that fundamentally altered the humanitarian landscape in Nigeria. 

Carl Gustaf von Rosen was of aristocratic descent, he led efforts to support the Jews during the Second World War; and fought against the Italians in support of Ethiopia during the invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s. But during the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s he truly rose to prominence. First in support of humanitarian relief, von Rosen soon realised that this was not enough, instead he pursued actively supporting the creation of an independent Biafran state and it was this that led him to enact a bombing campaign of the Nigerian army in 1969. In response, Nigeria retaliated quickly, furiously and violently; not making any distinction between the militarised efforts of von Rosen and the relief initiatives of the Red Cross. One month after the attack, the Nigerian army shot down a Red Cross plane. This brought a major difficulty to the desk of Richard Nixon; as the United States principal partner in humanitarianism was the Red Cross. Concomitantly, the Red Cross was facing its own challenges at this time. Divided into two separate factions, with one supporting revolutionary humanitarianism – providing relief support regardless of the diplomatic position of the Nigerian government; and the other upholding the principles of the Red Cross in respecting state sovereignty. Nixon, therefore, was in a dual position of reconciliation, both between the Red Cross factions and with the Red Cross and Nigeria itself. The task fell to Ferguson to coordinate this agreement in order to allow humanitarian relief operations to continue. However, this was never accomplished, so from June 1969 through to the end of the war in January 1970, the Red Cross ceased operation, with the war concluding with an established agreement. 

The Nigerian Civil War and humanitarian intervention left important legacies for similar international actions during the remainder of the twentieth century. Humanitarianism is founded upon three central principles: impartiality, independence and neutrality. These founding tenants can be seen to have been manipulated and digressed throughout the history of global relief efforts. The very notion of independence from nation states is skewed by the reliance of these non-governmental organisations on diplomatic donations and economic support. In particular the clear inextricability of the U.S. government from the American Red Cross during this period. All three principles were challenged during the Nigerian Civil War, forcing humanitarian organisations into a process of self-assessment and respect for state sovereignty. During the Civil War, the Red Cross declared that it would not deliver aid to Biafra without an agreement with the Nigerian government which permitted such intervention. Prior to the Civil War, in a number of different relief episodes around the world, state sovereignty had been breached. However, the Nigerian Civil War spotlighted these potential transgressions more forcefully. Biafra brought interventionist humanitarianism into sharp focus, within the landscape of post-colonial politics, producing a greater consensus on the requirement for intervention in a time of crisis. Today’s humanitarian right to protect is an outgrowth of the controversy surrounding the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. Similarly, this change in approach is demonstrated through the organisations which emerged in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War; in particular, the Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in 1971. This organisation grew from the French doctors present in Biafra and the experiences they had, as well as further experiences in Bangladesh in 1971, becoming an entity which ignored all pretenses of neutrality, not recognising independence or impartiality at a time of crisis, rather bearing witness and speaking out on those who perpetrated such crises. 

The response of states to humanitarian action is of huge interest and assumed a number of facets in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. The response of the United States illuminates the changing circumstances of the 1960s and the use of humanitarianism, under successive administrations. What is revealed is not an international project, but a domestic one. One in which humanitarianism was used not to fulfil international aims but to meet the domestic demands, pressures and movements. Additionally, secessionist movements and movements within developing countries and their utilisation of humanitarian aid is extremely enlightening. For example, Gourevitch explored how humanitarian crises became a way to legitimise struggles and the use of aid to then gain international support for these causes; something which most clearly took place during the Nigerian Civil War. Biafra, which failed to amass international support independently at the outset of the conflict, only achieved greater recognition after it was declared a humanitarian crisis by the international community. Therefore, humanitarianism, in the aftermath of Nigeria has since become a means of political legitimation.


Draper, Michael I. Shadows : Airlift and Airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967–1970.

Heerten, Lasse; Moses, A. Dirk (2014). “The Nigeria–Biafra war: postcolonial conflict and the question of genocide”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 169–203.

O’Sullivan, Kevin (2014). “Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70”. Journal of Genocide Research. 16 (2–3): 299–315.

Stevenson, John Allen. “Capitol Gains: How Foreign Military Intervention and the Elite Quest for International Recognition Cause Mass Killing in New States”. Political science PhD dissertation, accepted at University of Chicago, December 2014.

Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

How We Disappeared is a profound tale told by Jing-Jing Lee which gives a voice to a forgotten generation of Singapore after the Second World War.

The narrative is split into three different focalisations: Wang Di in first person at the age of seventeen as Singapore surrenders to the Japanese in 1942; Wang Di in the year 2000, observed by a semi-omniscient narrator; and lastly eleven-year old Kevin who discovers an earth-shattering confession from his ailing grandmother the same year. Each story is interwoven into the other to showcase the deep scar left in Singapore following the Japanese Occupation, and the way in which so many were forgotten as the city developed into a bustling first-world metropolis. 

Wang Di’s story begins with an idyllic picture of kampong life in Singapore; however, we are additionally presented with the underlying patriarchal values that stifle her self-esteem. During the Fall of Singapore in 1942, she is stolen from her home and brought to a brothel where she lives for the remainder of the occupation. Her account of a Japanese ‘comfort house’ illustrates the atrocities the women captured experienced by the Japanese soldiers. Lee chooses to present this experience from a first-person point of view to truly reveal the pain, struggle, and subsequent humiliation thrust upon these women when they returned to a home that no longer welcomed them. Wang Di’s courage during her abuse is made clear to the readers, and we feel infuriated when her resilience is met with a silencing sense of shame from the family she yearned for. Her story resonates heavily with a modern-day audience, as #MeToo and other movements against sexual assault are becoming more prevalent. Lee provides a thought-provoking criticism of the way in which post-war Asian cultural norms silenced victims with humiliation and marginalisation, instead of demonstrating empathy towards the sexually abused.

This is made even clearer as we flash forward fifty-eight years later. Wang Di is now seventy-five years old and mourning her late husband. She is illiterate, quiet and slowly fading into the background as she has no family left to remember her. Her primary income comes from collecting old cardboard, a profession that her new neighbours turn their noses up at. Singapore has grown rapidly around her, and the stifling of her once vibrant personality her experiences during and following the war caused her to internalise her shame and humiliation. This leaves her with a lingering regret that she never let her late husband share about his own struggles during the war, and a longing to understand his hidden past. In an aged Wang Di, we are shown the struggles of the ‘Silent Generation’ of the elderly within society today as they begin to disappear into the shadows. We are called to take a step back and examine the way in which we treat not just the older generations within our families, but those who are a part of our collective community and Singapore’s national identity.

Alternatively, Kevin’s narrative serves as a representation of a younger but equally unseen generation. He is only eleven years old, but he is extremely perceptive of his father’s struggles with depression and his mother’s attempts to maintain the illusion that there is nothing to worry about. He manages to evade his parents’ infrequent gaze and investigates his Ah Ma’s secretive past. While his parents aren’t negligent, there is still a premature independence that is thrust upon Kevin as an only child in a household with two working parents. He is the new questioning generation in Singapore who pushes against the perceived norms to find the truth.

All in all, Jing-Jing Lee provides a stunning historical narrative that incorporates the heart-breaking, forgotten story of those who were forced to disappear; however, she also reveals the way in which modern society, not only in Singapore, must strive to remember a past we cannot escape. How We Disappeared pays tribute to those left behind and those who were not able to speak up, and in doing so brings them back to life.

The International Monetary Fund during the Cold War: Charitable Body or Neo-colonial Power?

Written by Ella Raphael.

When we think of colonialism, we tend to think about war, invasion and the suffering certain nations have inflicted onto others. We perhaps think less about the indirect, ideological or economic control countries have over one another. One of the main ways countries do this is by controlling systems of global governance and organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was established in 1945 as an attempt to regulate the global post war economy. The IMF comprises of 189 nations, but historically the United States has held a strong majority of the votes. It presents itself as an organisation designed to ‘foster global monetary cooperation, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth.’ However, its intervention in Asian and African nations in the late-twentieth century suggests otherwise. Strengthening a capitalist, neoliberal dogma seemed of higher importance than helping the struggling nations it vowed to support. This is not to say that the IMF is a sinister, corrupt organisation; however, it has been branded out of touch and insensitive. Whether it intended to or not, the IMF has a history of damaging countries it claims to help.

Neo-colonialism can be loosely defined as the indirect political and economic control or influence of a nation-state, or a powerful institution extends over another nation. It has been a predominantly modern phenomenon, a new form of influence since the end of imperialism and the Second World War. Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo claims imperialism can also be ‘strong or destructive conditions of dependency of a nation-state [or institution] over another,’ which many scholars have argued matches the IMF’s relationship with many developing nations. In the process of receiving loans, struggling nations have been left indebted to the powerful organisation. The only way to escape this debt is to meet the IMF’s conditions. 

This approach has been vastly problematic in the past. Loans are only provided if the countries agree to undergo Structural Adjustment Programs, where the aim is to end protectionism switching to an agenda of privatisation. This has been a way for the IMF (which is dominated by the US) to export and enforce the political and economic ideology it deems desirable. John Hilary has argued that the conditions attached to the aid packages have undermined the passage of democracy in these nations. It prohibits governments from implementing development policies suitable to their national situations as they have to focus on repaying the loans. This weakens the economy further, perpetuating the cycle of dependency on bilateral monetary organisations. 

The US dominance of the fund during the Cold War did not help with its identification as a charitable organisation. This was at a time when these international bodies were promoted as being ‘above’ the affairs of the cold war. There was a clear ideological bias leaning towards capitalism, neoliberalism and privatisation. Between the 1960s and 1980s, it seemed as though the IMF was merely an extension of the US’s power. Teresa Hayter’s book Aid as Imperialism (1971) argues that aid has frequently been used as a political weapon. Nixon even said himself in 1968: ‘let us remember that the main purpose of aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves’. As the main contributor of aid within the IMF, this creates an unsavoury image. Loans had been disguised as aid, but they meant much more. They ultimately meant meddling with the self-determination and autonomy of the recipient nations. 

This was the experience of many African nations during the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most famous misstep was Ghana. The IMF forced parliament to override a critical governmental decision to raise import tariffs on poultry. Adherence to the funds conditions was suddenly of higher importance than addressing the pressing economic issues. Even the IMF itself has admitted since that its aggressive intervention in the 1980s was inappropriate. The organisation’s reliance on the neoliberal dogma – without assessing if it would work in the individual national frameworks – was an ‘insufficient basis for a constructive trade policy dialogue.’  Again, the IMF was not intentionally pursuing a self-sabotaging policy, however its agenda was out of touch with the nations it was helping. Its priorities leaned towards maintaining the stability of the world economy, and ultimately maintaining the power of the richest nations. 

The Philippines provides another example of the economic disarray caused by IMF intervention, which occurred between 1960 and 1990. Walden Bello argues the IMF and the World Bank were the sole architects of the turmoil the Philippines was left with for the latter part of the twentieth century. The Philippines is one of the few nations to be the subject of multiple IMF structural adjustment programmes. The 1962 devaluation imposed by the IMF forced 1,500 Filipino entrepreneurs into bankruptcy. To make matters worse, during the 1970s the IMF and the World Bank hurled the Philippines into a plan of export led growth. They were not helping to strengthen the domestic economy but were instead making it dependent on the exports of capitalist economies, reinforcing the current dependency paradigm. To many it was clear that the IMF was the engineer of this economic disaster, but it insisted the solution was a continued policy of liberalisation. As is often the case with colonial powers, the organisation took advantage of its power to control the Philippines and tried to morph it into an economy that would slot into the current capitalist order.

Although aid was not provided with malicious intent, the IMF implemented Structural Adjustment Programmes during the Cold War that were rendered out of touch with the national economies. As we have seen in Ghana and the Philippines, these programmes ended up sabotaging domestic growth in favour of maintaining the strength of the capitalist system. It ultimately boils down to a powerful entity forcing an external, unsuitable ideology onto another country under the guise of helping it. When this is the core objective of the fund, it is difficult to separate its ‘charitable’ projects from the quasi-colonial motives bubbling beneath the surface. 


Bello, Walden, Broad, Robin. The International Monetary Fund in the Philippines: In The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship and Resistance, 1982.

Gudikunst, Nicole, Briggs, Kristie, Clark, Terry, and Deskins, John. The Social Impact of the International Monetary Fund: Structural Adjustment Programs in Latin America from 1980–2000, 2010, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Hayter, Teresa. Aid as Imperialism. Pelican Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Hilary, John. “Africa: Dead Aid and the Return of Neoliberalism.” Race & Class 52, no. 2 (2010): pp. 79-84.

Lumumba-Kasongo, Tukumbi. “China-Africa Relations: A Neo-Imperialism or a Neo-Colonialism? A Reflection.” African and Asian Studies 10, no. 2-3 (2011): pp. 234-66.Weisbrot, Mark. “The IMF is hurting countries it claims to help”, The Guardian, 2019.

Review: ‘The Five’

Written by Mhairi Ferrier.

The Five, by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, tells the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims – the Canonical Five. Painstakingly researched, The Five provides the reader with a view into nineteenth-century society’s attitudes and norms. Traditionally the widely accepted narrative has been that Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been, was a killer of prostitutes. Rubenhold distinguishes that only two of the victims, Elizabeth and Mary Jane, appeared to have engaged in sex work during their lives. Of Polly, Annie and Catherine, Rubenhold notes from her research that there is no evidence to say they ever undertook any form of sex work. As is suggested in the book, this narrative made such horrific murders more palatable for the public – the idea that they were just prostitutes, seemingly acted as a justification for such killings. What The Five reminds the reader is that these women had their own stories, which deserve to be told. These women had lives, they had families, they had anecdotes and adventures which deserve to be shared rather than the tales of their vicious murders. 

“It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.” 

Jack the Ripper has developed into an industry in its own right. The name is so entrenched into popular culture, that few would be unfamiliar with the term. This industry has people flocking to Whitechapel to observe the murder sights, buying Ripper themed souvenirs, and so much more. This is done at the expense of the victims and, as Rubenhold points out, hints largely at the misogyny that exists in our society today. Barely a thought is given to the victims, when the public are engaging in this rather unsettling, and quite inappropriate, Ripper culture. One just has to look at the negative reviews of this work, to find that people are disappointed that the accounts of each of the women stops before recounting the details of the murders themselves. Or other reviewers who cannot accept that these women were simply “not just prostitutes,” disregarding the fact that this does not make such killings any less terrible or any more acceptable. Rather, it just highlights why a book of this type is still necessary in order to improve the accepted narratives and views of women. What The Five does so well is that it truly lets the reader engage with the lives of these women. We get an insight into the highs and the lows they faced before their untimely deaths. We gain an understanding of what led them to end up in Whitechapel in the first place. We understand the attitudes which led to them being branded prostitutes in newspaper report after newspaper report. What these women had to endure in their lives – deaths of their children, family suicides, illness, poverty, addiction – makes for heart-breaking, and at times somewhat difficult, reading. But what it does do well is reinsert the human aspect back into their stories. These women were grieved, they were mourned, and they should not be forgotten while the figure who murdered them has become so immortalised. “He” will never be forgotten, so why should they? It is likely to make you feel a mix of anger and sadness – but it truly is a worthwhile read which will hopefully encourage you to reassess your beliefs about Jack the Ripper and his victims. 

Rubenhold, H. The Five. London: Penguin, 2019.

The League Against Imperialism: Interwar Anti-Colonial Internationalism

Written by Lewis Twiby.

In 1955, 29 newly independent states in Asia and Africa met in Bandung, Indonesia in order to establish international solidarity between former colonies. The Bandung Conference was partially organised by Indonesian president Sukarno, who opened the Conference referencing a movement from around thirty years prior: 

I recall in this connection the Conference of the ‘League against Imperialism and Colonialism’ which was held in Brussels almost thirty years ago. At that Conference many distinguished Delegates who are here today met each other and found new strength in their fight for independence.

The League against Imperialism (LAI), which first met in Brussels in 1927, has often been overlooked in the history of internationalism and anti-colonialism – often it is regarded as a ‘failure’ or a front for the Comintern. The LAI was not the first international, anti-colonial movement – in 1900 the Pan-African Congress was held in London, and in 1924 and 1927 the Pan-Asian People’s Conferences were held in Nagasaki and Shanghai respectively – but it was the first attempt to create a global anti-colonial movement. Delegates met to discuss and build solidarity on a wide range of topics ranging from resisting the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in 1935, to supporting campaigns against Jim Crow laws in the US South. Although often relegated to a footnote in history, the LAI set the stage for the internationalism of the post-war era.

The idea for an anti-colonial international came from two communists based in Berlin, Willi Muzenburg and Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto). In the early-1920s, inspired by Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism, the Third International, later known simply as the Comintern, adopted an anti-imperialist line. The Kuomintang (KMT) from China, although not a communist party, was brought into the Comintern with it being the main anti-imperialist party – this was quickly reversed when Chiang Kai-Shek massacred the party’s communist members. Muzenburg and Chatto wished to build an international movement to support anti-colonialism independent from the Comintern, something which would prove beneficial for the LAI after Stalin’s seizure of power in 1928. According the Vijad Prashad, the name ‘League against Imperialism and Colonialism’ was chosen to specifically attack the League of Nations. The disintegration of the German and Ottoman Empires following the First World War meant that their former possessions outside of Europe were handed to the victorious powers under the euphemistically named ‘mandate system’. Woodrow Wilson’s call for national ‘self-determination’ was only applied to Europeans, not the colonised.

  Meanwhile, the LAI needed to hold their conference somewhere, and here we see the paradox in pre-war internationalism. While post-war international conferences were held in the former colonised world – Bandung (1955), Accra (1957), Dar es Salaam (1974) etc. – the majority of anti-colonial conferences were held in the metropoles. This is reflected in the three cities shortlisted for the first LAI conference – Berlin, Paris, and Brussels. A key factor in why conferences were held in Europe, Japan, or the US was merely a practical one. As described by Sukarno in 1955, ‘It was not assembled there by choice, but by necessity’. Draconian restrictions of movement in the colonies limited the ability of nationalists to travel and build solidarity movements, but these limitations were not as strict within the metropole. Furthermore, many nationalists were in the metropole for education, or missions to raise awareness of the plight of the colonised. Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress, and the future first prime minister of India, became one of the founders of the LAI as he coincidentally was in Europe raising support for Indian independence.

One of the key flaws of the LAI was its reliance on European support. Berlin and Paris both barred the LAI’s first conference being held – for Berlin due to Muzenburg’s links to the Comintern and Paris fearing that it could inspire revolt among its colonies. Several delegates from Britain were even detained upon arrival in Belgium, so much was the LAI at the whim of Europeans. Nevertheless, an international delegation managed to arrive in Brussels in February 1927. Prashad has shown why Brussels was chosen – the brutal exploitation of the Congo under Leopold II had highlighted the violence of colonial rule, and had sparked an international movement against Leopold’s personal fiefdom. Delegates came from across the world including Nehru (India), Albert Einstein, Rosamond Soong Ching-ling, the widow of revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (China), Sukarno (Indonesia), Lamine Senghor (Senegal), Independent Labour Party MP Fenner Brockway, and Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera (Mexico). Although closely aligned to the Comintern, and many communists did attend, non-socialist nationalists did attend – such as the African National Congress from South Africa, a still fairly elite party in the 1920s.

Such a wide range of delegates meant that the LAI covered many issues facing colonised peoples across the world, some of which had largely been ignored by anti-imperialist movements. For example, Latin American delegates, inspired by the words of Argentina’s Bautista Justo denouncing his country being ‘reduced to the status of a British colony’ in 1896, managed to get the LAI to support Latin America’s resistance to British and American exploitation. As Latin America had won its independence in the early-nineteenth century, it had largely been disregarded in solidarity for this reason. Most famously, the LAI threw its support behind those accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, with its intersection of labour and colonial rights it symbolised the Leagues raison d’être. In 1929 several trade unionists in Meerut were arrested by British authorities under the charges that they were working with the Soviet Union to overthrow British rule in a socialist revolution. Through the LAI protestors campaigned for their acquittal in Britain, and built ties with the Communist Party of India and Indian lawyers in order to defend the accused. The case lasted until 1933, and the accused were initially found guilty, but the convictions were later overturned.

However, the LAI was constantly dogged by controversies. Centre-left parties, including in an ironic twist of history Karl Marx’s grandson, denounced the League as a front for the Comintern. The significant presence of communists meant that the LAI was tied to the Comintern, but the accusation of it being a front, which still is present in the historiography, ignores the agency of those who took part in the LAI. Furthermore, this further ignores the deep divide between the LAI and Comintern during the 1930s. With the rise of fascism, and Stalin’s paranoia, creating a distinct shift in policy. Communist parties in Europe were told to doggedly adhere to Soviet demands as Stalin aggressively implemented his ‘socialism in one country’ policy. Many communists would be murdered upon visiting, or living in, Moscow as Stalin wanted firm commitment to protecting the Soviet Union – any sign of independence was met with expulsion from the Comintern, which happened to Muzenburg, or execution, which happened to Chatto. Priyamvada Gopal has highlighted how Stalin shifted the Comintern’s policy of anti-imperialism to only focus on the ‘fascist empires’ of Italy and Japan, and to ignore ‘democratic empires’ like Britain and France. The LAI naturally loathed this policy – Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore pointed out how the USSR allowed ‘colonial fascism’ as it did not directly threaten Stalin’s power.

The 1930s would spell the end of the LAI, although it managed to last until 1936. Due to power imbalances the LAI was reliant on organising in Europe, and this severely limited the League’s ability to operate. Britain, France, and the Netherlands, in particular, were particularly keen to curb the League’s ability to run within their borders, due to the number of delegates which came from their colonies. Ties to anti-colonial movements within the metropole were further seen as a Bolshevik plot – colonised peoples, and their allies, were seen as being unable to operate without orders from Moscow. Consequently, Muzenburg and Chatto largely based the League in Germany, but the rise of the Nazis wiped out the German Left by 1934. Muzenburg fled to France and Chatto to Moscow, and died in 1937. Muzenburg would also be expelled by the Comintern, and would be found dead during the German invasion of France. Furthermore, two major events firmly undermined the League’s ability to construct anti-colonial solidarity. Chiang Kai-shek’s destruction of the Canton Commune in December 1927 caused the KMT to be expelled, but, without a major Chinese ally, the LAI was unable to build support against Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Palestine would also hurt the League. Arab nationalists, the labour Zionist group Poale Zion, and the Communist Party of Palestine (PCP) bickered over the Palestinian mandate – nationalists opposed Zionism, Zionists wanted a Jewish homeland, and the PCP, under Daniel Averbach, saw nationalism and Zionism as tools for Britain to divide the people. The LAI eventually voted to eject Poale Zion, but as a consequence was unable to prevent the sectarian violence which tore apart Palestine throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

The decline of the LAI after only a decade has often led to it being called an abject failure. While the LAI did not have a tangible impact on anti-colonial internationalism, its existence was what made it important. It was a first attempt at creating solidarity across continents – LAI supporters in London in 1931 took over Trafalgar Square in solidarity with those accused in the Meerut Case. This is keenly shown with those who attended. Lamine Senghor said that the existence of the League spoke louder than anything else, ‘But beware, Europe! Those who have slept long will not go back to sleep when they wake!’ The seeds of post-war internationalism had their roots with the League against Imperialism.


Belogurova, A., ‘Networks, Parties, and the “Oppressed Nations”: The Comintern and Chinese Communists Overseas, 1926–1935’, Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, 24, (2017), 61-82.

Gopal, P., Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, (London: 2019). 

‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’, in Lenin, V., Selected Works, (Moscow: 1963), 667-766.

Louro, M., ‘“National Revolutionary Ends and Communist Begins”: The League against Imperialism and the Meerut Conspiracy Case’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 33:3, (2013), 331-344.

Petersson, F., ‘Hub of the Anti-Imperialist Movement: The League against Imperialism and Berlin, 1927-1933’, International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 16:1, (2013), 49-71.Prashad, V., The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, (New York: 2008).