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The League Against Imperialism: Interwar Anti-Colonial Internationalism

Written by Lewis Twiby. 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.

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.

Bibliography

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).

Image: https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2014/10/20/prelude-to-bandung-the-interwar-origins-of-anti-colonialism/

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