By Theo Williams

In May 1938, the Trinidadian Marxist and Pan-Africanist, George Padmore, published an extraordinary article—“Why Moors Help Franco”—in the New Leader, the newspaper of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP). The eyes of the international socialist movement were fixed on Spain, where a civil war (1936-1939) between Republican and Nationalist forces was being waged. For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War was the central battlefield of a global struggle between socialism and fascism. The Communist International formed military units—International Brigades—to fight on behalf of the Popular Front government against the far-right Nationalists. Foreign radicals outside the orbit of the international Communist movement volunteered to fight alongside other socialist and anarchist groups on the Republican side.

“Why Moors Help Franco” provides an insight into the ways in which Black socialist ideas were engaging with and reshaping wider British and global socialist ideas during the 1930s. In the article, Padmore commented on the vitriol directed at the Moroccan troops who formed part of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. He observed that the left-wing press in Britain and elsewhere had called these troops “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” and “mercenaries.” For Padmore, however, the blame did not lie with the Moroccan troops. As he wrote in the article:

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

This was a cautionary tale. Padmore urged that “the British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair,” as any socialist government that failed to break from colonialism risked suffering the same fate as the Spanish Republicans. It was the government’s “treachery” that led to the deaths of “the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other.”

Here, Padmore was engaging in a debate that animated many in the British and global socialist movement during the 1930s. He, like many others, sought to explain the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. Disagreements about the nature of the relationship between these four phenomena go a long way towards explaining left-wing alliances and divisions during this period. Padmore had been a member of the Communist International during the 1920s and early 1930s, and played a crucial role in recruiting and organizing Black workers and trade unionists. He broke from the movement in the mid-1930s. Scholars contest the reasons for this break. It is unclear if Padmore jumped or if he was pushed, but what is indisputable is that during the second half of the 1930s, Padmore and the Communist movement held vastly different conceptions of the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. While the Communist rallying cry became “against fascism and war”—even if this meant compromising struggles against capitalism and colonialism—Padmore maintained that the only way to truly defeat fascism and war was to overthrow their root causes: capitalism and colonialism.

After advocating an uncompromising “Class against Class” policy from 1928, the Communist International shifted its priorities after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The movement saw Nazi Germany as an existential threat to the Soviet Union, and therefore global communism. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in September 1934 and signed a treaty of mutual assistance with France in May 1935. The Seventh Congress of the Communist International, held in the summer of 1935, advocated a “Popular Front” against the menace of fascism. This front would include bourgeois elements, so long as they opposed fascism. Communists, in seeking alliances with liberal antifascists in imperial powers like Britain and France, felt the need to moderate their anticapitalism and anticolonialism. The Popular Front enjoyed limited success in Britain, but Popular Front governments were formed in Chile, France and Spain.

By this point, Padmore was a central figure in a group of Black radical activist-intellectuals in London, which included Amy Ashwood Garvey, C. L. R. James, Chris Jones, Jomo Kenyatta, T. Ras Makonnen, and I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. These activist-intellectuals first came together in 1935 as the International African Friends of Ethiopia, in the months before Italy’s invasion of one of only three independent Black-ruled states in the world. They regrouped as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Several of the group’s members—such as Jones and Kenyatta—had also previously been associated with the Communist movement, but broke from the movement as a result of the Popular Front.

As far as the IASB was concerned, the Popular Front made a grave theoretical and programmatic error in compromising anticolonialism in the name of antifascism. For one, the IASB argued that the systems of racial domination created by colonialism and fascism were analogous. More than this, however, the group made the case for a profound relationship between colonialism and fascism. Padmore argued in his 1937 book, Africa and World Peace, that:

Were the imperialists of Britain or France to lose their colonies to-morrow, or were they faced with a challenge for power by their working classes at home, they would dispense with democracy and apply the same ruthless methods of dictatorship at home by which they govern their colonies. About this the white workers in Britain and France should have no illusions. “Democratic” Imperialism and “Fascist” Imperialism are merely interchanging ideologies corresponding to the economic and political conditions of capitalism within a given country on the one hand, and the degree to which the class struggle has developed on the other.

pp. 251-2

For Padmore and the IASB, then, fascism was no aberration from liberal democracy, but the refuge of an embattled bourgeoisie. Liberalism in Europe went hand-in-hand with brutality and racial oppression in the colonies. The possession of colonial empires might help to forestall fascism at home, but also propped up capitalism and was the primary cause of war. Following this logic, it was impossible to separate the struggles against colonialism and fascism. As Padmore concluded in Africa and World Peace, “in the present epoch there is no way out except Social Revolution.”

One especially intriguing aspect of this Black radical politics is the influence it had on the wider British socialist movement, especially in the Independent Labour Party. This influence should compel historians to incorporate the histories of Pan-Africanism and Black radicalism into the history of the British socialist movement as a whole. At its annual conference in 1937, the ILP declared its opposition to “the tactic of the Popular Front, which aims at combining the working class forces with the ‘democratic’ elements within the Capitalist parties in opposition to Fascism and Reaction. This tactic ignores the fact that Fascism and Reaction are inseparable from Capitalism and can only be defeated by the overthrow of Capitalism.” The following year, an article in the New Leader argued that “one of the worst features of the Popular Front Policy advocated by the Communist Party is the betrayal of the colonial workers which it involves.” Although no member of the IASB was officially a member of the ILP (C. L. R. James was once a member, but left in 1936) the two groups were closely allied. The ILP incorporated a range of Black radical ideas into its official thinking, and even let the IASB move into its offices in 1938.

Of course, not every group on the British Left was as receptive to the IASB’s ideas as the ILP. Tensions over questions of capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war played out at the Conference on Peace and Empire, held in London in July 1938. The conference was organized by activists associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were fierce debates between those delegates who wished to build a Popular Front, such as the Communist Party and left-wing members of the Labour Party, and those who rejected what they saw as pleas to support colonialist policies under the guise of antifascism, such as the IASB and ILP.

The conference’s general resolution declared that “the national freedom and independence of all colonial countries and subject peoples are indispensable to world peace.” However, the resolution alienated the IASB and ILP by couching the importance of national independence within the language of the “strengthening of the democratic and progressive movements everywhere” and “halting Fascist aggression.” The ILP tabled a series of amendments to explicitly support the self-emancipatory struggles of colonial peoples, and to “correct the emphasis of the resolution” so that independence was demanded as a “death-blow to Imperialism rather than as a means of securing assistance for European ‘democracy.’” T. Ras Makonnen, representing the IASB, asked “How can you have peace with empire? What you really want is peace of mind to continue to loot your empire. In fact we want war not peace, because only war will settle the contradictions latent in this empire, and show how false its pretensions are.” The ILP amendments were defeated, and the general resolution passed. (The Communist-aligned Colonial Information Bureau reported that the resolution passed by an “overwhelming majority,” and the ILP reported it was by a ratio of three-to-one.) Nevertheless, the IASB and ILP were happy to have caused such a stir at a Communist-organized conference.

Seven years later, the ILP’s general secretary, John McNair, extended fraternal greetings to the Fifth Pan-African Congress on behalf of his party. The congress, held in Manchester in October 1945, was primarily organized by IASB members like Makonnen and Padmore. McNair declared that, “We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible.” We can see from this address the continuation of a deep comradeship and a set of ideas that offered one way out—a way out not taken—of the crises of the 1930s.

Theo Williams is a lecturer in twentieth-century British history at Durham University. His book Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation is forthcoming with Verso.

Featured Image: George Padmore smoking, reading and fighting imperialism.