Afro-marxist modernity. Ghana and Angola in comparison

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”[1]

“It was commonly thought that the time had come for the world, and particularly for the Third World, to choose between the capitalist system and the socialist system. The underdeveloped countries […] must, however, refuse to get involved in such rivalry. [They] must endeavour to focus on their very own values as well as methods and style specific to them. […] The choice of a socialist regime, of a regime entirely devoted to the people […] will allow us to progress faster in greater harmony.”[2]

Marx’ depiction of change in a modern, capitalist society – evoked, he argues, by the constant revolutionising of the instruments of production – is part of a theory, which, in its various manifestations in the 20th century, provided the basis for a modernity radical opposed to the prescribed one. The Cold War between the two opposing political and economic systems, of which Fanon speaks, can indeed be regarded as a competition between these two versions of modernity propagated by Washington and Moscow, respectively. Fanon’s directive for Africa, reflecting the truly global dimension of this contestation, may seem contradictory at first sight, but, as will be shown, is referring to a distinct version of the modernity propagated by the latter, an Afro-Marxist modernity, which will be the topic of this essay. Using Africa as one common geographical frame bears risks, given the massive differences in social and political developments throughout the 19th and 20th century. Still, the combining colonial experience and the later discussed Pan-African movement, closely intertwined with Marxism, justify the common analysis. After defining modernity as well as its Marxist and, finally, Afro-Marxist notions, the proliferation of these ideas is outlined, both in the form of the Soviet Union’s as well as Cuba’s ties to the various African movements and independent states and the education of Africans outside Africa. Finally, the realization of these ideas and the differing manifestations are described, using Ghana and Angola as two case studies contrasting a non-violent nation-building project, and a radical, militant struggle. Sources by Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the Ghanaian independence movement and the MPLA, one of the parties in the Angolan war against the Portuguese and the subsequent civil war help to show that the manifestation of spread ideas depended heavily on single African actors as well as the Cold War geopolitical situation. In order not to overcomplicate the terminology and to find a depth of the ideological differentiation appropriate to the length of the essay, Marxism is used in a broad sense as relating to the basic Marxist claim for the control of the means of production by the working class (even in their absence as in many developing countries at the time) or, in broader terms, a mass-based politics with an anti-capitalist stance.

To begin with, modernity, in general terms, is understood as an overall approach to or concept of life in the modern age, in ideological terms defined as post-enlightenment era and, to differentiate it from post-modernity, based on the first and second industrial revolutions. “As the basic characteristic and embodiment of the developmental process of modern society, modernity manifests itself in all aspects of social life.”[3] Following Marshall Berman, we find the crucial phase of modernisation, i.e. the striving for a – more or less radical – changing of society, based on new ideas, in the time after the “great revolutionary wave of 1790s”, in which an abruptly emerged modern public “shares the feeling of living in a revolutionary age”, but at the same time remembers the material and spiritual conditions of the pre-revolutionary era.[4] Modernity also “entailed some very distinct shifts in the conception of human agency, and of its place in the flow of time. It carried a conception of the future characterized by a number of possibilities realizable through autonomous human agency”[5]. This striving for another organization of society, however, we have to understand as split into a global multitude with overlapping similarities, but also clear local distinctions.

Marxism constituted the most radical form of this new understanding of human agency. By developing an alternative, but all the more enthusiastic, model of a just, industrialized society, enjoying the benefits of modern technology and industrial goods, Marx delivered a blueprint for the reorganization of societies which enjoyed unforeseeable popularity in the 20th century. Even more important for our case was, however, the realization of this rather vaguely defined concept of modernity by the Bolsheviks and the perception of this experiment in the rest of the world. Soviet modernity was a way of the engagement of the masses – including women – in the ideological vision of the party. In its refutation of Marx’ idea, that the socialist revolution could only be successful in developed, capitalist societies, the Soviet Union constituted a form of modernization based on mechanisation, industrialisation and overall-control of the economy and society by a vanguard party which came to power only by means of militancy and violence.[6] In the Cold War context after 1945, finally, “modernity came in two stages: a capitalist form and a communal form, reflecting two revolutions – that of capital and productivity, and that of democratization and the social advancement of the underprivileged.” In this above described rivalry for notions of modernity, both sides had to prove “the universal applicability of their ideologies” by exporting them to the not yet developed world. [7] Marxism thus became a concept of development and, paradoxically – given Marx’ idea that nations would vanish after the realization of communism – nation-building and therefore became a popular approach to modernity. For this essay, we distinguish between three forms of dissemination of this Marxist modernity: material support, ideological connections and the loose spread of ideas.

Afro-Marxist modernity, finally, can be seen as an adaptation of these ideas to the African context. Pan-Africanism, i.e. the idea that the liberation of one country is only the first step towards the liberation and unification of the whole of Africa, played a crucial role in many anti-colonial movements, most prominently in Nkrumah’s concept of African socialism. Despite being Marxist in word and deed, Afro-Marxist movements stressed that they were “departing in significant ways” from classical Marxism.[8] This also meant that Afro-Marxism did not necessarily entail any form of political alignment with Moscow in the Cold War. In fact, the non-aligned-movement was very popular among anti-capitalist African governments.[9] “The eclectic nature of Afro-Marxism allowed adoptive regimes a certain autonomy with regard to Moscow while still being allowed to present themselves as ‘progressive’.”[10]

Despite this non-necessity of direct links to Moscow, the Soviets played a crucial role for many Afro-Marxist movements. While the Bolsheviks took an anti-imperialist stance from the beginning on, which they tried to spread through the Comintern, the actual support as well as the strength of Marxist movements in Africa was relatively poor initially. In the 1930s, the support increased even further due to the common fascist threat with the imperial powers.[11] In the decade after 1945, then, sub-Saharan Africa was considered “relatively unimportant in terms of geopolitics.”[12] After Khrushchev dropped Stalin’s two-camp theory, a more pragmatic approach defined Moscow’s relationship with Africa. Even countries without a distinct anti-capitalist stance received material supply, which was regarded as an anti-Western investment.[13] In general terms, one can distinguish between two phases of Soviet influence in Africa: after supporting newly-independent countries, especially Guinea, Mali and Ghana from 1958 onwards, the USSR, as well as Cuba, intervened in several armed conflicts or civil wars in the 1970s, most importantly in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.[14]

While the USSR was also the host for students from – not only anti-capitalist – African countries, most prominently at the People’s Friendship University in Moscow[15], and thereby tried to actively propagate Soviet modernity among Africans, the education of Africans in the West was even more important in many cases. Often already “dedicated to such staples of modernity as technology and systematization”[16] through colonial education, links to communist parties especially in Britain, France and Portugal helped African elites to develop their Afro-Marxist ideas of how to gain political as well as economic independence from the West and to build a just and progressive society thereafter. The Western education also helps to explain the focus on science and education, “which were at the heart of the project to build modern states in the Third World.”[17] The links to European and Soviet communists, however, must not be overestimated. Afro-Marxist leaders “were out to win power for themselves rather than to place their movements and countries under external communist domination.”[18]

The actual Afro-Marxist nation- and state-building can be distinguished, like the Soviet support, in two phases: “During the late 1950s and early 1960s countries such as Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Tanzania and Zambia, claimed to have adapted socialism to their own national circumstances, producing territorial variants of what was vaguely described as ‘African Socialism’, or ‘Populist Socialism’”, which favoured “broad-based hegemonistic mass movements of the anti-colonial struggle” over Leninist vanguard parties. Since the realization of their socialist programs failed, these first Afro-Marxist regimes faced deep troubles in the late 1960s and many fell victim to military coups. The result was, however, no retreat from the Marxist path of modernization. Rather, a more radical Marxist approach was presented as an answer to the failure of these regimes. The first African “People’s Republic” in Congo (Brazaville), established in 1969 after a putsch by radical soldiers, is the first example of this more radical Marxist state model. Yet, a Marxist-Leninist party was only established years after the acquisition of power. The same is true for Somalia, Benin and Ethiopia. This more radical Marxist approach was even “used by political dissidents to challenge the legitimacy of established Marxist rulers.”[19] The most radical and militant manifestation of Afro-Marxism, however, could be seen in the former Portuguese colonies and the civil wars resulting from the late decolonization process.

The history of Ghanaian, and indeed African independence cannot be written without the person of Kwame Nkrumah. The leader of the independent movement and first president of the newly independent country “became a symbol of hope for other colonised people around the world”[20], especially in Africa, and most important advocate of Pan-Africanism. Through his western education, both in the US and the UK, he came into contact with Marxist ideas as well as communist and African organisations. He also played a key role in the 1945 Manchester fifth Pan-African Congress, where he discussed his ideas with other key African politicians like Frantz Fanon.[21] In 1947 he was invited to become head of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC).[22] He “arrived in a country facing serious postwar difficulties. Unemployment was rampant, prices had soared and the all-important cocoa crop was threatened by disease”[23], which in 1948 led to riots and demonstrations. Nkrumah, more radical than the other UGCC members, founded the Convention People’s Party (PCC) in 1949, which “demanded ‘Self-Government Now’ and began to mobilise trade unionists, farmers, youth and ex-servicemen’s associations”[24] and thereby channelled the anti-colonial mood in the country. In 1951, while in prison for organising demonstrations, he won the general election with over 90 percent. During this campaign his party propagated a resolute modern programme, including “free education and medical care, the introduction of heavy industry, railroad electrification [and] the mechanization of agriculture”[25] and were thus already promoting a modernity with a Marxist stance. Following his appointment as prime minister of the Gold Coast in 1952, he and the CPP led the country peacefully to “internal self-government” and, finally, to independence in 1957, when Nkrumah became first president of renamed Ghana.[26] Having already determined the discourse about the future of the country in the late colonial era, the term “development” became ubiquitous after 1957. “Development, the objective good, was the one tenant upon which the Cold War powers in the United Nations, as well as the Third World powers at Bandung, could all agree.” The introduction of annual development plans, focusing on industrialisation and infrastructure projects led the county on a modernization path established first in the Soviet Union. Development also included a focus on, especially technical, education and technology.[27]

These symbols of modernity in the first independent sub-Saharan African country were not established in an explicit Marxist framework at the beginning. Indeed, Nkrumah’s foreign policy swayed between East and West several times while officially being part of the Non-Aligned Movement, which illuminated the “cultivation of an enlightened, humanist, and morally and socially reforming modernity”.[28] Soviet material assistance for Ghana started in 1960, when an agreement was signed providing for cultural and technological cooperation as well as the exchange of teachers and students. In another agreement following soon after, the exchange of Soviet industrial products for Ghanaian raw materials was arranged.[29] This cooperation, however, was only one part of Ghana’s foreign aid, albeit presenting the educational, technological and industrial modernity more symbolically than the US loans. It was not until 1964, that Ghana in word and deed ultimately moved closer to a Soviet-Marxist modernity, although Nkrumah never fully accepted it while being president.[30]

At this point it is worth looking closer at one of Nkrumah’s most important publications, “Africa Must Unite”[31] from 1963. In a chapter titled “Building Socialism in Africa”, he describes his vision of an African socialism. Although he names different parts of Marxist modernity like “industrialisation”, “public ownership of the means of production”, a government-controlled economy as well as the role of the PCC, which is “entirely Ghanaian in content and African in outlook, though imbued with Marxist socialist philosophy”, he denies the Soviet Union as the role model of this modernization and states, that “there is no universal pattern for industrialization that can serve as an absolute model for new nations emerging out of colonialism.” Two things become clear in Nkrumah’s view: Afro-Marxist modernity is perceived as a distinct African adaptation of the spread ideas of Marxist theory, and the Soviet role model is denied, despite the mentioned material support for the realization of this modernity. Nkrumah’s more radical Marxist or rather anti-Western course caused his downfall in 1966, when a military coup overthrew his government while he was on a piece mission in Vietnam.[32] While in exile, he continued publishing and reverted to a more radical Marxist, which made his ideology, “Nkrumahism”, a source of inspiration even for Marxist Afro-Americans, as evident in a pamphlet published by the “All-African People’s Revolutionary Party” in Washington in 1982, where his Pan-Africanism is extended to the idea of an African nationhood and one – centuries old – common, as well as global and anti-capitalist struggle all Africans around the world are part of. “Scientific socialism” is presented as an answer and “historical necessity”, realized by a vanguard party formed out of the – male and female – intelligentsia of Africans in Africa and in the diaspora.[33] His ideology thus became a means of dissemination of a specific notion of modernity itself.

Angola presented a quite different case, both in the type of the colonial rule and, resulting from it, the way the decolonization process took place. For the Portuguese governments, especially after the erection of Salazar’s Estado Novo in 1926, Angola and its other colonial possessions constituted overseas departments of the Portuguese nation and played a crucial part in the Portuguese economy. In the 1960s, large-scale development plans and an increase in the settler population emphasized Angola’s importance for the regime. At the same time, violence – remaining the only viable expression of anti-colonial opposition due to the government’s stance on the colonial question – broke out between the government and different nationalist movements which, one the one hand, consisted of the so-called mestiços (mixed) and assimilados (Westernized), which were parts of the urban population and felt increasingly threatened in their position by the growing number of settlers and, on the other hand, of mostly rural Africans hardly affected by the colonial modernity. This split in terms of class (and, to an extent, race) in the anti-colonial movement also features the two main factions in the civil war, the MPLA and the FNLA. The former emerged from contacts between Angolan students in Portugal and the Portuguese Communist Party – which acted as an intermediary of Soviet modernity due to their close links to Moscow[34] – and became more and more radical Marxist. While these movements also represented different ethnic groups, these splits were not the reason for the civil war. Quite on the contrary, the territorial integrity of the Angolan “nation”, defined by the Portuguese imperialists, remained unquestioned by the anti-colonial movements.[35]

Already during the anti-colonial, but most importantly during the following civil war resulting from the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974, Angola became a Cold War proxy war with a multitude of players involved. While the US, South Africa, China and Zaire supported MPLA’s opponents, UNITA and the FNLA, the Angolan Afro-Marxists received large-scale military aid from the Soviet Union (as well as its European allies), various African countries, including Ghana and Congo Brazaville (where the MPLA had its base prior to the declaration of independence in 1975) as well as the supply of 12,000 Cuban troops in late 1975, which proved crucial for the survival of the MPLA during Pretoria’s invasion.[36] These ideological connections to the communist world, however, were the result of a quest for international supply initially in the West, which was denied due to their Marxist reputation despite the initial refusal of the leadership of a clear Marxist stance. In 1964, finally, the MPLA positioned itself in the Socialist Camp and established the connections which guaranteed its victory in the civil war.[37] Apart from the overt Marxist program, the anti-imperialist struggle of other movements, especially in Vietnam and Algeria, became crucial for the MPLA’s understanding of being part of a global struggle.[38]

Modernity in the Angolan case was closely connected to the term “national liberation”. In a speech over Radio Tanzania from 1968, the leader of the MPLA, Agostinho Neto, outlined his stance on the war against the Portuguese, which he regarded as part of a global, anti-capitalist struggle. It becomes clear, that militancy is part of modernity, the armed action is a “school” for the warriors which shall lead the nation in the struggle for full independence, i.e. from the Portuguese and the foreigners owning the natural resources. Unlike Nkrumah, Neto did not propagate Pan-Africanism, but stressed the “anti-racial” stance of his movement, a reference to the racial background of the MPLA. He also addresses modernity in a direct manner when speaking of the MPLA’s strive for the “liquidation of ignorance, disease and primitive forms of social organization” and the need for industrialisation, all implemented by a strong “vanguard party” which “must control the life of the country during every moment.”[39] Although Neto didn’t address the links to the Soviet Union in this speech, the MPLA was transformed into a Marxist-Leninist ‘vanguard worker’s party’ after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of Angola in 1975 and a visit of Neto in Moscow in 1976.[40] In the new program, “there was no mention of ‘African socialism’, a formula which Moscow distrusted as unscientific.”[41] Despite these close ties, the Angolan economy remained oriented towards the West.[42]

A triptych from about 1975, depicting the three leaders of the Marxist struggle in Angola (Castro, Neto, Brezhnev), exhibited in London in 2016 (red4.jpg), marks not only the cultural implementation of Afro-Marxist modernity in Angola, realized through global Marxists cooperation, it also shows the post-modern reception of the topic in the post-colonial metropolis.[43] As we have seen, Afro-Marxist modernity manifested itself in different ways throughout time. In Ghana, ideological links as well as the material support in form of Ghanaian-Soviet cooperation, were only established during the end of Nkrumah’s reign. However, the spread of Marxist ideas was influential for his entire thinking, beginning with his Western education, and, consequently, the implementation of a form of Afro-Marxism in Ghana, closely linked to the idea of Pan-Africanism, and shaped the discourse around the term “development”. Angola presents a different picture: the proliferation of modernity happened most importantly in the form of military assistance as a means of material support. Moreover, ideological connections with communists in Portugal, Cuba and the Soviet Union defined the movement from the beginning on. The inevitability of radical militancy made the MPLA leaders use these ties to manifest an Afro-Marxist modernity which in ideological and military terms relied much more on non-African Marxist powers than in Ghana. The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, however, as well as the on-going UNITA insurgency and the failure of the implemented economic system made the MPLA finally open the country towards a market-oriented model and a multi-party system.[44] Has Afro-Marxist modernity thus “melted into air” and been replaced by a neoliberal, universal postmodernity, in which it is reduced to the topic of a post-modern exhibition?

Primary Sources

“All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. Some aspects of its origins, objectives, ideology & program.” Political pamphlet, published by the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, Washington D.C. in 1982 or 1983. Source: African Activist Archive. URL: http://africanactivist.msu.edu/document_metadata.php?objectid=32-130-1C55.

Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

Marx, Karl: The Communist Manifesto, edited by Frederic L. Bender (New York: Norton & Company, 1988).

Neto, Agostinho: “A message to companions in the struggle.” Speech, delivered on 06.06.1968 over Radio Tanzania in the program “The Voice of Angola in Combat”. Source: African Activist Archive. URL: http://africanactivist.msu.edu/document_metadata.php?objectid=32-130-1188.

Nkrumah, Kwame: Africa Must Unite (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1963).

Ractliffe, Jo: “Mural portraits depicting Fidel Castro, Agostinho Neto and Leonid Brezhnev, painted on the wall of a house in Viriambundo, Angola, circa 1975.” Triptych, part of: Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg. URL: http://calvert22.org/images/uploads/pages/Red_Africa/slideshow1/_element_slideshow/red4.jpg. Published in the exhibition “Red Africa” of the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, 4 Feb – 3 Apr 2016. URL: http://calvert22.org/red-africa/.

Secondary Sources

Adi, Hakim; Sherwood, Marika: Pan-African History. Political figures from Africa and the diaspora since 1787 (London: Routledge, 2003).

Berman, Marshall: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin Books, 1988).

Eisenstadt, S.N.: Multiple Modernities, Daedalus, 129/1 (2000), pp. 1-29.

Gleijeses, Piero: Conflicting Missions. Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1956-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Guimarães, Fernando Andresen: The Origins of the Angolan Civil War. Foreign Intervention and Domestic Political Conflict. (London: Macmillan Press, 1998).

Howell, Thomas A.; Rajasooria, Jeffrey P.: Ghana & Nkrumah (New York: Facts on File, 1972).

Hughes, Arnold: The appeal of marxism to Africans, Journal of Communist Studies, 8 (1992), pp. 4-20.

Kret, Abigail Judge: ‚We Unite with Knowledge‘. The Peoples’ Friendship University and Soviet Education for the Third World, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 33/2 (2013), pp. 239-256.

Mazov, Sergey: A Distant Front in the Cold War. The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956-1964 (Standford: Standford University Press, 2010).

Nugent, Paul: Africa Since Independence. A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Poe, D. Zizwe: Kwame Nkrumah’s Contribution to Pan-Africanism. An Afrocentric Analysis (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Schmidt, Elizabeth: Foreign Intervention in Africa. From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Steele, Jonathan: Soviet relations with Angola and Mozambique, in: Cassen, Robert (Ed.): Soviet interests in the Third World. The Royal Institute of International Affairs (London: SAGE Publications, 1985), pp. 284-298.

Webber, Mark: Angola: Continuity and change, Journal of Communist Studies, 8 (1992), pp. 126-144.

Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

White, Evan: Kwame Nkrumah: Cold War Modernity, Pan-African Ideology and the Geopolitics of Development, Geopolitics, 8 (2003), pp. 99-124.

Ziyi, Feng: A contemporary interpretation of Marx’s thoughts on modernity, Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 1 (2006), pp. 254-268.

[1] Marx, Karl: The Communist Manifesto, edited by Frederic L. Bender (New York: Norton & Company, 1988), p. 58.

[2] Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), pp. 55-56.

[3] Ziyi, Feng: A contemporary interpretation of Marx’s thoughts on modernity, Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 1 (2006), pp. 254-268, here p. 255.

[4] Berman, Marshall: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 17.

[5] Eisenstadt, S.N.: Multiple Modernities, Daedalus, 129/1 (2000), pp. 1-29, here p. 2.

[6] Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 52, 92.

[7] Ibid., pp. 4, 40.

[8] Nugent, Paul: Africa Since Independence. A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 138.

[9] Westad: Global, p. 107.

[10] Hughes, Arnold: The appeal of marxism to Africans, Journal of Communist Studies, 8 (1992), pp. 4-20, here pp. 17-18.

[11] Ibid., p 5.

[12] Mazov, Sergey: A Distant Front in the Cold War. The USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 1956-1964 (Standford: Standford University Press, 2010), p. 11.

[13] Hughes: Appeal, p. 16.

[14] Schmidt, Elizabeth: Foreign Intervention in Africa. From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 26.

[15] Kret, Abigail Judge: ‚We Unite with Knowledge‘. The Peoples’ Friendship University and Soviet Education for the Third World, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 33/2 (2013), pp. 239-256.

[16] Westad: Globa,, p. 74.

[17] Ibib., p. 93.

[18] Hughes: Appeal, p. 6.

[19] Ibid., pp. 10-14.

[20] White, Evan: Kwame Nkrumah: Cold War Modernity, Pan-African Ideology and the Geopolitics of Development, Geopolitics, 8 (2003), pp. 99-124, here p. 100.

[21] Poe, D. Zizwe: Kwame Nkrumah’s Contribution to Pan-Africanism. An Afrocentric Analysis (New York: Routledge, 2003), p.2.

[22] Adi, Hakim; Sherwood, Marika: Pan-African History. Political figures from Africa and the diaspora since 1787 (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 144.

[23] Howell, Thomas A.; Rajasooria, Jeffrey P.: Ghana & Nkrumah (New York: Facts on File, 1972), p. 7.

[24] Adi: History, p. 144.

[25] Howell: Ghana, p. 12.

[26] Adi: History, p. 144.

[27] White: Nkrumah, pp. 105-106.

[28] Ibid., pp. 111-112.

[29] Howell: Ghana, pp. 62-63.

[30] White: Nkrumah, p. 113.

[31] Nkrumah, Kwame: Africa Must Unite (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1963).

[32] Adi: History, p. 145.

[33] Pamphlet found in the African Activist Archive. URL: http://africanactivist.msu.edu/document_metadata.php?objectid=32-130-1C55.

[34] Webber, Mark: Angola: Continuity and change, Journal of Communist Studies, 8 (1992), pp. 126-144, here p. 127.

[35] Guimarães, Fernando Andresen: The Origins of the Angolan Civil War. Foreign Intervention and Domestic Political Conflict. (London: Macmillan Press, 1998), pp. 4-32.

[36] Gleijeses, Piero: Conflicting Missions. Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1956-1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 246-272.

[37] Guimarães: Origins, p. 72.

[38] Webber: Angola, pp. 127-128.

[39] Speech found in the African Archivist Archive. URL: http://africanactivist.msu.edu/document_metadata.php?objectid=32-130-1188.

[40] Guimarães: Origins, p. 170.

[41] Steele, Jonathan: Soviet relations with Angola and Mozambique, in: Cassen, Robert (Ed.): Soviet interests in the Third World. The Royal Institute of International Affairs (London: SAGE Publications, 1985), pp. 284-298, here p. 289.

[42] Ibid.

[43] „Red Africa“, Calvert 22 Foundation, London, 4 Feb – 3 Apr 2016. URL: http://calvert22.org/red-africa/.

[44] Webber: Angola, pp. 130-137.

Mau Mau and the discourse of modernity

„The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world, which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress, this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history into their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities.”[1]

The decolonization process in Kenya, Britain’s East African settler colony, was indeed, as Frantz Fanon stated in 1961, a story of violence, starting with the forceful “transformation of Kenya from a polyglot of strangers into a coherent state”[2] by the British in 1895 and the introduction of an economic system based on the violent acquisition of most of the land by British settlers. The formation of the nationalist movement, finally, is closely linked to the violence of the Second World War, in which Kenyans fought side by side with the British. Yet, Fanon’s “forbidden cities” have to be understood more in a metaphorical way in the case of Kenya, since the radicalisation of one part of these nationalists, which became known as “Mau Mau”, took place to a large extent in Nairobi itself. Rather, one can interpret these “cities” as an African modernity. Decolonization, however, was not only a history of anti-colonial resistance and violence, but also a discourse between a moderate and a militant part of the African population in Kenya about the shape of this modernity, which will be discussed in this essay. In order to understand the context of this discourse, the different African modernities during the process of decolonization will be examined at the beginning. Then, the discussion of the social background of the emerging Kenyan nationalist discourse and the way it was conducted in the press will lead to the comparison between two nationalist pamphlets from 1945 and 1948, respectively, representing the two competing fractions inside the nationalist movement. This essay thus focuses on the prehistory of the Mau Mau uprising. By putting two voices of the Kenyan discourse, which was less directly shaped by the Cold War than in other African countries, in the context of other African modernities, it intends to show that these voices can be seen as part of a general, double-edged quest for modernity in Africa during the process of decolonization, albeit less articulated in the ideological language of the Cold War.

To begin with, modernity, understood “as the basic characteristic and embodiment of the developmental process of modern society, […] manifests itself in all aspects of social life”[3] and is thus an all-embracing concept of the study of societies in a post-enlightenment age. This concept is understood as split into a global multitude with overlapping similarities, but also clear local distinctions.[4] Since the era of decolonization was a time of searching for new identities for colonized societies in Africa and Asia, it is a revealing lens to study the various anti-colonial or nationalist movements of the time. Decolonization also always has to be understood as closely linked to the Cold War, in which “modernity came in two stages: a capitalist form and a communal form, reflecting two revolutions – that of capital and productivity, and that of democratization and the social advancement of the underprivileged”[5], represented by the two anti-colonial superpowers which emerged from the Second World War, the US and the USSR, respectively. In Africa, these role-models were, however, mostly not addressed as such directly, since the different nationalist movements wanted to stress their independence from non-African powers and their distinct African ideologies.[6] Indeed, the Non-Aligned Movement, which illuminated the “cultivation of an enlightened, humanist, and morally and socially reforming modernity”[7], was very popular among newly African governments. Socialism and Capitalism – albeit often with a rather socialist rhetoric due to the association of capitalism with colonialism[8] – manifested themselves in very different forms in Africa, some in a non-violent way like in Ghana, but also through violence like in the civil war in Angola in the 1970s, in which the USSR, Cuba, China, the US and South Africa intervened. Many countries received financial and material aid from the West and the East, regardless of their official ideological position.

The origins of these different African modernities lie in the respective colonial background as well as the Western (and, later, Eastern) education of African elites. The Pan-African ideology, established and shaped by Africans in London, Paris or Lisbon[9], often studying at the metropole’s best universities, and at the five Pan-African congresses, met with different discourses of development after 1945, in which the colonial states “were redefined as the engines of social transformation directing a three-pronged process of ‘political’ progress, economic development, and educational and social advance’”[10], but in a different constitutional context. While the British had established a clear distinction from its colonies, the Portuguese regarded their colonies as overseas provinces of their nation, like the French did with regard to its settler colony Algeria, which led the nationalist movements in these countries no choice but to use violence to achieve their aims, similar to Kenya. The geopolitical background had thus a large influence on the different articulations of African modernity. Although some nationalist movements referred to a pre-colonial past, decolonization never simply meant “the negation of colonization – a return to what had existed before”[11] and was therefore always some kind of adaptation of either the colonial or one of the both Cold War modernities, or a mixture of them, expressed, however, in a distinct African voice. Like the different European modernities all dealt primarily with capitalist industrialisation in the 19th century and its manifold consequences, its African equivalents were built primarily around colonialism as the primary driving force of history, which, albeit its negative influences, brought technological change African modernities were adapted to.

In Kenya, the nationalist movement, which in the late 1940s split more and more into two competing camps, was primarily occupied with the land question and the political representation of African Kenyans. Both issues had its origin in the white settlers who had started to move to Kenya in 1902 and took the largest share of the most fertile land. Until 1952, 29,000 Europeans had moved to Kenya and dominated 97,000 Asians and 5 million Africans, who failed to gain any meaningful form of political representation. After 1945, the settlers opposed “enhanced political representation for Africans, pushed themselves into key roles in the management of the colonial economy, and tightened their grip over local and municipal government.”[12] At that time, one-eighth of the Kikuyu population, the largest tribe in Kenya, living mostly in the Central Highlands, worked as tenants, so-called “squatters”, on the European farms.[13] The land question even increased due to a population growth. These tensions led to a split within the African communities, which in 1950 can be divided in three political blocks: conservative chiefs, basically interested in the small benefits they gained from the British rule, moderate nationalists, which were westernized in attitudes, and militant nationalists, who won support among the Kikuyu evicted from European farms as well as urban workers and unemployed, most importantly in Nairobi, which became the centre of militant politics closely connected to its radical trade union movement. The latter “were the people who would take a lead in the Mau Mau movement.”[14] The cleavages in the Kikuyu society, however, do not simply reflect the division “between wealthy and poor”, but also other splits between religions or the degree of influence in the British administration.[15]

These political and economic impacts of colonialism “hit the Kikuyu with greater force and effect than any other of Kenya’s peoples, setting off new processes of differentiation and class formation”[16], which made them also the most active in the nationalist movement, which always vacillated between the Kikuyu and the Kenyan nation.[17] Both nationalist fractions, however, arose from the Kenya African Union (KAU), a successor of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), which had started to operate in the 1920s.[18] The KAU was founded in 1944 and constituted the first attempt of a “pan ethnic ‘national’ political organization”, committed to “moderate constitutional politics which accepted the premises of the colonial state’s version of modernization and nation-building.”[19] Their failure to achieve any reforms, however, resulted in increased popularity of the radical fraction of the nationalist movement.[20] After Kenyatta became head of the movement in 1947, it found it more and more “difficult to control their mass following.”[21] Kenyatta and his supporters, although opposing the conservative chiefs, did not follow the radicalisation of the militants who used the notorious practice of oathing to achieve unity among their clientele which led to the formation of two opposing factions in the nationalist camp.[22]

This competition was part of a broader discourse at the time “over the meaning of Kikuyu-ness, the nature of the community, the value of tradition, the involvement in new forms of production and exchange, and the degree of acceptance of and assimilation to European culture.”[23] This discourse was shaped by the new socio-economic conditions in Kenya after 1945, since only now “large numbers of non-Europeans could afford to buy newspapers which reflected their own concerns more than those of settlers and European officials.”[24] Even before 1945, however, the KCA had published a Kikuyu-language journal, Muigwithania (“The Reconciler”), edited by Kenyatta. [25] It was an outlet for the new Christian African elites and one of the first anti-colonial publications in Africa. The KAU, contrarily, published its journal, Sauti Ya Mwafrika (“The African Voice”) in Swahili.[26] After the oathing began to reach mass bases, the inner-Kikuyu struggle took place increasingly in print, mainly in Henry Muoria’s weekly journal Mumenyereri with 10.000 copies.[27] This increase in African publications was part of a general “efflorescence of African literature, artistic and political, all over the continent”[28] resulting from an awakening of African elites and was crucial for the process of decolonization. In Kenya, this new African public, especially in the vernacular press, was seen as a “menace to the future of the Colony”[29] by the administration, which soon started attempts to censor these papers.

All these developments, however, required “a deliberate investment by creative, innovative individuals”[30] in order to flourish. Henry Muoria was one of them, representing the moderate fraction in the nationalist movement which he joined in 1938 by entering the KCA. Since he did not know “’whether he was a socialist or a conservative’, he later ‘decided to express the ideas of the KAU’” and published several of Kenyatta’s speeches.[31] Contrary to Fanon’s insist on violence as the means of getting rid of the European rule, Muoria followed Kenyatta in his attempt to achieve independence through non-violent pan-Kenyan unity. In January 1945, he published the first ever political pamphlet in Kikuyu, Tungika Atia Iiya Witu? (“What Can We Do for Our Own Sake?”). It was sold at the Church Missionary Society and was a great success, encouraging Muoria to continue political writing.[32] In this pamphlet, he describes a vision of a future Kenya in which the African population catches up to the settlers, who, as he writes, “came to stay, and they are staying.” Instead of criticizing the economic and political structures of the colonial rule which, as we have seen, caused the split in the Kikuyu society and the radicalisation of the militants, he blames the “attitudes” of “us Africans” for their situation and states that poverty is only caused by laziness. While the British are described as clearly progressive and as a role-model, the Africans are “midway between the old ways and the modern ways”, thus in the midst of a modernization process which can only be successful if the current generation changes its attitudes to life and work and takes care of the education of their children. The personal wrongdoings are thereby closely linked to the wellbeing of the nation. The same way he predicts the settler to be part of future Kenya, also their economic structure, wage labour, will remain to dominate Kenya in his view. His solution to the British domination and the situation especially the Kikuyu were living in was not the expulsion of the settlers or the nationalisation of foreign companies, but to establish a severe African competition to them. Therefore, hatred of the British, “who brought us so many good and useful things which enhance our lives” is only obstructive for his prescribed path of development and also simply useless since “we are not so strong as the white people”. Apart from hard work and education, unity among Africans (he uses both the terms “Africans” and “Kikuyu” to refer to his readers, which shows again the ambivalent and difficult relationship between the two nations) is crucial for achieving his goals. This unity is described as basis for concrete common achievements. For instance, people should come together and “subscribe money for a large-scale farming project such as buying new land or hiring a farm or buying ploughs which could be pulled by oxen or tractors in order to farm a large area.” Although these technological advancements only play a minor role in the pamphlet, tractors as well as movies and hospitals form part of the modernity Muoria describes. Also, Christian religion, i.e. also a British import, in his view forms the basis for all other knowledge, while “established customs used to be an obstacle that prevented the people from doing anything new in many aspects of life in the past.” The British rule, to sum up, should be used as a benefit on the road to full “enlightenment”. Since there “is no African education”, it can only be the British who can help the Africans in their modernization process.[33] Interestingly, the revenue of his writing enabled him to be the first Kenyan owning a printing press and a car, two of the most significant symbols of modernity.[34]

A quite different picture is drawn in Gakaara wa Wanjau’s Mageria no mo Mahota (“The Spirit of Manhood and Perseverance for Africans”) from 1948, originally published in Kiswahili and translated into Kikuyu in 1952. After being expelled from an elite Christian school in Kenya for participating in a student strike, he joined the army in 1940 and fought in North and East Africa, where he “learned much […] about the hunger and yearning for freedom of colonized peoples.” After the war, he became part of “African Book Writers Ltd”, the first firm of both African and Kenyan writers, and, shaped by his wartime experiences, became a political writer. In the pamphlet’s 1952 preface, written in the immediate prelude of the Emergency and after he became acquainted with the Mau Mau radicals in Nairobi – he even took the Mau Mau oath, renounced Christianity and his Christian name[35] –, Gakaara intends to create a counter-narrative, or counter-truth, to the “white man’s strategy of lies.” Unlike Muoria, he calls for the “restitution of our land” and requests “each and every one of us to become actively involved in the struggle” to end “our slavery” and “grave impoverishment”, in which national independence is only one, but an insufficient step. He shows no patience with those Kikuyu (Gakaara refers more often specifically to the Kikuyu, which shows his affiliation to the militants) who refuse to acknowledge this “truth”. The pamphlet itself, written only three years after Muoria’s praise of the British and in the immediate aftermath and as an answer to the violent expulsion of a large amount of Kikuyu squatters in 1948[36], is nonetheless radical. In the form of rhetorical questions, the reader is shown how the British created lies about “us” in order to strengthen their rule. By refusing these lies, Gakaara intends to create pride and patriotism in the reader. The analysis of the relationship between the British and the Africans is based clearly on class-lines: “We only need to realize that the logic operating in our relationship with the white man is the logic between a poor man and a rich.” Yet, it is not only the British, but all “alien races” that have “established dominance over him in his whole land”, which can be seen as a precursor of the exclusion of the Asian community after independence. Both these “alien races” make huge profits of the hard labour of the “black man”, an analysis which one could read as a popular or un-dogmatic form of Afro-Marxism, which in its different forms also intended to break the rule of foreign capital. Not only the financial exploitation of the Africans, however, is a means of the British rule, but also its colonial modernity, also referred to as “colonial contradiction”[37]:

The African finds himself in the sad situation where the carrot of modern attainments is cunningly dangled in front of him while he is insidiously denied the means and wherewithal of ever achieving the good things of modern living. He must needs [sic!] engage in hard struggle to obtain even a small portion of the good things.

The exploitative labour and the false promises, however, do not only increase the wealth of the oppressors, but they also distract the exploited from realizing and reflecting their own situation. What makes this oppression even worse is the humiliating way in which the British treat the “black man” as children. The solution he presents, finally, is highly symbolic: his ability to print and the readers’ ability to read are to reveal the “white man’s secret”, which in turn shall lead to an engagement of the readers in their own struggle, which, like in Muoria’s pamphlet, has to be fought in unity. Gakaara presents an ambivalent picture of modernity: on the one hand, he describes the slums many Africans were living in as a consequence of the “advent of the white aliens”. On the other hand, he states that “the African has accepted as his own the material and cultural aspiration of modern life” and thus shows, that colonial modernity became part of an African modernity imagined in the text, which he describes at the end more clearly: the independent future will bring modern buildings and modern means of transport, “the latter serving our need to fly out our children to great schools in foreign lands. It will then dawn on the white man that he is no better than ourselves.”[38] The struggle he propagates is, in contrast to Muoria, a militant one, albeit in a non-violent rhetoric (“We do not want to resort to violent struggle”): the white man should be sent home to his own country and unpatriotic Africans “were better dead”. This rhetoric was probably part of the reason why he was arrested for the pamphlet in October 1952. The war, finally, following the increased tensions between the administration and the militant nationalists as well as inside the Kikuyu society is “most usefully conceptualised as a helix, with the strands of anti-colonial and civil war violence intertwined”[39] and was thus the violent manifestation of the prewar discourse and cleavages.

After the war and the subsequent negotiation for independence, “the time of forgetting soon set in”[40], both about the British war crimes and the prewar discourse about different ways to achieve independence and thereby different modernities. Kenyatta, during his inauguration as first president of independent Kenya, made clear that he and his moderate nationalists wanted to get rid of the association with the militants: “Some of them [the British] have misunderstood us and it’s only by our actions that they will know we mean business.”[41] Here we find again Gakaara’s insistence on a new, counter-truth, which in fact also characterizes Muoria’s later pamphlets, which develop a more critical stance in general terms. Truth, or the predominance in the discourse about African nationhood and modernity, is thus a general theme characterizing all paths taken towards modernity in the era of decolonization. This explains the importance of education in both fractions of the nationalist camp: it not only helps the country in an economic way to develop and modernize itself, it also enables Africans to oppose the British narration of African backwardness, which stands in the way of an own, African modernity. The manifestation of this modernity, in its general duality (as apparent in the two fractions of the nationalists), depended heavily on the geopolitical situation. If it were not for the British decision to refuse independence for such a long time and to fight the Mau Mau militarily, the Mau Mau or militant modernity would have likely been the dominant one or at least part of a post-colonial discourse. Instead, the new political culture, in which the vocabulary of class struggle was excoriated, excluded the voices of large parts of the landless, many of whom had supported the Mau Mau[42], while the white settlers were not expelled forcefully, but were given a “choice between selling up at attractive prices or remaining on the land.”[43] The Western-oriented, capitalist and moderate nationalist modernity had thus gained the upper hand in a discourse which had started in the interwar-period, underwent a split after 1945 and was finally reduced to one dominant strand in the course of the war.

Primary Sources

Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004).

Gakaara Wa Wanjau: Mageria no mo Mahota (“The Spirit of Manhood and Perseverance for Africans”), in ibid.: Mau Mau Author in Detention. An Author’s Detention Diary (Nairobi: English Press Limited, 1988), pp. 227-243.

Kenyatta, Jomo: Speech held in Nairobi on 27.05.1963. URL Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4rxnT_X0M4.

Muoria, Henry: Gakaara wa Wanjau’s Mageria no mo Mahota (“The Spirit of Manhood and Perseverance for Africans”), in ibid.: I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1994), pp. 85-123.

Secondary Sources

Anderson, David: Histories of the Hanged. Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005).

Barber, K.: I.B. Akinyele and early Yoruba print culture in Peterson, D. and Macola, G. (Eds): Recasting the Past: History writing and political work in modern Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009).

Berman, Bruce J.: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Modernity: The Paradox of Mau Mau, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 25 (1991), pp. 181-206.

Branch, Daniel: Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Eckert, Andreas: Panafrikanimus, afrikanische Intellektuelle und Europa im 19. Und 20. Jahrhundert, Journal of Modern European History, 4 (2006), pp. 224-240.

Eisenstadt, S. N.: Multiple Modernities, Daedalus, 129/1 (2000).

Frederiksen, Bodil Folke: Print, Newspapers and Audiences in Colonial Kenya. African and Indian improvement, protest and connections, Africa, 81 (2011), pp. 155-172.

Lonsdale, John; Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno: Introduction, in Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno; Lonsdale, John (Eds): Mau Mau & Nationhood. Arms, Authority & Narration (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003).

Lonsdale, John: Henry Muoria, Public Moralist, in Muoria-Sal, Wangari; Frederiksen, Bodil Folke; Lonsdale, John; Peterson, Derek: Writing for Kenya. The Life and Works of Henry Muoria (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

Nugent, Paul: Africa Since Independence. A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Ochieng, W. R.; Atieno-Odhiambo, E. S.: Prologue. On Decolonization, in Ogot, B. A.; Ochieng, W. R.: Decolonization & Independence in Kenya. 1940-93 (London: James Currey, 1995).

Ogot, Bethwell A.: Mau Mau & Nationhood. The Untold Story, in Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno; Lonsdale, John (Eds): Mau Mau & Nationhood. Arms, Authority & Narration (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003).

Pugliese, Cristiana: Complementary or Contending Nationhood? Kikuyu Pamphlets & Songs 1945-52, in Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno; Lonsdale, John (Eds): Mau Mau & Nationhood. Arms, Authority & Narration (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003).

Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

White, Evan: Kwame Nkrumah: Cold War Modernity, Pan-African Ideology and the Geopolitics of Development, Geopolitics, 8 (2003), pp. 99-124.

Ziyi, Feng: A contemporary interpretation of Marx’s thoughts on modernity, Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 1 (2006), pp. 254-268.

[1] Fanon, Frantz: The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), pp. 5-6.

[2] Ochieng, W.R.; Atieno-Odhiambo, E.S.: Prologue. On Decolonization, in Ogot, B.A.; Ochieng, W.R.: Decolonization & Independence in Kenya. 1940-93 (London: James Currey, 1995), p. xii.

[3] Ziyi, Feng: A contemporary interpretation of Marx’s thoughts on modernity, Frontiers of Philosophy in China, 1 (2006), pp. 254-268, here p. 255.

[4] Eisenstadt, S.N.: Multiple Modernities, Daedalus, 129/1 (2000), pp. 1-29.

[5] Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 40.

[6] Nugent, Paul: Africa Since Independence. A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 139.

[7] White, Evan: Kwame Nkrumah: Cold War Modernity, Pan-African Ideology and the Geopolitics of Development, Geopolitics, 8 (2003), pp. 99-124, here pp. 111-112.

[8] Nugent: Africa, p. 139.

[9] Eckert, Andreas: Panafrikanimus, afrikanische Intellektuelle und Europa im 19. Und 20. Jahrhundert, Journal of Modern European History, 4 (2006), pp. 224-240, here p. 226-227.

[10] Berman, Bruce J.: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Modernity: The Paradox of Mau Mau, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 25 (1991), pp. 181-206, here pp. 188-189.

[11] Nugent: Africa, p. 8.

[12] Anderson, David: Histories of the Hanged. Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), p. 3, 9.

[13] Ibid., p. 23.

[14] Ibid., p. 13.

[15] Branch, Daniel: Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 13.

[16] Berman: Nationalism, p. 196.

[17] Ogot, Bethwell A.: Mau Mau & Nationhood. The Untold Story, in Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno; Lonsdale, John (Eds): Mau Mau & Nationhood. Arms, Authority & Narration (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), p. 11.

[18] Pugliese, Cristiana: Complementary or Contending Nationhood? Kikuyu Pamphlets & Songs 1945-52, in Odhiambo: Mau Mau & Nationhood, p. 97.

[19] Berman: Nationalism, p. 198.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Nugent: Africa, p. 35.

[22] Berman: Nationalism, pp. 200-201.

[23] Ibid., p. 197.

[24] Frederiksen, Bodil Folke: Print, Newspapers and Audiences in Colonial Kenya. African and Indian improvement, protest and connections, Africa, 81 (2011), pp. 155-172, here p. 158.

[25] Berman: Nationalism, p. 197

[26] Frederiksen: Colonial Kenya, pp. 156-158.

[27] Ibid., p. 161.

[28] Lonsdale, John: Henry Muoria, Public Moralist, in Muoria-Sal, Wangari; Frederiksen, Bodil Folke; Lonsdale, John; Peterson, Derek: Writing for Kenya. The Life and Works of Henry Muoria (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 25.

[29] Frederiksen: Colonial Kenya, p. 155.

[30] Barber, K.: I.B. Akinyele and early Yoruba print culture in Peterson, D. and Macola, G. (Eds): Recasting the Past: History writing and political work in modern Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), p. 47.

[31] Pugliese: Kikuyu Pamphlets, p. 98-99.

[32] Ibid., pp. 98-100.

[33] Muoria, Henry: I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1994), pp. 85-123.

[34] Lonsdale: Henry Muoria, p. 4.

[35] Ibid., p. 110.

[36] Pugliese: Kikuyu Pamphlets, pp. 105-107.

[37] Nugent: Africa, p. 10-12.

[38] Gakaara Wa Wanjau: Mau Mau Author in Detention. An Author’s Detention Diary (Nairobi: English Press Limited, 1988), pp. 227-243.

[39] Branch: Defeating Mau Mau, p. 8.

[40] Lonsdale, John; Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno: Introduction, in Odhiambo: Mau Mau & Nationhood, pp. 3-4.

[41] Nairobi, 27.05.1963. URL Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4rxnT_X0M4.

[42] Lonsdale: Introduction, p. 4.

[43] Nugent: Africa, p. 154.

The Rif War and French interwar imperial modernity

Paris possessed a twofold identity in the modern era: it was the “capital of modernity”[1], which was inseparably linked to the French revolution and the consequences it had on European politics and thought and, at the same time, already during the revolution also an “(Anti-) Imperial Metropolis”[2], governing parts of every continent and home of people from all over the world, especially so in the interwar period, when it became both the centre of anti-imperialism and an empire which had even increased its global influence. In the following, two sides of the changing national and at same time imperial identity, or imperial modernity, of this French metropolis in the interwar period will be analysed. The first one we call “banal imperialism”, following Billig’s concept of “banal nationalism”[3]. It manifested itself in the different ways the citizens of the metropole could come in contact with their colonial empire: they could taste it in the form of food from the colonies; they could see it in the form of posters, adverts and colonial cinema or in forms of the pavilions of the 1931 exhibition, which will be a constant throughout the essay; they could hear about it in the radio; they could follow Tintin to his adventures to Africa; or they could experience it with all five senses by travelling the colonies themselves. This colonial experience, however, is connected to the politics concerning the most striking influence of the colonies on the metropole, immigration, which will serve as a transition to the second part, the political debate about the Rif war of 1925-26, thus the discourse about the most obvious and most violent side of French imperialism. Here we will compare four different views from the press to show the different positions French politics and the public had on this topic. Both sides of this imperial modernity are, however, closely connected and, as will be our argument, also linked to the specific political situation of the time and what we call the “multiple interwar modernities”, which resulted from the political turmoil WWI had created and the subsequent manifestations of ideological alternatives, i.e. fascism in Italy, and, most importantly, bolshevism in the former Russian Empire. Consequently, the Rif war was of major importance for both the French communists and the anti-imperialists from the colonies living in France, because it showed the – at least for a time – successful realization of an alternative, anticolonial world order, which was, in their view, part of the broader anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist vision realized in the Soviet Union. The interwar period was thus a time in which the French national and imperial identity underwent fundamental change: the first signs of anti-colonial resistance were interpreted in the metropole in a highly polarized debate shaped by global discourses about self-determination and anti-colonial resistance and made the French adapt the “mission civilisatrice” and its underlying racism to the metropole, either in the surveillance of colonial immigrants or Josephine Baker’s Revue nègre. The colonial Other was thereby made an essential and inseparable part of French identity and modernity in the interwar period.

Our journey through the “colonial subconscious” begins with the supposedly most profane part: colonial food. While exotic food from the colonies had already been available before 1914, the wartime necessities, caused by the loss of the agricultural self-sufficiency, changed the Parisian culinary world. The colonial lobby used these shifts to portray the colonies “as necessary to sustaining life in the metropole.” Although some of these new foodstuffs were rejected by the population, the volume, availability and interest in older colonial products – sugar, chocolate, and coffee – increased after the war and came more and more from the French colonies in particular, due to protectionist trade policies. Moreover, foods like rice, bananas and pineapples became easily available only after the war and changed eating habits permanently, unlike whole dishes from the colonies. Besides, the loss of livestock in the war made the French import non-exotic frozen meet, a way new technology was introduced in the colonial trade. The Colonial Exhibition from 1931, finally, presented the visitors a dual impression of colonial food: exotic goods were contrasted with Algerian wine and agricultural products symbolizing the progress the French had brought to their overseas departments.[4] All these developments helped introduce the colonies in everyday life, the same way adverts with colonial imagery did, which used racist stereotypes already prominently featured in postcards and jokes about the West African troops serving in France.[5]

The 1931 exhibition, however, was the most successful and prestigious presentation of the colonies in the metropole. Both in terms of visitors and money invested, the exhibition outside Paris celebrating the anniversary of the seizure of Algiers in 1830 surpassed its precursors, despite the economic crises. It offered its eight million visitors a virtual tour through the colonies, each being represented by its own pavilion. While the 1889 Paris Exhibition, marking the centenary of the Revolution, had been a symbol of France’s republican identity, this imperial show should cement France’s imperial identity, and, as Marshall Lyautey, head of the exhibition, put it, “intensify the loyalty of the metropolitan population to the colonial empire.”[6] The leitmotiv of the show was to contrast French progress in form of modern technology with the colonial, exotic Other, as already seen in the Algerian pavilion. The best symbol of this was undoubtedly the electric illumination of the reconstruction of the “Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, the chief attraction of the fairground”. The availability to reach the exhibition with modern means of transport like the metro line built only for this purpose was part of this French imperial modernity.[7] The French visitor was thereby reminded of the insurmountable line which separated him from, but at the same time connected him to the colonial world, which could only with the help of the French become modern, albeit only to a certain degree. This show, however, constitutes only the peak of a constant propaganda effort of the government and the colonial lobby to promote the colonies to the French. Apart from the memorialization of colonial conquest in street names or metro stations, which had already been a prewar propaganda tool, the colonies became a subject of the secondary school curriculum in 1925.[8] Moreover, the colonial lobby tried to propagate the importance of the colonies for the metropole by publishing a vast amount of books and articles about their wartime participation. What is more, the government tried to make entrepreneurs invest in the colonies and import raw materials from France’s own possessions.[9]

Another way the French came in contact with their empire were new technological advancements: radio broadcasts and movies. The former reached an ever increasing number of listeners in forms of state-controlled news broadcasts about the empire as well as through private-owned plays set in the colonies. These plays, unlike the state programs, did not present the colonies in a positive light, but rather exhibited disappointment in the colonial project and stressed both the dangers and the boredom French experienced in their empire. French culture was depicted as clearly superior to the native ones, the colonies were thus only an economic advantage and “all of the cultural and social advantages travelled in the other direction.” After all, the shows were more about French identify than about a realistic depiction of life in the colonies, which “could only show a poor reflection of the best that was France, and make the metropole and French home more glorious in comparison.”[10] For many French in the metropole, these shows, however, were the only way to experience far-away places like Indo-China or Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore crucial for the French imperial identity by presenting a clear cultural hierarchy and racial stereotypes to their listeners. “Cinéma colonial” presented a similar picture. While documentaries showed the colonies in moving pictures to the French already since 1897, the interwar period saw the rise of colonial movies, which were shot mostly in North Africa and influenced by the colonial administration as the price for their financial backing of the shootings. These movies borrowed themes and images from the earlier films as well as orientalist paintings, magazines, dioramas or postcards. Like the radio shows, they stressed racial and cultural superiority of the French colonisers and legitimised the French rule, especially the Foreign Legion. What is more, “by disseminating colonial mythology, film helped Frenchmen transcend narrow identities and redefine themselves as bearers of civilisation to the colonized”[11] and thereby also to overcome class differences, since both the French working-class and the bourgeoisie were part of this civilisation. The later discussed Rif War, finally, marked the end of the shootings in Morocco.

Although available only to a minority of the French, visiting the colonies as tourists also played an important part in consolidating the top-down relationship between colonisers and colonised in the French national and imperial identity. Also pushed by the colonial lobby and propagated at the 1931 exposition, colonial tourism was represented as a duty for French citizens, a vehicle for tourists to educate themselves about the ‘facts’ of colonialism and the ‘good news’ of France’s civilizing mission through first hand experiences.” Adverts for the organized tours, especially to North Africa and Indochina, stressed the exotic experience and the difference between France and “’timeless’ peoples and landscapes.” Also, tourism stressed again the technological superiority for instance by focusing on steamships in its posters. These ships transported over 300,000 tourists from France to Algeria and Tunisia in 1923.[12] Again, colonial governors like Lyautey promoted colonial tourism, which shows the connection between the private companies and the government officials in the creation of the imperial identity.

The last analysed aspect of “banal imperialism” is the négritude of the 1920s. Being only one part of the “remarkable affinity for the things of the colonial world”[13] of cultural modernism in interwar France, this phenomenon is inseparably linked to the success of Josephine Baker in the Revue Nègre and her subsequent career as a star of cinéma colonial. This fascination with black culture was a “particular form of cultural primitivism that developed out of earlier exoticist discourses in the French intellectual tradition.”[14] For Carole Sweeney, this phenomenon, which “emerged out of a profound social and cultural crisis around modernity and empire in metropolitan France”, is “revealing an epochal desire for an alternative temporal and geographical space in which the increasingly alienated subject of modernity sought historical and aesthetic refuge in a process of racial re-imagination.” For our analysis this means, that it is a cultural manifestation of the racial barrier which is part of the imperial modernity created in interwar France, even if presented as fascinating and modern. We can thus state so far that “French culture had indeed devoured colonial culture, making it an integral part of itself.”[15]

Another aspect of the interwar imperial identity is the relationship between the state and the colonial immigrants. In the interwar period, France had the highest level of foreigners worldwide, roughly 3 million or 7% of the population in 1931. Of these, North Africans, especially Algerians, the largest share of colonial migrants, constituted only a small percentage, but aroused a disproportionate degree of public attention.[16] This migration as well as the attitude of the French public and administration towards it was closely connected to the French rule in Algeria. Not only was the double standard of humanity, which denied the universality of the ideals of the Revolution, developed in Algeria, but the French also created the poverty which made Algerians leave their homeland. Due to the high demand for labour in 1914 the government opened the borders for migrants from Algeria. The losses in the war together with a low fertility rate even increased this demand after the war. The vast amount of publications on the “Arab problem” following this immigration was an expression of the need the metropolitan society felt “to define itself in relation to an immediate, visible minority presence which was perceived as threatening, a barbaric intrusion into the heart of Empire.”[17] This discourse reproduced racist stereotypes already present before the war and linked them to a perceived threat of a Communist “infection” of the colonial workers. This racism mixed with anti-communist fear also shaped the surveillance of the government, which the North African migrants faced more than any other immigrant group. A coalition of leading national politicians and right-wing municipal councillors in Paris created a surveillance system which shaped the attitude of the French state towards migrants from the Maghreb for decades to come. A joint institution was established, manned by Europeans from Algeria, “who introduced into the metropole colonial attitudes and techniques of control” and combining police surveillance and some kind of “welfare” institutions including mosques, worker hostels, and a Muslim hospital at the outskirts of Paris, which most migrants refused to go to. These measures were aimed at segregating the migrants from the rest of the society and their dangerous influences like Communism. They gained support from “across the political spectrum, from the right-wing leagues to the left wing of the Socialist Party.”[18] What made the situation of the North African migrants even worse was the absence of any consular representation, which helped Italian or Polish migrant workers when they faced problems.

As already indicated at the beginning, the migrants from – not only the French – colonial world used Paris to share their visions of independence for their respective countries and developed an anti-colonial network closely linked to the Parti communiste français (PCF) and the Comintern-funded Anti-imperialist League. “The French capital functioned as a vantage point that clarified the contours of a global system.”[19] Soon after the war, the first anti-colonial newspapers were published by colonial migrants and university students, who even organized an “anti-exhibition” to the 1931 colonial show, presenting colonial oppression.[20] The cooperation between the French left and the anti-imperial movement was, however, ambivalent, as the case of the Algerian Etoile nord-africaine shows. It was founded in 1926 by the PCF, but tensions rose both with the Front populaire government over its colonial policy and the Communists. After it was dissolved in 1937, its leadership moved to Algiers, turned to radical nationalism and cut its connections to the French left.[21]

The Rif War, finally, shows the cleavages in the French society and entailed a highly charged discourse over one of the first threats to the French imperial rule, which, as we have seen, had become a crucial part of French culture. The war was only one of four uprisings at the time, the others being rebellions in Syria, Vietnam and the Congo, which were, however, too far away from France to attract as much attention.[22] The Rif war was the “by-product of a much longer struggle between Rif Berber tribes and the Spanish”[23], which had divided Northern Morocco between themselves and the French in 1912. Under their leader Abd el-Krim, however, several Berber tribes resisted the Spanish conquest and formed the Rif Republic, an independent Islamic State. In 1924, Rif troops started an offensive on French Morocco as well to further their influence and liberate the whole of Morocco. Being challenged by this attack, which even threatened the French position in Algeria, the French coordinated their effort to drive el-Krim’s forces back with the Spanish, and ultimately the two armies managed to crush the resistance and consolidated their rule in Morocco in 1926. This colonial war, fought with modern weaponry and even poison gas on the Spanish side caused heavy left-wing resistance in France, which was, however, only the most extreme form of the general criticism of the colonial project articulated in varying intensity.[24] The protests, which culminated in a general strike in October 1925, were led by the PCF, which had very close links to the Comintern in Moscow, although the latter constantly reminded the former to pay more attention to the anticolonial struggle. The campaign started in late 1924 following the Spanish defeat with a fraternisation letter of the party leadership with el-Krim in l’Humanité, the party newspaper, and the demand for independence of the Rif Republic. While the majority of the governing socialists in the Cartel des gauches – which was divided over the issue – did not join the anti-imperialist campaign, other radical left-wing groups like Clarté, a pacifist group emerging from the bloodshed of WWI as an “International of the Mind” and a group of left-wing and surrealist intellectuals joined in a press war with the socialists and conservatives, which we will now have a closer look at.[25]

In July 1925, at the height of the war, Henri Barbusse, leader of Clarté, published a letter in l’Humanité, headed “Les travailleurs intellectuels aux côtés du prolétariat contre la guerre du Maroc”, in which he and the other signatories, forced by the events in Morocco, protest against “cette nouvelle grande guerre qui se déploie et s’allonge sept ans après le massacre du dix-sept cent mille Français et de dix millions d’hommes dans le monde“ and demand independence for the Rif as part of the right for self-determination of every people. They see its origin in imperialism and the secret treaty between France and Spain. Yet, they argue in favour of French honour, which is, other than the government claims, not violated by anti-war protest, but by the new bloodshed, which shall be ended by the League of Nations.[26] The reaction to this letter we find five days later in Le Figaro, in an open letter entitled “Les Intellectuels aux côtés de la Patrie”, signed by, inter alia, members of the Académie française. They claim that the majority of intellectuals was on the side of “la patrie” and accuse the writers of the former letter of hypocrisy, because they didn’t protest against the violence against intellectuals in Soviet Russia. The French are depicted as bringing peace, progress and humanity to North Africa, which has ended an eternal, inter-tribal war. In the same issue, an article entitled “Les réalités du Maroc” depicts the Rif rebellion as threatening the entire empire and consequently France’s position as a great power. The author finds the reason of the rebellion in “certaines imprudences de notre politique islamisante” as well as in the disorder WWI has left behind in Europe, a reference to the Communist Opposition.[27] This anticommunism was, as we have already seen in the case of the colonial immigrants, deeply rooted in the political elite and the driving force behind efforts for colonial modernisation, which should, according to Colonial Minister Albert Sarraut, serve as an anti-communist security measure.[28]

Call for fraternisation of French and Rif soldiers in L'Humanité, 07.07.1925, p.1. The text reads: “La Fraternisation dans la mort”. Subtitle: “Le capitalisme vous fait frateriser DANS LA MORT ; soldats français et riffains, fraternisez DANS LA VIE!”
Call for fraternisation of French and Rif soldiers in L’Humanité, 07.07.1925, p.1. The text reads: “La Fraternisation dans la mort”. Subtitle: “Le capitalisme vous fait frateriser DANS LA MORT ; soldats français et riffains, fraternisez DANS LA VIE!”

On the same day, l’Humanité published a call for fraternisation of French and Rif soldiers. The whole country is described as rising against the imperialists, who have brought war in the country they pretend to cultivate. Interestingly, they too draw a line between Communism and anti-imperialism by citing the resistance of French soldiers to intervene in the Russian civil war as an example for successful fraternisation.[29] The socialist newspaper Le Populaire presents a forth position. Like Barbusse, they call for the League of Nations to solve the situation, but at the same time they consider the war necessary, although “le Parti socialiste n’assume aucune responsabilité du passé pour l’occupation militaire du Maroc.” Therefore, they condemn the propagated fraternisation, which would make the soldiers victims both of French militarism and “de la politique étrangère de bolchevisme.” The evacuation of Morocco would only worsen the situation and has therefore to be opposed.[30] Yet, even the Communist resistance and attitude towards the colonial question was ambivalent, as we have seen already in the case of the Algerian nationalists. In the course of the 1930s, the party, whose base “had never been entirely committed to the rights of colonial people”, refrained from its anti-racist stance and “amounted to a tacit defence of the empire.”[31]

The Maghreb, this essay has shown, “marked France’s passage through the twentieth century.”[32] It formed a decisive part of the French inseparably linked national and imperial modernity by creating a constant duality and hierarchy of culture and humanity. The colonial Other was thereby imprinted on French culture and politics, visible in the Négritude or the racist surveillance practices. The discourse around the Rif war, the first real threat to the imperial world order, was closely linked to the rather inner-European contestation of varying vision of modernity. If we look further into the history of Western Europe in the 20th century, we find that the Rif war was of great importance for the dark side of modernity in both France and Spain, the two countries fighting the Rif Republic hand in hand: it is the same figures that lead or partake in the suppression of the first at least for some years successful African struggle for independence that will later lead the fight against the French and Spanish republics, Francisco Franco and, after Lyautey’s removal in 1925, Philippe Pétain. Part of this dark side of modernity was also the “colonial holy alliance”, which was apparent at the participation of fascist Italy at the 1931 colonial exhibition. At the same time, el-Krim’s guerrilla tactics inspired Che Guervara to create his version of an anti-imperial modernity[33], which had been imagined in interwar Paris, the place where Algerian, Chinese and Vietnamese anti-imperial fighters met who should change history so dramatically in the era of decolonization. The city thus remained the “capital of modernity” in the first half of the 20th century.

Primary Sources

Barbusse, Henri: “Les travailleurs intellectuels aux côtés du prolétariat contre la guerre du Maroc”, in L’Humanité, 02.07.1925, p. 1.

“Devant La Tuerie. Fraternisation!”, in L’Humanité, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

“Les Intellectuels aux côtés de la Patrie”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

“Paix immédiate! Evacuation! Tout le Maroc se soulève contre l’envahisseur”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

“Pour la paix au Maroc. Une Conférence socialiste internationale”, in Le Populaire, 01.08.1925, p.2.

“Résolution sur le Maroc. Votée à l‘unanimité”, in Le Populaire, 31.07.1925, p. 1.

Romier, Lucien: “The realities of Morocco”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

Secondary Sources

Aissaoui, Rabah: Algerian nationalists in the French political arena and beyond: the Etoile nord africaine and the Parti du peuple algérien in interwar France, The Journal of North African Studies, 15 (2010), pp. 1-12.

August, Thomas G.: The Selling of the Empire. British and French Imperialist Propaganda, 1890-1940 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985).

Billig, Michael: Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995).

Daughton, J.P.: Behind the Imperial Curtain. International Humanitarian Efforts and the Critique of French Colonialism in the Interwar Years, French Historical Studies, 34 (2011), pp. 503-528.

Drake, David: The PCF, the Surrealists, Clarté and the Rif War, French Cultural Studies, 17 (2006), pp. 173-188.

Er, Mevliyar: Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi: The Unknown Mentor of Che Guevara, Terrorism and Political Violence, 0 (2015), pp. 1-23.

Ezra, Elizabeth: The Colonial Unconscious. Race and Culture in Interwar France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

Furlough, Ellen: Une leçon des choses: Tourism, Empire, and the Nation in Interwar France, French Historical Studies, 25 (2002), pp. 441-473.

Goebel, Michael: Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Harvey, David: Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2006).

Janes, Lauren Rebecca Hinkle: The Taste of Empire: Colonial Food in Interwar Paris (Pro Quest Dissertations Publishing, 2011).

Lebovics, Herman: True France. The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

MacMaster, Neil: Colonial Migrants and Racism. Algerians in France, 1900-62 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

Neulander, Joelle: Airing the exotic: Colonial landscapes on French interwar metropolitan Radio, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27 (2007), pp. 313-332.

Rosenberg, Clifford: The Colonial Politics of Health Care Provision in Interwar Paris, French Historical Studies, 27 (2004), pp. 637-668.

Slavin, David Henry: Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919-1939. White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Sweeney, Carole: La Revue Nègre: négrophilie, modernity and colonialism in inter-war France, Journal of Romance Studies, 1 (2001), pp. 1-13.

Thomas, Martin: Albert Sarraut, French Colonial Development, and the Communist Threat, 1919-1930, The Journal of Modern History, 77 (2005), pp. 917-955.

Thomas, Martin: The French empire between the wars. Imperialism, politics and society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

[1] Harvey, David: Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Goebel, Michael: Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[3] Billig, Michael: Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995).

[4] Janes, Lauren Rebecca Hinkle: The Taste of Empire: Colonial Food in Interwar Paris (Pro Quest Dissertations Publishing, 2011), pp. 1-20, 333.

[5] Thomas, Martin: The French empire between the wars. Imperialism, politics and society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 190-191.

[6] Lebovics, Herman: True France. The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 53.

[7] Ibid., pp. 57-59.

[8] Thomas: Empire, pp. 188-189.

[9] August, Thomas G.: The Selling of the Empire. British and French Imperialist Propaganda, 1890-1940 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 54-64.

[10] Neulander, Joelle: Airing the exotic: Colonial landscapes on French interwar metropolitan Radio, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27 (2007), pp. 313-332.

[11] Slavin, David Henry: Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919-1939. White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. xi-4.

[12] Furlough, Ellen: Une leçon des choses: Tourism, Empire, and the Nation in Interwar France, French Historical Studies, 25 (2002), pp. 441-473.

[13] Lebovics: France, p. 94.

[14] Sweeney, Carole: La Revue Nègre: négrophilie, modernity and colonialism in inter-war France, Journal of Romance Studies, 1 (2001), pp. 1-13.

[15] Ezra, Elizabeth: The Colonial Unconscious. Race and Culture in Interwar France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 3.

[16] MacMaster, Neil: Colonial Migrants and Racism. Algerians in France, 1900-62 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 4.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rosenberg, Clifford: The Colonial Politics of Health Care Provision in Interwar Paris, French Historical Studies, 27 (2004), pp. 637-668.

[19] Goebel: Metropolis, p. 3.

[20] Thomas: Empire, pp. 186-201.

[21] Aissaoui, Rabah: Algerian nationalists in the French political arena and beyond: the Etoile nord africaine and the Parti du peuple algérien in interwar France, The Journal of North African Studies, 15 (2010), pp. 1-12.

[22] Thomas: Empire, p. 211.

[23] Ibid., p. 212.

[24] Daughton, J.P.: Behind the Imperial Curtain. International Humanitarian Efforts and the Critique of French Colonialism in the Interwar Years, French Historical Studies, 34 (2011), pp. 503-528.

[25] Drake, David: The PCF, the Surrealists, Clarté and the Rif War, French Cultural Studies, 17 (2006), pp. 173-188.

[26] L’Humanité, 02.07.1925, p. 1.

[27] Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

[28] Thomas, Martin: Albert Sarraut, French Colonial Development, and the Communist Threat, 1919-1930, The Journal of Modern History, 77 (2005), pp. 917-955.

[29] L’Humanité, 07.07.1925, p. 1.

[30] Le Populaire, 01.08.1925, p.2 and 31.08.1925, p. 1.

[31] Slavin: Cinema, pp. 4, 73-74.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Er, Mevliyar: Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi: The Unknown Mentor of Che Guevara, Terrorism and Political Violence, 0 (2015), pp. 1-23.

World War I in a global perspective

The so-called “First World War” was by far not the first war fought on several continents simultaneously: most famously, the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763 affected Europe, both North and Central America, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. And, as the Crimean War shows, the “Great War”, as it is called in many Western Countries, was not even the first war in which non-European soldiers fought for European powers in a European theatre of war.[1] Still, the name is legitimate, given not only its global scale, but also the participation of non-European powers in a primarily European conflict, most importantly Japan and the USA, to a certain extent the British Dominions (given their still close constitutional relations to the UK), and, in a more supportive way, states like China, Portugal or Brazil.

In the following the global aspect of the war shall be analysed. Therefore, it shall be argued that the war served as a catalyst for phenomena of globalisation which in some ways had occurred already before 1914 and to which it added some new aspects, and that it can without doubt be considered a global war because of its global dimensions and the resulting global consequences.

After giving an overview over the international world order before 1914, in the first part of the essay the global scale of the war – most of all labor migration and the employment of non-European soldiers –  shall be examined. In a second part, the global consequences of these aspects of the war shall be analysed on the basis of primary sources from France, China and Australia, all of which relate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Apart from showing the deviating conceptions of the post-war world order of the British, French and U.S. governments, on the one hand, and the Chinese government and public, on the other hand, in this second part the emergence of new local centres of power and the beginning of a more multipolar world shall be outlined, using the example of “sub-imperialist” Australia. Thus, in geographical terms the essay focuses on the British Empire, including its Dominions, especially Australia, as well as France, China and Japan.

In order to stress the consequences of the war, it is also necessary to adjust the periodization to a global understanding of the war and include the directly resulting wars in Central Europe in 1919, the war between Turkey and Greece from 1919-1922, as well as the numerous conflicts resulting from the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, which, understood as one connected bloodshed ranged from Warsaw to Vladivostok – and which was itself a truly global conflict due to the American and Japanese interventions in the Far East – to the war breaking out in July 1914. This “Long First World War” thus lasted until 1922, when Vladivostok fell to the Red Army.[2] In this understanding, the conference in Versailles was taking place while numerous conflicts which directly resulted from the war the conference was supposed to end were still being fought.

The World before 1914 was in many ways more global than one might expect, given the popular understanding of the beginning of Globalisation after 1945 or even in the 1990s. In terms of international relations, the imperial powers had created a “web of fragile and unstable regional security zones”[3], which meant that imperial rule was difficult to maintain in a global dimension, even more so after the so-called “Scramble for Africa” and the distribution of most parts of Asia among the Western imperial powers and Japan came to their end and the only remaining source for further acquisition of power became China and the Ottoman Empire, both of which were failing empires having missed a modernization of their economy and society.[4] This insecure network enabled regional conflicts to become global processes. The best example is clearly the July crisis of 1914: the regional conflict in the Balkans between Vienna and St. Petersburg immediately turned into a war of global dimensions which affected every single continent and ocean. One part of this mechanism of globalizing a local conflict was the structure of the then most powerful Empire on earth itself: the defence of London’s vast colonial rule and its trade routes relied on the acceptance of the “Pax Britannica” by the other imperial powers. The European conflict between the German and the British governments became thus automatically a global conflict since it was easier to cut the British supply lines than to attack its mainland.[5]

Within the scope of this essay there is no space to discuss the complex reasons of the outbreak of the war. What is important, though, is to recognize that the post-war order was, in many respects, an intensification of the insecure pre-war order, by offering no solution for long-term conflicts like the one between China and Japan, but rather worsening them. I thus accept Bayly’s thesis of the birth of a “multinational, more dangerous world”[6] before 1914 and aim to extend it in the following to the argument of the war being a catalyst transforming the insecure structure of imperial power to an even more fragile multipolar world without a powerful international body of world politics – which the League of Nations was clearly not.

Before discussing the global scale of the war, it is important to recognize the growing global consciousness emerging in many areas before 1914. Although one must not overestimate the role of anticolonial movements in the Western Empires before the war, the Chinese claims at the Peace Conference of 1919 can only be understood if examined in a longer perspective. In China, the revolution of 1911 can be considered a “sharp reaction to the apparently inexorable expansion of European and American economic and political influence around the world.”[7] After the proclamation of a Chinese republic in 1912 this anti-Imperial reaction was expressed in the emerging public sphere, most importantly in new founded newspapers and magazines. Confucianism was replaced by the new ideology of nationalism, the intellectual and bourgeois elite pushed for change both in China and its relations to the world. The World War then played an important part in this pre-war mind-set because it presented the opportunity to accomplish these aims in its nature of changing the international system.[8]

The war which broke out in 1914 was not only fought between the armies of the Entente and the Central Powers, but also between two competing economic blocs. The Allied nations benefited from their vast colonial resources, while the German economy was cut off from both the commodity and finance world market. In addition, the colonies supplied the “mother countries” even financially, India alone contributed £146 million to the British war costs.[9] In this respect, the United States indirectly participated in the war even before 1917 by supplying both the British and the French with credit, while Germany’s “demand for dollars” was restricted by the blockade.[10] For Japan, the economy boomed during the war, “not least on the back of Japanese investment in China […] and exploitation of China’s labour and raw materials.”[11] Another advantage of the Allied position of controlling the world oceans was the availability of labour migration from Africa, the West Indies and Indochina for the British and French armies.[12]

The most important labour market for the Allies, however, was China, which sent around 130,000 workers to France. Xu Guoqi describes the voyage of these workers to Europe and shows how harsh they were treated by their British and French employers. In short, the “voluntary” recruited workers were seen as children and forced to live in barbed-wired camps near the front-line, were they had to fulfil hard and dangerous tasks like digging the trenches. Xu also states that the experiences of these Chinese had a significant impact on the political development of China after the war, since they brought knowledge about Europe to their country of origin.[13] Although these consequences stay rather vaguely in his book, the racist and condescending attitude of the British and the French authorities towards the Chinese is revealing for the subsequent treatment of the Chinese delegation and their claims at the peace conference.

The British and French armies, however, did not only employ workers from other continents, they also deployed about 650,000 colonial soldiers on the European battlefields. In addition, Britain mobilized about 1,5 million Indian soldiers, whose majority fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman army. France, however, even used enlistment in some cases to support her struggle against the Germans with troops from West and North Africa, Madagascar and even Indochina.[14]

The racist attitude of the French government concerning these colonial troops is as revealing for the post-war order as the one towards the Chinese labourers. This becomes clear in a speech of Prime Minister George Clemenceau on 20 February 1918 to the French Senate:

We are going to offer civilisation to the Blacks. They will have to pay for that. […] I would prefer that ten Blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman – although I immensely respect those brave Blacks –, for I think that enough Frenchmen are killed anyway and that we should sacrifice as few as possible![15]

Apart from this large-scale global labour and military migration from other parts of the world to Europe and the resulting European reactions to this cross-continental contact – both on the Western and the Eastern side of the Western Front[16] – the war had also direct and long-term influences on the African theatre of war itself. In general, over two million Africans served in the war, most of them as packers rather than soldiers due to the insufficient infrastructure and the death of many pack animals by the tsetse fly. Over one million carriers were recruited by the British alone for their operations against the German colonial troops, which had a very different duration: While the German colonies of Togo, Cameroon and Namibia were conquered relatively quickly, the troops of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa involved the British and their Allies to a guerrilla war which lasted until 1918.[17] All in all, 10% of all Africans recruited during the war died, among the labourers maybe even 20%. Moreover, the German guerrilla war devastated large parts of East Africa.[18]

The war which had affected and killed millions of people, devastated whole regions in Europe and Africa and which had been fought on land and on sea, was tried to transform into a lasting peace at the Paris peace conference in 1919, while the fighting – as we have seen – continued in large parts of Eurasia. The opening speeches of the Western Leaders, based on the example of the French President Raymond Poincaré at this assembly of representatives from all six continents are an interesting source to analyse the Western understanding of the global dimension of the war shown above. Poincaré opens the negotiations which influenced the whole inter-war period in a degree probably no negotiator had imagined in 1919 by explaining the spread of the war to a global scale with the “pressure of the Central Powers”[19], which according to Poincaré made Portugal, China, and Siam join the war and thus depicting only the German imperialism as threatening world peace, while himself being the head of a global empire which was erected by means of violence. The entrance of the US and several Latin American countries was in his reading an act of “indignation” at the aggression which the Central Powers carried on “with fire, pillage, and massacre of inoffensive beings”, with which the world rose “from north to south”. The war is thus depicted as a moral struggle and a defence of humanity, in which the smaller nations as well as the United States helped the Allied Nations to protect civilisation. Apart from that, he presents the Allies as guarantors of freedom and independence of oppressed peoples:

While the conflict was gradually extending over the entire surface of the earth the clanking of chains was heard here and there, and captive nationalities from the depths of their age-long jails cried out to us for help.[20]

Since he does not only refer to Poles and Czecho-Slovaks, Jugoslavs and Armenians, but also to the Syrians and Lebanese, this speech can only be considered cynically, given the fact that Syria and the Lebanon became French mandatories of the League of Nations, which had already been agreed in a slightly different way in the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916.[21] In the light of this agreement his description of imperialism clearly shows that France and Britain were only interested in the maintenance or even expansion of their imperial power:

What justice banishes is the dream of conquest and imperialism, contempt for national will, the arbitrary exchange of provinces between states as though peoples were but articles of furniture or pawns in a game.[22]

For our argument it is important to note that the war was depicted as global in front of the future signatories of the treaty, but that in his view Britain and France– together with the United States – remained the active players or the subject of a future global order, while other nations only joined in the war against “Imperialism”.

The Chinese reaction to the peace treaty, by contrast, opens up quite a different perspective on the global dimension of the war. Even the organisational frame of the negotiations was perceived as humiliating by the Chinese government and the delegation in Paris: while China was treated as a minor power, its rival Japan was considered a major power and was part of the “Council of Ten”, existing of the main Allied nations. In the end, Japan received the former German province Shandong, which made the Chinese delegation boycott the treaty. The above mentioned new established Chinese public also closely followed the negotiations in Paris and was shocked by China’s treatment.[23] The example of the South China Morning Post illustrates this process. The paper was founded in 1903 as the first English-language newspaper in Hong-Kong. Unlike other Chinese newspapers in Hong-Kong it enjoyed a freedom of expression and thus played an important role in “consensus building”.[24] The fact that it is an English-language newspaper in a British colony does not strip it of its relevance for the Chinese discourse; on the contrary, it shows the truly global dimension of the debate about the post-war order by taking part in the discourse on a multinational level by expressing Chinese national claims in a possession of one of the opponents of these claims. In 1919, it published several articles on the negotiations, in which the feeling of injustice and the demand for sovereignty of Chinese politicians and the delegation in Paris were reported.

In April it quotes a message from the National Assembly of China to all delegations in Paris, which says that the “unequal diplomatic relations between China and Japan have caused the Oriental question to an obstacle to permanent world peace”. These unequal relations have their origin in the “forcible occupation of Tsingtau”, the “infamous twenty-one demands” from 1915 as well as in the “secret treaties Japan concluded with China since 1917”. Further the message deals with a Chinese delegate at the conference who in the eyes of the authors is a pro-Japanese traitor whom should not be trusted, which shows how important the conference is for the Chinese politicians.[25] Two things are remarkable here: for one thing, the accusations reflect the new self-perception of China as being a democratic nation, having global claims (in which we can see the long-term developments which started before the war) which were important for world peace. For another, this global consciousness seems significant enough to print it down in a newspaper addressed to English-speaking readers. Other articles stress the importance of Shantung for China – the delegation is quoted calling the province “China’s Holy Land”[26]. Finally, the delegation is cited as having two reasons to refuse the treaty: a definite guarantee that Japan would return Shandong to China and the “public opinion of the world [both] are not given”[27].

China’s case, however, was just one out of numerous claims of colonised elites in Africa and Asia, which were rejected at the Paris Peace Conference. Erez Manela shows impressively how also other national aspirations were created in the so-called “Wilsonian Moment”.[28] Still, one must by no means overestimate the direct impact of the First World War on anticolonial movements. While colonised elites developed the idea of their own nationalism during the war, anticolonial uprisings did not occur in a large scale during or immediately after the war.[29]

Apart from a grown global consciousness in different parts of the world the war also brought a change in the international order with it and created a more multipolar world. In addition to Japan, which gained the most at very little expense – in fact Japan was the only nation whose soldiers were “home at Christmas” and it lost less than 2000 men[30] – Australia is a good example for this development. The British dominion took part in the war on the British side without choice, since it was still constitutionally bound to do so.[31] Having already developed a sense of nationhood before 1914[32], the war was an important step for the country to gain its full independence and an own national identification. The role of the country in the war and its part in creating the post-war order are illustrative examples of the global dimension of the war. Australian soldiers were not only sent to a global journey – they were trained in Egypt, then fought in Transjordan and Gallipoli and finally at the Western Front –, Australia also became a so-called “sub-imperialist” power by gaining control over German Papua New-Guinea after the war.[33]

In a speech for the national elections in 1919, prime minister Hughes (1915-1923) describes this global campaign as a moment of national community. Yet, for him the main reason for Australia joining the war was to safeguard the Empire. He criticizes the Labour Party for its attempts to stop further Australian participation in the war in 1915/16 and links Australia’s and global freedom: had Labour been successful, “Australia would have been a German colony today”. Since the voters decided against conscription, he states, volunteers had to be shipped to the Western Front, who protected “civilisation”. This moral argument of volunteers protecting freedom he then uses to justify the colonisation of Papua New Guinea. The peace conference, where the country had “the right of separate representation”, Hughes even describes as a moment of nation-building: “This marks an epoch in our history. We were, by the assembled nations of the earth, granted the status of a nation.”[34]

In fact, Australia had no interest in weakening the British position in Asia and the Pacific since the British Empire was the only security against emerging Japan.[35] Still, Australia can be considered a more independent power after the war, now being an imperial power itself. Australia had thus not only an impact on the war in a far off region of the world and as a sub-imperialist power on the post-war order and the creation of a more multipolar world, but the global war had also a decisive impact on domestic politics and the national identification. The importance of this influence becomes clear if one looks at the annual commemoration of Anzac-Day in Australia today.[36]

To conclude, the “First World War” had not only global dimensions in terms of labourers and soldiers from Africa, China or Australia participating in a war between European Imperial powers either in their continent of origin or in another, but this global aspect of the war had truly global consequences. It resulted in a more multipolar world and raised national aspirations in many parts of the world, although in most cases these claims became only successful in the long run. As we have seen, in France, China and Australia, the war was understood as global, although rather different conclusions were drawn out of this global consciousness of the bloodshed. It can thus definitely be considered a global war: it transformed a fragile world order to an even more unstable postwar order and created or worsened all territorial, economic, political, ideological and intellectual conflicts of the 20th century.

Finally, the year 1917 can be seen as the beginning of the end of European rule. The entry of the US into the war on the one hand and the October Revolution in Petrograd on the other hand is, in the long term, the natal hour of the future bipolar world in which both France and the UK only played a minor role and Germany was divided. In 1917 also two ideas had emerged which further influenced not only Europe, but literally the whole world and which both dealt with the term “self-determination”: Lenin’s idea of a socialist world union and Wilson’s – copied – concept of a capitalist and liberal “League of Nations”.

Bibliography

Primary sources

South China Morning Post: 

  • Chinese at Peace Conference. Peace Delagate Accused of Treason, South China Morning Post, 14.04.1919, p. 11.
  • Over-Night Cables: The Council of Four. Last Week’s Discussions. The Kiaochau Question, South China Morning Post, 09.05.1919, p. 7.
  • China and the Treaty, Paris, Sept. 15, South China Morning Post, 18.09.1919, p. 7

The Opening of the Peace Conference. The Allies’ effort at the reconstruction of the world. January 18, 1919, in Source records of World War I, Volume VII, 1918-1919. Reconstruction and the Peace Treaty (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1998), pp. 36-43.

Hughes, Billy: Election speech delivered at Bendigo, Vic, 30.10.1919, DOI: http://electionspeeches.moadoph.gov.au/speeches/1919-billy-hughes.

Secondary sources

Bayly, Christopher: The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

Koller, Christian: The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War, Immigrants & Minorities, 26 (2008), pp. 111-133.

Macintyre, Stuart: A Concise History of Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Manela, Erez: The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Overy, Richard: Global war 1914-45, in McNeill, John and Pomeranz, Kenneth (Ed.): The Cambridge World History. Volume 7: Production, Destruction and Connection 1750–Present, Part 2: Shared Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 299-320.

Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Smith, Leonard V.: Post-war Treaties (Ottoman Empire/ Middle East), in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, […], issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10357.

Strachan, Hew: Economic Mobilization: Money, Munitions, and Machines, in Strachan, Hew (Ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 134-148.

Strachan, Hew: The First World War. A New Illustrated History (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003).

Xu, Guoqi: Strangers on the Western Front. Chinese Workers in the Great War (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011).

Yizheng Zou: English newspapers in British colonial Hong Kong: the case of the South China Morning Post (1903–1941), Critical Arts, 29:1 (2015), pp. 26-40.

 

[1] Koller, Christian: The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War, Immigrants & Minorities, 26 (2008), pp. 111-133, here p. 118.

[2] Payne, Stanley G.: Civil War in Europe, 1905-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 33-95.

[3] Overy, Richard: Global war 1914-45, in McNeill, John and Pomeranz, Kenneth (Ed.): The Cambridge World History. Volume 7: Production, Destruction and Connection 1750–Present, Part 2: Shared Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 299-320, here p. 301.

[4] Ibid, p. 301.

[5] Strachan, Hew: The First World War. A New Illustrated History (London: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 70.

[6] Bayly, Christopher: The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), p. 461.

[7] Bayly: Modern World, p. 463.

[8] Xu, Guoqi: Strangers on the Western Front. Chinese Workers in the Great War (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 10-37.

[9] Koller: Recruitment, p. 112.

[10] Strachan, Hew: Economic Mobilization: Money, Munitions, and Machines, in Strachan, Hew (Ed.): The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 134-148, here p. 137.

[11] Strachan: First World War, p. 75.

[12] Koller: Recruitment, p. 113.

[13] Xu: Strangers.

[14] Koller: Recruitment, pp. 113-14.

[15] Cited in Koller: Recruitment, p. 120.

[16] The deployment of African troops in the French army even had an influence on the German propaganda, which depicted black soldiers as beasts, while the Central Powers were presented as friends of Islam in order to recruit Muslim POWs for the Ottoman Army. See Koller: Recruitment, p. 123.

[17] Strachan: First World War, pp. 80-95.

[18] Koller: Recruitment, p. 112.

[19] The Opening of the Peace Conference. The Allies’ effort at the reconstruction of the world. January 18, 1919, in Source records of World War I, Volume VII, 1918-1919. Reconstruction and the Peace Treaty (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1998), pp. 36-43, here p. 39.

[20] Ibid., p. 40.

[21] Smith, Leonard V.: Post-war Treaties (Ottoman Empire/ Middle East), in: 1914-1918-online.

International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz,

[…], issued by Freie Universität Berlin,

Berlin 2014-10-08. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15463/ie1418.10357.

[22] The Opening of the Peace Conference, p. 42.

[23] Manela, Erez: The Wilsonian Moment. Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 99-117.

[24]  Yizheng Zou: English newspapers in British colonial Hong Kong: the case of the South China Morning Post (1903–1941), Critical Arts, 29:1 (2015), pp. 26-40.

[25] Chinese at Peace Conference. Peace Delagate Accused of Treason, South China Morning Post, 14.04.1919, p. 11.

[26] Over-Night Cables: The Council of Four. Last Week’s Discussions. The Kiaochau Question, South China Morning Post, 09.05.1919, p. 7.

[27] China and the Treaty, Paris, Sept. 15, South China Morning Post, 18.09.1919, p. 7.

[28] Manela: The Wilsonian Moment.

[29] Strachan: First World War, p. 94; see also: Bayly: Modern World, p. 466.

[30] Strachan: First World War, p. 73.

[31] Macintyre, Stuart: A Concise History of Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 157.

[32] Bayly: Modern World, p. 462.

[33] Macintyre: Australia, pp. 159-167.

[34] Hughes, Billy: Election speech delivered at Bendigo, Vic on October 30th, 1919. http://electionspeeches.moadoph.gov.au/speeches/1919-billy-hughes.

[35] Macintyre: Australia, p. 167.

[36] See for instance the official Australian website of the commemoration of Anzac-Day: https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/anzac/anzac-tradition/.