Dec 28

Communist anti-imperialism in India

This paper, which I gave at a conference on ‘The People and Decolonisation’ in Paris, concerned the campaigning of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its attempt to recruit British workers in solidarity with the Indian struggle. India was chosen because it was the dominant imperial question of the interwar period. It was the location, with Egypt and Ireland, of a triple crisis of empire towards the end of the First World War: a crisis which, unlike the other two, was not stabilised but continued to erupt for the next thirty years until independence was achieved in 1947. The Communists were chosen because they made what was probably the most significant attempt to organise a popular anti-imperialism in interwar Britain. Like all efforts to recruit the British public for anti-imperialism, however, the Communists’ effort was a mixed success, never really achieving the mass support it sought. Close study of its successes and failures might therefore help us in defining the forms and limits of popular anti-imperialism.

The paper began by distinguishing between three possible obstacles to a mass anti-imperialism in Britain. First, we must consider the problem presented by compromising economic interests: the possibility that certain sections of British industry were so reliant on imperial trade that their workforces could not afford the loss of empire and were consequently hostile to campaigns that undermined it. Secondly, there is the problem of low salience – the possibility that levels of public interest in imperial matters were so low that there was no scope for significant metropolitan campaigns of anti-imperialist solidarity. Thirdly, we can consider the problem of poor political articulation – that neither interests nor public attitudes were insuperable obstacles to such campaigns, but that their potential was badly handled by political leaders.

I argue that economic interests were indeterminate: that is, they had no single, directional implication for the recruitment of British workers for anti-imperialism. Lancashire cotton workers, for example, could be allies of Congress campaigns for self-government, if they promised to end the boycott, protect the unions, improve wages and conditions, and restore – or better yet develop – the Indian market for British exports. On the other hand, the very same considerations made the unions fearful that too early a concession of self-government would merely reward the unregulated Indian millowners who paid for Congress campaigns, at the expense both of their Indian workforces and British jobs. In other words, the interests at stake were significant, but also inconclusive in their political effect on campaigns.

The same is true of political salience. From Bernard Porter and others we know that imperial planners had consciously avoided stimulating the interest of working class Britons in imperial matters. Levels of popular ignorance of the facts of empire were legendary. But ignorance did not necessarily demobilise. As any student of contemporary opinion on questions such as the European Union or immigration knows, ignorance of the facts is no impediment to strong feeling and political mobilisation. It was possible to rally the public, but only by starting where they started, in a position of considerable ignorance, but with feelings about what was acceptable, and identities and self-perceptions which could be engaged in support of (or opposition to) what their co-nationals did. These might – again, the indeterminacy is important – form the basis for campaigning, if they were framed in the right way. Furthermore, even if low salience ruled out mass popular campaigns, it did not rule out more restricted campaigns of solidarity. These could thrive in conditions of apathy, if only because the apathetic lacked the energy to oppose them, provided that they were neither expensive nor problematic for issues of greater salience.

In short, this left the heavy lifting to the political entrepreneurs, and to parties like the British Communists. It was their task to articulate anti-imperialism: to frame it in ways which meshed with economic interests, resonated with existing sets of beliefs and feelings, and also fitted with the other priorities of their movement. Like the support offered by other metropolitan parties and movements, the support of the CPGB for anti-imperialism was therefore indirect and conditional. But the fact that it was so does not mean that was necessarily weak. Practically all inter-war metropolitan anti-imperialism was like this. Almost no one was an anti-imperialist first and foremost, but only when (and if) anti-imperialism spoke in some way to other values and primary loyalties they held. What mattered was the closeness of fit between these primary objectives and the anti-imperialism.

In the paper, I explore the four main actors involved in creating Communist anti-imperialism: the Communist International, the Indian émigré revolutionary groups directed – or in rivalry with – the Bengali revolutionary M.N.Roy to whom Comintern initially assigned its Indian work; the Communist Party of India (CPI) founded by Roy in October 1920, and the CPGB itself which was given first informal and from 1925 to 1934 formal responsibility for Communist work in India.

We also have to consider other actors not under Communist control but with whom these four wished or were obliged to work. In India, these included nationalist movements such as the Indian National Congress, as well as peasant and labour struggles. In Britain, they included the trade unions, the other parties of the left and the various groups of resident Indians, especially merchant marine sailors and Indian students. Internationally, they included international bodies such as the Red Trade Union International (RILU), the League Against Imperialism and further groups of expatriate Indian nationalists and anti-imperialists. Communist anti-imperialism, in short, was not a single unified movement, but took a reticulated form as a transnational agitational network.

If you would like to read this paper in draft, please send me a message.


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Dec 10

The Soft Heart of the British Empire


This article, which appeared in Past and Present in 2013, begins with a puzzle. Why did many of the leaders of the Indian nationalist movement move to London in 1908? The three principal leaders of the time were Lal, Bal and Pal – Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal. The first and third moved to London that year. The third – Tilak – was in prison in India, but his lieutenants, G. S. Khaparde and Vishnu Karandikar, also moved to London. So did Har Dayal, the Punjabi revolutionary and a host of student radicals M. P. T. Acharya, Haidar Raza, Basudev Bhattacharji, Hemanto Kumar Ghose, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, and Senapati Bapat. Most lived at or regularly visited Shyamji Krishnavarma’s student hostel “India House“, which was now led by one of Tilak’s younger protégés, the Bombay revolutionary, V. D. Savarkar. In 1909, a member of India House, Madan Lal Dhingra, assassinated the India Office official Sir Curzon Wyllie.

Of course, London had been a home for revolutionary exiles since the 1840s. At various times in the preceding decades it had housed revolutionary nationalists such as Garibaldi and Mazzini, anarchists like Malatesta and Kropotkin, and socialists including Louis Blanc, Marx, Herzen and Lenin. But their movements had been centrifugal, away from the centres of European repression. The Indians, by contrast, had moved centripetally, to the heart of the empire that repressed them. So the first puzzle is why they saw the centre of British imperialism as a haven.

A second puzzle is why the imperial authorities tolerated anti-imperialism at the heart of the empire. It did not do so in India. But there were problems in applying the rule of colonial difference at the metropole. In India, there could be one rule for the Indians, and another for the British. This racial differentiation was harder to impose in London. Although it was known to the authorities that the Indian radicals were plotting for an Indian revolution, almost nothing could be done legally to stop them.

For example, their freedom of movement to and from India was almost wholly unchecked. It was too politically controversial to restrict the rights of imperial subjects to travel freely in the empire, even if their purpose in doing so was to undermine it. The authorities also had no powers to seize funds, or prevent their use for anti-imperialist purposes. Deportation was only possible after conviction for a criminal offence, not on grounds of general “undesirability“. The Indian radicals also travelled frequently and easily to European capitals to plot with other opponents of British rule. When they settled there, they could almost never be extradited back to Britain or India.

In theory, extraditing criminals and defendants back to the colonies was easier. The 1881 Fugitive Offenders Act, which applied to the empire, had few of the protections governing extradition to foreign states and made it relatively simple for colonial officials to extradite those who had escaped their custody into another part of the empire. However, it only applied to fugitives, which meant those who had fled India after warrants for their arrest had been issued. This was not even true of Savarkar, who had not fled to Britain but simply moved there to study and plan an Indian revolution. Hardly anyone else was vulnerable. The legislation did allow non-fugitive Indians to be returned to India if they were suspected of offences which were triable both in Britain and India, but in such cases, the courts had to consider whether it would be in the interests of justice to do so. In India many legal rights – such as those concerning bail, jury trial, cross-examination, admissibility of evidence, and appeal – were suspended or qualified by the 1908 Criminal Law Amendment Act and this meant that British judges sometimes declined to return suspects there. Offences committed in Britain would therefore have to be tried in Britain. The trouble with British courts, the imperial authorities, concluded, was that they would be too soft-hearted, applying British precedents, concepts and sentiment.

Intelligence work at the metropole was also hampered. In India, the government had a network of spies to inform on political agitators. But in London, the India Office would not allow the Government of India to employ spies to gather evidence. It would provoke local outrage and probably prove inadmissible in court. The Metropolitan Police were much less heavy-handed than its Indian counterparts. Pal, indeed, wrote of their “wondrous patience“ and “scrupulous regard for the sanctities of private relations and personal freedoms”. They did not search premises without evidence, open the Indians’ letters, or harass them provided they remained within the law. Freedom of association was also protected. Political meetings on Indian questions in London could never be subject to the surveillance or bans used in India.

Freedom of expression was also mostly guaranteed in Britain. The British press was not merely free to publish what it wanted about India, but did so to a degree that would have led to prosecution for sedition in India. The Times, for example, printed Krishnavarma’s letters unedited, even when they advocated political assassination. When Government ministers complained, the editor replied that it was the paper’s policy “to give even the devil fair play”. Sedition law, which was used extensively in India to restrict even moderate criticism of the government, had effectively fallen into disuse. The India Office concluded that the Indian radicals could not be prosecuted for advocating violence, even though in India merely arguing that violence was bound to follow repression had earned Tilak a six-year sentence.

The influence of the Indian radicals over Indian students in Britain was especially worrying to the British authorities. But the universities and the Inns of Court refused to make Indian students a special case or subject them to surveillance. They and the British officials agreed that it would be “politically disastrous” for British universities to close their doors to Indian applicants. Indeed, the India Office wanted to keep them open in the wider interest of imperial unity.

Indeed, besides the stubborn attachment of the British to liberal principles, which they refused to alter to make an exception for Indians, wider imperial interests prevented any revision of these rules. British officials in India often wished that they could block the traffic of anti-imperialists between India and the metropole. They disliked metropolitan visitors from London almost as much as they disliked the way that Indian radicals escaped to London and worked there against them in safety. The trouble was that liberal imperialists refused to stop the traffic. To them, empire was only justified if it extended opportunities for the colonised to learn the skills necessary for self-government. This meant that ideas, print and individuals must flow.

Even less liberal imperialists found themselves obliged to agree. They feared that India might get forgotten in plans for the closer integration of the white dominions through tariff reform and imperial federation. Since India was not itself a destination for economic migrants from other parts of the empire, they had to make it easier, not harder, for educated Indians to travel. Even the arch-imperialist Curzon therefore wanted students and journalists to move easily between Britain and India, though some of them used these opportunities to attack British rule.

So it proved impossible to draw a border between Britain and India. The solution, therefore, was to try to draw a border between Briton and Indian. Such a line could not be crossed unless identities themselves dissolved. The Indian radicals would carry it with them wherever they went.

Moreover, this colonial difference was defined not simply in terms of racial identity, but in terms of behaviour or conduct, and required that special attention be paid to judging it. The effect was to make citizenship possible for Indians, but a matter of a protracted – even indefinitely deferred – probation, rather than entitlement. It positioned them as candidates, distinct from both the “self-disciplining” British citizenry and also the externally-disciplined colonial subject.

Such differentiation, however, could not be carried out by the state alone. Policing an indelible geographical or racial border could be attempted by a suitably competent state. But differentiation on the basis of character and conduct was not the same as policing a border. It could not be done by the state alone, because it required expertise, judgement of nuance, and attention to innumerable, repeated, everyday transactions. The state therefore relied on British civil society – its universities, editors, writers, intellectuals, public figures, charitable trustees, among others – to make judgements of character and conduct. It was these figures, as much as state officials, who applied the modified rule of colonial difference.

In London, the radicals therefore encountered a world quite unlike India. Power was concentrated not in the hands of the state, but dispersed among many non-state institutions, actors and associations, who stood apart from, though still in a certain relation with, the state. The most relevant for the Indians were the parliamentary lobby, the press, the Inns of Court and the legal profession, and the universities and the public intellectual arena. The autonomy of these spaces was considered essential to a liberal mode of governance, in creating and shaping self-governing individuals, in permitting supposedly natural social and economic processes to occur without distortion, and in providing locations from which a critique of the state and its actions could be made. Although the state did not control them, they were nonetheless governed by internally-enforced codes of behaviour. They defined for themselves what constituted fair use of the freedom they possessed, thereby controlling the practical delivery of civil liberties. Being a “reasonable litigant“ in court, a “respectable lobbyist“ at Westminster, a “responsible journalist“ in Fleet Street, or a “good chap“ at university was a necessary condition for equal treatment. Furthermore, full entitlement to civil liberties could not be obtained by Indians directly, but only via British intermediaries whose right to them was undisputed. These were the people who mattered: the MPs who might raise their cases in Parliament, the editors who might publish their letters and articles; the college tutors who might protect them against the India Office; the lawyers who might admit them to the Bar, or take their cases. A very large part of the radicals’ activities and correspondence was directed towards these people, in terms that ranged from formal lobbying to begging letters.

Almost all such efforts failed. The Indians, as I argue in more detail in the article, therefore abandoned the metropole, and took their struggle back to India, or to dispersed, diaspora locations. They left the metropole not because of state power, but because of the unwillingness of these intermediaries to align in solidarity with them.

This finding has implications for the way we see metropolitan anti-colonial resistance. The people who applied the rule of difference included many of those usually seen as the metropolitan allies of the colonised. They were the advocates, but also the probation officers of those they wanted to help. Each in his own way discriminated according to a rule of colonial difference. And because colonial rule at the metropole held out the possibility of acceptance, however conditionally, it placed Indians in a dilemma too. Even those who came to London to oppose the empire therefore found themselves subject to temptation.

The experience of the Indian radicals also throws an sidelight on the debate concerning the relationship between nineteenth century liberalism and a co-emerging, even co-existent, imperialism. It is now broadly accepted that liberalism was not in any simple sense a tool of empire. Its principles could be invoked by advocates of an expansionary, missionary imperialism, but also by their opponents. Liberalism was used against the British in India. But this proved hard to achieve in London. The Indian radicals did invoke liberal authorities, and even approached some of them in person for help and advice. But they were never allowed to be co-makers of liberalism. Liberalism, British thinkers insisted, was the product not just of abstract rational reflection but of a particular socio-historical experience, which had, not by chance, happened first in Britain, and had yet to happen in India. Perhaps liberalism in time could stretch to include everyone, but this did not mean that it belonged to everyone. True, some Liberals wanted to find out what was going on in India, and especially whether liberal ideals were taking root in Indian soil. They were also prepared to be critical of the Raj, often precisely for its failure to nurture liberalism. Yet this was combined with a strong sense that whatever India had to learn of liberalism, liberalism had little to learn from India.

Anti-imperialist Indians were able to take advantage of the tolerance for refugees, even though they were refugees from the British Raj. However, this tolerance was not proffered by the state freely. It was extracted, sometimes without its knowledge, and often without its approval, as a consequence of existing commitments, some of them intrinsic to imperialism itself. The routes that empire needed to keep open in order to sustain itself were pathways along which anti-imperial ideas and actors could be smuggled, or even travel freely.

Nonetheless, despite its many legal freedoms, Britain had turned out to be more a stifling than supportive place. The Indian radicals were shaped and directed by soft power, exercised in multiple and dispersed ways, and only loosely co-ordinated, if at all, by the state. It worked through a diverse group of Britons, including many who were not regarded as wielders of imperial power. In Britain, civil liberties were not enforceable rights, but privileges which, for their full value, required endorsement by British intermediaries. Parts of British civil society were prepared to offer such endorsement, but it came at a price: submission to the moulding processes by which the British made themselves. This acceptance was, moreover, always provisional and revocable, and the codes under which it was offered reserved final judgement to the British intermediaries. The Indians were therefore not excluded on grounds of race, but were admitted as such.

The value of liberalism, whether in justifying or criticising empire, was thus not just a matter of what its complex and meaning-laden texts said, but also who got to interpret them. It was a matter of textual belonging, as well as meaning. Indians could appeal to liberal principles, but they did not get to define or apply them, and increasingly that was what mattered most.

For the Indian radicals, the colonial metropole was not simply a nexus of useful interconnections, as “junction box” theories have proposed. It was also a troubling place, made so not through coercive policing and surveillance, but the temptations and shapings that it exerted on those to whom it offered probation. The friendship of British allies was therefore a mixed blessing. The fact that the strongest mode of metropolitan anti-imperialism was self-criticism – of the British by the British – and that this was essential for it to be effective with British audiences, weakened the possibilities of a friendship of equals.

However, this meant that the metropole was also a place for decisions and breaks of trajectory: a critical juncture more than a junction-box. Several important crises were resolved there. For some of the Indian radicals, the freedoms of the metropole were surrendered in favour of a straight fight with the more obviously coercive state in India. Others left for international work largely free of the complications of British freedom. Gandhi – a visitor to India House in 1909 – departed from Britain to imagine an India free not merely of British rule, but of British concepts of freedom. As a consequence, the metropole was, in the last decades of imperial rule, strangely quiet, isolated in certain ways from the collapsing empire of which it believed itself the centre. It was thereby deprived of the political convulsions and reassessments that might have been forced by a confrontational anti-imperial challenge at its heart. Instead, Britain formally decolonised with surprisingly little metropolitan reappraisal, the challenges mostly occurring far away, leaving – battered but still standing -the complex mix of attitudes to freedom, difference and government which had sustained empire.













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Dec 03

Anti-imperialism in 1960

This chapter began life as a paper at a conference on the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Macmillan’s ‘Winds of Change’ speech. I was asked to speak about metropolitan anti-imperialism in 1960, and had the idea of examining four anti-imperialist texts which were written during the short six week period of Macmillan’s visit to Africa (5 January – 16 February 1960).

The four texts were chosen to bring out the variety in metropolitan anti-imperialism. They represent four distinct answers to what I argued was the main dilemma of metropolitan anti-imperialism: how to work with anti-colonial movements whose struggles were being carried on thousands of miles away, and which now asserted independence not merely of Britain, but of British support. My central argument was that tensions between activists in Britain and in the African colonies mainly arose from difficulties of positioning British and African contributions in relation to each other, and defining the relevance of British activists to struggles that more and more clearly belonged to other people. Studying these four texts therefore offered, in microcosm, a new way of describing the arc of British imperial decline. My four texts – or four ‘straws in the wind’, as I called them – were these:


This pamphlet, issued in January 1960, as Macmillan set off for Africa, represents the anti-imperialist voice of the official opposition. Labour had broken from the bipartisan consensus over Africa in 1959, but remained cautious about taking sides with the colonised against British settlers or troops, or sounding ‘anti-British’. When things went wrong, Labour found it easy to put distance between itself and the Conservative Government. But it did not find it quite so straightforward to draw closer to African nationalists. It is telling that when Labour MPs denounced colonial atrocities, in Kenya and the Central African Federation, it attacked the Government and not the empire. Indeed, Labour speakers paid tribute to the dedication of colonial officials, including those involved in the ‘rehabilitation’ of the barbarous Mau Mau. They demanded accountability in the interests of restoring confidence in British rule, in setting a good example to future African governments, and in protecting Britain’s good name for fair dealing in Africa and beyond. In short, Labour’s attacks were Dreyfusard, seeking truth in the interests of national honour. The sentiments to which they appealed only made sense if it were assumed that colonial rule was not routinely violent and exploitative. Labour MPs were ‘shocked’ by atrocity. But shock only occurs as a consequence of surprise. A different sort of critic might have argued that colonial violence was really not very surprising at all, and that the appropriate response was not a ministerial resignation, but an accelerated transfer of power.

Labour did attempt to build close relationships with young African nationalists such as Tom Mboya, Hastings Banda and Kenneth Kaunda. This was helpful in debates because it provided Labour with more up-to-date information than the Government about the colonies.But Labour’s shadow ministers did not always trust what their African friends told them. A lot of ‘hysterical nonsense’ and exaggeration came out of the colonies, Barbara Castle privately admitted, and Labour could not simply parrot it. It had to exercise ‘judgment’. Much as it had argued over India before, Labour invariably instructed African nationalists that they should work inadequate constitutions rather than sit on their sidelines or try and bring the government down through agitation. ‘No body of people can learn to govern themselves without the experience of government, just as you cannot learn to swim until you go into the water’, the shadow Colonial Secretary James Callaghan (left) instructed Mboya. This headmasterly advice was increasingly resented. ‘What right has any other person to set himself up as our tutor and our judge?’ Mboya demanded.



My second ‘straw’ is the Movement for Colonial Freedom (M.C.F.) pamphlet Africa’s Year of Destiny, written by its president, Fenner Brockway (left), again in January 1960 as Macmillan toured Africa.mcf_title_small The M.C.F. was much less inclined to judgment than the Labour leaders had been. The metropolitan activist should not be judge or trustee for Africans, but supporter. The M.C.F. therefore wanted the empire to end, but it was also keen that there should be an ongoing place for the British in what had once been their colonies. It was telling that at its foundation a proposal to call for Britain to quit its colonies was defeated on the grounds that this would leave nothing for the British to do. Room had to be found for metropolitan activists to make a difference. The activists were also anxious about the political and social malaise of Britain as its empire ended, especially by the loss of purpose and certainty, especially among young people. Their solution was, in the language of the time, a ‘cause’: an external object to be transformed – in this case, colonial relations – which, in the process of being transformed would also help to resecure British identities and their sense of a place in the world. A blocked and stagnant old country – Britain – was contrasted with the vibrant, emerging nations of Africa. Its tired and remote political leaders were contrasted with the African nationalist leadership: young, idealistic, self-sacrificing, and instinctively in touch with popular aspirations.

Such ‘cause’ politics perhaps qualifies the suggestion that British culture in the late 1950s, even in its younger and angrier manifestations, was disabled by nostalgia or melancholy for past imperial certainties. The M.C.F. was one of a lengthening list of new social movements which offered a way of arresting the sense of national and imperial malaise by continuing to seek global influence while rejecting the framework of colonial or neo-colonial rule as the means of doing so. Their orientation was firmly forward-looking, and optimistic not melancholic. Other examples include the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, with its nicely ambiguous slogan to ‘Let Britain Lead’, the new, cleaner internationalisms of the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and even charities such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save The Children, as they turned in the late 1950s from European reconstruction to global horizons. The primary purpose of the M.C.F. was to end colonial rule as a matter of justice. But its acceptance of a specific set of British responsibilities and ‘wider horizons’ remained important in gaining support among the very large numbers for whom the loss of empire was not regretted, but was a source of anxiety. This had two noteworthy consequences. The first was to make the organisation less relevant to Africans, for whom these British anxieties were less relevant. They increasingly deserted the M.C.F. in favour of African-only organisations such as the Committee of African Organizations (C.A.O.). The second consequence was to create quite unrealistic burdens of expectation. The M.C.F. did not project judgments on Africa, like the Labour Party, but it did project hopes. Brockway’s 1960 pamphlet was brim-full of confidence in African freedom, much of which collapsed in disapointment in later years.



The third text takes us to Africa itself, though not with Macmillan to colonial Africa. all_africa_peoples_congress_smallOn 25 January – the day Macmillan landed in Nyasaland – the second All African People’s Conference (AAPC) opened in Tunis. The Conference was a meeting of free governments and freedom fighters. Macmillan’s itinerary was in form a colonial progress, planned to model the progress of colonies to independence. British Africa stood still, while Macmillan inspected it. The movements of the African anti-imperialists made in over fifty Pan African conferences held from 1957-65, by contrast, made a dynamic and disorderly scribble across the map. The scribble even extended to London, since Africans denied permission to fly direct within their own continent often stopped over there, and British activists flew out with them to observe. The Tunis Conference was an occasion where Africans talked to each other. The solidarities invoked were exclusively African, extending to African exile communities and to African Americans, but not to white allies. African members of the CAO attended as delegates, but the British attended only as observers.

Tony Benn (left) attended the Tunis Conference as an observer. He was among those for whom Britain had historical obligations and experience to draw on, and wider horizons to scan. But the Tunis Conference persuaded him that the flow of influence should run both ways. ‘We can no longer dictate the speed at which independence will come’, Benn told his colleagues. British allies should abandon any attempt to set the direction of African struggles. Instead, they should try and learn from the Africans and their new anti-colonial political techniques. ‘I feel I have much more in common with a young African than I have with many older members of my own party’, Benn wrote. ‘[C]oming back from the Tunis Conference where one had the opportunity of inhaling this … fresh wind from Africa, I found it gave me all sorts of new ideas about British politics and the desire and need for change … so that we might benefit from the pioneering work that … [Africans have] done.’


Indeed, in the work of the C.A.O. and in the Anti-Apartheid Movement (A.A.M.), which was also founded in 1960, the methods of anti-colonial struggle came back to the streets of Britain. The A.A.M. employed not only the march or rally – the great standby of M.C.F. protest – but also shop boycotts, picketing, vigils, and acts of silent, symbolic protest. These directly confrontational, participatory, consciousness-raising methods marked the return to the metropole of techniques of protest originally devised in colonial settings. The A.A.M. did not entirely solve the eternal problem of metropolitan anti-imperialism – how to put down roots in British society and yet remain accountable to someone else’s struggle. It proved very successful at putting down roots, but there was unease that this was sometimes achieved through a public ‘whiteness’ intended to maximise support in the British churches and political parties. Nevertheless, its relationship with the London External Mission of the African National Congress – accepting, for example, the A.N.C. commitment to Soviet-backed armed struggle – suggested that the internal relationships were very unlike those of earlier anti-imperialist movements.



My final text returns us to the metropole, but not as it was. It is George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile (1960). Lamming is a poet and novelist, from Barbados via Trinidad, who came to Britain in 1950 among the first generation of West Indian migrants, finding work with the BBC Colonial Service and as a writer. The Pleasures of Exile is a set of interconnected essays, comprising a memoir of his life as a self-exile in London, addressing the assumptions and exclusions of British cultural institutions such as the BBC and literary journalism. In what is presumably a coincidence, but if so a remarkable one, Lamming began writing it on the day that Macmillan’s African itinerary appeared in the London press. He finished it on 5 February 1960, the day Macmillan boarded the Capetown Castle to begin his own passage home. Its power as a piece of anti-imperialist writing is that it relocates the problem, from being that of the migrant to that of the metropole. The metropolitan British, unlike the Caribbean migrants, knew little about their history. In the ‘desolate, frozen heart of London’, Lamming found, ‘[t]he English themselves were not aware of the role they had played in the formation of these black strangers’. They needed to be brought to see that ‘[w]e have met before’.

Lamming identified a problem which the British activists had as yet barely recognised, but which we can now see to be a postcolonial one. The Pleasures of Exile challenged the unacknowledged privileges that constituted British identity, including those enjoyed by those who thought of themselves as hostile to empire. This perhaps helps us to see why, in 1960, it was so hard to unite the various forms of anti-imperialism I have discussed in a single ‘cause’. The disillusioned Caribbean migrants and the disaffected ‘angry young men’, as well as the anti-imperialists of the M.C.F., seemed in many ways to inhabit the same metropolitan cultural landscape. They all held the Conservatives’ empire in contempt. The problem, for Lamming, was that the anger the British could work up against the empire was no guide to their willingness to surrender their own privileges. He relates an encounter with Kingsley Martin, veteran anti-imperialist and, editor of the New Statesman and Nation. Martin told an audience, in the familiar M.C.F. manner, that the British had largely solved their problems at home, so it was now their duty to ‘widen their horizons’. george_lamming_smallBut for Lamming, Britain’s problems at home were not all solved, and could not be until the empire came to an end there too. The problem with the ‘cause’ was that it directed its energies to fulfilling and securing unexamined identities, rather than taking them apart. Lamming’s suggestion that colonialism pervaded every encounter, even those between ‘civilised men’, was shocking to other forms of metropolitan anti-colonialism, which may be why its implications took a long time to sink in. It called almost every liberal motive into question. The pose of concern about race adopted by some of the English was really just a move in their internal quarrel with other English people. ‘Our friendship’, Lamming wrote of his English friend, ‘is the absolute proof of his “difference” from his aunt … In order to rebuke his aunt, he may marry my niece’. As long as colonial privileges were so pervasive and yet so unconsciously held, such dialogue could only consist of polite incomprehension on the surface, and mutually accusatory ressentiment and ‘chips on the shoulder’ beneath it.



There are many anti-imperialist voices in January 1960 and many ways to distinguish between them, but I have chosen to emphasise not so much the nature of the task they set themselves, but the relative positioning of metropolitan and colonial actors in performing it. ‘[My] one lasting impression’, the Labour Party’s John Hatch had written after a visit to Africa in 1955, ‘is that African eyes are turned inexorably on … the British Labour Movement’. By 1960, few still thought this. The metropolitan activists had largely abandoned the idea that it was their business to free Africa when they judged it ready for freedom. Dealing with the colonies was now a matter of behaving decently to people, and with a sense of what national honour and humanitarian principle demanded. But anti-imperialism is made by the colonised too, and the shifts here were just as significant. African movements which had first looked to Labour to form a judgment in their favour, now began to act independently, thinking of Labour in a more mixed way, and finally not much at all. Responding to these changes forced the metropolitan activists to work out how to form judgments or otherwise participate in struggles that they no longer owned. Thinking this through was eventually to create the basis for new, but quite different solidarities. Even in the six week snapshot I have described here, such solidarities were starting to take shape, as were their accompanying difficulties. Both the possibilities and the dilemmas would become clearer in the decade that had just begun, in student protests as they erupted over Vietnam and Cuba, in the linking of Third World solidarity movements abroad and anti-racist campaigns at home, and of course in the tricontinental postcolonial struggle. In this respect, perhaps, 1960 is neither a moment of triumph, nor defeat, nor redundancy, but of incipient transformation.


My chapter appeared as ‘Four straws in the wind’: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism, January-February 1960′, in Sarah Stockwell and Larry Butler (eds.),The Wind of Change: Harold Macmillan and British Decolonization (2013).

‘Nicholas Owen’s chapter on (the often overlooked) British anti-imperial activism of 1960 is an essential read for historians of both modern Britain and its empire … Owen offers a compelling narrative of a politics in transition and underscores the political significance of metropolitan anti-imperialism in new and unexpected ways.’

Camilla Schofield, Twentieth Century British History 26 (2015) 340-341.


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Jun 02

Civil Society and British Progressives in India

The header above uses a photograph taken by the Victorian photographers Bourne and Shepherd of Sir Sayaji Rao, the third Gaekwar of Baroda (1863-1939). He was twelve years at the time this photograph was taken. A few months earlier he had acceded to the throne after his predecessor was accused of poisoning the British Resident and deposed by the British for maladministration. In 1911, at the Delhi Durbar, the Gaekwar famously ‘insulted’ the King-Emperor George V by half-bowing only once (three times was expected) and turning his back on him.

The Labour Party leader Keir Hardie, who had visited India a few years earlier, took this incident to indicate a degree of anti-British hostility it probably did not convey and defended the Gaekwar in Parliament and press. Hardie had been impressed by what he had seen of Baroda on his visit, and argued that it showed that Indians could govern themselves without help from the British. Indeed, Baroda was much paraded to visitors as the most modern and enlightened of the Indian princely states. Visitors included the Radical journalist Henry Nevinson, and also Ramsay MacDonald who arrived in 1910. He was shown the modern schools, state bank and prisons, and given copies of the plans for industrial development, but he remained doubtful that western plants could ever acquire deep roots in India. ‘The West’, he wrote, ‘…is fading and rotting in the Indian heat’. Sidney and Beatrice Webb also met the Gaekwar on their visit to India in April 1912 and thought him and his wife ‘real enthusiasts for social reform’.

In this chapter, I examined the way that these early British socialists, radicals and progressives saw India. What did they see? How did they understand it?

A key question for all these observers was whether the kinds of social reforms they wished to see in India, such as the redress of poverty, widening educational opportunity and the growth of meaningful trade unionism were more likely under Congress rule than they were under British rule. The unreformed Raj seemed to lack the capacity to undertake such a programme. Its finances were squeezed by imperial military demands and those of an expensive European-dominated administration. It pursued agricultural policies which merely created peasant debt and famine, and industrial strategies which were haphazard. Lacking sufficient authority of its own, it was forced into compromise with the existing elites and the most socially regressive elements of Indian society, the landlords and the princes.

On the other hand, Congress, despite its hostility to the Raj, seemed detached from the masses. Though highly articulate, its core support came from a Hindu urban high caste western-educated intelligentsia. It had little autonomous support among workers and peasants. Its primary aim was to secure its own place in the administrative work of the Raj, but social reforms, as well as religious matters, had been avoided as divisive. Land tenure and rents were rarely discussed, and the problems of Indian rural poverty were considered mainly as evidence of the ‘drain’ of resources to Britain, and rarely as a problem of internal inequity.

This made it hard to judge progress. Judged by the criteria of home, the emergence of a rich urban associational life, characterised by ‘moderate’ politicians speaking the familiar language of western liberalism, seemed at first sight an authentic, if infant, development. Yet on closer inspection, seen in its own setting, it appeared a somewhat artificial, imitative phenomenon, lacking deep roots in Indian society. The alternative forms of mobilisation visible in ‘extremist’ politics initially offered different signs of authenticity: popular support and clear indigenous roots, and most encouragingly, self-reliance. But they were quite unlike the forms with which British politicians were familiar, relying as they did on pre-modern methods of mobilisation and on the authority of caste and class. Many of the politicians they met as heads of ‘western’ organizations in London, were, in India, leading narrower, communal organisations dominated by quite different methods of working. These were often reforming organizations of which British socialists approved, concerned with reforming religious practices such as widow remarriage, untouchability or prohibitions on foreign travel, in the light of new thinking. But they had unfamiliar modes of operation, such as the use of religious injunctions, caste sanctions, money-power and force.

At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to ‘Indianise’ it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

Although, in discussions of this kind, the political development of India was usually claimed to be decades, or sometimes centuries, behind that of the west, it is very evident that a great deal of what the socialist travellers suggested projected on to an Indian canvas some contemporary and domestic concerns. Hardie wanted to bring Congress leaders face to face with the problems of the rural poor. The village council – the panchayat – was the foundation of self-government. MacDonald thought that participation in the local councils would be for Congress what parliamentary work had been for the British Labour Party, a necessary apprenticeship. For the Webbs, the Indian ‘aristocracy of intellect’ needed – contra Hardie – to be detached from the uncivilized masses, and brought into alliance with similarly progressive British officials. What each most admired in the mirror of Indian nationalism was the reflection they saw of their own ideals.


This chapter appeared in Jose Harris (ed.) Civil Society in British History: Ideas, Identities, Institutions, (Oxford, 2005). You can find the book here.


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May 25

The British Left and India

The British Left and India is the story of two interwoven quests: (1) the search of the British Left for a form of anti-colonialism if which they could approve; and (2) the search of Indian nationalists for a mode of agitation which did not offend their commitment to self-reliant struggle. One of its innovations is to try to tell these two stories in parallel, altering the direction of the gaze chapter by chapter. Some chapters examine how India looked to the British Left. Others examine how the British Left looked to India. The book also tries to show how these two perspectives interacted.

My starting point is to consider some of the usual explanations of the British Left’s failure to develop a strong and committed anti-imperialism. The first was economics. The British trade unions, and the Labour Party which they dominated, it is often suggested, gained economically from imperialism, through higher wages, cheap consumer goods, and the export opportunities provided by colonial trade. They were therefore unlikely to ally with those who sought to end the empire.

This argument had already been much damaged by the “imperial accountancy” school of thought, whose work showed that, before the First World War, “Labour Britain” – industrial, working class, and outside the south-east of England – was economically, geographically and socially almost the opposite of “Imperial Britain” – finance and service-oriented and based in south-east England.

I added to this two further points: (1) that the pattern of economic gains and losses from empire was not well understood, and (2) that the implications for this economic stake of ceding power to nationalists were not clear. Was the stake safer under imperial rule, or only once power had been ceded to the nationalists? The effect of this uncertainty, I argued, was indeterminacy. Trade unionists and Labour MPs were potential allies of an Indian nationalism which might end a cotton boycott, or promote industrial co-operation, and also potential allies of the Raj in suppressing the challenge of an unregulated industrial competitor.

I also explored five further explanations of the weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism. They were (1) the apathy and ignorance of the Left’s political constituencies; (2) the electoral consequences of adopting anti-imperial positions; (3) the lack of a theory of anti-imperialism and the reliance on liberal humanitarianism; (4) the Left’s inability to challenge an all-encompassing orientalism; and (5) the resourcefulness of imperialists and their capacity to co-opt their critics.

In each case, these factors were complex, and again indeterminate, in their effects. Apathy and ignorance about India, for example, were certainly widespread. But it is a mistake to suppose that they are necessarily a barrier to effective anti-imperalism. Apathy allowed those who were anti-imperialists to define the party’s programme. Provided they did not demand too many resources, or clash with bigger priorities, they could take control of policy. Ignorance was not as profound as might be guessed especially among the leadership of the Labour Party. The party’s five principal leaders from 1906-1947, four – Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury and C. R. Attlee – made India a specialism, three of them – Hardie, MacDonald and Attlee – made visits to India, and two – Attlee and MacDonald – served lengthy terms on specialist commissions on India. In 1924, MacDonald was the first Prime Minister since Wellington to have visited India before taking office. Ignorance was greater lower down the party. But ignorance should not be conflated with apathy. The most informed could be the most conservative about India, and the least informed the most radical.

Electoral considerations also neither promoted nor precluded anti-imperialism. Any Indian policy could be defended to a working-class audience, the Labour Secretary of State for India cheerfully admitted in 1930. They were “a mixture of ignorance and idealism, always with racial prejudice ready to be excited, so that the ground is indeed clear for any argument”. When an Indian crisis threatened to take advantage of British weakness, or interlock with parallel disturbances elsewhere, especially in wartime, Labour MPs and ministers drew back from alliance with nationalists. On the other hand, maintaining the momentum of political progress, timely concession and good relations with the rising classes were the key skills of the leaders of an empire under stress. After 1945, a close political relationship with anti-colonial nationalists was far from an electoral liability. It was a sign that the Left was in touch with modern developments.

The argument that ideological weaknesses explain the weakness of the Left’s anti-imperialism comes in two forms. The older one stresses the poverty of British Marxism in addressing questions of empire, and the existence of a powerful Fabian alternative which saw the empire not an obstacle to international socialism, but as a framework through which it might be built. The newer one – postcolonialism – suggests that all those ideologies which might have developed an anti-imperial cutting edge, including classical Marxism, failed to do so because they were themselves children of imperialism, and until challenged by the colonised themselves, tainted by orientalist assumptions of colonial inferiority. Here too – as much other writing has shown – there is indeterminacy. Socialist ideologies are not definitionally anti-imperialist. Indeed, there are socialist critiques of anti-imperialism, and perhaps even socialist forms of imperialism. Yet socialism has, at times, and selectively, formed one of the most effective cutting-edges of anti-imperialist work.

Orientalist images and assumptions, finally, are certainly very visible in the British Left’s accounts of India. But they did not always lead to imperialism. For one thing, there was an affirmative Orientalism which argued that India was the civilizational equal of the west, and which mobilised anti-imperialist argument on that basis. For another, after 1900, forms of Orientalism which insisted on essential “racial” difference and the impossibility of India ever “catching up” with the west, were giving way to more contingent “civilisational” forms, which suggested the desirability of devolving power to modern, westernising elites. Indeed, the insistence of many British liberals and socialists that there was only one true route to modernity – that taken by the British – could make them keen to develop the necessary modern institutions in India – constitutionally limited and accountable government, a free press, the rule of law, widening educational opportunities. This could work against certain traditional forms of colonial rule, although it was also possible to co-opt it into support for the modernising forms.

In each case, therefore, there is a high degree of indeterminacy.

My own explanation begins with a suggestive point made by Edward Said. At one point in his book Orientalism, Said describes Orientalism as not so much a matter of holding particular views, but of “positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient, without ever losing him the relative upper hand”.

This idea of relational superiority is, I think, a very powerful explanation of the gulf between the British Left and Indian nationalists. It was not only a matter of the views they held but of where they stood in holding them. Despite the fact that Congress had been founded some fifteen years before their own party, Labour often saw it as a junior partner in need of education in the arts of political activism or of good government. It seldom questioned whether tactics designed to advance the interests of uniquely class conscious workers in an industrial society whose ruling classes generally eschewed repression were appropriate for the divided mix of classes and interests over which Congress presided.

Before the First World War, a procession of Labour’s senior figures visited India. They included J. Keir Hardie in 1907-08, Ramsay MacDonald in 1909 and again in 1913, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb in 1911-12. Each set down thoughts on the nature of healthy political development. The lessons they drew were quite varied, and were strongly coloured by their views of how the Labour cause had advanced at home. For Hardie, the devolution of political power to village councils would ensure that the urban professionals who made up the Congress movement were brought face to face with the problems of the rural, labouring poor. The Webbs hoped to see co operation between the “natural aristocracy” of educated Indians and sympathetic British officials in local schemes of social improvement, through which Indians might acquire the skills to run a modern, interventionist state. MacDonald regarded Congress as only at the first stage of its development, comparing its proposals to the narrow, class bound demands of the mid Victorian Liberal Party. Indian nationalism should, he argued, follow the same lines of political evolution as the movement for labour representation had at home. Congress was a healthy development, but to develop further had to carve out a broader based political support among Indian workers and peasants, reduce its dependence on middle class activists, and campaign not merely for political independence but for social reform to raise the condition of India’s impoverished masses.

In the years after 1914, Labour scanned the subcontinent for signs of appropriate progress and the emergence of authentic nationalism: perhaps the emergence of a multi-party system divided along class lines, or the political recruitment of peasants and workers, or the development of schemes for practical socialism, or the evolution of party programmes that went beyond attacks on the raj. As Labour moved from oppositional movement to party of government after 1918, it became increasingly keen to push Congress down the same road to responsibility. But judged against these standards, Congress, in moving away from parliamentarism towards Gandhian non-co-operation, seemed to be going in reverse. Many British observers, especially in the trade unions, doubted whether it was truly interested in social reform. Its demands for independence seemed too closely entwined with the vested interests of the Indian middle classes and too bound up with impractical Gandhism to act as an instrument for genuine industrial and economic change. Indian unions seemed too prone to spontaneous and undisciplined outbreaks of labour unrest, their leadership provided by lawyers or even employers rather than workers, and their work characterized by political objectives that ranged too far beyond wage-bargaining. This could all be satisfactorily changed, given time and patience, but to those who had won acceptance for Labour through negotiation in the parliamentary arena and demonstrating their fitness to govern to local electorates, there could be no short cuts to political maturity. As late as 1943, Labour ministers worked on plans to undermine the Congress leadership and remould Indian nationalism into a more acceptable form.

However, there were very good reasons why Congress and other Indian nationalists were unable to meet Labour’s criteria. India lacked nearly all the structural underpinnings that would have made Labour’s strategy appropriate. The emergence of British Labour had been greatly eased by the fact that it happened in a state with a liberal constitutional framework, in which trade unions and socialist societies could operate without serious restriction. Labour’s leaders had come to see the state as a largely neutral force, committed to rule-following and publicly declared “fairness” between classes, which could be captured by winning a parliamentary majority. In India, by contrast, politics were very much more circumscribed. The raj, despite its liberal pretensions, was very ready to lock up nationalist agitators without trial, ban newspapers and proscribe hostile organizations. It was quite impossible for nationalists to see it as neutral, or to make capture of local legislative power the sole aim of its strategy.

Labour had emerged almost entirely within pre-existing political structures, and only rarely needed to step outside them. Even when it did, it did so within the wider margins of acceptable dissent. Congress, since it sought to displace the raj from India, could not work wholly in the same fashion. It had to step, often and far, outside the plans of the raj. Moreover, the Indian nationalist struggle after 1920, as Gandhi and others conceived it, was not intended to mimic British political traditions. It rejected the mendicancy of the early Congress. Independence was to be won through the purification of Indian efforts, not learned at the feet of British sympathisers, no matter how well-intentioned. This kind of struggle was dictated by the specificity of Indian conditions, and in particular by the need to rally the support of much wider groups than had been attracted by the westernized strategies used hitherto. But it was also quite new and it is hardly surprising that so many Labour figures misunderstood it. The inner workings of the “dominant parties” that led anti imperialist struggles were more complex than their own typologies allowed, and could only be poorly understood by those anxious to squash them into the moulds of western, and usually British, experience.

The problem, therefore, was akin to those identified in contemporary postcolonial theory as false universalization and of the neglect of multiple routes to modernity. The judgement and values of the British anti-imperialists were “provincial”, the product of a specific and localized historical experience, but falsely universalized as the paradigmatic standard form, against which Indian versions were found wanting. Labour’s early twentieth century leaders, like most of their contemporaries, were soaked in Victorian ideals of unilinear social progress. For them the rise of democracy and the emancipated working man were the highly desirable fruits of these ideals, and it was their duty to encourage them to emerge elsewhere. Labour’s industrial struggle was thus, as befitted the world’s first industrial nation, the model from which others might learn. India was judged for its ability to replicate this pattern of development. From this standpoint, there was but a single route to maturity. Few could see India’s differences as other than deviations from proper, western norms of historical and political development. Its industrial workers were judged against the superior rationality, energy and technical expertise of their British counterparts. Its political leaders were judged by their capacity to foster western conceptions of modernity, progress and development.

This helps to explain a feature of the interaction which is hard to understand in terms of persistent economic interests or enduring apathies: the repeated, almost cyclical pattern of engagement and failure. When Labour leaders visited India, they hoped to identify signs of modernity that they recognised. They were not wholly disappointed, for Congress leaders showed them newspaper editorials modelled on The Times and printed appeals resembling Victorian petitions. They took them to public meetings where the procedure and platform oratory seemed slightly dated, but familiar. Yet like all such mimicry, it also seemed too imitative to be authentic. Other sightings – the unfamiliar modes of anti-partition protest – caste sanctions, the use of religious appeals, and traditional forms of leadership, for example – seemed to have more popular resonance and deeper roots, but they also seemed immature and pre-modern, rather than non-modern. At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity. Indian nationalism seemed to most western observers too narrow, too shallow and excessively derivative. Yet efforts to deepen and broaden it, or to “Indianise” it, inevitably made it look even less familiar.

This pattern of projection, crisis and paralysis was to be repeated many times, as the movements of the western left stepped forward to engage with Indian nationalism. A number of possible responses might follow from this lack of fit: sometimes a sense of blockage, followed by withdrawal and disengagement – the apathy noted above – sometimes conditional support, provided only if things changed; sometimes efforts, more or less successful, to ignore one or other side of the picture. Postcolonial theorists, often persuaded that the psychological tensions of encountering such irresolvable contradictions led to a kind of anxious fracturing of identity, probably underestimate the degree to which distance damped them down: the most common response was simply retreat.

It is here that Labour’s dilemma interlocked with that of Congress. Some of the early Congress leadership shared the view that there was only one route to modernity, and made the case for home rule on that basis. But others did not, either because they believed that such a perspective undervalued Indian traditions, or because they did not think that a nationalist movement could be built on such foundations. Others again varied their repertoire: to their British supporters and their fellow Indian professionals they appealed in the language of universal Victorian liberalism; to other, less westernized Indians in the language of Hindu tradition and other local idioms. The former appeal was not necessarily weak strategy, despite its imitative character. Opponents held that it could only lead at best to a perpetually deferred promise of equality and hence a permanent secondariness. But the early Congress was not just engaged in mimicry, but in using the leverage provided by commonly held values to demand consistency of treatment. Its occupancy of British liberal positions was designed not purely for the purposes of mimicry, but in order to stretch them and reveal their limitations. Such appeals gained in effect at the metropole from being framed in the language of their occupiers, and also from their proximity. The officials of the raj feared a united front of Indian nationalists and their British friends speaking the language of modernity more than a solely Indian movement which could be depicted as alien, hostile and regressive. Nevertheless, such a strategy was contested by those who wanted an indigenously-oriented and self-reliant struggle, which would sacrifice intelligibility in London for gains in support in India among those who had not been much troubled by the compatibility of their world view with the dominant ideologies of the west. Gandhi, who became the spokesman for this position, exposed the false position in which the otherwise effective early Congress had placed itself. Rather than representing themselves as imperial subjects of sufficient maturity to be granted self-government, Indians should grant themselves the status of equals.

This debate had implications for the relationship between Congress and its British sympathisers and supporters. This relationship could operate in a number of different modes. The early Congress used an agency arrangement, hiring a British journalist to act for them. However, this was short-lived, and was abandoned in favour of reliance upon voluntary, unpaid, British “responsible public men”, among them former civil servants of the raj and Liberal MPs, running an autonomous British Committee of the Indian National Congress. This method was, however, disliked in India for its mendicancy, and was countered in Britain by the rejectionist mode favoured by Vinayak Savarkar and the India House which tried to dispense with British supporters altogether in a version of nativist struggle. However, such rejectionist campaigning was very hard to achieve, partly because it was so much easier to resist. Without the British supporters to create space for its operations, it was generally either ignored, or easily crushed by the raj, but also, and more subtly, because it inverted, rather than displaced, the claims of the west.

Vicarious struggle at the metropole was thus unavoidable, so the problem, when Gandhi encountered it in 1909, became one of finding a mode of interaction with Britons which did not leave them in charge, or Indians deferring to them. Gandhi believed that it would not be right to reject the contribution of British supporters, but that if their priorities were not to distort the growth of swaraj – i.e. self government, but also autonomy – they had to be dislodged from positions of authority. More widely, as Ashis Nandy has argued, Gandhian strategy sought to decentre Europe and topple it from the position of natural hegemon in any discussion, in an effort to reassert the basic equality of cultures and their mutual imbrication.

This explains the otherwise mysterious destruction of the British Committee in 1920. It was not, as is usually assumed, a failing organization, but one which had to be destroyed because of the redundancy of the mode of interaction it represented. “I do not want you to determine the pace”, Gandhi told an audience of British allies in Oxford in 1931, “Consciously or unconsciously, you adopt the role of divinity. I want you to step down from that pedestal.” Was there not much that England had yet to teach India, a Labour Party member had asked Gandhi: “certain things for which she has a special gift” such as “her political sense and her gift for evolving and managing democratic institutions’?” “I question this claim to exclusive political sense that this English arrogate to themselves”, Gandhi had replied. “There is much in British political institutions that I admire. But … I do not believe that they are the paragon of perfection… Whatever is worth adopting for India must come to her through the process of assimilation, not forcible superimposition.” Many of Congress’ British supporters were disconcerted by such claims, as they were intended to be. Resistance will always be in certain senses incomprehensible, at least at first, from the perspective of the dominant. Gandhi neither succumbed to nor straightforwardly rejected their authority. This would have been easier to meet, either with instruction or a shrugging indifference. Instead, he aimed to transform it, and them in the process. This was why they generally preferred Jawaharlal Nehru, with his demands for the consistent practice of international socialism – oddly reminiscent of the pleas of the early Congress for consistent liberalism – he asked less of them.

Each of the modes of interaction therefore required a different type of response from the British left, whether the provision of guidance, as in the days of the British Committee; distant sympathy – the rejectionist preference of Savarkar – dependable, active support or mutual affiliation to wider, internationalist bodies – Nehru’s preference – or a kind of critical solidarity in the search for truth – Gandhi. These are often elided into a general notion of support, but they are really quite different phenomena, varying according to the relative position of the parties in relation to each other and to the raj, and the functions that each undertakes. There was an important difference, for example, between British supporters who saw their role as being not to side with either the raj or its opponents, but to interpose, or negotiate, between them in the hope of achieving conciliation, and those who became more directly absorbed into the struggle on the side of the latter.

Only rarely before 1920, and almost never thereafter, did British supporters seek positions of formal or even informal leadership. They saw the necessity for this to be in Indian hands, although paradoxically their exhortations to this effect often took the form of instruction. But they did not disdain to act as advisers, adjudicators, intermediaries, conciliators or defence counsel. Indeed, one type of support, at times perhaps the dominant one offered by the British left, was a kind of professional mediation, involving sincere feelings of sympathy for the Indians as victims of imperialism – though not usually fellow-victims – and the desire to intercede on their behalf, speaking for them and representing them to British audiences. It was guided more by an ethos of public service to those less fortunate than by one of common struggle.

Some effective anti-imperial work was undoubtedly done in this fashion, but it was structured unequally, seeking to alter the relationship between the Indians and the raj without much altering the relationship between the emancipating sympathiser and the emancipated Indian. The professional campaigners on Labour’s Imperial Advisory Committee were drawn to the lawyers, writers and political organizers of Congress, whom they believed represented the same civilizing force in Indian society as they themselves did in Britain. But they were reluctant to give them places on the Committee, instead preserving their own role as spokespersons for Indians and mediators of their interests to the British Government. It was their books and journalism which represented India to Britain and their parliamentary speeches which stated India’s demands. The informal title “Member for India”, bestowed at Westminster on MPs who made India their specialism, was, for Josiah Wedgwood and Fenner Brockway as it had been for John Bright, Henry Fawcett and Charles Bradlaugh, a highly prized one, even though it involved a kind of appropriation.

Congress’s strategic dilemma was, after 1920, translated into an organizational problem. Once authority was denied to them by Gandhi, British supporters lost a key incentive, for which no substitute was easily found. It is usually assumed that as Congress outgrew its early reliance on British leaders it shed them, as a multi-stage rocket jettisons its boosters. But self-reliant campaigning was not at all easy to achieve, mainly because Gandhi’s hope for self-generated movements of solidarity were disappointed. Congress moved through a series of attempts to organise its British work, none of them satisfactorily reconciling the need for self-reliant, India-centred activity with the need to persuade British allies and audiences of India’s case for self-government. Support for Congress in Britain came to be a function of other commitments and objectives, communist, theosophical, pacifist, socialist, anti-fascist, etc. It was in essence parasitic, reliant on the hospitality offered by progressive movements of the left, but still vulnerable to their desire for status. This pattern of indirect engagement was not necessarily weak: parasitic arrangements only arise at all if each party is getting some net benefit out of them. What mattered was the closeness of fit between these primary objectives and the anti-imperialism. When this was close, as it became briefly, and arguably misleadingly, over anti-fascism, then Congress was feted in London. But such enthusiasm was generally fragile, transitory and characterised by boom and bust, as competition between different elements of the left first distracted and then split the Indian nationalists.

There was little inevitable about the scale of such disappointment. British and Indian concerns did not need to be identical to provide each other with mutual support, but only to mesh more effectively. The forms of struggle which might have avoided this trap altogether are not always easy to discern. The key elements were probably critical solidarity, a location alongside and not above or ahead of the colonised, a sharing of risk, and willingness to undertake what a later generation of theorists, notably Gayatri Spivak, has identified as the “unlearning of privilege” or “learning to learn from below”. There are some isolated examples of such practices in the relationships between the British left and India, though they are isolated, and it is evident that it was hard for most to descend from the pedestal Gandhi had identified in 1931.

Some recent historical studies have identified individual efforts to stretch threads of friendship across the barriers thrown up by imperialism in other settings. There are some examples of transcendental personal friendships in this story too. Yet the unresolved problems in making such connections even at the personal level are very evident in such studies, let alone the difficulties of expanding them beyond the personal, into the larger public sphere of organised political action, with implications for the lessons which their authors might wish to draw from them. Does their rarity suggest that they are unreasonably demanding? Are they really relationships of equals, or does only one party to it hold a guarantee of support from the other? What scope is there for criticism or other expressions of conditionality in a solidaristic relationship.

Viewed in the longer perspective provided by such considerations, the work of the metropolitan anti-imperialists in the interwar years might be judged as provisional, but not deferred, work. Like much politically oppositional activity, anti-imperialism made necessarily crab-like progress, before triumphing, as C.L.R.James wrote “by whatever tortuous and broken roads, despite the stumbling and the falls”. Gandhian techniques, for example, were self-consciously experimental, and failure was written into their design, though failure from which one learned. The tensions and disagreements between metropolitan anti-imperialists played out in the pages that follow might seem, from this perspective, no more than the unease through which any liberatory politics emerges, through which, as Homi Bhabha once put it, “newness enters the world” and ideas productively “travel” from one setting to another, or encounter the limits of their application. Attractive though this vision is, it needs to be sharply distinguished from simpler possibility of failure, and to be true to the lived experience of its subjects. What distinguishes the enabling tensions posited by postcolonial theory is their propensity for growth, and the test of them is what, if anything, is left at the end of the engagement.

The British Left and India was published by Oxford University Press in 2007, in its series Oxford Historical Monographs. The opening chapter was chosen in 2009 as one of the one hundred best pieces of writing on imperialism, in William Roger Louis’s ‘100 Top Hits of Imperial History’. William Roger Louis, Ultimate Adventures with Britannia (2009), pp. 277-81.

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May 15

Metropolitan Critics of Empire

The passage above comes from the papers of an international conference held in London in June 1910 on the problems of ‘Nationalities and Subject Races’.  The classical scholar and imperial critic Gilbert Murray was asked to address the delegates on the subject of ‘Empire and Subject Races’.  The passage I’ve quoted seems to me to sum up the positioning of metropolitan anti-imperialists very neatly.   I have marked it up accordingly.

Murray thought that the English (sic) had special responsibilities because of the scale and power of the British empire.   It was important for the governors to accept criticism, and not merely boast about the glorious achievements of empire. But the kind of criticism Murray had in mind was self-criticism.   His wording is quite precise.  This was ‘our’ empire.  Murray identified himself as one of its owners.   He, and men like him, would, on special occasions like the Conference, hear ‘grievances’, like a panel of judges, or ombudsmen.   Then they would ‘consider’ the justice of the claim, and make recommendations in order to ‘mend’ the empire’s faults.   A ‘grievance’, we should remember, is an individual wrong within a system which itself functions well.  Murray, in other words, wanted the empire mended, and not ended.  There was little sense of solidarity with those who had the ‘grievances’.   On the contrary, it was necessary for ‘us’ to keep our distance from those with ‘grievances’, so as to be able to judge them impartially.

This mode of ‘internal criticism’, as Michael Walzer calls it, has fascinated me for years.  It is clearly not just the empire’s governors sitting in judgment on themselves.  It relied on an internally divided elite, in which some men (they are almost all men at this point)  such as writers, public intellectuals, newspaper editors, university academics – men like Gilbert Murray, in other words – criticised those who governed.  While they criticised, they also remained personally close. They attended the same schools and universities, inter-married and socialised with each other, yet also remained partly distinct.   Such arrangements are not necessarily cosy.   A ‘word in the ear’ of the governor, coming from a generally well-disposed critic who spoke only for himself, might sound like a very soft form of power.  But precisely because these were internal critics, their criticisms could carry weight that external, dissident assaults might not.   They were often well-informed, well-networked, effective speakers and debaters.  These sorts of criticism, therefore, had to be answered, not brushed aside.

The literary critic Raymond Williams, in an article he wrote on the Bloomsbury ‘fraction’, described it very well.   What was going on with the Bloomsbury group, he wrote, was what happens when  ‘a fraction of an upper class, breaking from its dominant majority, relates to a lower class as a matter of conscience: not in solidarity, nor in affiliation, but as an extension of what are still felt as personal or small-group obligations, at once against the cruelty and stupidity of the system and towards its otherwise relatively helpless victims.’  These sorts of critics could attack the complacency and insensitivity of the rulers, without identifying with the ruled.   Criticism made out of ‘conscience’ must therefore be contrasted with the  ‘social consciousness of a self-organizing subordinate class’.

To Williams, these arrangements – one part of an elite regulating the other – was what the English had instead of popular democracy.  I had it in mind when I wrote the chapter on metropolitan critics of empire in the Twentieth Century volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire.   The editors, and many others, were fairly convinced that metropolitan anti-imperialism was weak and unimportant in Britain. Critics of empire were few in number, and were easily co-opted, often because the solutions to the problems they identified with the British empire often turned out to need ‘more empire’ if they were to be solved.  Abolitionists therefore became reformers.

My chapter did not entirely depart from this view, but it did introduce two other considerations, which have been important to the work I have done since on this subject.   The first is the idea of ‘parasitic’ anti-imperialism: that anti-imperialism drew its strength from these deep, internal criticisms, to be found in the churches, among humanitarians, campaigners, and the parties of the left.   This strengthened them, because the supporting causes were popular, well-resourced, and energetic.   But it also weakened them because it meant that anti-colonial demands had to be pushed through the sieves and filters of the causes’ primary concerns.   Hence they supported some kinds of anti-imperial demand more readily than others.

The second new, and related, consideration was that the determining weakness of metropolitan anti-imperialism was not its lack of domestic support but its failure to build relationships of solidarity with those trying to reform or bring down the empire from within the colonies themselves. Imperial asymmetries of power and status were inscribed within anti-imperialism itself.


This chapter appeared in Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (eds.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press).


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