Anti-Fascism The Legacy of 1930s Pan-African Leaders

With the rise in white supremacist and nationalist movements around the world, Western news media have pulled from their archives old 1930s footage of American Nazis holding a sinister rally in Manhattan, or if you’re in Britain, the nasty, free-for-all Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End. What gets overlooked is the equally important history of anti-Fascism; specifically, another group of radicals in London who, in their case, fought Fascism and fought it early—Africans.

In the 1930s, a group of young Africans and West Indians, formed an organization in London that would eventually settle on the name, the International African Service Bureau. They were writers and students, many living in crushing poverty and shabby bed-sits, because they often had to make their way themselves and by their own creative means (only a single university scholarship, for example, was offered each year for the entire population of Trinidad). The future first president of an independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, had to evade his landlady and occasionally peel stamps off envelopes and sell them to buy a penny-bun. Off he would go to a Chinese restaurant in Soho to meet up with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Joseph Danquah, Trinidad’s C.L.R. James and George Padmore and others. Those who read The Republic need no introduction, of course, to Nkrumah. Danquah would work for an independent Ghana after World War Two. James, trying to eke out a living with lectures and filing news stories on cricket, would write a classic about the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins. His friend, Padmore, had been a journalist in Germany until Nazi thugs made it impossible for him to stay.

What a meeting of minds! Later, they would congregate at the small social club and restaurant run by Amy Ashwood Garvey, ex-wife of pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey, and a formidable, accomplished activist in her own right. And what did they all talk about? Defeating Fascism. Because in 1935, Italian prime minister, Benito Mussolini’s Black Shirts stormed into Ethiopia, the only African nation that had never been colonized. The Italians bombed Red Cross hospitals, used poison gas and massacred thousands of innocent people. Ordinary Italian soldiers liked to carry around “souvenirs” of beheaded resistance fighters and Ethiopians tied to trees and shot.

What is sadly forgotten is how huge the outcry was over Ethiopia. There were protests in Trafalgar Square, in Paris, as far away as Mexico and the Middle East. On August 3, 1935, more than 20,000 people protested the war in Harlem. Thousands of African-Americans were ready to go fight but were prevented from doing so by the U.S. State Department, which denied them passports as callously and maliciously as black citizens today are denied their rights through voter suppression.

Men like Kenyatta and Nkrumah had managed to escape colonial life in their home countries, in, ironically of all places, the heart of the British Empire, and they took the invasion of Ethiopia as a personal blow. Nkrumah heard of the invasion through the shout of a news agent and rushed over to see the paper’s headline. “At that moment, it was almost as if the whole of London had suddenly declared war on me personally,” he wrote in his autobiography. “For the next few minutes I could do nothing but glare at each impassive face wondering if those people could possibly realize the wickedness of colonialism…I was ready and willing to go through hell itself, if need be, in order to achieve my object.”

Kenyatta would feel devastated by word later of the bombing of Ethiopia’s beautiful city, Harar—a Guernica in Africa before the Guernica tragedy in Spain. He decorated his home in Ethiopia’s national colours and roamed London, wearing a fez and sporting a beard like Haile Selassie’s. C.L.R. James went down to the Ethiopian embassy in Knightsbridge, ready to sign up to go fight, but was convinced by the ambassador, Warqenah Eshate (known sometimes as Charles Martin), that he could be of more use with his pen. And all the while, Britain’s MI5 kept tabs on them all.

Their radical group was no love-in; its formidable intellectuals naturally fussed, debated and quarrelled over tactics and ideology. Kenyatta and James were at frequent loggerheads. The group’s general secretary, I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson from Sierra Leone, was so desperately poor that he began sleeping in the bureau’s office then helped himself to its funds until he was caught and kicked out. It’s also difficult to figure out how effective the activists were—their group later claimed, for instance, that it managed to get twenty-five questions asked in Parliament.

But placards in Soho were never going to save people bombed in Gondar. What Kenyatta, Nkrumah and others were doing was crucial to their own political evolutions, and their anti-Fascist work can be viewed as dress rehearsal for their strategies in the post-war independence movements that sprung up across Africa.

It’s no accident that as Ethiopia kept up a fierce guerrilla war against Italian Fascists, Kenyatta brought out Facing Mount Kenya, his book on the Kikuyu, which was once called a propaganda tour de force. “The African is conditioned,” he wrote, “by the cultural and social institutions of centuries, to a freedom of which Europe has little conception, and it is not in his nature to accept serfdom forever.” Mussolini’s Fascists had slandered the Ethiopians as heathens, despite most being devout Christians, and claimed they had no civilization, despite them having one that’s centuries old. Kenyatta’s book was an ethnographic and polemical defence of African life and African customs.

Facing Mount Kenya bluntly equated an African civilization with the European and even suggested it was superior in some ways. No one had gone so far before. And yet its implied target of scorn was not Italy, but Britain. Here was a radical manifesto submitted as research study.

Which brings us to a crucial point: Fascism for these Africans was indistinguishable from the rule they suffered at home. In a brief article for The New Leader, C.L.R. James—who always acknowledged the intellectual legacy of the West—wrote: “Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism.” By the time he started drafting The Black Jacobins, he “had reached the conclusion that the centre of the black revolution was Africa, not the Caribbean.”

The anti-Fascist legacy of Kenyatta and Nkrumah, in particular, has naturally been eclipsed by their record as statesmen, and we don’t need another reappraisal here of their political sins. What we do need—rather urgently—is the memory of African anti-Fascism restored to the world’s collective consciousness. We already live in a tedious climate of fake news that has progressed to “fake history.” In the U.S., you see it in the depraved efforts to rewrite the history of the American Civil War. In Europe, Silvio Berlusconi and one recent Mussolini biographer have tried to reform the Duce’s image as a “good” Fascist, with even Mussolini’s granddaughter threatening to sue anyone who speaks ill of him (full disclosure: this author signed a petition with others that basically said, please, please come after us).

How much longer then until we get wholesale revisions on the history of colonial Africa? The process of mental erosion has already begun. A few months ago, Western Cape premier, Helen Zille, (as Republic editor-in-chief, Wale Lawal, pointed out to me) waded into a debate on Twitter and wrote, “Do you genuinely believe the legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative? Then let’s scrap the constitution including concepts such as the separation of powers. Let’s scrap formal education institutions, the English language etc, etc.” My personal favourite is when someone mentions “infrastructure.” Africans should forgive the British, Italians, French, et. al. because they made good roads—as if Africans wouldn’t have chosen to build their own.

The “colonialism wasn’t all bad” argument is a disingenuous one, toxic in its implications. It’s not really asking you to weigh merits and make an objective historical judgment. The apologist’s aim is your tacit acceptance, even endorsement of the very recent genocide and oppression that made those efficient, nicely paved roads possible.

Keep in mind there are survivors still with us from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The concentration camps set up over the Mau Mau rebellion and when Kenyatta fought for independence are still within living memory. I for one have yet to meet a Jewish Canadian here in Toronto who says, “The Nazi Occupation of Europe wasn’t only negative—look at the Volkswagen.”

Why then do we expect Africans to be so indulgent?

Under the apologist logic, Africans could never choose of their own free will the very best of Western civilization and adapt it to their own purpose. Instead, culture, law and good governance are patronizing gifts they must accept—and take with the very worst of Western barbarism. The African activists in London in the 1930s understood the hypocrisy of this false choice.

But there can be no inspirational “heroes” of independence, even flawed ones, under the revised colonialism narrative. In the new version, the colonialists weren’t ever despotic or cruel, merely misguided. We’ve reverted to the “few bad apples at the police station” argument —even while the Nkrumahs in history stay characterized as a sinister bunch of Marxists who led Africa into turmoil.

Jomo Kenyatta and C.L.R. James would be the first to see through such nonsense. They would also know the new breed of Fascist today won’t be content with taking over his corner of Poland or Hungary. If history tells us anything, it’s that the ultra-nationalist always feels entitled to more. Today, however, the machinery of colonialism is more sophisticated. Its more thuggish exponent likes to hold up a tiki torch, but the chief executive has a bolder vision: why ever let the African out of Africa?

In the same way that US president, Donald Trump, believes in punishing the refugee who flees gangs in Bolivia, the resentful nationalist in Rome or Marseilles blames the exhausted Eritrean on his pitiful life raft for the failed state of his country. It follows (in the minds of such people) that if the legacy of colonialism “gets a bad rap,” then international aid is always benign and corporate investment could never be predatory.

All of this makes history matter. Few people know that Ethiopia was the first occupied nation to be liberated in World War Two—and that was done by an Allied force made up of Ethiopian Patriots (Arbegnoch), Britons, South Africans, Indians and Africans from other countries. To be clear, Africans were front and centre, helping to free other Africans, working to free themselves. And the push to liberate Ethiopia didn’t come about merely out of military expediency. It had a five-year momentum of relentless political pressure brought to bear, in part, thanks to radicals such as Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Danquah and others.

When we forget this history, we ignore a unique chapter of Pan-African heritage. And when we let others deny it, we risk ceding territory to an ominous force that needs to be decisively kicked off the political map for good