Just two months after Japan’s surrender brought the Second World War to an end a group of people met for the Pan African Congress in Manchester. They were determined that the post-war world would be radically different.
FR Kankam-Boadu, then a student from Gold Coast—now Ghana—was a delegate at the congress, 70 years ago this week.
He later said, “The notion was expressed that the British government would not, out of its free will, ‘donate’ self-rule to a colony and that the application of some element of force might be necessary.”
The Pan African Congress said it aimed for peaceful change.
But as the great US activist WEB Du Bois said at the opening, “If the Western world is still determined to rule mankind by force, then Africans, as a last resort, may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve freedom.”
The Allies had issued the Atlantic Charter in 1941, stating their war aims. It spoke of countries’ right to self-determination.
This was supported by the British and other imperial governments that kept large sections of the world’s population in bondage in their colonial empires.
Two years later in 1943 the British empire allowed three million to starve in the Bengal famine.
For the imperialists, this right to self-determination was about the countries in Europe that Germany had occupied.The congress set out to make sure it applied to all peoples occupied by European colonial empires.
There were around 90 delegates among some 200 people attending its sessions.
One was Kwame Nkrumah who would later lead the mass movement that forced the British out of Gold Coast and become first leader of independent Ghana.
Another was Jomo Kenyatta, who the British would imprison for nine years. He would be first president of independent Kenya. The British used the most extreme brutality to try and suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya while Kenyatta was in jail.
With the war over, Britain’s rulers wanted to return to business as usual with the empire.
But the war had shown subject peoples that the Europeans were far from invincible and had spread discussions on self-determination.
People were not prepared to go back.
The congress’s main instigator was George Padmore, a West Indian who had been a leading black activist in the Communist International.
Padmore broke from the International in 1933, angry at the movement’s shift away from a demand for immediate independence for colonies.
The International was based in Stalinist Russia, which had hoped to come into alliance with the big imperial powers against Nazi Germany.
Padmore had come to Britain and worked with the West Indian Trotskyist CLR James.
James still argued for the kind of world revolution that had attracted many black activists to the early Communist Party.
In September the Pan African Federation, which was central to organising the event, had sent an open letter to new Labour prime minister Clement Attlee.
It read, “We wish to welcome Labour’s great victory, for which we, as colonials, have hoped and worked alongside Britain’s workers.”
But it continued, “To condemn the imperialism of Germany, Japan and Italy while condoning that of Britain would be more than dishonest.”
Most sessions discussed bringing an end to empire. The conference opened with one on the situation with racism in Britain.
One concern was people who had come to help with the war effort and were now not wanted.
One delegate talked of mixed race children being abandoned as Britain returned to “normal”.
Originally organisers hoped to hold the congress in Paris, but France still suffered terrible food shortages.
Manchester was chosen for practical reasons. It was seen as the most multicultural of British cities at the time with an established black population.
Manchester was the fifth of seven Pan African congresses—but the first for
15 years. The movement had built up with the radicalism after the First World War but sank back during the Depression.
In pre-colonial times there was no particular reason for people from Africa to feel they had a common identity.
It was the Atlantic slave trade that treated all black people as the same, ignoring the continent’s varied cultures.
But in the US it was common sense for black people to see a united identity in resistance.
Marcus Garvey’s mass movement, based in the US, was the first to bring the idea of a united Africa—Pan-Africanism—to the continent.
But it was the Communists who influenced many independence movements after the Second World War.
They gained this influence with organisations that would insist that race or nation were central in determining political issues.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a dramatic effect on people fighting oppression around the world including black people, particularly in the US.
A small congress had been held in London in 1900. But the first official one was held in Paris in the aftermath of the First World War.
Americans had dominated earlier ones and US activists were still in attendance.
The Manchester congress was by far the most important, partly because it was the first to have representatives largely from colonised countries.
It was chaired by Amy Ashwood Garvey, who had been married to Marcus Garvey, and by WEB DuBois. Garvey gave a statement of intent when she announced, “We are here to tell the world that black peoples supported by the semi-colonial people in America and millions of other people are determined to emancipate themselves.”
CLR James was not able to attend—he was in the US. James met Nkrumah in the US and gave him a letter of introduction to Padmore.
But this was not the beginning of a practical Pan African movement in the way that the Russian revolution had led to a Communist International.
One reason for this was that the logic of independence was nationalist. Each leader looked to develop their own nation.
At this point most Pan Africanists regarded themselves as socialists. They made a connection between the subjugation of the poorer countries and the role of imperialism.
These contacts followed the inspiration of Garvey and Du Bois, but moved to a more African centred form of organisation.
Padmore had come to see national development as necessary before socialism.
He argued leftists in the movement must act as nationalists first because, “their
countries must be first nationally free before they can begin to practise their communism.”
This was an unfortunate shift from the position he had held when he had revolted against the Stalinist shift away from international revolution.
The experience of independent countries from Ghana to South Africa has been that to attempt national development rather than discussing socialism weakens the whole movement.
At this time the struggle was still very closely linked to trade unions and the left.
Such links were strengthened by the Nigerian general strike that started in June and lasted 52 days.
Some 150,000 workers took part demanding wage increases in line with inflation.
Though the colonial government brought back wartime regulations to crush the strike it was at least partly successful.
The 1945 World Trade Union Conference including representatives from West Africa and the Caribbean had just been in Paris. It was no coincidence that the congress opened six days after it finished.
And Padmore got caught up in this logic. He, James and Du Bois all went to help Nkrumah develop Ghana. But isolated and still part of a world capitalist economy, Nkrumah was not able to build socialism in the way he had hoped.
The colonial office agreed to allow the travel of two delegates from Gambia in West Africa to the Congress.
A memo noted that it was “sure to be more or less mischievous in intention, all the more so since Mr Padmore is involved with it.” However they decided it was “politically expedient” to allow the passage.
They do not seem to have considered the congress to be much of a threat.
But though its immediate demands were not met, within 20 years all the African colonies Britain dominated had political independence, except for South Africa and what was then Rhodesia.
The 1945 Pan-African Congress Revisited
by Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood
Black British Rebels: figures from working class history
by Hassan Mahamdallie
Say it Loud: Marxism and the fight against racism
edited by Brian Richardson
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk