Anti-Imperialist Publications and Suspended Disbelief: Reading the Public Materials of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937

by guest contributor Disha Karnad Jani

“Why We Appear”: so begins the September-October 1931 issue of the Anti-Imperialist Review, the official journal of the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI). This organization was founded in 1927 and brought nationalists, Communists, socialists, and sympathizers together under the direction of the Communist International (Comintern) to organize a complex solution to a complex problem. Based in Berlin, then London, but arguably led from Moscow, the organization would disintegrate by 1937, despite the fanfare that accompanied its arrival in the anti-imperial spaces of the interwar period. Their inaugural sessions at the Palais d’Egmont in 1927 had resulted in an organization tasked with bringing empire to its knees, through the cooperation of all those who considered themselves “anti-imperialists.” As the attitude of the Comintern towards non-Communists and national bourgeois leaders hardened, the LAI turned away from this avowedly inclusive agenda. The socialist origins of the organization, when combined with the nationally-circumscribed aims of many involved, meant that the League’s rhetoric and activities reflected the complexities of a negative association such as “anti-imperialist.” These were the years during which men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Hatta, Achmed Sukarno and J.T. Gumede met and forged links that contextualized and strengthened their decades-long struggles for freedom.

A historian seeking to understand this organization—and the tremendous significance of this moment for the long decades of nationalisms and decolonizations to come—will likely ask some basic questions. What did the League Against Imperialism look like? Who were the participants? How did this organization function? How did its members make decisions? What did it set out to do? To whom was it appealing?

Luckily, the answers to these questions lie in the LAI’s official publications, journals, and resolutions. Take the first piece in the Anti-Imperialist Review‘s September 1931 issue:

We are faced at the present moment with the need to draw up a concrete and detailed programme for the international anti-imperialist work in the spirit of the principles and organizational lines led down by the second World Congress and by the recent session of the Executive Committee [of the League Against Imperialism], a programme that will serve as a mighty weapon in the struggle for integrity of principle and against national reformism. This journal will systematically prepare for the working out of such a programme by free and open discussion. (Anti-Imperialist Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 5, author’s emphasis).

This publication is very clear in its aims and its desired audience. No national reformists or members of the bourgeoisie need read this journal. Only those truly committed to the liberation of the “struggling masses in the colonies and the revolutionary workers in the imperialist centers” need read further. The Review—as well as news bulletins, resolutions, and policy briefs emanating from Friedrichstrasse 24, Berlin between 1927 and 1933—present themselves as fostering a genuinely robust community of revolutionaries from all oppressed nations in order to bring about an end to imperialism and capitalism.

These statements of intent and organizational success do little for us, however, when we read them in concert with surveillance documents, correspondence, state archives, and the private papers of the people involved in decision making—such as the Executive Committee mentioned above. As Fredrik Petersson’s research has shown, the Communist International had a heavy hand in LAI proceedings, while the Eastern Secretariat in Moscow influenced the financial and ideological direction of the organization. The German Communist Willi Münzenberg had organized the initial meetings and later facilitated the LAI’s reorientation in policy towards a more hardline, anti-bourgeois stance in 1931. These goings-on highlight the often-chaotic shifts in larger forums that affected the way this purportedly international organization functioned.

But what was it like to be a part of an organization like this one, taking what its leaders said about free and open discussion and resistance led by the colonized at face value, without having access to the kinds of archives a historian can rely on to tell the behind-the-scenes story? If you learned about the LAI sometime in 1928, for example, at a meeting of one of its affiliated groups, how were you meant to remain connected to the larger struggle against imperial injustice? One way was through engaging with the language and rhetoric of the LAI’s circulated resolutions and its “official organ” the Anti-Imperialist Review. Once the conference in Brussels, Frankfurt, or Berlin was over and one went back home, participating in this grand project meant receiving things in the mail and reading them, and writing back.

Knowing this, is it possible to read the “official” publications coming from the central offices not as a façade to be torn away, but a material and intellectual facet of what it was like to see yourself as part of a transnational project of resistance?

As an exercise, I found it helpful to read at face value the materials put out by the League and disseminated through its national sections and sympathetic friends. At least some of the people reading the materials the LAI put out likely believed the image they provided of the state of world revolution (though the profusion of qualifiers here indicates, I hope, my discomfort with assuming the intentions of these people). What can be learned from reading this organization’s so-called “propaganda” as intellectual production, as a genuine desire to work through the problems of anti-imperial struggle? Whether or not the Comintern was coordinating its efforts, and whether or not its organizing capabilities and financial situation were up to the task it claimed, the LAI’s official public materials presented an upwardly-striving, robust, diverse, and yet united revolutionary entity. That means something, whether or not it was a strictly accurate depiction, since the language and affect associated to this day with the cosmopolitan and radical and transnational 1920s and 1930s were predicated on this sort of source material.

Allow me, for a moment, to consider the LAI’s policy or outlook in the year of its founding by reading sincerely the 1927 resolution of the LAI. This document was produced as a summary of the decisions made at the first meeting, and was widely circulated in the LAI’s affiliated circles. The involvement of so diverse a group of nationalists, pacifists, Communists, and socialists lends an institutional unity to the League’s proceedings, smoothing out divisions born of specific national and colonial differences. Since these resolutions were discussed and agreed upon in Brussels, once might consider these documents an amalgam of the least objectionable viewpoints of key actors, since the LAI operated at the beginning with a culture of consensus. There was little evidence at that moment of open, recorded controversy—everyone involved was at least an “anti-imperialist.”

In 1920, the relationship between communist elements in colonial countries and the national bourgeoisie and their revolutionary movement (for independence, justice, or dominion status) was still being worked out. A somewhat open and exploratory stance continued to evolve after Lenin’s death. By 1927, the LAI believed the time was right to proceed in a manner indicative of the planning stages of the prospective world revolution.

According to the LAI, it employed three main categories of person in 1927: the home proletariat, the oppressed people(s) and the toiling masses (“Statutes of the LAI, 1927,” League Against Imperialism Archives, International Institute of Social History, Int. 1405/4). The home proletariat was the class of workers in the imperialist country, who also suffered from imperialism. They suffered, the League argued, because the exploitation of cheap colonial labor through industrialization lowered the standards of living of the workers in the imperialist country. This was the main thrust of the League’s argument for the cooperation of this sector in the anti-imperialist struggle. This group was supposedly accessed and represented in the League by European trade unionists, left-leaning social democrats, and socialists more broadly.

This is the easiest category to “define,” because it is clearly delineated in terms of nationality and class. The categories of “oppressed people(s)” and “toiling masses” are a little more troublesome. They are indicative of the complicated relationship between socialism and nationalism in the context of the League’s aims. “The oppressed people” (singular) is usually used with a national qualifier, for example “the oppressed people of India.” “Oppressed peoples” indicates a plurality of national groups, and each national group is by definition taken as containing a single “people.” Toiling masses was a term used to distinguish the European proletariat from the colonial one, and the colonial national bourgeoisie from the colonial national proletariat. The “toiling masses” in the context of anti-imperialism in 1927 was likely a distinction reserved for the unorganized colonial worker, while the same stratum in the imperialist countries is referred to merely as “the workers” or “the proletariat.” This underscores the fact that Europe-oriented socialists (i.e. socialists from the imperialist countries) did not consider the “masses” of the colonial world to have realized their proletarian character.

The complexities and assumptions contained within these terms can explain the shifting and contextually circumscribed stakes of world revolution. Who were the actors in the kind of world revolution the LAI wanted? Its resolutions contain categories that overlap and describe courses of action that are at times complementary, and, at others, mutually exclusive. The messiness of this struggle, and the ways in which the men and women involved related to one another and to the groups they claimed to represent—the workers in imperial nations and the oppressed masses in their far-flung colonies—these most basic categories are potent ones. Is reconstructing a realistic narrative always the goal of the historian? In the end, perhaps. But during the long process of archival work and the necessary selection and omission of information, if only for a moment, it might be useful to believe our subjects when they make a claim we know is false, or at the very least, much more complicated. Widening the lens to include state surveillance, correspondence, private papers, and other organizations’ collections may provide a more accurate portrayal of what the LAI looked like and how it worked. But sometimes suspending disbelief at a claim as outlandish as one to “free and open discussion” in Communist circles in 1931 can yield a degree of clarity as to the lived experience of participating in such a project.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Ph.D student in History at Princeton University.

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