Anniversaries have long been used as an occasion to celebrate the struggle for democracy and equality in Britain, and to create powerful connections between the radical politics of the past and the radical politics of today. In August 2019, the Peterloo Memorial was unveiled in Manchester city centre. The unveiling coincided with the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, 60,000 people assembled peacefully in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to call for democracy and an end to hunger. Cavalry attacked the protestors, killing eighteen people and injuring hundreds. The British establishment has been reluctant to commemorate the episode, and the Peterloo Memorial was thus hard fought for. Today, the demonstration and subsequent massacre in St Peter’s Field are — quite rightly — firmly etched into British radical memory.
In October 1945, delegates from across the world gathered in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall, half a mile south of St Peter’s Field, to take part in the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Three future African presidents attended the Congress: Hastings Banda of Malawi, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Nkrumah — one of the icons of mid-century anti-colonialism — later remembered the Congress as a turning point in the struggle for African independence: ‘we went from Manchester knowing definitely where we were going.’ Within two decades, most African nations had won their freedom from the colonial powers. This was the defining geopolitical process of the twentieth century. However, the Fifth Pan-African Congress has been little celebrated in British radical memory, despite representing one of the most important moments in British radical history. As the Congress reaches its 75th anniversary, as the Black Lives Matter movement confronts global white supremacy, and as we celebrate Black History Month, the British Left must strive to incorporate Black and anti-colonial politics into its understanding of the ways in which people in Britain have fought for democracy, equality and freedom.
The history of Pan-Africanism, and of anti-colonialism more broadly and the 1945 Congress more specifically, is not one that is alien to Britain. In 1900, the Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams organised the First Pan-African Conference, which was held at Westminster Town Hall in London. During the interwar period, the African American activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who had been a delegate at the 1900 meeting, organised a series of Pan-African Congresses, two of which had sessions in London.
Black radical movements outside of Britain itself are also central to British history, as the history of Britain is inseparable from that of the British Empire. Accounts of Britain’s radical pasts must reckon with the resistance of those who were enslaved or colonised under the Union Flag. The Baptist War in Jamaica — a rebellion of enslaved people in 1831-32 that accelerated the abolition of slavery in the British Empire — is as much a part of British radical heritage as is the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia some two years later.
The 1945 Congress was organised by activists with deep roots in Britain. During the 1920s and 1930s, Black people in Britain formed several notable political organisations, such as the West African Students’ Union and the League of Coloured Peoples. Black people were particularly radicalised by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. It was at this time that Britain’s most militant Black political formation appeared: the International African Friends of Ethiopia. In 1937, the IAFE reformed as the International African Service Bureau, with a membership including African and Caribbean radical luminaries such as Amy Ashwood Garvey, C.L.R. James and Jomo Kenyatta. Under the leadership of the Trinidadian Marxist, George Padmore, the IASB advanced an internationalist and revolutionary programme: the European working class and the colonial peoples must work together as equals to overthrow the twin enemies of capitalism and imperialism. As their 1938 ‘Manifesto Against War’ declared: ‘White brothers, do not be misled. Our freedom is a step towards your freedom. In the common effort for the independence of the colonial peoples and the emancipation of the European workers, the black and white workers will rid humanity of the scourge of Imperialism and open a new future for humanity.’
It was Padmore who, alongside activists like Peter Abrahams, Ras Makonnen, Peter Milliard and Kwame Nkrumah, organised the 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress. Their socialism underpinned the gathering. While earlier Pan-African Congresses had been attended primarily by Black elites, the 1945 Congress reflected the burgeoning African and Caribbean labour movements. Abrahams remembered the Manchester Congress as ‘the first truly representative one’, Nkrumah said it was attended by ‘practical men and men of action’, and Padmore called it an ‘expression of a mass movement’.
The Congress’s ‘Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ demanded ‘autonomy and independence’ for Africa. For the delegates, anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism went hand-in-hand: ‘We condemn the monopoly of capital and the rule of private wealth and industry for private profit alone. We welcome economic democracy as the only real democracy.’ The ‘Declaration to the Colonial Workers, Farmers and Intellectuals’ made it clear that the African masses would lead their own liberation: ‘The Fifth Pan-African Congress therefore calls on the workers and farmers of the Colonies to organise effectively. Colonial workers must be in the front of the battle against Imperialism. Your weapons — the Strike and the Boycott — are invincible.’ The declaration ended with a pithy acknowledgement of the way in which colonial peoples formed a global proletariat in a global capitalist system: ‘Colonial and Subject Peoples of the World — Unite!’ While much of the Congress’s language captured a somewhat masculinist outlook, Amy Ashwood Garvey highlighted the particular forms of exploitation faced by Black women.
The Pan-Africanist vision of a world free from exploitation, colonialism and racism belongs clearly to African and African diasporic history. Yet it also belongs to British history. Padmore and his comrades were part of the wider networks of the British Left. They were enmeshed in the world of political conferences, trade union meetings, and May Day parades. Indeed, the Independent Labour Party’s general secretary, John McNair, gave one of the Congress’s opening speeches. McNair spoke the language of international proletarian solidarity, siding with colonial peoples against the British ruling class and stating: ‘We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible.’
As Priyamvada Gopal has recently argued in Insurgent Empire (2019), studying the transnational and multiracial character of British opposition to empire allows Britons to ‘interrogate… national mythologies’ and ‘lay claim to a different, more challenging history, and yet one that is more suited to a heterogeneous society which can draw on multiple historical and cultural resources.’ Britain has a rich tradition of internationalist, anti-colonial politics, yet this heritage can be all too easily forgotten in favour of an island story version of political radicalism. We have much to learn from the politics of the Fifth Pan-African Congress if we are to confront the racist and imperialist British state of the twenty-first century.
Theo Williams is a lecturer in twentieth-century British history at Durham University. He specialises in the history of anti-colonialism, and has published his research in Modern Intellectual History and Twentieth Century British History. You can find him on Twitter @theopwilliams.