Race, Class, and the Pan-African Congress in Manchester 1945

In a recent blog for Disorder of Things I talked about the tensions in much leftist thought when it comes to racial oppression and its relationship to class exploitation. I must admit, I constantly find myself frustrated by two counterveiling tendencies. On the one hand, the progressive and principled solidarity – especially at grassroots level – that predominantely white socialist/Marxist movements  have historically given to anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles and their peoples. On the other hand, a religious belief amongst socialist and Marxist theorists that class exploitation forms the core dynamic of social struggle, and that racial oppression is derivative of this struggle. I constantly find the unreflexive white privilige that is at the heart of this theoretical statement (regardless of whether individual non-white people believe in it) in serious contrast to the political record of many predominantly white socialist movements. I think it is naive at best to imagine that the end of capitalism will be the end of racism. But as Amical Cabral argues, theory is sharpened in struggle.  And those who inherit the struggle in various ways can do much to learn from those who have gone before and have had to do the sharpening.

So in this spirit, I am reproducing an address I found in the archives made by John McNair, General Secretary of the (UK) Independent Labour Party in Manchester 1945 to the Pan-African Congress organized by George Padmore, Peter Milliard and Kwame Nkrumah. 90 delegates from the African continent, the Caribbean and the UK attended, including an elderly WEB Dubois from the USA. Here are NcNair’s greetings:

“Comrades, I want to thank the Chairman and your committee for allowing me to interrupt in your programme. Unfortunately, I am rather in a hurry, but the reason for my hurry is not a personal inconvenience. I have promised to attend a meeting in London tonight in connection with the “Save Europe Now” Campaign, and it is because there are some millions of our white brothers in Europe facing starvation, I know that our black brothers will understand. We extend to our coloured brothers our warmest fraternal greetings. We can do no less. We wish to do more, because we as international socialists will never accept any form of national discrimination. We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible. Wherever on the face of the earth, any human being suffers, we suffer with our brothers. Therefore, I want to say that in all your deliberations, you will have behind you the warmest support of our comrades in my particular organization …

In the first place, I would like to express to my comrades and friends that I reject the whole philosophic basis which assumes that we white people can give anything to our black brothers. I object to the whole basis on which this charitable (…) is built.

The debt which we white people owe to the coloured races is a debt which must and shall be paid. But the debt will take the greatest and noblest effort of the white people of the world. I say to my colleagues (coloured), the history of mankind is stained with the crimes perpetrated by white men against black, and I want to say that the English class, with the British Government behind it, is the greatest imperialist class of them all. I wish to say how delighted I was to find that in your letter to the Prime minister, you had included a number of constructive proposals.

[Regarding the West Indies] … as a white man, I look at your problem thus: you are first to win a battle for political independence. You will never win this battle by trusting the hypocrisy of British imperialists. British Imperialism has told you that we have gone to the Colonies in order to spread the light of Christianity and civilization, and in the next breath they say that Trade follows the Flag. The reason we wanted the colonies is because trade follows the flag, and trade for Britain is almost as profitable as war. Terribly profitable! There is the fundamental reason why the Colonies have been oppressed by British capitalism and British Imperialism.

When you have won the battle for political independence, I trust you will go on then towards the greater fight for social independence. This is your problem and I wish you the best of luck .

Before I close, I am going to paraphrase George Padmore. When George was replying to the North African Workers at a Conference in 1937, he told us then that the British colossus of capitalism and imperialism was standing with one foot on the bodies of the white workers and the other foot on the bodies of the black workers, and George said it was the duty of white and black workers to remember they were workers and give that mighty heave which would bring down the colossus and break it.”

The notes also record the following:

“Chairman (Dr. Milliard): The applause which Comrade McNair has received is evidence of the way in which you have received his address..”

2 thoughts on “Race, Class, and the Pan-African Congress in Manchester 1945

  1. Some recent comments by Marika Sherwood on the BASA email list are very timely, re. the subject above. Here they are:

    “Let me bore you all with some reflections based on a couple of old books I’ve been glancing through. I thought what these two writers were saying decades ago is as relevant today as they were then. Have we moved on at all?

    The first is from a man who honoured me with his friendship in the last years of his life, C.L.R. James. I learned much from him. This is from his Beyond a Boundary (London 1964, pp38-9), recounting his years at school in Trinidad almost a hundred years ago. I think what he says is applicable to the effect of our schools on their Black pupils today:

    It was only long years after that I understood the limitation on spirit, vision and self-respect which was imposed on us by the fact that our masters, our curriculum, our code of morals, everything began from the basis that Britain was the source of all light and leading, and our business was to admire, wonder, imitate, learn….

    The second is from George Orwell, a writer whom I have much admired, and again someone from whom I think I learned much. It is from his ‘Not counting Niggers’ (a speech at the Adelphi, July 1939, reprinted in Collected Essays, 1968), in which Orwell is criticising a book Union Now, by Clarence K.
    Streit, which promotes peace and democracy. To me, what he says applies to the world in which we now live, though we no longer have official empires.

    … Mr Streit has coolly lumped the huge British and French empires – in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting cheap labour – under the heading of democracies…. India, for instance, which contains more inhabitants than the whole of the ‘fifteen democracies’ put together, gets just a page and a half in Mr Streit’s book, and that merely to explain that as India is not yet fit for self-government, the status quo must remain. And here one begins to see what would really be happening if Mr Streit’s scheme were put into operation. The British and French empires, with their six hundred million disenfranchised human beings, would simply be receiving fresh police forces; the huge strength of the USA would be behind the robbery of India and Africa.

    How can we ‘fight Fascism’ except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?
    For of course it is vaster. What we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa. It is not in Hitler’s power, for instance, to make a penny an hour a normal industrial wage; it is perfectly normal in India, and we are at great pains to keep it so. One gets some idea of the real relationship of England and India when one reflects that the per capita annual income in England is something over £80, and in India about £7… This is the system which we all live on and which we denounce when there seems to be no danger of its being altered. “

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