In spite of the imperialist powers' attempts to cling on to their colonies, formal empire was finished by the late 1970s. But this was not the end of imperialism, writes Neil Faulkner
The Second World War had been an imperialist war. The victorious powers had fought the war to keep their empires, and they had every intention of holding onto them when it ended.
In some cases, this meant restoring colonial authority they had lost. The Japanese had driven the British out of Malaya, the French out of Vietnam, and the Dutch out of Indonesia. All now returned. But much had changed.
Not only were the European powers now overshadowed by the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, in what had become a bi-polar world; they had also become financially dependent on US loans to rebuild their shattered economies.
This was especially true of Britain, which had been fully engaged in the world war throughout its six years, and had become heavily reliant on US financial and military aid from 1941 onwards.
At the same time, nationalist resistance to British rule inside the colonies was growing. This reflected the increasing wealth of the native bourgeoisie and middle class, the growing size of the urban working class, the strengthening of political and trade union organisation, and ever more numerous examples of successful anti-colonial struggles elsewhere.
British rule in India had been shaken by three waves of nationalist agitation in the early 1920s, early 1930s, and early 1940s. The ‘Quit India’ campaign of 1942 had been especially potent, taking place during the Second World War, and challenging Britain’s right to declare war on behalf of 325 million Indians.
Exceptional violence was deployed to suppress the movement. But the events left some of Britain’s rulers were under no illusions. The British viceroy, General Archibald Wavell, told Churchill in 1943 that ‘the repressive force necessary to hold India after the war would exceed Britain’s means’.
Post-war imperial overstretch evoked three kinds of response: repression; divide and rule; and support for client rulers.
Repression tiggered several full-scale colonial wars. The French fought a long war against the Vietnamese in 1946-1954 (costing half a million lives), and another long war against the Algerians in 1954-1962 (costing a million lives).
The British fought colonial wars in Malaya (1948-1960), Kenya (1952-1956), Cyprus (1955-1959), and Aden (1963-1967). These ‘dirty wars’ involved massacres, concentration camps, and the widespread use of torture.
Colonial wars fought a long way from home against embedded nationalist guerrillas imposed a huge burden on declining imperial powers. This was most clear in the case of Portugal, a small European state with an old empire in Africa.
The strain of fighting simultaneous wars in Guinea-Bissau (1956-1974), Angola (1961-1974), and Mozambique (1964-1974) was a direct cause of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-1975, which was led by disaffected army officers.
The last in this sequence of post-war conflicts was the war against the racist regime in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) in 1964 to 1979. In this case, the ‘mother country’ (Britain) refused to back the white settlers in their resistance.
Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had summed up the view of Britain’s rulers on a visit to South Africa in 1960 when he said: ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.’
Other, more subtle ways of protecting imperial interests were needed – such as those successfully deployed in the ‘decolonisation’ of India in 1947.
The principal expression of Indian nationalism had for long been the Indian National Congress founded in 1885. Its most radical elements favoured Hindu-Muslim-Sikh unity, a single state spanning the Subcontinent, thoroughgoing land reform, and support for workers’ rights.
The potential was shown in February 1946, when the Indian crews on 78 British ships and 20 shore stations mutinied. The mutineers were supported by students and workers. Hindus and Muslims marched side-by-side.
But more right-wing elements hostile to class struggles that threatened the interests of Indian landowners and capitalists were dominant inside the nationalist movement. Congress was a bourgeois-nationalist party, not a revolutionary party. The right-leaning Mahatma Gandhi opposed the mutiny outright, and the left-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru tried to contain it.
This created a weakness in the nationalist movement that could be exploited by Hindu chauvinists, Muslim separatists, and the British imperial authorities. Class struggle unites the exploited against their exploiters. Lack of class struggle has the opposite effect: it leaves them atomised and open to the politics of division and hatred.
The British actively encouraged Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League – which favoured a separate Muslim state – as a counterweight to Congress. The effect was to unleash a torrent of communal violence.
Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh populations were hopelessly intermixed, especially in the Punjab region in the north-west of the Subcontinent. Once the Congress and Muslim League leaders had agreed to partition – with British connivance – right-wing thugs moved into action either side of the border to ethnically cleanse ‘their’ territory.
Somewhere between 250,000 and a million people died in communal massacres as India (and Pakistan) become independent in 1947.
The divisions created by partition remain unresolved. India and Pakistan are still at loggerheads over the status of Kashmir, and chauvinism and communalism continue to poison the politics of the region.
The British had divided their opponents, marginalised Congress radicals, and ensured that the new regimes in Delhi and Karachi were sympathetic to foreign capital.
Similar methods were employed elsewhere to manage the transition to native rule. In Malaya, the British waged a relentless counterinsurgency war against a Communist-led guerrilla movement. The guerrillas were mainly ethnic Chinese. The British exploited this by playing on Malay distrust of the Chinese minority, while promising eventual independence to moderate Malay politicians.
In Kenya, the British first defeated the Mau Mau Revolt (in 1956), and then, some years later, released from detention the principal nationalist leader, the relative moderate Jomo Kenyatta, in order to negotiate an orderly transition to independence with him in 1963.
Something similar happened in Cyprus. The British were unable to defeat the EOKA nationalist guerrilla movement on the island. Instead, they arranged a ceasefire and negotiated a transfer of power to the reliably conservative Archbishop Makarios.
Formal empire – direct colonial rule – was ended in a series of conflicts, some very bloody, some less so, between the late 1940s and the late 1970s.
But this did not mean the end of imperialism. Foreign interests had often been well protected in the transition process. A high degree of economic dependency shackled many of the newly independent states. Few would find it easy to develop their way out of poverty in a world dominated by giant corporations and military superpowers.
More radical nationalist regimes would sometimes try to break the shackles. But when they did, they would once again find the economic and military power of imperialism arrayed against them.
The scenery of global power had changed. But the stage on which the players performed remained the same.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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