The anti-colonial revolts of the early 20th century were inspired by radical ideas, but, as the examples of Ireland, India and Mexico show, history exacts a heavy price for political timidity.
The Chinese Revolution was the most important revolt in the colonial and semi-colonial countries in the aftermath of the First World War. But there were many others of similar kind.
Anti-colonial revolts during the 19th century had usually taken a traditional form. Leadership had been provided by tribal chieftains and dynastic potentates. Old weapons and antiquated tactics had been employed against modern firepower. The aim had been to restore the old order of the past.
Anti-colonial revolts in the early 20th century were different. Led by new resistance movements and spearheaded by the most advanced sections of colonial society, they were inspired by the Russian Revolution and the most radical ideas of the period.
What made this possible was the transformation of traditional societies by imperialism. The rapid development of infrastructure and industry by foreign capital had created a new working class. Shanghai and Canton, Bombay and Calcutta, Belfast and Dublin became modern industrial cities.
The market penetrated distant villages and threw their economies into crisis. Indian textile weavers were ruined by imports of machine-made goods from Manchester. Collapsing commodity prices hurled Latin American peasants into destitution. Drought, famine, and disease killed at least 30 million – three times more than the dead of the First World War – in a series of ‘Late Victorian holocausts’.
The war accelerated both industrialisation and impoverishment. New war industries sucked in workers from the countryside. Millions of Asians and Africans were mobilised as soldiers or labourers. But conscription, war taxes, and food shortages also meant misery in the slums and villages.
Capitalism and war were tearing traditional societies apart, while creating new social forces – an educated middle class and an industrial working class – capable of creating modern movements of mass resistance.
Trotsky wrote of the ‘combined and uneven development’ that characterised world capitalism at the time. Advanced technology, large-scale industry, and modern cities co-existed with villages where illiterate peasants worked the land with hand-drawn ploughs. University students attended communist study circles in cities inhabited by feudal warlords and their armed retainers. Pickets of striking workers were confronted by thugs wielding medieval swords.
Because combined and uneven development took an extreme form in the colonies and semi-colonies of the periphery, class struggles were often explosive. Events in Mexico, Ireland, and India provide contrasting examples.
In 1910, Mexico was dominated by a landowning elite of Spanish colonial descent. It was ruled by a dictatorial president, Porfirio Diaz, and its economy was increasingly in thrall to US business. The majority of native Indians and mixed-race mestizos were the beasts of burden in this semi-colonial setup.
Liberal politician Francisco Madero ousted Diaz in an armed revolt in 1910-1911. But he failed to deliver on vague promises of agrarian reform, and his erstwhile supporters, the social bandit Pancho Villa in the north and the peasant farmer Emiliano Zapata in the south, launched a revolutionary war against the new government.
History then repeated itself on a higher level. Madero was murdered by his own general, Victoriano Huerta, but another liberal politician, Venustiano Carranza, quickly formed a ‘Constitutionalist’ army to renew the alliance with the peasantry and resume the struggle against dictatorship.
The peasant armies of Villa and Zapata entered Mexico City in 1914. But instead of taking state power, they handed control back to the liberal bourgeoisie. Villa and Zapata followed the same policy as the Chinese Communist Party would do in Shanghai in 1927, with Carranza’s Constitutionalists playing the role of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.
The denouement was the same – though in slow motion. The Constitutionalists refused to implement radical land reform. Government troops fought alongside US forces to crush the peasant guerrillas. Zapata was murdered in 1919, Villa in 1923, and Mexico was eventually made safe for big business and the rich.
Similar forces were at work in Ireland between 1916 and 1923. The country was Britain’s oldest colony, and it had a long history of poverty, oppression, and resistance.
During Easter 1916, 800 armed Republican rebels seized key public buildings in central Dublin, notably the General Post Office, and fought a pitched battle against the security forces.
The rising had been premature. There was little popular support. But the subsequent execution of the captured leaders outraged Irish opinion and contributed to a sharp swing to the left which gave Sinn Fein, the main Republican party, a landslide victory in the general election of late 1918.
The Sinn Feiners refused to take their seats in the London Parliament and instead formed themselves into an Irish Dail. The Irish Republican Army was organised by Michael Collins to mount a military campaign to destroy the British security apparatus.
The British waged a brutal colonial war against the Irish between 1919 and 1921. Outright victory proved impossible, but they did succeed in splitting the resistance by offering independence to Southern Ireland in return for recognition of British rule over Ulster.
The War of Independence turned into a Civil War. The British now backed conservative pro-partition ‘Free Staters’ like Michael Collins against rejectionist ‘Republicans’ like Eamon De Valera.
The Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly (executed for his part in the Easter Rising) had predicted that partition would lead to ‘a carnival of reaction on both sides of the border’.
He was right. The mainly peasant South came to be dominated by a ‘Green’ bourgeoisie of Irish Catholic Republicans, the more industrialised North by an ‘Orange’ bourgeoisie of Anglo-Irish Protestant Loyalists. The border turned sectarian cracks into chasms, leaving the Irish working class deeply divided and thereby disempowered.
If Ireland was Britain’s oldest colony, India was its biggest, with some 250 million inhabitants. Manpower, supplies, and finance had flowed to European and Middle Eastern battlefronts during the war. When it ended, demonstrations, strikes, and food riots swept the country.
On 16 April 1919, General Dyer ordered 50 riflemen to open fire on a crowd of about 20,000 demonstrators gathered inside an enclosure at Amritsar. They continued firing for ten minutes and killed up to a thousand people.
As news spread of the massacre, resistance rose to new levels. Millions of peasants, workers, and urban poor were involved in mass action. Hindus and Muslims fought side by side against bosses, landlords, and police. The Governor of Bombay later admitted that the movement ‘gave us a scare’ and ‘came within an inch of succeeding’.
Its failure had nothing to do with the British. The action was called off by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Congress leaders.
Gandhi had turned ‘non-violence’ (ahimsa) into a principle. It did not apply to the state: Gandhi had supported Britain during the imperialist war; and the Congress leaders had no power to disarm the British occupation forces in India. Non-violence applied only to Indians fighting for their independence.
The significance of non-violence was that it limited the struggle to nationalist agitation for independence and prevented it evolving into a class struggle against exploitation – which would have threatened the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie represented by Congress.
Under determined revolutionary-socialist leadership, the Indian national movement could have ended British rule in the early 1920s. Under vacillating bourgeois-nationalist leadership, it allowed foreign rule to endure for another quarter century – and when it ended, it would be accompanied by an eruption of communal violence, ethnic-cleansing, and genocide of unprecedented ferocity.
Why did the colonial revolutions fail? History exacts a heavy price for political timidity. However favourable the objective circumstances, revolution is an art in which subjective factors – leadership and organisation, perspective and strategy, cohesion and willpower – are decisive.
Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution provided an explanation for the failure of the anti-colonial movements.
The nationalist bourgeoisie vacillated because it was bound by a thousand ties to a social order based on private ownership of land and capital.
Whenever mass movements of workers and peasants became strong enough to threaten colonial rule, they also threatened the property and power of native landlords and capitalists. Knee-jerk class instincts then ensured that nationalist leaders either reined the movement back or joined the counter-revolution to crush it.
The lesson was an old one: the emancipation of the masses would have to be the act of the masses. Freedom would never be granted. It would have to be taken.
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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