CLR James 1935

Intervening in Abyssinia

In 1935, Italy ruled the colony of Eritrea, next to Ethiopia (then called Abyssinia). Italy had tried to invade Abyssinia before. Following a border incident in late 1934, Mussolini began to assemble troops to attempt another invasion. The Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie (‘Power of the Trinity’), appealed for help to the League of Nations, an association of states dedicated to world peace, and dominated by Britain and France.

On 4 September 1935, the League appointed a Committee of Five to report on the threat of war. On 18 September, the committee proposed that in order to support Abyssinia’s independence and development, the League should provide European specialists and advisors to make the country a virtual economic protectorate. In the final mix, Italy’s interests would also be acknowledged. This was the document that CLR James discusses below.

The question can be raised: should we not support international action to promote peace and progress? Perhaps there are lessons here for those who have recently defended ‘humanitarian intervention’.

In the event, Mussolini rejected the League’s plan, and ordered his army and Blackshirt legions to invade. Sanctions threatened in the House of Commons never materialised. However, Sir Samuel Hoare, the architect of a further peace plan which simply let Italy keep those parts of Abyssinia that it had already conquered, was swept from office by the force of public opinion.

The article appeared in The New Leader, the weekly paper of the Independent Labour Party, on 4 October 1935, and the letter – a remarkable document – appeared in the issue for 5 June 1936.

Is This Worth a War?
The League’s Scheme to Rob Abyssinia of its Independence

Below will be found a full analysis of the League of Nations Report on Abyssinia. The author, CLR James, is a Negro and Socialist. He is chairman of the Finchley ILP. He writes fiercely. He says that it is ‘a brazen lie’ that the British government is defending the independence of Abyssinia, and passionately warns British workers against being led to support League sanctions in order to put a ‘stranglehold’ on the Ethiopian people. Only independent and united action by the British and African workers can overthrow imperialism.

‘Gallant little Belgium’ was bad enough, but ‘the independence of Ethiopia’ is worse. It is the greatest swindle in all the living history of imperialism. The British government, having mobilised world opinion and many of its own workers behind it, has put a stranglehold on Ethiopia, as tight as anything Italian imperialism ever intended.

The proposals of the Committee of Five expose the brazen lie that any independence is being defended. The document is short and concise.

The public services of Ethiopia will be divided into four departments: Police and Gendarmerie, Economic Development, Finance, and Other Public Services. As usual with imperialist banditry masquerading under the name of law, the means of repression stand first on the list.

The Foreign ‘Specialists’

Foreign specialists will organise a corps of police and gendarmerie, which will be responsible for ‘strictly regulating the carrying of arms by persons not belonging to the regular army or to the police or gendarmerie forces’, in other words, disarming the people.

This group of specialists will be responsible for ‘policing centres in which Europeans reside’, and ‘ensuring security in agricultural areas where Europeans may be numerous and where the local administration may not be sufficiently developed to provide them with adequate protection’. Thus the local population being disarmed will be taught the proper respect due by black men to white in imperialist Africa.

Mussolini was going to do the same. But he rather stupidly demanded the disbandment of the army. These foreign specialists will not disband the army. The army will be allowed to carry arms. Egypt, which is also independent, has an army of only 10 000 men, so ill-equipped that they are useless for anything except to show how independent Egypt is!

The regular army of Ethiopia has never been large. The strength of the country has always been in the fact that the whole population was the army.

Once the gendarmerie has done its work, imperialism can go safely ahead with civilisation. Under Section II, Economic Development, foreigners will ‘participate in land tenure, mining regulations, exercise of commercial and industrial activities’; also public works, telegraphs, etc, all the things imperialism needs for its trade. It will be the same old exploitation that is going on in every part of Africa today.

First, the imperialists called the exploited areas colonies; next, protectorates; then, mandates. Now it is ‘helping a sister nation’.

The name will make little difference to the native deprived of his arms, herded into compounds, working in mines at a few shillings a week without trade union protection, with special police and gendarmerie to teach him the way he should go. He has preferred his feudal slavery. He will look back to it in years to come as to a golden age.

Section III, Finance, shows that the League advisers will also be responsible for ‘assessment and collection of taxes, fees and dues’. How they will revel in it! Loans also (from which the City will grow fat), and ‘control of pledges assigned to the service of the loans’. This means that, as in China and other parts where imperialism has been ‘helping’ the native ruler, customs and similar dues will be collected by the imperialists at once and sent to investors in Europe. Britain can default, but Ethiopia, like India, will have to pay if the native sweats blood.

After the service of the loans will come the paying of salaries, money for the gendarmerie, telegraphs, roads, railways, etc. The balance will then go to education, etc — as we can see in India after over 200 years of British rule, where the percentage of illiterates is over 90.

Section IV deals with justice. The mixed courts which try cases between foreigners and Europeans will be ‘reorganised’. Also there will be a reorganisation of ‘native justice’. We recommend in this connection the study of the report published last year on native justice in British East Africa.

Who will apply all this assistance to the long-lost sister nation of Ethiopia, so happily found at last? First, the police and gendarmerie. Wherever European settlers live in great numbers, and on the frontiers, the gendarmerie ‘will participate in general administration to an extent varying according to the standard reached by the local authorities and the nature of the problems to be solved’. Carte blanche.

But even elsewhere the imperialists will not leave anything to the Ethiopian government at all. Each of these four sections will have at its head a ‘principal adviser’ sent by the League. These four will have above them a chief, who will be a delegate of the League of Nations accredited to the Emperor. If this League Emperor is not specially appointed, then the four advisers will themselves elect a chief.

These gentlemen, in addition to controlling police and gendarmerie, finance, commerce and justice, also ‘must be able to rely on the effective cooperation of the Ethiopian authorities’, and this even where they have not got special powers. Better still, there is going to be a central organisation both to coordinate the work of the assistance services and to secure for them ‘the necessary support of the Ethiopian Government’. The League Emperor and his advisers will thus do as they like in the country and have the full support of the Ethiopian government.

The delegate and the principal advisers will, of course, be appointed by the Council of the League, ‘with the agreement of the Emperor’. Thus he can choose between British Imperialist No 1 or No 2 or French Imperialist No 3 or No 4, or Swedish No 1 or Belgian No 2. How much choice will he have?

Hobson’s Choice

But more than that. The Emperor will not be able to appoint freely a single one of the staffs of these advisers. The advisers will submit names to him from which he can choose, or even if he appoints some agents the League adviser will have to give his endorsement ‘according to the nature and importance of their functions’.

Finally, what control, even nominal, will the Ethiopian people, or even the Emperor, have over all this? None whatever. These advisers, will ‘make reports which will be communicated to the Emperor at the same time as they are addressed to the Council of the League’. Thus, the advisers are not to be bothered with the Ethiopian government at all, which, however, will be able to ‘submit to the Council any observations it may wish to formulate in regard to these reports’.

At the end of five years the plan is to be reviewed. But, by this time, imperialism will have sunk its teeth and claws so deep into the country that nothing but a revolution by the Ethiopian masses will ever hack them out.

The imperialists have been after Ethiopia for a long time, and they have got it at last. All that Italy gets, however, is a promise of her predominant interests to be recognised. It isn’t good enough. Musso the Monkey put his fingers into the fire, but the British lion has snatched the nut. No wonder Garvin, in Sunday’s Observer[1], shouts that it isn’t fair, that Mussolini should have some, enough at least to show Italy that Fascism is not all bluff and does bring home the goods some time. If war is averted this way, then Eden and Laval can go back home, carrying peace with honour, and enough of Ethiopia to keep the home fires burning a little longer.

Now is there any British worker, any Negro in Africa, who, having understood this infamous document, is prepared to urge League sanctions and follow the imperialists in their defence of the ‘Independence of Ethiopia’?

Having got the Emperor to agree to all they wanted, the imperialists have now remembered their treaty obligations and begun to allow arms to go in. A shipment from Belgium has arrived; also anti-aircraft guns from Switzerland. The French are getting ready to protect the railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa. This is to ensure the little sister nation Ethiopia getting arms and supplies during the war.

The British worker, the Negro anxious to help Ethiopia, should keep himself far from this slime, which may so soon become blood.

Use Your Own Power

Workers of Europe, peasants and workers of Africa and of India, sufferers from imperialism all over the world, all anxious to help the Ethiopian people, organise yourselves independently, and by your own sanctions, the use of your own power, assist the Ethiopian people. Their struggle is only now beginning.

Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.

Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights. But keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider.

Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our gaolers to break them?

Fighting for the Abyssinian Emperor


May I make my position in regard to fighting for Abyssinia clear?

Early last year I offered myself through the Abyssinian Embassy here to take service under the Emperor, military or otherwise.

My reasons for this were simple. International Socialists in Britain fight British imperialism because obviously it is more convenient to do so than to fight, for instance, German imperialism. But Italian capitalism is the same enemy, only a little further removed.

My hope was to get into the army. It would have given me an opportunity to make contact not only with the masses of the Abyssinians and other Africans, but in the ranks with them I would have had the best possible opportunity of putting across the International Socialist case. I believed also that I could have been useful in helping to organise anti-Fascist propaganda among the Italian troops.

Actual Experience

And finally, I would have had an invaluable opportunity of gaining actual military experience on the African field where one of the most savage battles between capitalism and its opponents is going to be fought before very many years. As long as the Emperor was fighting imperialism I would have done the best I could. The moment, however, any arrangement had been come to which brought the country within the control of European imperialism a new situation would have arisen, and I would have identified myself with those bands, hundreds of thousands of them, who are still fighting, and for years are going to carry on the fight against imperialistic domination of any kind.

I did not intend to spend the rest of my life in Abyssinia, but, all things considered, I thought, and still think, that two or three years there, given the fact that I am a Negro and am especially interested in the African revolution, was well worth the attempt.

Unfortunately, Dr Martin, the Minister, told me that he thought my work with the International Friends of Ethiopia would better serve the struggle against Italy. When, however, that body decided to support League Sanctions and possibly lead British workers to what Marxists knew from the start would be an imperialist war, I broke at once with the society.

Faithfully yours

CLR James

1. JL Garvin edited the Observer throughout the 1930s. Under his editorship, the paper maintained a right-wing line, showing sympathy for the foreign policy objectives of the fascist states.