J.R. Johnson

African Soldiers and the Armies of “Democracy”

(13 September 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 69, 13 September 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The American Negro press reports with pride, that among the millions of soldiers the French imperialists are already using against Germany on the Western Front, are thousands of black troops. A report in the Sept. 9 Amsterdam News states that a million black troops are on the way from Africa to France.

In using Moors against the Spanish working class, the Fascist Franco was merely following the example set by the “democracies”.

France began seriously building an army of Negroes in West Africa in 1912. How did the imperialists get the Africans at all, when economic exploitation and political repression are what they are in Africa?

First, the men are conscripted. They have no choice.

Secondly, in the prevailing poverty and misery, the army offers an escape to men looking for a way out. It means regular food and clothes and a place to sleep.

Imperialist France: Divide And Rule

Furthermore, the black soldiers get certain political privileges. The French divide the African people into two groups – elites and the indigenes (natives). An elite is an educated French Negro who is given all the privileges of a white man, can even enter the government service, in the colonies or in France, and rise to high position, General in the Army, Prefect of a department, head of a Paris hospital, and even a Cabinet Minister. The French parties take turns to provide the presiding officer of the Chamber of Deputies, and some months ago, it was the turn of Candace, an African, who presided amidst the applause of the whole Chamber.

The indigenes, many millions, are treated worse than dogs. Here the French are no different than any other imperialism in Africa. A soldier who has done his service and fulfilled certain other elementary conditions is admitted into the ranks of the elites. Thus France divides the colonial population and builds up an armed buffer against the hostility of the masses of the people.

The native chiefs act as recruiting agents. They have to, or they wouldn’t remain chiefs for very long. And certain other ambitious black men are quite prepared to assist the French in enslaving Africans in return for certain political considerations. Such a one was Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese. He represented Senegal in the French parliament, in accordance with the clever French custom of allowing the colonies one representative each in the French Chambers, less than a dozen in all among hundreds of French Deputies and Senators.

Africans Died Like Flies in 1914

Diagne rose to be a Cabinet Minister and sent thousands of Africans to their deaths in 1914–1918. In the bitter ice and snow of the French defense of Verdun, the French command threw thousands of these black colonials into the front lines. Even Diagne had to protest, for his use to the French government depended upon his influence with the masses. “Their skins are black, gentlemen,” he said, “but that does not make them impervious to bullets.” Neither did Diagne’s speeches.

The French blacks, however, learned something from the last war. The Communist Party, a revolutionary party in those days, did propaganda both in Africa and the troops in Paris, and many of these were under the influence of the Communist Party. The policy then was that the revolutionary black soldiers would be the advance-guard of the world revolution in Africa, striking for the independence of their country, while the workers and peasants in France fought for socialism in France. The enemy in each case was the same French imperialism.

Popular Front Broke Black-White Unity

The Popular Front ruined all this. The Stalinist propaganda for the Popular Front raised the hopes of all colonials. But the Popular Front soon showed itself to be a combination of capitalists and turn-coat revolutionaries who gave phrases to the masses but were chiefly concerned, not with destroying but with maintaining French capitalism. The colonials who fought against French imperialism wore slandered by the Stalinists as agents of Fascism. The powerful Stalinist propaganda machine was directed to persuading the black soldiers that the independence of Africa was no longer the slogan. Their duty was now to die for French “democracy” against Fascism.

Thus the Stalinists introduced a vast confusion into the movement and caused great bitterness among black revolutionaries against all “white” political parties as treacherous betrayers of the blacks.

In those days, 1936 and 1937, the French workers were on the march against the French bourgeoisie. And in Marseilles, during the long continued strikes and struggles of the workers against the Popular Front government, African troops were brought out. Thus French imperialism arms African peasants to shoot down French workers and then arms French workers to shoot down African peasants.

France in this war hopes to use a million and a half blacks. This is the figure given in 1938 by General Manginn, the French expert on the colonial army. First they will be used against Germany. But as the French workers feel the full strain of the war and begin to fight against their enemies at home, the French capitalists, like Franco, will use the African soldiers to help in the maintenance of the capitalist system. Thus French imperialism hopes to divide its enemies, the workers and peasants at home and abroad.

How African Soldiers Are Conscripted

But there is another side to this question. The Africans are likely to revolt against the condition of war more quickly than the French soldiers. And many of these Africans will have been conscripted by brute force, driven into the army as cattle into a pen. The following letter, from French West Africa, written in 1938 and printed in International African Opinion, gives a clear picture of the methods used and the sentiments of these conscripts and their families.

“On Saturday, 14th May, at 2 o’clock in the morning, while peaceful inhabitants were dancing in a ballroom at Abidjan, policemen, armed gendarmes, and riflemen surrounded the hall. The whole room, excepting the women, were arrested. All the men – old men, children, the sick or the healthy – were brought in lorries to the military camp. In the streets that same evening, a veritable manhunt occurred and lasted until dawn.

“16th May, ten lorries of recruits at Adjame, ten at Treichville.

“17th May, twenty lorries still at Adjame, 110 were taken from Sassandra, arrived at Abidjan on the 26th May by the S.S. Brazza. Anguish reigns with grinding of teeth. Families and houses are beginning to be abandoned. There is wailing everywhere. The arrested, without exception, are clothed in uniform. We saw them march by this morning.

“Come to our assistance – it is time! We are hungry, we are naked, we are weary of crying, out our miseries! Nobody hears us, and thus it is they want to sacrifice us.

“Not content, together with Captain Dubois, with stealing children of 16 to make soldiers, Darres is an audacious liar. He has published the following circular:


The Chief Administrator of Colonies – Mayor Administrator of the Mixed Commune of Abidjan, warns the population against the rumors, which are circulating in the town and which have the effect of establishing a relation of cause and effect between the clean-ups actually embarked upon, and the enrollment of the second portion of the contingent in the years 1937 and 1938.

The former have as their only aim to purify the commune of all the undesirable foreigners, and those who do not come in line either with the Treasury or with Justice.

As to the appeal for recruits, that has terminated since the evening before yesterday.

The recruits presented themselves of their own accord, without constraint, and on simple convocation to the Administrative Authority.

(Signed) DARRES

“Oh, what liars they are! They surround a ballroom on the 14th at 2 o’clock in the morning. The 15th, 16th, 17th May, man-hunt in the streets of Adjame and of Treichville: numerous lorries transport the inhabitants arrested to the military camp. These inhabitants, with the exception of six, among whom two Dahomeans, released because of bad physique, are all uniformed. We saw them with our own eyes, marching past and proceeding to the exercising ground on the road to Bingeville! Three submarines arrived to secure the safety of their expedition to Dakar or France. Violent rapes are made (and continue elsewhere in all regions of the colony), and the captured flow into Abadjan by trains, petrol-wagons, lorries, and boats. Mothers, wives, and fathers groan and weep. That is what M. Darres calls: ‘Recruits presenting themselves of their own accord without constraint – on simple convocation.’

“In reality, this campaign to get rifle-men took place because the natives swore they would not, on any condition, go to war on behalf of the whites. The latest news is that the rapes still continue in June.”

This letter is a living document and tells more of the truth about French Africa than hundreds of thousands of words flowing from the mouths of Daladier, Leon Blum, and the French Stalinists, about the unity of the French empire.

The revolutionary task is to build a living contact between these hundreds of thousands of Africans and the French workers in army and in factory. The treacherous turn-about-face of the Stalinists has done an immense amount of harm. Fortunately, however, owing to the absence of that prejudice which so poisons relations between black and white workers in America, fraternization between blacks and whites in France is an everyday and easy matter. These black soldiers of France can play a powerful part in the French revolution, not only in the struggle for African independence against French imperialism but in the struggle for workers’ power in France.

Those American Negro newspapers which in one breath talk about the African fight for independence, and in the other praise the black troops for the part they are playing in the French army, are guilty either of an extreme ignorance or an extreme hypocrisy. There are many white people and an overwhelming number of Negroes who genuinely wish for the independence of Africa. These will take no pride in blacks using their skill and strength to assist the very people who are enchaining them. Rather, these friends of Africa will use all means in their power (and there are many) to clarify the minds of these brave but misguided blacks. The struggle for the emancipation of the workers, black and white, is to be won not by following the suicidal policy of the last war, joining one side against the other, but by remorseless opposition to all imperialism, whether fascist or “democratic.”

(Next issue we shall print a letter written by Leon Trotsky to Claude McKay in 1921 [1], in which Trotsky, then War Commissar of the Soviet Union, analyzes the role of Africans in the French Army.)

Note by MIA

1. The letter was actually published in March 1923.

Last updated on 17 March 2016