J.R. Johnson

The First of a Series of Articles on the Ethiopian Question

Negroes! Beware the Imperialist Use of Ethiopia!

(10 March 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 10, 10 March 1941, p. 
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

You remember perhaps seeing in the movie houses not so long ago a short of Haile Selassie organizing his forces to make an attack on Italians in Ethiopia. British officers surrounded him, he traveled in a British plane. Britain is helping him to regain his throne: that is the message of this piece of war propaganda. Some movie audiences applauded. Some Negroes, though not all, have expressed satisfaction. But after what happened in 1935 with the League of Nations and Ethiopia, we should have no hesitation in denouncing as ignorant or treacherous scoundrels anyone who joined the imperialists in preaching that Britain is helping Ethiopia to regain independence. A little history will help us to understand better another typical piece of imperialism.

A Scramble for Territory

The war is a scramble for territory, particularly in Africa. Fifty years ago the European powers sat down around a table in Berlin at the invitation of Bismarck and peaceably divided Africa. But before twenty years had passed they were at each other’s throats. Nearly all Africa was gone and it wasn’t enough. All Africa except Ethiopia. And Ethiopia was situated on a high plateau, was difficult of approach and was defended by a body of fierce warriors. Italy, however, wanted a colony. Italy had become a unified nation only in 1870 and was late to the African scramble. But as soon as Italy unified, Crispi, the Italian dictator, set out to get a piece of Africa. The French wanted Ethiopia for themselves but as they couldn’t get it, they were determined that Italy should not have it. So they helped Menelik, the Ethiopian Emperor to train his Ethiopian troops and the Ethiopians gave the Italians a terrific beating at Adowa in 1896. Italy had to attack in a hurry because tsarist Russia was trying to get a piece of Africa, too.

Ten years later, in 1906, Britain, France and Italy met together and divided Ethiopia into three parts; the agreement was known as the tri-partite agreement. They called the parts “spheres of influence.” They then sent the agreement to Menelik. Menelik knew what this spheres of influence business meant. He replied that they could divide as they liked on paper. but he would fight anybody who attacked the independence of his country. The three bandits (all of them were “democracies”) then decided to wait. They were busy preparing for the war of 1914; they couldn’t trust one another.

When the war of 1914 began, Italy kept out – bargaining with both sides. This was not due to any special wickedness of the Italian people. Italy is in the center of the Mediterranean, which is an important sea for Britain. Italy also touches France on the one side, Germany on the other. It can help either side in a war, consequently both groups of imperialists are always offering the Italians booty to stay on one side, or desert one side and go over to the other. The poor Italian workers and peasants, of course, knew nothing about this. Italy stayed out till 1915, bargaining. Then she came in because Britain and France bribed her with promises of plunder, among which was territory in Africa. Ethiopia was not mentioned by name but all who were in the secret knew. There was a filthy scandal about this even during the last war, for one day early in 1915 Mr. Lloyd George, the British leader, made a speech in which he swore that Britain and her allies were fighting for freedom, democracy, etc. On the same day he made the speech, the Manchester Guardian, a Liberal English paper, got hold of the secret treaty with Italy and published it with Lloyd George’s speech in the same issue of the paper. But in Italy and Britain, of course, the politicians all swore that they were merely defending themselves and fighting for freedom.

Play Politics with Ethiopia

When the war was over, Britain and France cheated Italy. They gave her some desert in North Africa, but refused to let her take Ethiopia. All three of them were watching one another like cats over this rich reward. In 1922 Italy went fascist but Britain, still the great “democracy,” plotted with Mussolini, the fascist, to divide Ethiopia and leave France out.

France, to safeguard Ethiopia from them, put Ethiopia in the League of Nations. Britain was furious. Britain was hostile to France in those days and preferred to share Ethiopia with Italy, the weaker power. So in 1926 Sir Austin Chamberlain (Umbrella Neville’s brother) and Mussolini made another agreement dividing Ethiopia, and presented this agreement jointly to Haile Selassie, threatening him if he did not accept. Haile Selassie raised a hue and cry and warned that he would fight. He reported the matter to the League. All the small nations protested. France was glad to keep her two rivals off, and after a lot of talk Britain and Italy said they hadn’t meant anything. But this thing couldn’t go on much longer.

Enter now the Japanese. They were busy penetrating into Africa and to establish themselves in Ethiopia they proposed a marriage between an Ethiopian prince and a Japanese princess. Mussolini said that if the marriage took place he would consider it an unfriendly act, and the loving couple were parted.

Since 1928, at least, Mussolini was planning to get at Ethiopia. After the world crisis in 1929 his position at home was worse than ever. But Britain and France were watching him. He got his chance in 1933, for when Hitler came to power French imperialism tried to make an alliance with Italy against Hitler. Mussolini demanded Ethiopia as the price of friendship and France agreed. With this guarantee Mussolini openly prepared to attack. Britain at last tried to bargain with Mussolini for her share. She wanted the area around lake Tsana and she wanted also to have certain safeguards against Italy becoming too strong and threatening Britain’s African and Eastern possessions. Mussolini, however, was determined to get all he could and get it how he pleased. So the old imperialist bargaining went on, while the British and French politicians talked about the defense of “democracy.”

An Imperialist Proposal

But the masses of the British people didn’t want any more of this imperialist bargaining. They started an agitation for the League of Nations to settle [the] question. Many workers in France were saying the same. So Britain and France played a double game. In public they threatened Mussolini with sanctions, that is to say, to refuse to sell him any goods. That was to fool the people. But in private they bargained with him how to divide up the country. Finally, they worked out a scheme which deserves our careful attention today. For it shows exactly what one can expect from democratic imperialists. The scheme was the work of a Committee Five appointed by the League.

This committee proposed what? It proposed to divide Ethiopia into three parts giving Mussolini the most important. Britain to have her share and France to have hers. The same thing they had done in 1905, in 1915 and in 1926, they were doing in 1935. But instead of old-fashioned imperialism, Ethiopia was to have League of Nations imperialism. The Emperor would remain, but he would have a League of Nations adviser. This man would really be ruler of the country, for under the terms of the agreement, the Emperor would not have been able to appoint one single official without the consent of the League representative. The Ethiopians would have been colonial slaves as much as any other African people. Haile Selassie agreed. He had to. Britain and France, to be sure that Selassie would do whatever they wanted, had refused to sell him any arms, although they had sworn to supply Ethiopia with arms against an aggressor.

Selassie agreed to the plan, but Mussolini refused. Mussolini was very angry because the British, who, in 1906, in 1915, and again in 1926, had plotted with him to destroy the independence of Ethiopia, now not only were making speeches at him, calling him an aggressor, but wanted to use the League of Nations to come in and profit on equal terms after Mussolini had had all the trouble. And as usual, the British were planning to come out best.

Last updated on 29 June 2020