George Padmore

Atlantic Charter Not Intended for Colonies

Colonial People Are Told to Have No Illusions

(24 January 1942)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 11, 14 March 1942, p. 3.
Reprinted from the British New Leader, Jan. 24, 1942.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

When, in August last, Mr. Churchill’s deputy in the House of Commons, Major Attlee, announced to the world the eight points of that so-called international “Magna Charta,” known as the Atlantic Charter, the subject peoples of the Empire began hopefully to think that perhaps, after all, this really was a war for democracy.

In order that there might be no doubt upon the matter, the West African University Students’ Union in London invited the gallant Major to come and tell them that the Anti-Axis New Order would extend to them. The erstwhile leader of the now extinct Labor Opposition assured these Africans that there would be no racial discrimination in the application of the principles enunciated by Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt. He affirmed that:

“You will not find in the declarations which have been made on behalf of the Government in this country on the war any suggestion that the freedom and social security for which we are fighting should be denied to any of the races of mankind. We are fighting this war not just for ourselves but for all peoples.”

There was nothing equivocal about this statement, and the Daily Herald, like the Africans, believed that Major Attlee was speaking in the name of the War Cabinet, for, reporting his speech in the issue for August 16, 1941, they gave it a splash headline on the front page:

The Atlantic Charter – It Means Darker Races and told their readers that “colored peoples, as well as white, will share the benefits of the Roosevelt-Churchill Atlantic Charter.”

This, for the colonies, was the best piece of news since the war, and aroused tremendous enthusiasm among the 500 million colored peoples in the Empire. At long last Britain had accepted the equality of races as a fundamental principle of her New Order.

Churchill’s Repudiation

It was, however, too good to be true. Mr. Churchill very quickly after his return from the Atlantic meeting made the position absolutely clear. Addressing the House of Commons on September 9th, he let it be known that point three of the Atlantic Charter – “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” – applied only to the white peoples of Europe living under Nazi rule.

George Padmore

George Padmore

“At the Atlantic meeting,” he said, “we had in mind, primarily, the restoration of the sovereignty, self-government and national life of the states and nations of Europe now under the Nazi yoke ... so that it is quite a separate problem from the progressive evolution of self-governing institutions in the regions and peoples which owe allegiance to the British Crown.”

Stripped of its verbiage, this statement made it obvious that the Tories envisaged a perpetuation of imperialism and a continuation of their domination of colonial peoples after they had got rid of their German imperialist rival.

Thus the hopes of the colonial peoples were quickly dashed, and their resentment and sense of political frustration rose once more to the fore, now in proportion to the hopes which had been so falsely raised in them.

The African Pilot (Nov. 5, 1941), leading West African nationalist organ, commenting upon the above statement of Mr. Churchill’s found it difficult to conceive:

“That a British Prime Minister could utter such a statement during an unparalleled destructive war which has cost colonial peoples their material resources and manpower is, indeed, a revelation. What, now, must we expect to be our fate after the war? Must we believe in platitudes? ... Indeed, the ‘Four Freedoms’ may be said to be good enough for ‘the States and nations of Europe,’ but when the interpretations are applied to us, ‘that is quite a separate problem.’ Good God! And the words are straight from the lips of our Prime Minister.”

Burma Turned Down

The 21 million natives of Nigeria are not alone in the despondency and alarm which Mr. Churchill, more than any other individual, has engendered throughout the colored communities of the British Empire. The 17 million natives of Burma have made their feelings public through the medium of their

Prime Minister, U. Saw. His claim for dominion status for Burma was categorically rejected by Mr. Churchill and his understudy, Mr. Amery, Secretary for India and Burma.

“Burma,” U. Saw declared, “was brought into the war by an edict of the Governor. The elected representatives of the people were not consulted ... If Burmese people were convinced that they were fighting for their own freedom as well as for that of the rest of the world, then there can be no question about it – Burma’s war effort would be increased fourfold.” He made it plain that “There is a small section of Burmese opinion which believes that to aid Britain win the war means to aid Britain to keep us in subjection ... There is another section, which, while it cherishes no love for the Japanese. feels that if it is Burma’s destiny to remain a subject nation, then it might be better to be governed by a nation that is of the same blood and of the same religion.”

The position is the same with India. Even moderates like Sir Tej Bahandur Sapru have been compelled to identify themselves with the popular demand for immediate self-determination.

Colonial Peoples See

Everywhere feeling is the same. The colonial people, even the most backward, unlike many sophisticated people in Britain who call themselves Socialist, are not deceived by all the talk about democracy arid freedom. They feel instinctively that this conflict is fundamentally a quarrel between imperialist bandits for a re-division of their countries; that they are merely pawns in the international game of power politics.

Consequently, they want to see the end not only of aggressive fascist imperialism but quite as much of the old-established democratic “peace-loving” imperialism which, in the words of the resolution of the Indian National Congress “is indistinguishable from fascist authoritarianism.”

They Despise Both

The colored races wish to get all Herrenrolk white as well as yellow – off their backs. While their sympathies are with the Chinese people in their heroic fight for national liberation from Japanese imperialism, it does not necessarily follow that they are spurred to support the Anglo-American powers. On the contrary, they despise them as much as they do the Japanese.

Even the threat from Japan in Asia has not altered the narrow “prestige” outlook of the British pukka sahibs. Like their French allies of yesterday, they would rather be (temporarily) stripped of their colonies than make the smallest political concession to their colored slaves. Had the British Government supported a move for their independence when the “Men of Vichy” sold their country to Hitler, the natives of Indo-China could have linked up with China proper and Siam in an anti-Japanese alliance, and Japan would not have been able to use Indo-China as a jumping-off ground for the attack on Malaya.

Preferred Japanese

The situation, however, might have been retrieved even after the Japanese had invaded Malaya if the British Government had offered to extend the principles of the Atlantic Charter to the natives of this region. But to do this they would have had to hand back the lands which they have expropriated from the natives for plantation and mining purposes. Instead, they preferred the Japanese to take them over and continue their exploitation, as they always hope to come back and resume where their yellow rivals forced them to leave off.

This attitude was made quite clear in Lord Moyne’s telegram to Sir Mark Young after the capitulation of Hong Kong. The Colonial Secretary’s message indicated that the British hoped to return after an enforced temporary absence. There was no mention of handing back the island to the Chinese, even though Chiang-Kai-Shek is Britain’s ally, and Hong Kong is not a part of the British isles!

Socialism Way Out

It is this die-hard imperialist attitude which is responsible for the chaos in British affairs in the Far East. “Scorched earth” policy for these people is just a bombastic figure of speech. The owners of the tin mines and rubber plantations, as the city journalists have unambiguously described, are more concerned that their property should remain intact than that Japan should be deprived of the use of their products. They look hopefully towards restitution when the Japanese have been ousted from their present (temporary) occupation.

Imperialism is incapable of offering freedom to its subject peoples. To do so would be to, commit hara-kiri. Only the Social Revolution can bring liberation to these people; only a Socialist Europe can offer to these millions of brown, yellow and black races the possibility of freedom, in order that, as free peoples, they may voluntarily take their place as equals in the community of the World Federation of Socialist countries.

Last updated on 21 August 2021