MN Roy

Empire and the Proletariat

Published: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 7, January 1925, No. 1
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


Speaking at Baku, several weeks ago, Mr. A.A. Purcell, the head of the British Trade Union delegation, declared that on returning home the delegation would organise a “Hands off Egypt” movement, to prevent British Imperialism from throttling weak and defenceless Egypt. This attitude taken on behalf of the militant proletariat contrasts remarkably with the official view of the Labour Party on this grave question. The Labour Party wants the Anglo-Egyptian conflict to be referred to the League of Nations. It appears that even this view will not be pressed much. In fact, judging from the lukewarm speech of Mr. MacDonald, the Labour Amendment to the King’s Speech will only “express regret at the way His Majesty’s Government is handling the Egyptian situation.” The scrapping of the 1922 agreement and grabbing of the Sudan are a fait accompli. The Baldwin Cabinet has not left any room for doubt that the suggestion of League arbitration will not be heeded. In these circumstances it matters very little how the Labour amendment is worded. But the official Labour Party attitude cannot be very exigent, because Mr. MacDonald’s stern refusal to place the dispute before the League, as proposed by Zaghlul Pasha, is too recent to be forgotten. The uncomfortable knowledge of their own complicity in the imperialist aggression in the valley of the Nile does not permit the Opposition Front Bench to voice the feeling of the working class, as was done by Mr. Purcell.

Whatever may be the official attitude of the Labour Party, the seriousness of the Egyptian question is undeniable. Egypt groans under the iron heel of Imperialism. The semblance of national self-government, grudgingly conceded to cope with the dangerous revolutionary crisis of the post-war years, is brushed aside. Lord Allenby rules in Cairo. The formidable military might of Britain is turned upon a weak and defenceless people. The Government, headed by the “Father of the Egyptian people,” is turned out because it dared take exception to some of the atrocious demands of Imperialism. Egypt is placed in a state of siege. The annexation of the Sudan is complete.

As long as Egypt is subordinated to a foreign military dictatorship, she will claim the right of rebellion. The right of the Egyptian people to complete independence is undeniable. The recognition of the right of a particular people to determine its own political status definitely rules out all outside interference under any pretext. Since the Agreement of 1922 terminated the British Protectorate only in name, it could not deprive the Egyptian people of the historically recognised right of rebellion against foreign or native oppression. We should consider it superfluous to prove that the sole object of the conquest and protectorate of Egypt was not altruistic. Nor was the “sacred responsibility” of protecting the Egyptians and safeguarding the Sudanese “accidentally” thrust upon Britain, as the imperialist historian, Seely, would argue, Nevertheless, a brief recapitulation of facts will be useful.

Until the ’fifties of the last century, British merchants, side by, side with the French and Italian traders, penetrated the valley of the Nile. The growth of commercial interests whetted their appetite for political power. The indebtedness of the Khedive Ismail Pasha to the French and British bankers grew to the amount of two and a half milliard francs. Ismail extended the Turkish suzerainty up the Nile to Nubia, and built Khartoum and other cities. These “civilising” efforts of Turkish Imperialism were financed by the European bankers. Presently the latter thought it would be much more profitable to eliminate the intermediary and let “civilisation” march under the insignia of the Cross instead of the Crescent. The Christian Shylocks demanded their money or their pound of flesh, which was to be a mortgage on the sources of the State revenue. Ismail refused the terms of financial capitulation, In order to remove this obstacle from their way to political power, the Franco-British Debt Commission engineered a “revolt” against Turkish suzerainty. (By the way, if the Zaghlulist Government. fomented the anti-British movement in Sudan, as it is accused, for its own political purpose, it learnt these tactics from the European imperialists.) Ismail was deposed and succeeded by Tewfik. Pasha,—a nominee of the Anglo-French creditors—who accepted unconditionally the terms of financial capitulation. The tale sounds very familiar. Under the aegis of Imperialism in the backward countries history repeats itself remarkably. The drama staged at Cairo sixty years ago is being enacted all over again to-day.

Under the pressure of the Debt Commission, the new Khedive dismissed a large number of army officers and government employees whose loyalty to him and his Anglo-French masters was open to doubt. This was done on the pretext of economy. The traders were taxed heavily to increase the revenue, which was mortgaged to the Debt Commission. Discontent against the new regime, openly acting under the dictation of Anglo-French banks, became widespread. The Egyptian Nationalist Party was organised. The following passage is found in the first manifesto of the Nationalist Party, published in 1868:—

“The British Lion has a voracious appetite. But it does not kill its prey. It lets them live, to relish their blood and flesh bit by bit. The treatment meted out to our brothers in India awaits us. Poor Egypt is doomed. Better death than such a life. Let us rise, we the Servants of God. Egypt for the Egyptians!”

This does not sound like the voice of a happy people, gently led on the path of “civilisation.” Obviously it was the frantic cry of those led to the slaughter. These backward barbarians have no sense of gratitude. They are still speaking the same language. Fifty years of fleecing could not make them appreciate the benefits of civilisation.

Among all the innumerable boons conferred upon Egypt by Britain is counted the abolition of slavery. In 1874, the Britisher Gordon was appointed Governor-General of the Sudan. In those days, the principal trade of that country was that of ivory, coming from the wild regions of Central Africa. Gordon declared the ivory trade a state monopoly; consequently he had to declare the abolition of slavery, which was connected with the ivory trade. Italian and French merchants were competing with the British in this trade. By abolishing slavery, the competitors were deprived of practically costless labour on the one hand, and the declaration of a state monopoly, on the other hand, diverted the entire trade to Cairo, there to fall exclusively into British hands. There was a third and more insidious motive. This was to drive the Sudanese slave-owners and ivory-traders to revolt, so that British intervention: could take place. All these sordid motives of the “saintly” Gordon were realised. The discontented Sudanese established relations with the Egyptian Nationalist Party, headed by Col. Arabi Pasha. The situation, carefully prepared, came to a head. The time was ripe for military intervention and occupation.

In 1881 the Nationalist revolt broke out in Egypt. Simultaneously, the Sudan rose in revolt under the leadership of the Mandi, British and French fleets bombarded Alexandria, in May, 1882. A joint note was presented to the Khedive, demanding the resignation of his Cabinet and the exile of the Nationalist leader Arabi. But popular demonstrations, on the contrary, forced the Khedive to appoint Arabi as Minister of Defence. The rebels were outnumbered by the invaders; Arabi’s forces were defeated, and he was taken prisoner at Tel-el-Kebir.

Egyptian soldiers refused to join the expedition to reduce the Sudan, where the whole country was in revolt. Gordon was besieged at Khartoum. So the Egyptians did not want the British invaders to conquer the Sudan for them. Gordon died not for Egypt, but in the attempt to suppress the revolt of the Sudanese against the British invaders. Neither in Egypt, not in the Sudan, has England, therefore, any right but that of an invader, who conquered by means of dirty intrigues and clever stratagems. It is this right of might that is being defended to-day by the Tory Government, and which yesterday was also defended by the MacDonald Cabinet. It is this clear issue between the victor and the vanquished; exploiter and the exploited, that the Labour Party, urges should be referred to the League of Nations, while the League by its very constitution (the Wilsonian Covenant) is pledged to leave these “internal” issues of Imperialism outside its scope. Not only has the British Government roundly rejected all suggestion of League intervention, but the League itself has washed its hands of this thorny problem. Once more it has proved itself the “organised impotence” it really is. What does the Labour Party propose to do now?

British domination acquired in the valley of the Nile by all means, fair or foul, over a period of half a century, was by no means abandoned by the agreement of 1922. Not an iota of British authority was conceded. The “independence” granted to Egypt by that agreement was utterly inadequate. This camouflaged form of Imperialism could not be legalised until the approbation of Zaghlul Pasha was secured, after the attempt to set up several dummy governments had failed. Zaghlul and his party accepted the “independence” only as the basis of further negotiation. Had they not kept the fundamental questions of military evacuation and the Sudan open, they could not have carried the people with them in this compromise. But the policy of following a line of evolution with the agreement of 1922 as the basis created an ambiguous situation which could not continue indefinitely. The political career of Zaghlul was staked on his problematical ability to win complete independence for Egypt and the revindication of the Sudan through amicable settlement with Britain. No government in Egypt could permanently hold the forces of National Revolution in control which was not able to secure satisfaction on these points. If anybody in Egypt was at all in a position to attempt this impossible task, it was Zaghlul, owing to the enormous popularity and unlimited confidence that he enjoys. Had not the professions of the British bourgeoisie and of the Labour. Government for an amicable settlement of the Anglo-Egyptian conflict been hypocritical, the Zaghlulist regime would have been supported. But, on the contrary, egged on by insatiable imperialist greed, it was the Labour Government which finally rendered the position of Zaghlul untenable.

The revolutionary wing of the Nationalist Party, which since the days of Arabi has worked for the overthrow of British Imperialism, did not approve of Zaghlul’s compromise with Britain. But their faith in the sincerity and ability of the veteran leader induced them to let Zaghlul try his policy of conciliation and gradual acquisition of power. The latter is too shrewd to ignore the precariousness of his position. The advent of the Labour Government was seized upon by him as a possible way out of the predicament. But Mr. MacDonald did not permit the reminiscence of personal friendship with the Egyptian leader to interfere with imperial stakes. His treatment of the Egyptian question could hardly be improved upon by Lord Curzon. The Labour Government sowed the seeds of the Chamberlain Ultimatum. Sitting on the Opposition Bench, the official leaders of the Labour Party are not absolved from the crime against the Egyptian people—a crime which they share equally with the present Tory Cabinet. The rupture of his conversation with Mr. MacDonald exposed the bankruptcy of Zaghlul’s policy of peaceful national evolution within the frame-work of the British Empire. If even a Labour Government, with all its professed regard for self-determination and democracy, could summarily dismiss the proposal of military evacuation of a country presumably “independent,” and of an appeal to the League of Nations, how could the policy of reconciliation be maintained? The alternatives were clear before the Egyptians: either to submit themselves to perpetual British domination, thinly disguised as “independence,” or to fall back upon a permanent state of warfare, suspended, temporarily to give the Zaghlulist policy a chance. It is hypocritical for the official Labour Party leaders to demand, in their capacity of His Majesty’s loyal Opposition, the submission of the Anglo-Egyptian conflict to the League of Nations while, in office, they refused to take a similar step, and thereby wrecked all the possibility of constitutional advance.

If the attitude of the Labour Party in the Egyptian question has been so hypocritically ambiguous, as regards the Sudan it has been frankly imperialist. Even to-day the official leaders of the Labour, Party are not prepared to oppose the British annexation of the Sudan. It is argued that the Sudan is not Egypt, the Egyptians have no claim on that country. But have the British capitalists anything more to do there than the Egyptians? If conquest is the foundation of right, the Egyptians, who conquered the Sudan much earlier than the British, possess the benefit of priority.

But the question of the Sudan rests upon entirely different ground. A huge amount of British capital has been invested in the Sudan, which is expected eventually to make the Lancashire textile: industry independent of the American cotton ring. The Mkouat Barrage on the Blue Nile alone has cost 13,500,000, which was raised in the London market with the guarantee of the Government. Britain is determined to stay in the Sudan in order to protect this huge vested interest. All talk of protecting the Sudanese, from Egyptian aggression, of rescuing them from chaos and of bringing them the blessings of civilisation, is hypocritical, Expansionist interests of British capital demanded the pacification a plausible term for subjugation—of the Sudan, which was done mainly at the cost of Egyptian lives and Egyptian money, ostensibly on behalf of Egypt. Gordon, Kitchener, Cromer and the innumerable others who carried the banner of British Imperialism up the valley of the Nile were supposed to be conquering the Sudan for Egypt. Thus, the sovereignty of Egypt over the Sudan was clearly recognised from the beginning. But this academic recognition is repudiated as soon as it even slightly conflicts with the monopoly rights of British capital in the Sudan.

This ticklish question of cotton supply is cleverly manipulated to make the interests of the British working class appear identical with those of Imperialism. Taking their cue from the imperialist-economists, trade union bureaucrats, like J.H. Thomas and J.R. Clynes, have of late been holding before the workers the terrible disaster that will befall British industry if those parts of the Empire which supply the metropolis with raw materials and food break away. The moral of this is that the proletariat must give fullest support to imperialist expansion and, consequently, to the policy of militarism and coercion like that in the valley of the Nile. So the Labour Government “firmly” handled the Egyptian question, not because it was a minority government, but because the official leaders of the Labour Party are convinced of the necessity of maintaining imperialistic domination over Egypt and the Sudan.

Normal economic security of the British proletariat does not depend, as Mr. Clynes would maintain, upon the maintenance and expansion of the Empire. The British working class will derive no profit from the cotton-plantations of the Sudan. As far as the life and prosperity of the Lancashire textile industry are concerned, it can be said that if the cotton required could be up till now bought from America, there is no reason why it cannot be bought from Egypt and the Sudan in future, if necessary. If the dependence of Lancashire upon American cotton did not necessitate the British conquest of the United States, free access to the actual and potential produce of the Sudan does not necessarily demand the military occupation of the valley of the Nile and political subjugation of the Egyptian people. It is argued that British evacuation will throw the Sudan back into disorder. That is only an hypothesis. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the peoples subordinated to imperialist domination for decades will not follow a steady and normal course of development if all foreign interference ceases. Besides, to secure the provision of cheaper cotton which will increase the profits of Lancashire industry, is no justification for the outrages committed against weak and defenceless peoples.

Apart from political and historical reasons, economically Egypt is inseparable from the Sudan. If a union of peoples on economic grounds is desirable for the evolution towards the Co-operative Commonwealth of the World, the union of the entire valley of the Nile into one economic organism is much more reasonable than to hold the Sudan perpetually as a source of raw materials for the Lancashire cotton industry. The Egyptians have more than enough reason to look upon the British invaders with distrust. Their contention that from the Sudan, British Imperialism can strangle the economic life of Egypt, is not altogether groundless. It has been borne out by the decision to extend unlimitedly the scope of the Gezira Irrigation. In fact, this irrigation work, which constitutes the pride of “civilisation” introduced in the Sudan by Britain is a standing menace to Egyptian agriculture. The enormous volume of water that will be held up by the gigantic barrage, to irrigate 400,000 hectares of desert, will undoubtedly reduce the flow of the lower Nile, on which Egyptian agriculture depends.

The disquiet of the Egyptians on this score cannot be pooh poohed, while Britain feels the same disquiet about the Gezira irrigation. Measures have been taken that the water supply of the barrage will not be cut off higher up in Abyssinia. Already in 1902, Britain signed a treaty with King Menelik, binding the latter not to permit any construction on the Blue Nile or its source, Lake Tsana, which might affect the flow of water. The question, was again raised in 1921, in view of the events in Egypt and of the growing French influence in Abyssinia. Britain’s new demands; approximated to serious encroachment on the sovereignty of Abyssinia. The latter, under French inspiration, retorted by applying for admission into the League of Nations. Some agreement is supposed to have been reached, at least temporarily, when last summer the Abyssinian Regent, Ras Tafari, visited France and England. Mr. MacDonald was the custodian of British imperialist interests in the those days. Did he prepare the way for the eventual annexation of another small country to the Empire?

British domination in the valley of the Nile is of much greater importance than to safeguard the local capitalist interests, which by themselves are enormous. Egypt is the strategic centre of the Empire. This point was bluntly made by a number of noble lords during the debate on the King’s Speech in the Upper House. Certainly it is. But here again, how does this consideration, vital for the master class, concern the proletariat? India is becoming more difficult to govern every day. The Moslem peoples of the Near East find in the Union of Soviet Republics a staunch supporter of their relentless resistance to imperialistic aggression. Young China, also inspired by the Russian Revolution, challenges British supremacy in the Far East. The Empire is indeed in danger. Therefore, imperialist interests demand that in this fateful moment the half-way house of Egypt should in no way be shaken. This is the paramount consideration that indicates the policy of a “firm hand” in the valley of the Nile. The eventful necessity of crushing a revolution in India, or of sending a “punitive expedition” to recalcitrant China, or of keeping the Turks within “reasonable” bounds of nationalist ambition, is no inducement for the British workers to shed their blood on the deserts of Africa, or to sanction that the taxes paid by them shall be squandered in a military adventure. The benefit of the Empire is no less a myth for the British proletariat than for the subjugated peoples. The doctrine of carrying the blessings of civilisation to the backward peoples is a blatant lie. The theory that the disruption of the Empire will ruin the British working class is an economic fallacy.

Not only is the Empire of scant benefit for the British workers; it is a veritable bondage for them. Firstly, they have to pay for its conquest and maintenance in men and money. Secondly, the Empire only consolidates the power of capitalism at home. The beggarly share in the colonial plunder, in the shape of unemployment pensions (which the capitalists would have ceased to pay long ago had they not been in a position to draw enormous super-profit from the colonies), and the shameful glory enjoyed by the treacherous leaders “who sit by the King,” are poor compensation for the working-class support of Imperialism.

The question of Egypt and the Sudan embodies the entire question of Imperialism—of the right of colonial expansion at the cost of the liberty of the so-called backward peoples. The British proletariat must approach and solve this question as such. Once and for all, they must decide whether it is their duty and responsibility to support the perpetuation of the Empire. An economic union of the countries now forming the British Empire cannot be realised within the capitalist system, unless the union is to be a capitalist union to oppress and exploit the working class. The Empire must first be broken up. Then such a union will be possible on a Socialist basis. The desirable preservation of the present industrial organism, freed from capitalist ownership, is dependent on the ability of the British proletariat to win the confidence of the subject peoples. The desire to transform the Empire into a voluntary economic commonwealth will never be realised so long as the political and racial distrust bred by imperialist aggression remains. All talk about the “Commonwealth of Free Nations” is justifiably distrusted by the subject races. How can British Labour convince the colonial peoples of its good intentions if it fails to give unconditional support to their demand for freedom, even to the extent of breaking altogether away from the Empire?

Therefore, it is neither the half-hearted demand of the official Labour leaders for a reference to the League of Nations, nor hypocritical resolutions of the I.L.P., that express the verdict of the proletariat in accordance with their objective interests. Mr. Purcell’s pledge to organise direct action against imperialist violence in the valley of the Nile indicates the way the British working class should follow.


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