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The New International, November 1945


Editorial Comment

Colonial World in Ferment

Its Relation to the European Revolution
Its Challenge to American Labor


From New International, Vol. XI No. 8, November 1945, pp. 227–230.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“We will live in hell but never under Dutch rule.”

With these words inscribed on their banners, young Indonesian revolutionaries last month keynoted the fierce determination to achieve freedom that was sweeping through the colonial world.

Spearheaded by the armed revolts in Java and Indo-China, subject peoples everywhere were stirring. Arabs, Koreans, Nigerians, Burmese, Malayans, Palestinian Jews, Latin Americans, South African natives, peoples of various colors and conditions of servitude were coming forward to present their claims for some of the freedom which the imperialist powers had so lavishly promised during the course of the war.

An intensified nationalism had been a political weapon of both imperialist camps in the war. The nationalist spirit they had engendered was now coming back to them in an unexpected form. Forty million Javanese could not understand why they should be ruled by nine million Dutch, above all not when the Dutch government-in-exile in London had for five years sought to arouse and enlist the support of world opinion in a struggle to free the Netherlands from German oppression. Twenty-three million Indo-Chinese could see no justice in the demand that they once more bow their necks to the French yoke as demanded by the self-proclaimed Joan-of-Arc who owed his fame to an obstinate refusal to bow to the German yoke. Koreans could see no resemblance between the freedom they had been promised by the Cairo Declaration of Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek and the partition of their country into military zones occupied by Russian and American troops, the latter commanded by General Hodges who had advised the Korean liberation demonstrators to “better get home and be about your work or I will knock some heads together.” The long years of propaganda about the “Four Freedoms,” “Asia for the Asiatics,” “One World,” “The New Order,” “An end to Aggression,” and the “Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere,” emanating from London and Berlin, Washington and Tokyo, had left their mark.

However, it did not take the war to create a love of liberty in the breasts of the colonial slaves. The war merely stimulated them to new efforts and presented the favorable opportunities to conduct the struggle. Almost everyone of the peoples heard from since the end of the war have behind them a long history of maturing political struggle for freedom that has heightened national consciousness, impressed upon them lessons of strategy and tactics, and perfected their combat organizations.

How War Increased Discontent

The war in addition to the effects of its political propaganda, led to the arming of considerable sections of the native populations. Japanese armed and trained the “People’s Fredom Army” in Burma. Germans and Italians armed anti-British Arab movements. Americans armed and trained hundreds of thousands of Filipino guerillas. The war brought economic changes that often for the first time revealed to the natives the material wealth of the modern world, much of it ground out of their labor, and that a better standard of living was possible. Even the Japanese occupants of Java, according to reliable information, paid native laborers considerably higher wages than the 50c to $1.15 per week they had received from their Dutch overlords. Natives in areas traversed or occupied by American troops were dazzled by the profusion of wealth represented by the average Gr, not to speak of the mechanized power of modern tools that turned jungles into airfields, trails into paved highways, and erected modern soldier-cities where native huts had stood before. Those who had once worked for the “Yankee dollar” were not likely to again become docile field slaves working for a bare subsistence; Contact with troops of many nations in the occupation and re-occupation of the colonies enlarged the natives knowledge of the outside world and its ideas and could not but stimulate new thoughts and fresh hopes. Those natives who fled before the invasions to find refuge in foreign lands established contacts with new political currents, like the Javanese intellectuals who lived out the war in Australia and became acquainted with the Australian labor movement and, as the Australian dockers’ strike would seem to indicate, influenced it in turn.

“When Thieves Fall Out ...”

But the real connection between the war and the colonial revolt is, of course, the old truism that “when thieves fall out, honest men get their due.” The war has everywhere either disturbed the status quo or completely ruptured the continuity of overlordship. Oppressed peoples are like percussion-capped bombs that must be handled safely and gently in transfer from one set of hands to another. A slip may result in disastrous consequences. Despite the best efforts at co-operation between the rival imperialists in such transfers, mishaps are not entirely avoidable. British police in Singapore used their best efforts to prevent Chinese inhabitants from securing arms to form guerilla bands when the city surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. Reports from China, Indo-China, the East Indies, and other territories passing from Japanese control to British-French-Dutch rule were monotonous in their repetitious accounts of Japanese efforts to keep “law and order” until the “liberators” could take over. In Seoul, Korea, Japanese police fired into a crowd of demonstrators, killing several of them, as Koreans rushed to the water front to greet the American troops. In Saigon, Indo-China, the airfield was recaptured by British officers at the head of Japanese troops. In Java, British, Dutch and Japanese troops fought side by side against the Javanese nationalists. In China, Chiang Kai-shek appealed to Japanese garrison commanders to prevent Chinese “communists,” which means all Chinese not subservient to his rule, from disarming Japanese troops. Despite the greatest care, “law and order” was not maintained completely, particularly in Java and Indo-China.

Java and Indo-China as Weakest Links

It is not accidental that the latter two colonies were the spearhead of the colonial revolt. As the possessions of France and The Netherlands they represent the weakest links in the imperialist colonial chain. The French and Dutch Empires have long existed as sub-empires of the British. The British fleet and British bases at Singapore, Hong Kong and Calcutta have been the real mainstay of French and Dutch Pacific possessions. The crushing defeat of the Dutch and French at the hands of Germany in 1940 and the occupation of their colonies by the Japanese in 1941–42 wiped out, not only their military and economic power, but the political prestige necessary to maintain a dominant place in the colonial world. The authority of the Dutch and French vanished in the eyes of their colonial subjects who saw that the master nations were incapable of either defending the colonies or their homelands.

The impotence of Dutch and French imperialism was, of course, definitively established by the final helplessness in which the colonial rebellions left them. Lacking the necessary ships, planes and troops, they were forced, regretfully, to tum over the job of stamping out the revolutionary fires to the British, who, despite the headaches that beset their empire, still remained as the bulwark of old-fashioned, colonial imperialism in the Far East. The British dared not refuse, regardless of the additional drain it placed upon their depleted resources. Age-old craftsmen in colonial rule, they know that a leak in the imperialist dike could rapidly become a flood. If the Indo-Chinese and the Indonesians were successful in winning their freedom, it could not but exercise a tremendous propulsive force upon the masses of India. Java and Indo-China meant a serious flood menace. India, however, would mean a total inundation.

Dutch Policy in Java

There were other factors that made Java and Indo-China the weak links in the colonial chain. Java is one of the most densely populated and materially richest of colonies. The Dutch, who have been there since 1595, have exploited the island as one vast source of never ending wealth; coffee, tin, oil, pepper, quinine, rubber, sugar, and countless other products shipped throughout the world meant luxurious living for the Dutch overlords and poverty for the natives. In contrast to the British and French colonial policies, the Dutch boasted that they did not interfere with the native cultures but, on the contrary, encouraged them. They made no efforts to Westernize or Christianize their subjects. The canny Dutch imperialists had calculated that such new ideas might cause discontent among the natives rather than make them more pliable instruments of exploitation. As a result, the Dutch carefully refrained from disturbing the hard-working native children on the plantations with such nuisances as education. The result has been that ninety per cent of the Indonesians were illiterate in 1940, despite the wide acclaim accorded their native intelligence by anthropologists. The latter is attested to by the highly developed cultures of Java and Bali.

Java has, economically, been to The Netherlands what India has been to Britain. The average daily income of inhabitants of the colony has been two cents a day, while Dutch firms averaged $100 million in profits. The Europeans, who composed five per cent of the population, received sixty-five percent of the wealth, while the other ninety-five per cent of the population received only twelve per cent.

Despite all studied efforts to keep the native population in ignorance and despite the most strenuous efforts at police vigilance and brutality, it was impossible to convert entirely into docile slaves such a gifted people as the Javanese living on such a wealthy, densely populated island. Beginning as educational societies among Javanese intellectuals, the underground movement for national liberation began before the First World War. In 1926 the mass discontent came to a head and the nationalist movement led huge demonstrations that demanded freedom of speech and other democratic reforms and economic betterment. The Dutch put down the movement with an iron hand, executing twenty-six, imprisoning 4,500 and sending 1,360 to what has been described as “one of the world’s most terror-ridden concentration camps, Tanah Merah, in a swamp-infested jungle area of Dutch New Guinea.” (Those who survived sixteen years of confinement in Tanah Merah were liberated by the Japanese in 1942 and returned to their homes. Little wonder that the Javanese nationalists are puzzled by the charge that they are collaborationists, made by their Dutch jailers, who now fight side by side with the Japanese troops!)

The density of the population, the vast natural wealth, the advanced stage of national consciousness, the intensive economic development, the maturity of political organization had all contributed to make Java too great a pressure upon the weak economic and military hold of the Dutch imperialists. It only required the war to rupture the chain at this link.

French Rule in Indo-China

Indo-China is likewise a colony of great natural wealth. Its area, a third larger than France, raised twenty-five per cent of the world’s rice shipments. It is the leading source of coal in the Far East and produced one-third of the world output of natural rubber. Yet the great mass of its twenty-three million inhabitants live in great poverty. Plantation laborers earn from thirty to forty cents a day while tremendous profits have long been funnelled through the Bank of Indo-China into the pockets of French capitalists. Such ruthless exploitation requires an equally ruthless police rule to keep the natives bent to the yoke. The French ruling class has shown no inhibitions at being ruthless. If the Dutch have their Tanah Merah, the French have their Poulu Condore Penitentiary, which has never lacked capacity occupancy by young Annamite nationalists. In 1930, following the mutiny of Tonkinese troops, the French authorities unloosed a reign of terror in the colony that resulted in widespread executions and mass arrests that almost wiped out the organized resistance movement. But the movement again showed its head when the People’s Front government of Leon Blum was established in 1936. The Socialist Minister of Colonies (!) granted a number of democratic reforms, including the legalization of La Lutte, workers’ paper published in Saigon under the inspiration of Tha Thu Thou, Indo-Chinese Trotskyist elected to the provincial assembly by the workers. However, when the workers took advantage of the new democratic reforms to organize a series of widespread strikes for economic gains, the French colonial authorities were given the “go-ahead” signal to crack down by the People’s Front cabinet.

When, in 1939, the question of Japanese aggression against the colony became acute, the French officials seemed more alarmed at the prospect of a colonial uprising than over the danger of Japanese occupation. Their main concern was to prevent the nationalist movement from arming the natives for a defense of the colony against the Japanese invasion. The surrender of the French colonial officials to the Japanese and their craven collaboration, as part of the Vichy regime, made the underground nationalist resistance simultaneously anti-French and anti-Japanese. (A leading role in the resistance was played by Ho Chin Minh, who, under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc, functioned as a Comintern representative along with Michael Borodin during the Chinese Revolution of 1926–27 and fled to Russia after its collapse. To what extent this signifies Stalinist leadership of the movement today is difficult to judge at present.)

The surrender of Japan made the Indo-Chinese nationalist movement the only possible successor to power. It was not until September 23 that the French, supported by the British army, fleet and air force, arrived on the scene to reclaim their possessions. This French “balcony on the Pacific” had proved an exceedingly weak link under the strain of war.

Colonial Detachments of Third Camp

The Indonesian and Indo-Chinese revolts were the first struggles of the Third Camp to emerge during the war free from compromising entanglements in one or the other imperialist camp. Unlike the European resistance movements with their London or Moscow connections, these detachments proclaimed the struggle against all imperialist oppressors of their people. By the same token, all imperialists stood united against them. Despite all slanders that seek to paint the Indonesian and Indo-Chinese movements as Japanese inspired, the capitalist press could not quite explain away the fact that these movements stood alone against the united onslaught of British, Dutch, French and Japanese troops.

The united front of imperialism threatens to overwhelm the Javanese and Indo-Chinese if their struggle does not strike a response in other parts of the world. The first prerequisite of their success is that the heavy battalions of the Indian and Chinese Revolutions be brought into action to confront the united front of imperialism with the solidarity of the anti imperialist peoples. Verbal support in the form of advice and encouragement, such as offered by Nehru on behalf of the Indian Congress movement, is meaningless when India remains a base for British military operations in the Far East. But the really decisive anti imperialist battalions remain the working classes of the imperialist nations themselves. Revolutionary Marxists have long pointed out that the colonial revolutions are doomed if limited to the bourgeois nationalist struggle for independence. They will succumb to military defeat from without and political betrayal by the bourgeois nationalists from within. The struggle against the military might of the imperialists demands the closest ties between the struggle for freedom in the colonies and the struggle for socialism in the home countries. The struggle against the betrayal by bourgeois nationalists demands the extension of the colonial revolution to the internal economic sphere and the assumption of leadership in the struggle by the colonial proletarians. Only a general strike of the British working class can silence the guns of the British fleet bombarding Surabaya. Only the leadership of the Javanese people by a proletarian vanguard based upon Marxist understanding can prevent the Soekornos and Hattas from compromising and betraying the struggle. This theory of permanent revolution, so brilliantly expounded by Leon Trotsky in connection with the Chinese Revolution, remains the key to the strategic line for the oppressed peoples of the colonial world.

European Workers and Colonial Revolt

But Javanese and Indo-Chinese revolutionaries looking to Europe last month found little encouragement. Report of the revolutionary reverberations of World War II were date lined from Surabaya, Seoul, Yenan, Saigon, Haifa, Nigeria, Cairo and other places similarly located on the distant perimeter of the world as seen from the capitalist homelands. Cities which weekly gave forth new revolutionary sparks in the post-World War I months, like Moscow, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Helsinki, Warsaw, Milan and Prague, some of the oldest cities of Old Europe, remained distressingly quiet.

The shift of the location of post-war revolutionary struggles from Europe in 1919 to the colonial world in 1945 did not signify that European capitalism had grown so strong and healthful as to prove immune to proletarian revolution. On the contrary, capitalist Europe at the end of World War II was drained of its very lifeblood. From the strongest “victor” power – Great Britain – to the most devastated “defeated” power – Germany – the degrees of sickness ran the gamut from industrial dislocation and financial bankruptcy to all but total economic paralysis. But, unfortunately, the low ebb of European capitalism was matched by the low ebb of the European working class, above all, in the low Marxist content in its politics.

Two decades of unbroken defeats had ended in the catastrophic rout before the fascist tide. Two decades of political degeneration under the sway of reformism and Stalinism had so mutilated and warped working class politics that the only two perspectives that seemed realistic were either “Orientation Moscow” or “Orientation Washington.” The concept that the “liberation of the working class must be the work of the workers alone” had become an “aberration” associated only with the fugitive grouplets of the Fourth International. Five years of modern, scientific slaughter and destruction had finished the work begun by Stalino-reformist misleadership and fascist brutality. The war had not only left in its wake an enervating physical misery that consumed the energies of people in the constant search for food and warmth amid their rubble-strewn cities, but also a horrible legacy of intensified national hatreds and racial feelings. And over the entire Continent, as if to seal its tortured cries of protest under an airtight lid, stretched the million-headed armies of occupation and/or “liberation.”

Status of European Working Class

The proletariat of Central and Eastern Europe and that of Italy was dazedly trying to regain its feet and its political bearings after the long night of fascism. Decimated by war and fascism, partitioned by peace, starved and frozen by scientific, calory-counting calculation, cowed by the bayonets of four armies and deluged by competing Russian and Anglo-American propaganda, the German working class was taking its first unsteady steps toward the reconstitution of its economic organizations, and that under the direction of pro-Russian or pro-American quislings. The workers of Poland, with few illusions left about Russian “liberation” were either being “eingeschalten” in the GPU-dominated, legal workers’ movement or were being driven by the GPU-organized terror into the illegal underground organizations. The workers of Italy were, at the end of two years of dubious “liberation” and twenty years of fascist blackout, dazedly trying to comprehend the contrast between the garments of the Russian Revolution worn by the party to which they gave their main support and the practice of that party which outdid the reformists. In reformism and approximated the fascists in totalitarian intolerance. The workers of Hungary, Austria and the Balkans were experiencing, under the double impact of the decrees of the Russian army and the politics of the Stalinist-puppet parties, varying stages of the oppression suffered by the Poles and the bewilderment that perplexed the Italians. The workers of France had gone over, almost bodily, to Stalinism, entrusting their fortunes to a party that represented the Russian imperialist oppressors of half of Europe and large sections of Asia. The workers of Great Britain, with a spirit of “one more try,” gave an overwhelming vote to the party led by the labor lieutenants of British imperialism.

Interlude in Europe

Whereas the din of battle and approaching battle was echoing through the colonial world, the proletariat of Europe was living through an interlude – an interlude between imperialist war and class war necessitated by the debilitating effects of unbroken defeats, fascist atomization and the shattering effects of war. The European proletariat needed a breathing space in which to test out parties and program in the new conditions created by the war’s end and to seek out, on the basis of it, a proper orientation. That it wanted socialism was unmistakable. The votes in France and Great Britain indicated that. That it would take revolutionary measures to obtain it once it knew where its future lay and had the means with which to struggle was attested by its century-old history. If the colonial revolt is doomed by the paralysis of European labor, it also contributes to overcoming that paralysis. The attitude of the European workers’ movements toward the struggles of the colonial peoples would prove one of the decisive tests in unmasking the parties of betrayal. The best of the British Labor Party militants cannot but react with righteous indignation at the perfidy of an Attlee who states that “Peace must be in the hearts of men” upon the very day the British guns begin shelling the densely crowded blocks of Surabaya. The best of the French Communist Party militants cannot but react with a class instinct when Thorez, as spokesman of the nation’s largest party, maneuvers for posts in the de Gaulle cabinet while Indo-Chinese fighters fall before French tanks in an unequal struggle.

America as Super-Oppressor

But the American working class bears an equal, if not greater, responsibility than that of its Western European brothers for the isolation of the colonial revolutions. We live under a ruling class which shares with the Kremlin the distinction of being the super-bulwarks of world reaction. Even if the working class of Europe stood ready to struggle for power at present, it is faced by the vast military might of the United States; a might that throws its long, depressing shadow over half of the Continent, up to a point where it meets the shadow of armed Russian might. It is the United States to which the British Empire looks for succor in its enfeebled state, even if it must purchase it at terrible cost to its world position. It is with planes built in Los Angeles and with tanks built in Detroit that the Anglo-Dutch reconquer Java and the Anglo-French reconquer Indo-China. The “arsenal of democracy” emerges in its real role – the arsenal of world reaction. The illusions of peoples everywhere that America is the great liberal power will rapidly give way to the reality that reveals America as the super-exploiter that stands behind the exploiters everywhere and as the super-oppressor that stands behind the oppressors everywhere. The cynicism and mockery revealed in the American orders that their insignia be removed from equipment before being used against the colonial rebels will earn for all Americans the undying hatred and contempt of Indonesians and Indo-Chinese patriots unless the American labor movement disassociates itself from that policy by a struggle against its own imperialism. American labor cannot silently share with American capital the profits of world-exploitation without also sharing the loathing felt for it by honest men everywhere.

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Last updated on 18 November 2016