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Notes of the Month

War and the Colonial Peoples

(April 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 67–69.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.

Nothing has so laid bare the reactionary nature of imperialism as the war in the Far East. Since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United Nations have suffered uninterrupted defeats, surrendered one possession after another to a foe striking with great speed and unrelenting in its haste to gain as much as possible in the shortest period of time, i.e., before the superior material resources of the Allies begins to make itself felt in that sector of the World War.

The Japanese forces simultaneously attacked in a multitude of directions, the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies. In each instance, it is true, they employed superior military arms, more troops, larger air forces, greater naval squadrons and auxiliary forces. Despite the assurances by Churchill that Singapore could be defended and would be held for six months at least, it fell quickest of all. Only in the Philippines, and now (for how long, no one can tell) in Burma does resistance continue, but in the latter country the struggle is doomed, if only for the reason that the native population turned on their British overlords. Examine the military campaigns on these various fronts and one fact stands out: the only place where a genuine resistance continues is in the Philippines, but that is the only country in which a native army, equal or greater in size than a foreign ally, is in the field battling an invader. The Philippines enjoyed a pseudo-independence, yet even such limited independence did not obtain on the other fronts.

A Defense Without the Natives

War strategists and the “expert” commentators in the United States have written a great deal to point out that British imperialism was less benevolent than the Dutch and for that reason were unable to bring themselves to arm the native populations of Malaya and Singapore to help them in the struggle against the Japanese. They had forecast that the situation would be entirely different in the Dutch East Indies because the Dutch were more intelligent (!) colonizers, or, stated in another way, a less rapacious exploiter. But this was not true in any way. The imperialist prerogatives were just as firmly applied by the Dutch in defense of their possessions.

Let us assume for the moment that Sumatra, the Celebes, Timor and Borneo were, from a military point of view, indefensible (this is only another way of saying that the enemy had military preponderance). But the Dutch and their Allies continually proclaimed that Java, the richest and most populated island of the Indies, was defensible and that the defenders would give an excellent account of themselves. Moreover, the military staff in Java had made public the fact that the Dutch military strength was concentrated on that island in order to insure a real defense. However, when Java fell, the reason given for this new catastrophe was the same as in all other cases: military inferiority.

Admitting for the moment that the real sources of Allied military strength were thousands of miles away from the South Pacific waters, the reasons given for this series of defeats overlooks the most important element: the indifference of the native populations in face of a new invaderl In Malaya, the native population did not give the slightest aid to some 50,000 to 75,000 Empire troops battling a superior force of Japanese. In Java, the defenders numbered from 50,000 to 100,000 troops, but never were more than 50,000 effectives in a position to join battle. Here, too, superiority in numbers gave the Japanese an easy victory.

Why did this situation obtain? Why did the native population of the Malayas remain immobilized and indifferent to the new invader? Why were there only a handful of defenders in the Dutch East Indies with a population of more than 60,000,000 people? Why was it impossible to mobilize a vast army in Java, whose population numbered about 45,000,000 people?

Why the Colonials Are Indifferent

In each instance, the British and the Dutch proceeded to map defenses of lands which did not belong to them. In each instance, the British and the Dutch worked out defenses which ignored the presence of the peoples of these lands. Think of it! Java, inhabited by 45,000,000 people, was defended by a handful of troops! Such a situation could obtain only because the Allies conduct this war in an imperialist manner. On the eve of the fall of Singapore, a thousand Chinese natives were armed with pistols and rifles! Not even such a gesture was reported from the Dutch East Indies.

Those who support the Allied powers in this war on the ground that it is a war for the freedom of all peoples, four freedoms, no less, for genuine democracy in all countries, for the right of self-determination of all subject peoples, are troubled. They are confused, not because of these defeats, but because it is clear that none of these things are applicable, in the minds of the leaders of the United Nations, to the colonial world. Imperialist ideology dominates the Allied policy.

Consider Burma for a moment. The “liberal” mind thinks in the following way: it is true that the British have been cruel exploiters of the Burmese. Japanese domination, however, would be a far worse evil. Therefore, it seems reasonable that the Burmese people should support the British in repelling the Japanese. But a considerable number of Burmese are aiding Japan to drive out the British. The liberal is heartsick and even a little bit hopeless about it all. At a distance of some 8,000 to 10,000 miles away it does not occur to the liberal intellectual that the native peoples cannot distinguish between one imperialist and another. Exploitation and foreign domination, no matter what the garb, no matter which country is the interloper, cannot make a fundamental difference to a subjugated people!

What has made the situation worse is the manner in which the British and the Dutch have conducted the war in their possessions. They have refused to arm the people! They have refused to involve them in the defense of their own countriesl They have asked them only to give support to the British and Dutch rulers! To put it in its sharpest form: The native peoples were not permitted to defend their own countries! In the minds of the colonial peoples, their lands were fought over by foreign powers. But this fighting was not in the interest of the native peoples, but of the imperialist wealth and possessions of these foreign powers! Not a single promise of freedom was given them by the British or Dutch in exchange for their aid in the fight against the Axis. Not even the promise of an alleviation of the cruel conditions of their existence after the war! Nothing, absolutely nothing! Is it any wonder, then, why the colonial peoples are indifferent to a war which involves their future?

The real impediment to an arming of the colonial peoples is the fear of Britain and the Netherlands that, with weapons, the native may strike out for their complete freedom from all foreign domination! Rather than face this prospect they have pursued a course which doomed in advance a powerful defense of those possessions won by the Japanese.

The Case of India

This brings us to India, the most important colonial country in the world, with enormous resources and an inexhaustible population. India is the basis of the British Empire; its more than 350,000,000 people are ruled by a nation of about 45,000,000! For more than 150 years the British have drained the wealth of this immense country, kept its people divided, imposed a terrifying exploitation upon them and resisted every effort of the nationals for independence. There is no need here to recount the history of this colonial adventure. The New International last month published a brilliantly written thesis of the British conquest. This issue contains additional sections on the situation there prepared by the Fourth Internationalists of that country.

The present situation is very simple. The British Empire cannot pursue the same policy in India, now threatened with a Japanese invasion, as they did in Burma and Malaya. The loss of the latter countries is as nothing compared to the loss of India. Furthermore, England knows that it cannot defend India unless the struggle is supported by the Indian people.

But she is also acutely aware that this support will not be forthcoming unless India obtains her freedom, or some rotten compromise is reached between Downing Street and the native bourgeois rulers (the Native Princes appointed in London, and the bourgeois leaders of the Nationalist movements). It is abundantly clear, however, that England rejects the very thought of Indian freedom. For many decades the British have rejected any genuine measures which might finally secure this independence. It has persecuted all independence movements, including the harmless compromisers. In each instance, force was employed to beat back the most intimate desires of the peoples of India. And yet, the imperialist contradictions are such that now, at a moment when the complete loss of India is threatened, the Empire itself has come forward with proposals which she hopes will bring the enormous potential strength of India to bear in the war against Japan.

The Nature of the British Proposals

What is it that the British propose? Namely, that India shall have a dominion status after the war in exchange for an unqualified support of the war now. Gandhi has described this proposal as a “post-dated check” which could be rejected or not. This is the proposal in general. Specifically, the British are prepared to allow an increasing development of administrative functions by Indians! We shall see exactly what this means in a moment. After the war India shall draw up a new constitution and call into existence a constitutional assembly, proportionately represented by members of the existing provincial legislatures.

The proposals contain clauses which permit the secession of various Indian states – a new type of dismemberment – and a division along religious lines. All of these proposals contain a joker. No provisions are presented allowing for a true democratically constituted assembly of the people. In contrast, however, there is an assurance that the Native Princes, appointed by the British, shall retain their power. The proposed constitutional convention will be made up of representatives from provincial legislatures for which less than five per cent of the people have voted! As a dominion, India would have the optional right of withdrawal from the British Empire.

There are several significant features in the present situation which deserve special attention. The proposals from London are proposals of despair!Churchill was driven by the state of the war to make what he regards as a world-shaking concession to the Indian people. The political situation in England coincided with the war situation to force this “concession.” Sir Stafford Cripps, riding the wave of mass dissatisfaction with the way in which the hidebound conservatives were conducting the war, employed his reputation as “a friend of India” to wrest this “concession” from a reluctant Churchill. Obviously the aristocratic and conservative British ruling class, thoroughly saturated with the imperialist tradition, feel that they have made a tremendous sacrifice in the cause of liberty: they propose to give, after the war, a measure of freedom to more than 350,000,000 people, whose land they have usurped, whose wealth they have taken, whose liberty they have stolen! So cynical and reactionary has the liberal and democratic mind become that this farce is hailed as a harbinger of a truly new world!

Thus, the New York Times informs India that this is not the time to quibble over such abstractions as freedom and independence – Japanese guns might make such discussions ludicrous. As an imperialist newspaper The Times does not advise Britain to give India freedom; it advises India not to argue with the Empire and to accept its offer in good faith even though the grounds for such good faith are non-existent.

What Britain Fears

But the British conservatives are not so simple. They know that they have made no immediate concession. They hope for the best in the future. This was evident in the whole manner in which the proposals were made to India. They were kept secret for two weeks. Why? Because an announcement of them would have met with immediate rejection even by Nehru and the other bourgeois nationalist leaders. Instead, Sir Stafford Cripps was despatched to India to deliver the proposals in person and to employ his reputation as a friend of Indian freedom to push through the acceptance of this bogus program. Thus the issue of the independence of India was reduced to the reputation of a Stafford Cripps and the respect he enjoys in some Indian circles. The British ruling class knew that they could not bring about their acceptance – they employed a person with a “left wing” reputation!

The proposals, which may have been a concession in “principle” in the collective mind of the British ruling class, do not alter the economic dominion of British capital. The economic control of British monopoly capitalism would remain unchanged after the war. Indian foreign trade and Indian defense would remain. British controlled.

But what of the present? What would be the task of the Indians? To handle the administrative task of mobilizing the native population behind the war effort! The government in London understands only too well that it has not the power to win the support of the Indian people to the war and this is the only reason why it is even willing to consider a native administration for this job. Only a native administration can garner such support and make possible the employment of vast numbers of Indians as troops and other effectives in the war. To turn the defense of India over to the Indians would create the condition for the expulsion of Great Britain and the achievement of complete independence. As a matter of fact, given a more militant and determined leadership, this could be achieved without serious resistance. It is the fear of the consequences of such a situation which deters the British from offering anything of a substantial nature which could lose everything or destroy forever the power of British capitalism to exploit and profit from control of India.

The Reaction of India

In contrast to the manner in which the British proposals were hailed by the Allies is the almost thorough rejection they have met even by those leaders in India who were believed to be the ones most amenable to their acceptance. Gandhi was the first to make known that he had little or no faith in the conditional freedom offered by Churchill. And when he counselled India to reject any proposal for the use of a scorched earth policy against the Japanese, he struck fear in the hearts of the British only because they regard that statement as indicative of a certain spirit which, if it represents the feelings of the Indian masses, would make a Japanese invasion rather easy. But Gandhi’s pacifism in relation to the question of the “scorched earth” merely approximates, from another angle, the policy pursued by the British in Malaya and Burma, where the British landowners and capitalists, dominated by the “instinct of private property,” permitted vast stores of military supplies, plantations and some factories to fall intact to the Japanese. This counsel by Gandhi, moreover, could mean that the Japs would not face a fierce resistance by the native population.

The Indian leaders, even those who would prefer to accept the British proposals, do not have much faith or trust in Great Britain. They have learned through bitter experience that the British never meant to give India the slightest freedom. They remember, too, that during the last war, similar promises were made and never kept. They recall how every practical measure employed by the Indians in the post-World War period to wring concessions from London was met by the armed resistance of their overlords. But, above all, they know that the masses in India are not ready to accept much longer crumbs tossed them by the British. And their present rejection of the British “concessions” is based primarily on their knowledge of the temper of the masses who, by their knowledge of the objective situation, realize that now is the time to obtain freedom and independence – now, when Britain is weak, when it cannot successfully cope with their mass strength. They know too, that after the war, in the event of an Allied victory, it will be more difficult to win democratic rights from a victorious Empire.

It is difficult to forecast exactly what will happen in the next period. At the time of this writing the Japanese have landed forces only loo miles from India’s borders. The military situation, the influence of Cripps, the pressure exerted from the outside by the United States, the liberal world, the absence of a mass militant party of Indian independence, the absence of a mass revolutionary party of socialism – all these are factors militating against a complete rejection of an understanding with Britain, or, put in another way, create the conditions for compromise.

An Imperialist Impasse

The situation in India is the living proof of the decay of the social order of capitalism. All that is rotten in this system of war and fascism is expressed there. More than 350,000,000 people are held the subjects of a power which proclaims its struggle for freedom and democracy. Yet this power cannot grant a single genuine democratic demand to this country even while it faces a military defeat of colossal magnitude. For a military defeat of Great Britain in the struggle over India would lay the grounds for a German-Japanese junction in Asia and at worst spell the doom of the United Nations, at best prolong the war for many, many years.

This prospect, dark as it is, does not appear strong enough to bend the imperialist will of the Empire. It is not a question of ill-will or of desire, even though these may be factors in the situation. It is the fundamental inability of imperialism to act as a progressive forcel Imperialism cannot grant freedom to colonial possessions without destroying its own base. That is why the Empire, faced with a total defeat in Asia, cajoles, debates, resists and then retreats, hoping for the best of various bargains. In the end the inevitable and irresistible surge of the colonial peoples will triumph and true freedom and independence will be theirs. The present state of affairs is temporary. As the United Nations suffer uninterrupted defeats in Asia, the sense of power and dignity will grow upon the oppressed peoples. They will realize that freedom is immediately possible if only they will take it. And it is this same condition that will make it impossible for Japanese imperialism to gain what it hopes – a new and grand Asiatic empire which it can exploit without end and without mercy.

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