Out of Africa – F. A. Ridley
War Commentary 2:1, November 1940
Another transcript from War Commentary, and again a non-anarchist contributor. Frank Ridley, who wrote many articles for the paper, was one of several members of the anti-Stalinist anti-imperialist milieu that came together in the inter-war period and which provided War Commentary with a significant propotion of its signed contributions in the first years of the war. The following is reproduced for its historical interest, which probably resides chiefly in indicating how members of that milieu thought the Second World War, prior to Operation Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor, could be conceived of primarily as a fight between Germany and Britain for the latter’s Empire.
At the commencement of the Christian era Roman philosopher and politician Seneca declared that “Out of Africa something new can always appear”.
Modern imperialist statesmen have effectively revised this aphorism, so as to read: “Out of Africa something new can always be got”.
At least, that is the unwritten assumption on which the practice of European government in Africa appears to be invariably based.
Speaking generally, one can say that Africa, down to about 1870, remained essentially the “dark continent” par excellence. White settlements remained isolated and coastal “posts”, and though a steady stream of “black ivory” – negroes en route for the slave markets of the Old and New Worlds – poured across the Atlantic, yet the African slaves were usually caught wholesale by other Africans and were only transported by ships of European origin. Such a mode of exploitation did not require the internal penetration of Africa by Europeans and the interior of the whole vast continent remained terra incognita down to the last generation of the nineteenth century.
(N.B. – Of course, religion, morals, and unlimited humbug got mixed up with the slave trade. Queen Elizabeth had shares in a slave ship, appropriately known as the “Jesus”. John Newton, a well-known hymn writer, was a practising slave merchant. A. Dalsell in his standard “History of Dahomey” congratulated his slaving colleagues on “saving so many unhappy negroes from the blood-stained altars of human sacrifice”. Liverpool and Bristol were “made” by the slave trade; as was the family fortune of that great champion of “democracy” W. E. Gladstone, the grand old man of British Liberalism.)
The rise of Imperialism – using the term in its Leninist sense as the world politics of finance capital – about 1870, completely changed the whole manner of the European approach to Africa. Instead of slaves coming out, capital went in. Indeed, the wholesale export – slavery – became “immoral”, uneconomic, since the labour power of the “natives” was, now and henceforth, wanted on the spot to produce dividends for the vast floods of capital which thereafter poured into Africa. It is obvious that this method of exploitation would be impossible in an unorganised society, and that consequently, the actual occupation of the soil was, henceforth, necessary. Hence there promptly began that “scramble for Africa”, one of the greatest crimes in all history, which, between 1870 and 1936, divided up the whole of Africa (with the nominal exception of Liberia, actually a puppet-state ruthlessly exploited by American finance capital, as George Padmore has effectually demonstrated in a striking pamphlet).
The Ashantee and Zulu wars in the 70s may be styled the commencement of this process, which was ended by Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-36. Throughout, the vast technical inferiority of the African races precluded all hope of effective African resistance. Though such isolated victories as Zulu Tsandewhana (1879) and Ethiopian Adowa (1896) demonstrated the military possibilities of Africa when once her technical handicap was overcome.
So much for the conquest and exploitation of Africa up to date. By September 3rd 1939, the date of the second Imperialist war, the vast continent was effectively controlled by England and France, these “democratic” and “satiated” Empires owned virtually the entire continent (along with their vassals, “democratic” Belgium and “totalitarian” Portugal both equally pre-war pawns of Anglo-French Imperialism).
The only exceptions to the above were constituted by Mussolini’s newly-acquired African “Empire” – actually some desert colonies in North and East Africa, plus an imperfectly subjugated Ethiopia; all of them previously passed by by the great Imperialist powers as not worth picking up! England temporarily occupied Ethiopia in 1868! There was also an insignificant Spanish coastal fringe in N. Africa, Morocco and the Sahara seaboard.
With these not important exceptions, the whole continent was an Anglo-French reserve – Britain predominating in the East and South, France in the North and West. Germany, which had belatedly joined the “scramble” at the very end of the last century, and had occupied some not very valuable colonies, mainly in East Africa, had been thrown bag and baggage out of the continent as a result of her decisive defeat in the first Imperialist war – 1914-18, which had made the world, and Africa! – “safe for democracy”, or, at least, for the democratic Empires – if such a contradiction in terms can be allowed to pass muster.
Everything now indicates that the present Imperialist war is due to expand from the European to the genuine world scale; and that Africa, in the first instance, Egypt, the all-important key to the Suez and Indian Ocean route, is going to become a leading sphere of military operations.
The war, itself fought so largely for motives of African exploitation, is itself, if present indications can be considered as a reliable guide, destined to be fought out largely on African soil.
What is the political character of this war, both generally, and also specifically as far as Africa itself is considered? In general, it is hardly necessary to point out at this time of the day that the present world conflict has no conceivable relation to any kind of progressive ideas and this is so particularly with relation to the war aim of Anglo-French Imperialism – the latter now represented by General de Gaulle and his adherents.
In this struggle for political existence between not fascism and democracy – as in the Churchill-Labour Party-Popular Front (of yesterday) mythology – but between the “hungry” and “satiated” Empires – Germany-Italy-Japan versus Britain-America-France (pre-armistice) – such dynamic quality as there is, adheres to the former, by virtue of its historical background not, of course, that it is in itself in any way progressive, merely to revise the world map in an Imperialist sense. As for the “war aims” of the “satiated” Empires, these can be stated quite briefly: to preserve the status quo ante unaltered down to the last collar-stud and court-flunkey’s button exactly as they were on the 1st September, 1939, at dawn, when Hitler initiated the present war by crossing the frontier of Poland.
In the case of Africa, this “programme” boils itself down to this: “what we have we hold”. Nowhere, in fact, was this fundamental attitude better stated than by the Liberal leader, Lord Crewe, in an article recently published in De Gaulle’s subsidised publication “France” (a periodical run in the closest connection with British government circles). This article (written in French and therefore not for the masses who read the “Left” press on our supposed war aims) was quite explicit. The entire French colonial Empire, Africa very especially, is to be restored intact to its “legitimate owner”, Imperialist France. Considering who wrote it and where it appeared, we recommend it as an effective antidote to those benighted souls who still believe that this is a war for freedom (Cp. “France” 12 September, 1940).
In the military sense, though prophecy is outside the scope of this article, it would not be at all surprising if the coming invasion of Egypt proves to be decisive, not only with regard to Africa, but even as regards the British Empire taken as a whole. For as far back as 1798, long before the Suez Canal, Napoleon declared that, by conquering Egypt, British Power in India and the East would be most effectually destroyed. Today, of course, this is so more than ever thanks to the Suez strategic route to the East. There is, in any case, abundant evidence to demonstrate how closely Hitler, Mussolini, and the German General Staff have followed in the footsteps of the Imperial Corsican; both the greatest of modern strategists and also the most dangerous enemy the British Empire has ever had to face until now. In fact, in the course of the last generation, two eminent political writers – Paul Kohrback and Max Gruhl, have indicated Egypt and the Red Sea littoral as the probable scene of the coming death-blow to the British World Empire (Cp. Kohrback “The Baghdad Route”, and M. Gruhl, “The Citadel of Ethiopia”).
Be that as it may, it is not open to dispute, that, as far as Africa is concerned, the present phase is one of a life and death struggle between Anglo-French and German-Italian Imperialism. Or, to take only the primary combatants; between Imperialist Britain and Imperialist Germany. So far, from Paris to Dakar, it has been victory all the way for Germany and her satellites.
Who will win the war we do not know. But this, at least, can already be stated with absolute certainty: in Africa as elsewhere. Whoever wins, the masses will continue to be slaves. For light and dark continents alike; the future has only one hope; it is contained in two words: World Revolution!