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Tribune & Anti-Colonial Africa

In the years after the Second World War, African independence fighters seized world attention, forcing democrats in Europe to reckon with problems of colonialism and freedom on the continent. Tribune’s historical journey towards emphatic support for African decolonisation leaves a record of enormous relevance for the anti-colonial left today.

Tribune, July 12, 1963

Julius Nyerere, socialist leader of the Tanganyikan African National Union, and future first president of independent Tanzania, wrote for Tribune shortly before his 1960 election as chief minister of a British colony on the cusp of self-government. In the article ‘The Future of African Nationalism’, Nyerere identified the ‘struggle against colonial domination’ as an ‘essential’ precondition for human flourishing across Africa. With this continental avalanche fast approaching critical mass, he envisioned that ‘the new nationalist governments’ would be ‘essentially Socialist in outlook and actions.’

As independence movements proliferated throughout (and beyond) Britain’s African empire across the previous decade, Tribune had grown increasingly prominent as a metropolitan vehicle in support of African freedom, exposing and encouraging mobilisation against colonial repression. Opposing the apartheid regime in Britain’s southernmost African colony — in 1959 becoming the first UK publication to back the ANC’s boycott of South African goods — Tribune also developed an anti-imperialist position towards Britain’s West, Central, and East African ‘Crown colonies’, administered directly by Whitehall’s Colonial Office.

In 1954, the magazine celebrated the formation of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, headed by numerous Tribune figures including veteran anti-imperialist campaigner Fenner Brockway. It was through Brockway’s long friendships with young African independence leaders that Tribune cultivated its contacts with several future postcolonial statesmen: Kenya’s Tom Mboya, Malawi’s Hastings Banda, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Zimbabwe’s Joshua Nkomo, Botswana’s Seretse Khama, and others appeared alongside Nyerere within its pages.

Throughout the twenty years following the Second World War, African affairs gravitated to the centre of Tribune’s international coverage, as mass expressions of national identification and resistance, growing in confidence, forcibly seized world attention. In 1960, ‘the Year of Africa’, its editorial ‘THE CRY IS FREEDOM’ declared that ‘the major historic process that has already begun to unfurl in front of our eyes is the entry on to the world stage, in dignity and freedom, of a continent of 250 million people.’

Fabian Empire

The magazine’s commitment to African decolonisation was not always so strong, however. On the 20 August 1948, Tribune published probably the most shameful editorial in its long, mostly proud history — entitled, ‘Let’s Stay in Africa’.

‘Do we want to stay in Africa? That is the first question to settle. And to that question we reply with an unhesitating “Yes.” We want to stay in Africa both for our own purposes and in the interests of the African peoples. […] Africa offers huge material resources which can be exploited for the benefit of Britain and the world. Equally and not one whit less, if Africa is not exploited with the aid of capital goods and technical assistance which can only come from the West, whole stretches of that continent will be submerged by disease, poverty and appalling disaster. Africa can only be saved by a huge joint exertion between the native and the invader.’

The colonialist politics of this article speak for themselves. The piece was not uncritical of British imperial practice in Africa, describing as ‘evil and impracticable’ the doctrine — prevalent ‘among the white populations’ in many colonies — that ‘the only course must be to keep the black man in his place, to trample on his rights, and generally to assume that he shall never possess any political status on his own land.’ (This was indeed the same year that Tribune denounced the Nationalist Party’s election in South Africa on the platform of apartheid.) Evincing a staggering naïveté, however, it claimed: ‘Certainly no Labour Government in Britain could or should hope to stay in Africa on such terms. In any case, we have long since departed from such doctrine in the places where the Colonial Office rules, and there can be no turning back.’

Moreover, while criticising instances of legal repression and corporate exploitation on the ground in different colonies, Tribune’s editorial characterised these as remediable problems denoting a progressive Labour-headed administrative mission only part-way completed, rather than as features integral to British colonialism in Africa as such. Framing postwar Britain’s rulership in Africa as a challenging but welcome philanthropic burden with which it had been bequeathed, it concluded: 

‘We do not need to apologise for our mission in Africa. Whatever the reasons which took our forebears there, we must stay. But we must be ruthless and imaginative in getting the best men for the job. […] We must be ready for bold new measures and adventurous economic plans. We must persuade the African. It is a much tougher job than when Cecil Rhodes did it with a rifle and a whisky bottle.’

This article makes for surprising — and discomfiting — reading for socialist followers in the Tribune tradition today. It also stands discrepant from the general trend of Tribune history, including prior to 1948. Tribune had been a stalwart supporter of the Indian National Congress, carrying pieces by Jawaharlal Nehru, including one stating: ‘Labour, which is anti-Fascist, must also equally be anti-Imperialist. It must stand for the ending of empire.’ The magazine had also published revolutionary Pan-Africanist George Padmore, including his 1937 report on Gold Coast labour unrest, ‘Three Million Strikers Against British Rule’.

Under the postwar Labour government, however, Tribune’s stance towards colonial questions (with the exception of Indian independence) acquired a changed orientation. Multiple factors fed into this, beyond a simple curtailment of criticism of a ‘socialist’ government which the magazine supported. These included an increased valorisation of the Commonwealth as a politico-economic world bloc counterposed to the USSR and USA, exasperated search for international wellsprings to help resuscitate Britain’s devastated postwar finances, and intensifying Cold War hostility to Communist politics — and hence to revolutionary anti-colonialism: ‘It is not possible to wave a magic wand which will immediately endear the Africans to their ruler. Nor is it possible to pack up and get out. The British Communists or Russian Communists might favour that course for their own purposes, but it would be fatal for Africa and the Africans.’

Africa, in this alluring reading, needed Britain. Indeed, many among the contemporary circles around Tribune evidenced a genuine belief that a Labour Britain could oversee a universally beneficial, developmentalist, even social-democratic colonialism in Africa — conducted through economic planning and mutual consent rather than exploitation and oppression. This was a delusion, and a disastrous one.

The 1948 editorial did not repudiate the paper’s prior anti-imperialism, but posited that times had changed. ‘It was once the main function of Socialists, in facing the problems of empire, to protest against these crimes of imperialism. […] But protest by itself is not enough now. Somehow we must convince the African of our good resolves in a common struggle to save Africa from catastrophe.’ The steps undertaken in colonial policy since 1945 were, Rita Hinden of the Fabian Colonial Bureau (FCB) and regular Tribune contributor contended in 1950, ‘Labour’s Greatest Achievement’: ‘The necessary, but barren, anti-imperialism of the past has now been merged into a great constructive vision’.

The FCB, founded by the white South African Hinden (later associated with the Gaitskellite Labour right) and Arthur Creech Jones, was greatly influential upon postwar Labour imperial thinking, and upon Tribune’s conception of African affairs. One spokesperson for the Bureau described as ‘unrealistic’ demands on Labour’s farthest left for ‘independence for all territories under colonial rule now.’

‘We agree with the policy of the Government which seeks to lead the Colonies towards self-government, and appreciate that whereas some Colonies […] are almost ready for self-Government other Colonies, such as the East and Central African territories, are not.’

Pending the future cultivation of a cadre of ‘responsible African leaders’ in each colony as a precondition for self-rule, Tribune supported the Labour government’s emphasis upon ‘progressive and vigorous’ economic programmes in Africa. Technocratic development schemes, organised within ‘ten-year plans’, sought to enhance economic productivity, with a Colonial Development Corporation established to direct capital investment for export-oriented agricultural ventures — such as the disastrous Tanganyika ‘Groundnuts Scheme’, for which Creech Jones, shortly beforehand Labour’s Colonial Secretary, penned a retrospective defence in Tribune in 1950.

Constitutive for Tribune’s commentary on these developments was an optimism that ‘the old imperialism was dead and that the arrival of the Labour government in power [meant] that partnership between black and white [in Africa could] be genuine and of infinite benefit to both races.’ Hinden denied that British rule in Africa had ever involved ‘wilful oppression, a deliberate negation of civil liberties or a crudely malicious exploitation of the defenceless’ — there had ‘just [been] neglect’, which Labour was remedying. Editor Michael Foot displayed a less rosy vision of colonialism’s past, though he still espoused the necessity of active British planning of African economies, pondering how to ensure that ‘the exploited of a few years ago are to feel themselves partners now’. 

But the people of Africa under Labour-administered colonialism were not ‘the exploited of a few years ago’. Rather, as historian Stephen Howe concluded, the Attlee government’s enhanced, capital-intensive battening upon African plantation colonies ‘to subsidise British reconstruction […] amounted to what may well have been the most oppressive form of economic imperialism yet seen in British tropical colonies, carried out with a combination of self-interest, myopia, and liberal good intentions.’ 

Tribune’s self-deluded failure to mount a challenge to this Fabian colonial vision for Africa throughout the 1945-51 Labour government is a blemish on the magazine’s record, marking a retreat from its earlier principled anti-imperialism. Fortunately for Tribune’s subsequent history as a left internationalist publication, political changes for the magazine and in the colonies would soon shake the Tribunite left into action, as the left-Fabian progressive-colonial naïveté of the postwar period foundered on the rock of the violent African 1950s.

Anti-Colonialism Ineluctable

Given the magazine’s faith in a conception of charitable, consensual colonial trusteeship, Tribune’s postwar attitude to African nationalism was initially rather muted. For some columnists, African hostility to British rule was essentially irrational. Brooking no theory of colonial underdevelopment or ‘super-exploitation’, Hinden saw Britain’s interventionist predomination over African economies as an unalloyed net good, conducted with ‘excellent intentions’; accusations of ‘bad faith’ or exploitative intent from ‘the African’ evidenced an ‘irritating refusal even to notice — let alone acknowledge — all the good deeds we are doing on his behalf.’ 

Despite this inescapably racist condescension, however, the Fabian colonial commentator understood African hostility to British rule to be inevitable:

‘Even if […] Africa were converted into a socialist paradise, the Africans’ attitude would continue to be hostile. All for one simple reason. He can no longer tolerate our imperialist attitude, even though it is no longer the imperialism of exploitation but the imperialism of a benevolent, paternal trustee. […] While we bring him beer and skittles, and prove by statistics that our generosity is unprecedented, he is thinking only of his independence.’

By the early 1950s Tribune accepted that, probably sooner rather than later, the colonial project in Africa onto which several of its writers had projected a potentially benevolent character would come to an end. Independence agitation was a hard fact, which would continue to grow and should not be met with bayonets. The magazine’s commentators recommended the mustering of consultative assemblies and preparations for national legislative elections based upon non-racial franchises. In so doing, it hoped to salvage the harmonious, participatory Anglo-African relations it had always envisaged, even if only on the road to independence.

With the Labour government on its last legs, however, Tribune looked warily to the prospect of a Churchill government that ‘may try to turn in the tracks’ and impede continued progression to self-government:

‘There would then follow a period of mutiny and repression which could only end in breaking the links cementing the Commonwealth into a magnificent and unique association. In the end history will not be denied, but if there should be any attempt to set back the clock, Britain, as a great moral force in the world, may herself be defeated and reduced to isolated impotence.’

Ghana Calls

Precipitant for the 1948 editorial, and for much of Tribune’s commentary on African dissent, were the consequential Accra Riots of that February. Sparked following the police shooting of Gold Coast Regiment veterans leading a peaceful demonstration, the urban rebellion supercharged the colony’s independence movement. The arbitrary detention of the nationalist leadership caught the attention of Tribune, which condemned the repressive response and outlined legitimate popular grievances in the colony. It dismissed as fantastical official claims of an underlying ‘Communist conspiracy’, despite conceding that the United Gold Coast Convention’s detained ‘secretary […] did have Communist affiliations when he lived in London.’ That secretary’s name? ‘Mr Kwame Nkrumah’.

Nkrumah soon became the Gold Coast’s independence leader, splitting with the middle-class UGCC following his imprisonment to found the socialist and emphatically anti-colonial Convention People’s Party (CPP) in 1949. Less than ten years after first mentioning his name as a minor Communist-affiliated rabble-rouser in a far-flung capital, Tribune would be looking to him for ‘inspiration’ as ‘THE MAN WHO MADE A REVOLUTION’: the first Prime Minister of an independent Ghana, and the leader for Africa on the world stage.

Indeed, by 1953, when Nkrumah’s advance next featured within Tribune’s coverage, the magazine’s stance towards colonialism had already begun a discernible leftward shift. The death of Josef Stalin and the horrors of the Korean War had jointly lessened the appeal of Cold War ‘left’ anti-communism, with the latter dramatically reigniting concerns over Western imperialism. With the Bevanite opposition inside Labour finding a platform in Tribune, the paper again became a radical dissenting publication —  including on imperial affairs. With illusions of a path to a democratic-socialist Commonwealth through Labour-administered British imperium since gone up in smoke, and the world order visibly teetering as Africa began to shake its chains, Tribune found its way back to anti-colonialism. 

The most important vector for the renaissance of anti-colonial perspectives on Africa within Tribune’s coverage was Fenner Brockway, who, returning to Parliament in 1950, spearheaded the movement for African independence among Bevanite MPs — many of whom would comprise the founding nucleus of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF). An old ally of Nkrumah’s, Brockway welcomed the CPP’s conquest of legislative authority in the Gold Coast (following reluctant British concessions in the face of the CPP’s Positive Action campaign, after initial repression) in the article ‘Nkrumah Shows The Way: How the Gold Coast Keeps Left’.

‘We should be proud that the first British colony with virtual self-government in Africa has a Socialist majority in its Parliament and Cabinet. […] “[S]elf-government now” remains the aim of the CPP and its Ministers. […] British Socialists must back wholeheartedly Africa’s Socialist leader and his party.’

Tribune’s loudening enthusiasm for Nkrumah’s ‘great progress’ testified to its broader migration towards the growing chorus of African demands for self-determination: ‘Every advance on the Gold Coast is a nail in the coffin of white imperialism, wherever it exists.’ In 1955, Brockway reported on his reunion in Accra with the now-prime minister of the colony: ‘Nkrumah and his party and Government are Socialist. For two hours one Sunday morning he told me of his hopes to plan and practise a “Socialism for Africa” which will be an example to the whole continent. He has great difficulties to face. It is our duty and privilege to support him.’

The magazine, including its reporter in the Gold Coast, MCF secretary Douglas Rogers, followed the CPP’s forward march throughout the ensuing period, declaring: ‘IT MUST BE INDEPENDENCE NOW!’ When the day finally came in March 1957, wrenched from the Colonial Office after a decade of mass democratic mobilisation, Tribune observed the world-historic significance of this revelation in African decolonisation. ‘The slice of colonial Africa known as the Gold Coast has ceased to exist. Out of its ashes this week has risen a phoenix called Ghana.’

Celebrating its transformative domestic ambition and early social gains, Tribune also looked with excitement upon the Nkrumah government’s sponsorship of anti-colonial efforts elsewhere, praising its 1958 formation of a regional union with independent Guinea (and from 1961, Mali) as ‘a step in the right direction — a step towards African unity.’ That same winter, the paper welcomed the first All-African People’s Conference, convened in Accra, in the editorial ‘AFRICA DECLARES ITS INDEPENDENCE’.

‘One hundred and fifty million people have turned their backs on a history of oppression and set their faces towards the future. […] A new continent takes its rightful place on the political map of the world.’ 

Concerning Violence

Ghana’s independence process reflected the ideal model of decolonisation for progressive sympathisers in Britain: the constitutional, democratic achievement of national sovereignty by a principally non-violent non-cooperation movement of socialist character. Here, nationalist forces had been able to build irresistible electoral hegemony within conditions — after 1951 — of relative internal political freedom, levering the British to the table without resort to arms. Elsewhere, however, stirrings of African independence efforts had been met with massive, bloody repression, transforming the situation to which metropolitan anti-colonialists had to respond.

The question of anti-colonial violence, a difficult one for a magazine spearheading the peace movement in Britain (and powerfully inflected with Christian Socialist pacifism), was nevertheless one with which Tribune was repeatedly confronted throughout the Pan-African revolution to which it was sympathetic. In 1958, Aneurin Bevan evaluated the challenges thrown up by both non-violence and violence in colonial situations:

‘No colonial power has ever found itself able to accord independence to a colonial possession of its own volition before encountering violence from the colonial people. When rebellion first occurs, it always seems to come as a surprise to the Government of the colonial power. The invariable reaction is to suppress the rebellion by armed force in the name of the restoration of law and order. […] Thus, if there is no violence, there is no progress towards independence. If there is violence, so it is argued, progress cannot be made, or it would be a concession to lawlessness.’

Tribune’s reckoning with this controversial theme featured prominently within its coverage of African decolonisation. Commenting on the 1955 Labour Conference, Rogers condemned the Party’s recent ‘delirious […] self-congratulation’ for finally beginning to address African independence (‘It should have felt shame at the years of silence’), and denounced the lack of ‘any sense of urgency’ within its proposals: ‘Labour must act quickly and resolutely or its tidy plans of constitutional advance will be swept away in a whirlpool of violence.’

Spectacular violence — that of the colonised and that of the imperial state — had already begun to erupt, especially within Africa’s settler colonies. Dominated by fiercely racist strata of privileged, propertied white expatriates, these were the most oppressive societies for black subjects, with apartheid South Africa their self-governing godhead. It was in Kenya, however, that bloodletting to bring down and to maintain settler rule in Africa first burst onto 1950s headlines, with the famed Mau Mau Rebellion.

Following decades of land theft, effective enserfment, super-exploitation, humiliating racial subjugation, and political repression (all intensified postwar), the Mau Mau movement developed among the country’s immiserated Kikuyu population. Headed by young radicals split from the moderate Kenya African Union (KAU) under Jomo Kenyatta, it vowed to throw off the British yoke, and regain land and freedom for Kenya. Striking out against Kikuyu collaborators and white settler homesteads, the Mau Mau uprising from October 1952 cast the colonial society into frenzy, with a State of Emergency declared that month.

Today, the Kenyan anti-colonial insurrection is widely recognised as a legitimate struggle for national liberation. At the time, however, sober metropolitan discussion over Kenya’s future was drowned within a salacious public discourse around Mau Mau violence, with photographs of hacked European bodies circulated throughout international media. Of a piece with the rest of Britain’s press, Tribune initially received the ‘horrible crimes of the Mau Mau terrorists’ as essentially atavistic rather than political, to be abhorred — and for its most hostile early commentators, militarily routed. As late as 1960, a columnist recalled that: ‘Tribune has always condemned, without qualification, the inhumanity of the Mau Mau movement.’ 

There were exceptions: Richard Pankurst (son of Sylvia) wrote in rationalising the logic behind Mau Mau’s actions — exhorting the arrest of the ‘Colonial secretaries and the governors who have been responsible for the present disturbances’, while Rogers congratulated Tribune for its ‘realistic attitude to the “Mau Mau” hysteria’ compared with other papers. But the magazine never positively backed the Mau Mau struggle like the more radically anti-colonial, Communist-predominated Kenya Committee.

However, though it still substantially cleaved to the prevailing metropolitan view of Mau Mau violence as pathological, Tribune stood out within Britain’s baying press for its insistence on the indelible rootedness of the Kenyan bloodshed within the crushingly oppressive conditions inside the colony. In ‘Kenya: The Shocking Story’, George Wigg MP wrote:

‘The outbreak of crime was deplorable and every civilised man or woman must sympathise with the victims. But sympathy is not enough. We must seek to understand the events and to examine the handling of the situation. We are bound to do this if we hope to avoid similar crises elsewhere.’

Following Wigg’s emphasis on the devastated social circumstances of the Kikuyu, Brockway’s close co-conspirator Leslie Hale MP recounted the ‘intolerable’ conditions the two had witnessed on a recent tour of Kenya. Reporting on Hale’s testimony to MPs, Tribune’s Parliamentary correspondent detailed how listeners had ‘beg[un] to see the Africans in Kenya not merely as terrorists which must be put down […] but as men like our fathers’ in the early-century British labour movement, moved to resist their exploitation. Later that decade, Tribune ‘thoroughly condemned’ the hanging of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. The magazine’s consistent position, ‘argued ad nauseam’, was to demand ‘drastic action […] to alleviate the conditions in which Mau Mau breeds […] rather than the traditional and totally inefficient method of stamping it out by brute force.’

Tribune acquired a prominent profile within the growing metropolitan debate over Kenya for its relentless campaign against the systematic abuses of the imperial administration during the Emergency. Impugning the sham conviction of KAU leaders — including Kenyatta, another contemporary of Brockway’s — the paper also condemned the colonial administration’s arrest, deportation, and ‘screening’ of tens of thousands of Kikuyu civilians, ‘against whom they had no evidence whatsoever’, as ‘collective punishment.’ 

Brockway charged that the ‘war against Mau Mau’ was ‘becoming a war against the whole African population of Kenya.’ Reporting on the mounting atrocities, including widespread massacres and the habitual shooting in the back of ‘Africans rooted out of their huts’, while reproducing letters received from Kikuyu torture survivors, he successfully channelled the rising horror at the Kenyan situation into the 1954 formation of the MCF.

The sensational allegations of Eileen Fletcher, ‘rehabilitation officer’-turned-whistleblower, on Kenya’s burgeoning archipelago of Kikuyu detention camps, published in Tribune in 1956, ‘caused an uproar in Parliament’. Disclosing the justice dispensed to African detainees during the Emergency, including chain-gang labour on public works and ‘LIFE SENTENCES FOR 11-YEAR-OLD GIRLS’, Fletcher then began a speaking tour on Kenya (addressing forty-one meetings ‘in eight weeks’): inducing ‘shock and anger’ in audiences hearing first-hand of the treatment of these men, women, and children behind the wire.

Tribune’s rhetoric ramped up as accounts of these crimes accumulated. In a famous front-page intervention, Barbara Castle MP (whose vital campaigning over Kenya Andrew Kersley has detailed in this magazine) opened:

‘In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation. And at last the Labour Party has declared war on this state of affairs.’

For Castle, a ‘Nazi attitude to the African […] impregnat[ed] the whole system of justice in Kenya’. Tribune’s incandescent coverage persistently deployed allusions to Hitler’s dictatorship; after the exposure of the infamous Hola massacre — witnessing eleven prisoners ‘beaten to death’ by guards — a 1959 editorial extensively justified its denunciation of Kenya’s colonial prison camps as ‘Britain’s Buchenwalds’.

With Kenyatta imprisoned, Tribune looked for its palatable protagonist of Kenyan nationalism to Tom Mboya, the labour leader who had ‘maintained an African trade union movement in a colonial police state where practically every other leader of note ha[d] been arrested.’ Having written for the magazine in 1957 on the situation in his country whilst in Oxford, Mboya returned to Tribune’s pages in a 1958 interview: 

‘We’ve done our best to press our demands by peaceful means,’ said Mr Mboya. ‘Debates, proposals to the Governor – those have been our methods. The results are nil to date. […] We shall have to tell our people that we have failed to secure appeals by appeals to the British Government. Then we must consider whether or not to use the same tactics in future.’

When the Emergency finally ended in 1960, the Mau Mau had been broadly defeated militarily, but Britain’s ethnocidal counterinsurgency had irrevocably compromised any of its legitimacy in Kenya. With political bans lifted, the Kenya African National Union under Mboya rapidly rose to legislative power. His post-release exile now lifted, Tribune celebrated in 1961 that ‘[n]ot only Kenyatta, but Kenya itself, is rapidly hobbling along the road to freedom while a reluctant British Government cuts the links of the shackles, one at a time!’ In December 1963, Brockway reported from Nairobi’s independence ceremony, which heralded ‘the most hopeful thing that has happened in the world since Indian independence melted antagonism into goodwill.’

Tribune pondered the contribution of ‘the shock of Mau Mau violence’ to the previously unthinkable concession of political rights for Kenya’s Africans, attributing the armed campaign some role in ‘[t]he dramatic change in their fortunes’ — though held ‘the skilful diplomacy’ of politicians like Mboya most responsible. One columnist looked back upon the Rebellion, noting that the British denial of ‘reasonable demands’ for ‘land reform, the opening up of the White Highlands, and African representation’ had ‘triggered off the violence of the Mau Mau, which would never have become a mass movement unless Africans felt that constitutional means of expression were being denied to them.’

The Battle of Algiers

The dialectic between colonial repression and anti-colonial violence appeared elsewhere within Tribune’s coverage of insurgent Africa, including the magazine’s rallying against settler tyranny in Nyasaland (later Malawi). Here, a 1959 state of emergency following baseless claims of a ‘so-called massacre plot’ saw thousands of independence activists detained without trial, and several killed. In ‘THE CASE FOR VIOLENCE’, Michael Foot (now won for emphatic anti-colonialism) upheld the time-honoured legitimacy of physical-force freedom struggles, and that persecution, murder, and ‘the decision of the Tory House of Commons that the road of freedom is more firmly blocked than ever’ would bear ‘[b]itterness and anger and the spirit of revenge’ as their ‘only conceivable fruits’:

‘Next time or the time after or the time after that there will truly be a massacre plot after all. Full-scale bloodsoaked revolution will become the only remedy in Central Africa as it has become so nearly the only remedy [in South Africa].’

Nyasaland never ultimately came to open war, though its sister state within the white-dominated Central African Federation, Southern Rhodesia, eventually did — with Tribune cheering the Zimbabwean liberation forces. 

Tribune’s most open engagement with debates over armed anti-colonial struggle, however, came — alongside its backing of the ANC’s long international war against apartheid after 1960 — in its coverage of the revolution against French imperialism in Algeria. ‘Democratic and socialist opinion in Britain’, a 1957 editorial began, ‘can no longer watch in silence the horror that is Algeria.’ The Battle of Algiers had captured world attention for the guerilla struggle of Algeria’s Front de libération nationale (FLN); Tribune always supported Algerian freedom, maintaining that there could be ‘no solution that does not mean independence for Algeria.’

The Algerian liberation war was brutal. Twelve months into the urban battle, Tribune’s French correspondent Lucien Weitz evaluated the casualties:

‘Nearly twenty thousand French soldiers have been put out of action (killed or badly wounded) in Algeria. The figure for the rebels is the same. Terrorism has claimed over a thousand French civilian victims. At least a hundred thousand Algerians have been wiped out by measures of repression.’

Indeed, the magazine did initially classify the FLN — whose asymmetric warfare included bombings of settler cafés — like Kenya’s Mau Mau, as ‘terrorists’. Such acts, however, a 1956 piece had posited, were ‘only the ruthless answer to the destruction of villages, the flogging, the summary executions […]. [S]avagery gives birth to savagery.’ As the war progressed, a more positive characterisation of the Algerian revolutionaries developed in Tribune’s pages; Tony Benn, a founding stalwart of the MCF, reminded readers that ‘the freedom fighters (FLN)’ were ‘regarded as heroes in the Arab World.’

Abhorrence at French atrocities, ‘outrages thrown up like stinking pustules by imperialism in its death throes’, contributed to this shift in perception. These crimes were made all the worse for Tribune by the political self-identification of the administration commissioning them; prior to the crisis of the Fourth Republic and rise of De Gaulle’s neo-Bonapartist presidency, France’s colonial war in Algeria was directed by Guy Mollet’s Socialist government. Weitz bemoaned: 

‘How have our Socialist Ministers allowed themselves to wallow in war hysteria? Why have they so readily replaced the language of socialism by that of imperialism and adopted the flag-wagging tone of small-town jingoes made apoplectic by the knowledge of their failing power?’ 

Tribune’s unremitting hostility to the unrelinquishing colonialism of Mollet, ‘A Disgrace to France and to Socialism’, suggested the distance the paper had travelled from its own regrettable entertainment of the fantasy of ‘socialist’ colonial trusteeship in the late 1940s.

As in the Kenyan Emergency, Tribune identified in the ‘concentration camps’, systematised torture, and racist massacres of Algeria the restless ghost of the Third Reich. A 1957 editorial on French troops’ conduct opened: ‘Into Tribune’s office has come the most horrifying document to appear since the world learned the full truth about the crimes of Nazism.’ This perception was confirmed by persecuted French Resistance veteran Claude Bourdet, who wrote for Tribune on France’s ‘mass slaughter and Gestapo methods’ in Algeria. The comparison’s obverse was clear: Algeria’s ‘rebels’ were ‘fighting for’ what the maquisards had ‘fought for against the Nazis — national freedom.’

In 1961, Tribune signalled its open support for an FLN military and political victory, opening its pages to Mohamed Kellou, ‘the FLN’s representative in London’:

‘In spite of the heavy price paid to liberate a nation the Algerian revolution continues its march to victory under the leadership of the Algerian Front of National Liberation, the FLN. […] In order to be able to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Algerian people, we must first rid our country of colonialism. […] We are not waging war for war’s sake; it has been forced upon us. The fact that we are resolved to fight to attain our objectives does not mean that we are unwilling to resume negotiations […].’

The magazine welcomed Algeria’s hard-fought-for independence when it finally came under the FLN government of Ahmed Ben Bella, ‘A Man Dedicated to Socialism’. Reflecting back upon Algeria’s worldshaking revolution in 1965, Tribune devoted its first article to its great philosopher, Frantz Fanon — ‘the most coherent and the most fundamental […] critic of the theory and practice of imperialism’ — after the posthumous English publication of his renowned work, The Wretched of the Earth. 

By this mid-sixties era of Che Guevara, the Viet Cong, and Third Worldism, Tribune’s internationalist outlook had come to incorporate the very revolutionary anti-colonialism it had once dismissed as outmoded. Discussing the massive struggles unfurling against imperialism worldwide, the magazine took its cue from Fanon, who envisaged any emancipated postcolonial future as ‘coming through violent revolution’: 

‘If we mutter our dissent because of our sensitive liberal consciences, we may look up to find that Algeria was but a prelude to the greater violence of Rhodesia.’

(Anti-)Colonialism, Redux

‘The question is no longer whether the colonial powers can or will succeed in damming up the giant tides of African nationalism. The days of colonialism and white-settler rule are at an end, because the conscience of humanity will no longer tolerate them.’ 

Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek spoke for Africa in his 1959 contribution in Tribune, on the eve of Harold Macmillan’s emblematic ‘Winds of Change’ speech. Africa’s freedom still had many obstacles to face: it would take another fifteen years for Lusophone Africa to achieve its liberation; another thirty for South Africa. The CIA-backed 1961 murder of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, ‘a major international outrage’, prefigured a reactionary continental backwash that would go on to depose Nkrumah and Ben Bella, and consolidate conservative regimes under Kenyatta and Banda. Tribune’s editor Richard Clements divined ‘Problems of Neo-Colonialism’ facing Ghana as early as 1961; twenty years later, the global neoliberal counterrevolution and defeat of Nyerere’s New International Economic Order would ultimately inaugurate a new era of commercial exploitation for Africa. Even with all these reversals to come, however, Africa’s conquest of what Walter Rodney called ‘flag independence’ was an earth-shattering victory for human emancipation from racist bondage, in whose arrival the Tribune of the 1960s was delighted to celebrate.

Tribune’s historical engagement with the politics of African anti-colonialism during the postwar phase of formal decolonisation was eclectic, to put it mildly. Inebriate in the rosy afterglow of the Spirit of ‘45, the magazine’s Africa-watchers were for a time enamoured by the progressive potentiality of British colonial dominion — so long as decent Labour hands manned the controls. Across subsequent years, Tribune’s position evolved quite considerably, quietly moving on from the left-Fabian ones espoused in ‘Let’s Stay in Africa’. It may be gestural, but as the magazine directly and in great part proudly descended from the Tribune of decades past, this seems a good opportunity for the Tribune of today to offer its total repudiation of that article, and the whole politics of social-democratic colonialism which once fleetingly occupied the magazine’s pages.

The best way to substantiate this repudiation is to pursue a vigorous anti-imperialist politics today, and set ourselves against the vestiges of Labour colonialism presently triumphant within the old party’s Starmerite carcass. The British and French empires are, in the form in which the Tribune of the 1950s would have recognised them, dead; imperialism and colonialism are not.

As the ubiquitous, Manichean violence of settler colonialism again rears its head in Palestine, and the ethnonationalist fascists in Tel Aviv attempt to prosecute a genocide in Gaza (with the stuttered blessing of prime-minister-presumptive Starmer and his philistine frontbench), Tribune is proud to uphold the revolutionary best of our magazine’s long tradition in ranging ourselves against this nightmare, and for a free and democratic Palestine.