From Socialist Voice, April 2011

O Irishmen, forget the past”

The actions of the United States, NATO and a few client Arab states in the military adventures over Libya have caused some to question the views of those on the left who doubt any humanitarian motives.
     To understand the nature of imperialism means we have to keep the practice of the beast always close to our minds. Even a short review since the Second World War of their role in their respective colonial spheres of interest will reveal a practice of barbarism. It is no harm to remind ourselves of this as we await a visit from the commander in chief of the armed forces of our nearest neighbour.
     If we look at the British army’s role in its colonies it becomes obvious that massacres like Derry’s Bloody Sunday were not accidental or incidental but were a continuation of the British strategy of colonialism and neo-colonialism. The accompanying photographs illustrate the ferocity of the occupation of lands extending from Europe to Africa and Asia.
     To counter the popular resistance to these occupations, the British developed a school of what became known as counter-insurgency. This was refined as time went on and as different situations and changing war technologies demanded and was applied later from Belfast to Viet Nam.
     Britain’s defence of its “strategic interests” with modern counter-insurgency began in fact before the end of the Second World War. In December 1944, while the Red Army was “tearing the guts out of the Nazi war machine” (in the words of Winston Churchill) and the Allies were closing from the west, British troops were attacking the Greek anti-fascist resistance army in Athens. The Greek popular movement, its army (ELAS) and its civic administration (EAM) had liberated most of the country. Their vision of a free society clashed with that of the Greek monarchy in exile, of the landed and the rich, which was to restore the past.
     The British establishment had long-standing ties with its dictatorial counterpart in Greece, hence the sending of its troops to restore the status quo. The Greek Communist Party was the core of the broad anti-fascist ELAS-EAM coalition, and with the advent of the Cold War these forces were defeated in a bitter civil war. The victorious White terror had the habit of displaying the heads of dead resistance fighters through Greek villages to intimidate the local people.
     Which brings us to one of the photographs and to the other side of the world.
     Malaya was a direct British colony, with the riches of its tin and rubber essential to the home economy. In 1942 Japanese imperial troops overran the colony and captured the “invincible” island fortress of Singapore. The European mine and plantation owners fled, but the Japanese occupation was fierce on the local population.
     Malaya was a racially mixed society, with indigenous Malay, Chinese and Indian immigrant workers involved in the different aspects of social and economic life. They would unite in an anti-Japanese coalition, with peasant and industrial workers as its core and the Malayan Communist Party (MPA) as its unifying element. British and resistance armies took part in a joint victory parade in Malaya and indeed in London in 1945.
     Again, as in Greece, the old order attempted to retrieve its possessions and suppress the growing trade union and peasant rights movements. Collaborators of the Japanese were restored to their civic functions, and Japanese prisoners of war were used as scabs against striking Singapore dockers. A war of repression was forced on the MPA and its allies, who had to take to the jungle and hills.
     The British never called it a war but an “emergency,” with a military laboratory in which new strategies and tactics could be tried and tested. These included the forerunners of the “strategic hamlets” of the French and then the Americans in Viet Nam. Villages were burned and the population herded into barbed-wire enclosures, cutting off support and food to the guerillas. Tensions of religion, race and class differences were promoted to disturb the ethnic mix of the population. Black propaganda and disinformation were professionalised.
     All this was written up in training manuals, to be passed on as standard practice for use in other colonies.
     Along the way came British Guyana, where the elected left-wing government of Cheddi Jagan in 1953 was overthrown, the labour movement shattered, and racial divisions between minorities mastermind from London.
     As the years went by, the manuals and practice were refined by the United States and particularly the CIA.
     Before the “winds of change” were forced on successive British government, who had to learn how to decolonise while maintaining economic power, the “natives” in Kenya became uppity. As in Malaya, the war was not a war but an “emergency”; and this time, as there were no “communist bandits” to blame, the enemy became the “Mau Mau.” These were pictured as a barbaric, dark tribe with secret macabre rites, voodoo-like, with bloodthirsty rituals. Never mind that the “Mau Mau” were actually the Land and Freedom Army (and that in 1963 Jomo Kenyatta, the jailed leader of the anti-colonial movement, would become prime minister of a free Kenya). More than a thousand people were hanged and more than 80,000 interned.
     So, the manuals were updated and experiences exchanged to take in more subversion, horror and repression in Cyprus and Aden—not forgetting the Korean adventure.
     It must be stated that there always existed in the British labour movement some who realised that their ruling class were not just their class enemy but that opposition to overseas adventures was a matter of duty. If it was only a minority trend, it still understood Marx’s dictum that “a nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free.”
     They also had to counter the supporters of imperialist thinking in the labour movement—for indeed it was a Labour government that authorised the beheading of Malayan democrats and communists. The Daily Worker, which first published the photographs from Malaya, was threatened with being banned.
     While the Trade Union Congress was sending “experts” out to Malaya, Guyana etc. to split their trade unions and create yellow unions, conversely the left in Britain was sending legal experts, such as D. N. Pritt QC, to defend Kenyatta and other democrats.
     There are those who are now arguing for revalidating the civilising role of empires. There might be some who want to use the Queen’s visit to question our negativity towards the British experience, past and present. We must remind them that what was inflicted on the Irish people was the common experience of colonial barbarism against peoples around the world.
     It was popular in Britain to gloat over “the empire on which the sun never sets,” to which the famous Chartist leader Ernest Jones added, “and the blood never dries.”
“Every class in society save royalty, and especially British royalty, has through some of its members contributed something to the elevation of the race. But neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind. But that royal family has opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted every patriot, and intrigued against every good cause. Slandering every friend of the people, it has befriended every oppressor.”—James Connolly, “Visit of King George V” (leaflet circulated by Socialist Party of Ireland), 1910.

Home page  >  Publications  >  Socialist Voice  >  April 2010  >  O Irishmen, forget the past”
Baile  >  Foilseacháin  >  Socialist Voice  >  Aibreán 2010  >  O Irishmen, forget the past”