New Perspectives on Anti-colonialism in the Metropolis

New Perspectives on Anti-colonialism in the Metropolis

Simeon Marty, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
digital (Berlin)
Vom - Bis
17.06.2021 - 18.06.2021
Sander van der Horst, ResMa Colonial and Global History, Leiden

For radical intellectuals and independence activists in exile, European cities offered a productive environment as they were able to pursue their political work in relative freedom compared to their countries of origin, despite censorship, repression, and widespread surveillance by local authorities. In these cities, they developed transnational and global strategies and alliances against colonial oppression and racism. This workshop aimed to examine poignant examples of anti-colonial activism in the Europe, with a focus on the 20th century, although applications from the 19th century were welcome as well.

Among others, the workshop addressed the following questions: How have ideas that criticize colonialism developed in European metropoles, regarding national or federal independence, imperial reforms, antiracism, and pan-national movements? To what extent can we spatialize the global thinking of anti-colonial movements in the framework of the urban? What were the connections between anti-colonial actors from the global South and the political left of European metropolises?

This workshop for historians took place virtually through Zoom. Seventeen researchers attended proceedings. SIMEON MARTY (Berlin) welcomed participants and reflected on the history of their research. The workshop served to strengthen the bonds between PhD students in different academic settings and to facilitate insightful conversations on current conceptual and historiographical debates. Speakers explored the themes of left-wing politics, inter- and postwar urban networks, European public opinion, and the circulation of political concepts across five panels, on the topics of metropolitan anticolonialism and resistances to empire.

The first panel began with AMITA MISTRY (Oxford), who explored imperialism and the British left. Spanning the period 1918-1959, Mistry displayed how imperial and socialist values such as trusteeship or racism would diverge and converge, causing both conflict and unity between anti-colonialists from the British colonies and socialist politicians in Britain. She showed how actors on the British left reconciled conflicting beliefs concerning imperialism. The examination of engagements of the left with the empire as well as anticolonialism adds to our understanding of European and specifically British attitudes to the empire, studies of which have thus far been confined to more conservative British political parties and movements.

LEONIE WOLTERS (Berlin) then examined the role of the Indian anticolonial communist M. N. Roy within the Communist International (Comintern) by drawing on the concepts of performativity and worldliness. She emphasized the importance of accounting for the performative aspects of connections among international (and anticolonial) communists, in which some of the Comintern’s members possessed high levels of "global capital" that made their presence underline the worldliness of this global communist organization. To arrive at a better understanding of Roy, Wolter focused on the figure of M. N. Roy as he made an impression on others, rather than focusing on his own ideas and interpretations.

The second panel saw BURAK SAYIM (Geneva), who discussed the Anticolonial Campaign organized in Paris by the French Communist Party, mainly against the ongoing colonial war carried out by the French Army in Marocco from 1924 to 1927. Using this specific campaign, Sayim brought the history of this episode of French left-wing militancy into conversation with anti-colonial revolutions and rebellions of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region in the early 20th century. He demonstrated how Paris was both a peripherical theater of an anticolonial wave as well as a space which enabled Middle Eastern communists to get into contact with non-communist anti-colonial organizations and movements in the MENA region.

ZAIB UN NISA AZIZ (Yale) shared her findings on the origins of anticolonialism, namely the period right after WWI and the Russian Revolution. Aziz demonstrated how Marxist-Leninist thought and the Bolshevik revolution impacted the colonial world through examining the influence and political thought on a generation of contemporaneous colonial writers, activists, and agitators. She emphasized how actors like Vladimir Lenin provided a language for national self-determination and decolonization, a language that was being interpreted differently in each colonial context, such like India, Egypt, and the Caribbean.

The third panel started with ELEANOR KRAMER-TAYLOR (London) who presented her findings on the London branch of the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC), a transnational anticolonial organization. Arguing that most work on the anticolonial metropolis focusses on the interwar period, she aimed to complicate the periodization of anticolonial using a post-war time frame of 1954-1974. In addition, she showed how anticolonial activists residing on the Caribbean and those living in Britain would drift away from one another. The London branch of the CLC became more radical in its rhetoric and ideas whereas Caribbean politicians increasingly turned to the political right.

DILAN TULSIANI (Edinburgh) explored the activities of the British section of the Language Against Imperialism (LAI) in the interwar period. She examined how especially non-white members of the LAI organized their activities and how British state surveillance subsequently reacted to these activities, demonstrating how anticolonialism was organized right under the nose of imperial authorities. In addition, Tulsiani showed how London has been as important as Berlin as crucible of global anticolonial movements.

GISELA EWE (Hamburg) shared her work on Hamburg as German anticolonial metropolis during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). She explored various anticolonial institutions that sought to challenge empire on a transnational level, such as the Afrikanischer Hilfsverein (African Aid Association), the Liberian Consulate General and the Hamburg Committee. Ewe brought into question the concept of a anticolonial metropolitan niche, as Hamburg was not the epicenter of German or other European empires but was nonetheless instrumental in providing a platform for challenging colonial structures.

The second day of the workshop began with the fourth panel. VICTOR BARROS (Lisbon) treated the theme of African independence movements in Portuguese colonies and their activities in Paris during the Cold War. For him, Portuguese anticolonial activists used the support from the African anticolonial movement within French civil society while the Portuguese imperial dictatorship was backed by its French ally. Barros explored how the Global South affected and was affected by the moral, material, and medical support for their own anticolonial struggle, all the while African activists transcended the colonial borders of both French and Portuguese empires.

SARAH STEIN (Kassel) discussed her work on anticolonial filmmaking in Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. She noted that while a lot of work on intellectual anticolonial networks in the French capital focusses on various historical actors, these have hitherto left out directors and others involved in filmmaking. On the one hand, Stein made a description of filmmakers residing in Paris as well as analyzing the films and articles by filmmakers. Expanding our understanding of the role of media in anticolonialism, she showed how the film school Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques (IDHEC) and the publishing house Présence Africain were catalysts for resistance to empire in France and beyond.

The fifth and final panel began with ARNAB DUTTA (Groningen) presenting his findings on Bengali Germanism in interwar Berlin. Locating the (anti)colonial thought that was a product of German-Bengali engagements, he showed how Bengali anticolonial activists posited an ideational critique of empire while the German educated class in Berlin facilitated the immediate contact zones for Bengalis in Berlin. Remarking that the bulk of studies on this topic tended to either focus exclusively on revolutionary solidarity across color lines or on Nazi mistreatments, Dutta also demonstrated how both Bengalis and German intellectuals adhered to a conservative cosmopolitanism that propagated the idea of a shared glorious past.

WILDAN SENA UTAMA (Bristol) then shared his work on Indonesian-Indian solidarity in the interwar and immediate postwar period. Using the Indonesian anticolonial organization Perhimpunan Indonesia as a case study, Utama explored how political relationships between Indian and Indonesian anticolonial activists were forged on a European stage, most notably on the many international congresses organized in the late 1920s. Alongside, he noted the ongoing significance of these ties throughout the postwar period, as Indonesian national leaders supported the Indonesian national revolution against the Dutch colonial empire in the late 1940s.

ANDREAS GÜNTHER WEIS (Göttingen), thirdly, presented his findings on Chinese interwar anticolonialism in the German city Göttingen. He showed how the Chinese Third Party was the result of a transnational and academic network between the Republic of China (1912–1949) and Europe, mainly the Weimar Republic (1918–1933). Provincializing more traditional accounts on anti-imperial metropolis, Weis demonstrated how, and under which circumstances Chinese students became politicized in a provincial German town, which led them to organize along anticolonial lines.

The workshop concluded with a discussion started off by the organizers of the event. A variety of key topics emerged, including the debates on the actual effects of anticolonialism and the distortions on anticolonial activism that European metropolises caused. Participants noted how divergences in source material (including language) influenced the outcome of the research in their respective countries, making for an informative comparison of methods and results.

Assessing the legacies of anticolonial activism was also a central topic during this discussion. Other aspects touched upon were the historiographical tendencies to romanticize alliances between anticolonial groups, to frame European metropolises as merely anticolonial or anticolonialism as deprived of any relations to the colonized world. ANDREAS ECKERT (Berlin) thus called for more studies that complicate anticolonialism both within and beyond Europe, with occasions like this workshop offering congenial platforms.

The presentations complemented each other well and contributed to a further understanding of the topic of anticolonialism worldwide. Starting with the British Left and ending with Sino-German anticolonial relations, the various papers covered the thematic scope of the topic through the length of the early and late 20th century period. At the end, contributors from all universities stated their wish to meet in person to discuss these topics and continue their collaborative work on worldwide resistance to colonial empires.

Conference overview:

Welcome and short intro by Simeon Marty

Panel I: Left-Wing Politics and Anti-Colonialism
Chair: Julia Eichenberg (Universität Bayreuth)

Amita Mistry (Oxford University): Imperialism and The British Left, 1918-1959

Leonie Wolters (Freie Universität, Berlin): The Performativity of Connections Among the Interwar Anti-Imperialist Left. M. N. Roy and The Comintern (1920-1930)

Panel II: Anti-Colonial Networks and Organized Communism
Chair: Oscar Broughton (Freie Universität, Berlin)

Burak Sayim (IHEID Institute, Geneva): The Rif Campaign in Paris. Grass-roots Mobilization between Urban and Trans-regional, 1920s

Zaib Un Nisa Aziz (Yale University): The Oppressed of The World Unite 1919-1920. The Third International and the Making of the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism

Panel III: Inter- and Post-war Urban Networks
Chair: Andreas Eckert (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Eleanor Kramer-Taylor (King´s College, London): West Indian Anti-colonialism in Post-War London, 1948-1962

Dilan Tulsiani (University of Edinburgh): Shouts and Whispers: Surveillance and Transnationalism in the British Section of the League against Imperialism

Gisela Ewe (Universität Hamburg): Networks of Anti-colonial Resistance in Hamburg, 1918-1933

Panel IV: European Public Opinion, Media, and Anti-colonialism
Chair: Simeon Marty (Humboldt Universität zu Berlin)

Victor Barros (Universidade Nova De Lisboa): The Anti-colonial Networks Created in France to Support the Liberation Struggles in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, 1950s-1970s

Sarah Stein (Universität Kassel): Anti-colonial Filmmaking in Paris in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Panel V: Circulation of Political Concepts
Chair: Michael Goebel (IHEID Institute, Geneva)

Arnab Dutta (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen): Conservative Cosmopolitanism and an Anti-colonial Metropolis. Bengali Germanism in Interwar Berlin

Wildan Sena Utama (University of Bristol / Universitas Gadjah Mada, Jogjakarta): From Anticolonial Networks to Diplomatic Connection. The Network of Indonesian and Asian-Arab Solidarity in the 1940s-1950s and its Origin in The Interwar Era

Andreas Günter Weis (Georg August Universität, Göttingen / Tsinghua University, Beijing): The Sino-German Dimensions of China’s "Third Party" Between the Early 1920s and the World War II Era

Closing Discussion

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