The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives
The League Against Imperialism (LAI), founded in 1927, attracted anticolonial activists like India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, as well as prominent figures like Albert Einstein, Ernst Toller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, Mohandas Gandhi, and Madame Sun Yat-Sen. A new collected volume edited by Michele Louro, Carolien Stolte, Heather Streets-Salter, and Sana Tannoury-Karam, The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, aims to capture the global history of the LAI, with a focus on the perspectives of those on the peripheries of empires. Read our interview with editor Sana Tannoury-Karam below.
You are one of the editors of the volume “The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives.” Why did you and your colleagues decide to publish this book?
Sana Tannoury-Karam (ST-K): The League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI) was founded in February 1927. Its immediate goals were to develop solidarity between communists, socialists, and anti-colonial nationalists worldwide. This in turn was meant to pave the way for campaigns to expose the brutalities of colonial rule, to support the liberation of colonies around the world, and to build solidarity between workers in imperialist countries and the oppressed in the colonies. The LAI was significant in the shaping of the interwar world, informing anti-colonial nationalism, communism, socialism, and pacifism in ways we have failed to see because of the contentious and all too brief history of the League’s existence. In spite of its many internal conflicts and outside pressures, we share the belief of the League’s original participants that its creation did indeed mark a significant historical moment. However briefly, the League was one of the largest, most inclusive international groups of its kind. Its leadership and membership included representatives of formal colonies as well as the semi-colonial world, and Europeans and Americans from colonial as well as non-colonial powers.
As editors of this volume, we believe the League should be studied in its own right for its successes in bringing together so many leftists and anti-colonial activists from so many parts of the world, and also for its initial ambitions to cross racial, cultural, and ideological boundaries to achieve its larger goals. In addition, the League should be studied because of the impact it had on leaders who went on to shape their own national independence movements, and because of the ways it triggered ever more sophisticated and collaborative networks of surveillance by the colonial powers. Finally, studying the League helps us to understand a dynamic internationalist moment in which people believed in the potential for organizing across borders to achieve complex social and political goals. Given the carnage of the Second World War and the markedly “national” independence movements that followed in its wake, this is something of which we have too often lost sight.
In spite of its many high-profile participants and the global reach of its membership, the League remains relatively obscure and poorly understood in historical scholarship. This edited volume showcases the archival and linguistic diversity that the history of the League should be written in. By facilitating a dialogue between researchers specializing in different aspects of the anti-imperialist movement, particularly those with expertise in the formerly colonized world, this volume creates a space for a global and transnational framework that moves beyond the categories of colony, nation, and empire to comprehend more fully the transnational nature of the twentieth-century world.
Which issues and debates does the book address, and what is its particular perspective?
ST-K: We believe the story of the League necessitates a rethinking of the basic categories of historical analysis relevant to the interwar period. The League offered remarkably fluid and flexible solidarities that attracted a broad spectrum of activists and projects struggling for an ambiguously defined notion of political and social “freedom.” These collaborative interconnections, so central to the anti-imperialist movement more generally, have been neglected as historiographical fields have developed around nationalism, international communism, socialism, and pacifism as separate categories with distinctive trajectories after the Second World War. This volume demonstrates that we cannot fully understand the significance of anti-imperialist institutions and networks of the interwar world without engaging these multiple histories that overlap and intersect.
The lens through which this volume addresses these issues about the League is that of “lives” and “afterlives.” First, in terms of “lives,” many of the essays assembled in the volume demonstrate just how much the League was about the power of experience, about building personal connections, and about learning from others. The League brought together several generations of activists, an anti-imperialist generation that had fought against colonial invasions and aggression in the pre-war period, and a “newer” generation, whose activism targeted a changed world order from the 1920s onwards. The global context of the interwar period provided the right conditions for these two generations to unite and work together under the banner of the League. Several League members of this second generation, along with younger colleagues who were still waiting in the wings, would wield a considerable amount of power as the first generation of post-colonial leaders after the Second World War. This fact in itself constitutes one of the major “afterlives” of the League, something this volume also addresses. The experiences created during those interwar years created legacies that extended well into the 20th century, shaping anti-colonial and post-colonial solidarities across the world.
Of course, part of the story of the “lives” and “afterlives” is the obstacles facing the League and its participants. Inherent in the structure but also the purpose of the League were tensions over race, gender, identity, and class that activists could not escape, even when they sought to overcome them. Many of these were particularly visible in the relationship between nationalism and internationalism. Overall, this volume demonstrates the significance, if not the necessity, of situating nationalism and internationalism within the same analytic frame of interwar anti-imperialism. The League offered a platform for nationalists to project their local messages on a global stage, and at the same time, it also reproduced many of the hierarchies of the interwar world. Often the activities and priorities of national sections in imperial metropoles trumped the voices and concerns of their colonial counterparts. At times, this was overlaid by assumptions about racial superiority and civilizing discourses. Equally clear were the gender hierarchies reproduced in the LAI. There is little doubt that the LAI imagined and worked within a homosocial world.
The volume brings all these issues and debates to the fore, to tell a global story of interwar internationalism, in which Europe and the colonial world mutually constituted anti-imperialism, and where anti-imperialist internationalism shaped the local histories of anti-colonial resistance throughout the world.
The volume argues that anti-imperialism was central to the story of transnational activism during the interwar years and remained an inspiration for many who took on leadership roles during decolonization across the global south. Can you give us an example for this?
ST-K: From international congresses, meetings, publications, and regional chapter activities, members of the League built lasting contacts with many of the individuals who would go on to play critical roles in their own national independence movements or who would represent the European left. Most of those who participated came from local nationalist anti-colonial movements, and the League gave them the space for expanding their movements’ scope and scale and for presenting it for a larger audience at an international stage. Donál Hassett argues in this volume that the participation of the Algerian Etoile Nord-Africaine at the League pushed nationalists such as Messali Hadj to reframe their nationalist campaigns within a wider global anti-imperialist sphere. The history of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle in the mid-20th century is a testament to the effectiveness and impact of this internationalist framework.
While the League allowed for a shift in discourse for some, for others, it became a launching ground for their journey towards leadership and prominence in their local nationalist movements. The student organization in the Netherlands that Mohammad Hatta, the future first vice president of Indonesia, was part of, had been a marginal organization before participating at the League in 1927. Years after the League Against Imperialism congresses, when Mohammad Hatta of Indonesia spoke of the development of his relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and Messali Hadj at the Congress, he recalled that “during all these years, I have treasured their memory in my heart,” as Klaas Stutje demonstrates in the volume.
Perhaps the person for whom the League constituted a transformative moment the most was Jawaharlal Nehru. As Michele Louro argues, the League converted Nehru to socialism. Moreover, the relationships and the global vision of anti-imperialism engendered during the League went on to influence the ideas of Nehru, whose vision as the first Prime Minister of independent India “echoed” the anti-colonial nationalist and socialist trends that characterized the League’s spirit. This “echo” of the League prompted Nehru to push the Indian National Congress to adopt policies towards complete independence from the British Empire, to argue for the interconnectedness of the anti-imperialist struggle across the world, and to emphasis India’s role in that struggle.
You are currently working on a research project on the Lebanese Left between 1920 and 1948. Could you tell us more about the relation between class-struggle and anti-imperialist action?
ST-K: In the immediate aftermath of World War One, the failures of the Paris Peace Conference to recognize the desire of many colonial and semi-colonial subjects for self-determination led many to turn away from the international state system dominated by the colonial powers and towards revolutionary anti-colonialism. The institution of the Mandate system by the newly-created League of Nations rubbed salt in these wounds, as colonial subjects and residents of the region rightly saw it as colonialism by another name, this time with the stamp of approval of the international community as embodied in the League of Nations. It was in this context of disappointment, anger, and exasperation with the international system that many anti-colonial activists devoted their energies to trans-regional or international movements. It is important to understand the development of the League Against Imperialism within this temporal context of both increased opportunity for interaction and intense frustration with the colonial powers. Indeed, its very name was meant to evoke this frustration, as the other/“real” League. The disappointments that colonized people felt with the results of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 left a void that the Soviet Union, an enormous Eurasian power that was officially committed to supporting anti-imperialist struggles around the world, and that offered a clear ideology for articulating those struggles and specific organizational tools for pursuing them, rushed to fill.
Placing the attraction of Arab intellectuals to communism and the Soviet Union in the early 1920s within this interwar global context is important for understanding the history of the Arab left in those years. In the worldview of Arab and specifically Lebanese leftists, communism’s ability to “combine” capitalism and imperialism as conceptually antithetical to colonized people’s freedom and liberation was especially important. Part of what I do in my project on Lebanese leftists is to tease out these tensions and overlaps in their worldviews, particularly how they saw anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism as connected.
Sana Tannoury-Karam is a historian of the modern Middle East, writing on the intellectual and cultural history of the Arab Left. She is a EUME fellow 2020-2021 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. Before, she was an Early Career Fellow at the Arab Council for Social Sciences (2019-2010) and a Post-Doctoral Fellow in History at Rice University (2018-2019). Sana received her PhD in History from Northeastern University in 2017. Her work has appeared in a range of publications including the Journal of World History, Jadaliyya, Megaphone, and TRAFO Blog. Her most recent publication is a co-edited volume, The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, which came out with Leiden University Press in September 2020.
Citation: Sana Tannoury-Karam, The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.01.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26124.