Last weekend marked the 70th anniversary of the famous Manchester Pan-African Congress. The Fifth Pan-African Congress held in Manchester from October 15-19, 1945, has been viewed as the most important of all the Pan-African congresses held by Africans and those in the African diaspora during the colonial period. It reflected the spirit of the times and the mass struggles that were occurring in Africa and the Caribbean for an end to colonial rule, for peoples’ empowerment and the right of all to determine their own future.
The Manchester Congress was held in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the victory over fascism and reflected the aspirations of that time. It was a period when the working people of the world, led by the Soviet Union had demonstrated once again that they were the makers of history. Millions looked forward to a new world, without national, political and economic oppression, there was even a demand that the workers should take their place in the United Nations Security Council. The victory over fascism had created a new situation in the world. The war had severely weakened the old colonial powers such as Britain and France, while the Soviet Union had emerged as a world power and called for colonial independence to be one of the aims of the new UN. It is not surprising therefore that there were demands from the organisers of the Manchester Congress not just for political independence from colonial rule but also for a new world liberated from the imperialist system of states, which they saw as responsible for their oppression, as well as the cause of fascism, poverty and war.
The Manchester Congress also grew out of the mass anti-colonial struggles of the immediate pre-war period of the 1930s, when there were wide-scale strikes and anti-colonial rebellions throughout the Caribbean, as well as boycotts and protests of farmers and workers in many parts of Africa. At the end of the 1930s there was also a global movement in opposition to fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, which had been facilitated by the appeasement policies of Britain and France in particular. In Africa and the Caribbean protests had been especially militant and highly organised and are recognised as ushering in a new phase in the anti-colonial struggle. As the war came to a close new anti-colonial struggles broke out such as the general strike that occurred in Nigeria, Britain’s largest colony in Africa, in the summer of 1945.
One of the main features of the Manchester Congress was that all its participants were representatives of workers’ and farmers’ organisations in Britain’s colonies, “the masses” who were considered by the organisers to be those who would be at the forefront of the struggle to end colonial rule, by force if necessary. It therefore broke with previous gatherings that merely had the aim of lobbying the governments of Britain and the other big powers. The congress expressed its opposition to the “monopoly of capital” and the imposition of Eurocentric values and political institutions in the colonies. It also condemned the colonial borders that had been imposed on African states.
Above all the Manchester Congress reflected an internationalist spirit with its espousal of such slogans as “oppressed people of the world unite”, and “labour in the white skin cannot emancipate itself while labour in the black skin is enslaved”. Several of the participants had attended the recent founding conferences of the World Federation of Trade Unions, where they had played a significant role. Even before the Manchester Congress, the organisers had participated in convening two “Subject Peoples” conferences in London, alongside anti-colonial activists from India, Ceylon and Burma and workers’ and progressive organisations in Britain. At the congress itself solidarity messages were sent to the “struggling peoples of Indonesia and Vietnam”, the “toiling masses of India”, as well as “people of African descent” in the United States.
The Manchester Congress was able to give a voice to the voiceless, to articulate many of the demands for liberation being made in Africa and the Caribbean. At the same time it did not neglect racism and the problems faced by those of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain. It summed up the experience of all those struggling for an end to colonial rule and drew important lessons from that experience. It pointed to the need for the organisation of the masses of the people in order to usher in a new world in Africa and other colonies and indicated that a truly independent Africa would need to be one built around the interests of the majority, with a new political and economic system and borders based on rights and needs of the peoples of Africa, not those bequeathed by the colonial invaders. The Manchester Congress therefore condemned the “rule of private wealth and industry for private profit”, and demanded “genuine independence” and the “right of all peoples to govern themselves”.
Source: Workers’ Weekly, London,Weekly On Line Newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). Photo of plaque and caption has been added by TS