Tony Benn on when Liberation/MCF was 50

Liberation celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2024!While the struggle continues, the 70th anniversary celebration, later this year, will enable us to assess our successes as well as articulate strategies to develop more effective campaigns and partnerships. We quote an article celebrating an earlier anniversary, written by one of the giants in our organisation’s history.

The Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF) started its journey campaigning for the liberation of the colonies in 1954. The successful struggles of the 1960s and 1970s earned the MCF a well-deserved reputation as the champion of the people of the colonies. Leaders of the various national liberation movements in every corner of the world acknowledged the role played by the MCF in their celebratory speeches as they welcomed independence.

By 1970, having celebrated the liberation of most British colonies in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and even in Europe, MCF changed its name to Liberation. Liberation committed itself to continue the struggle for the economic, social, and cultural emancipation of the former colonies, as well as the campaign for Britain to adopt a progressive and independent foreign policy. While the struggle continues, the 70th anniversary celebration, later this year, will enable us to assess our successes as well as articulate strategies to develop more effective campaigns and partnerships.

Tony Benn, a giant of the struggle for the liberation of the colonies and a leading voice for our movement summarised 50 years of MCF/Liberation work in a report he delivered on 4 April 2004. We reproduce the report below:

The Movement for Colonial Freedom, now Liberation, was founded fifty years ago and is still engaged in a world-wide campaign against imperialism.

Socialists inside and outside the Labour Party have always been opposed to imperialism, had a strong internationalist tradition, and worked with national liberation movements against the European powers which had built their empires over many centuries.

Indeed, not only were those empires oppressive by their very nature but they were the cause of wars between them motivated by their competing determination to gain control of natural resources and dominate world trade.

Fenner Brockway was one of the most outstanding leaders of the anti-colonial movement in Britain and his Congress of Peoples against Imperialism was the most important organisation that came to form the MCF.  But it included other single-issue organisations like the Seretse Khama committee which had been set up by him when he was exiled as chief of the Bamamgwato in Bechuanaland because he had married Ruth, a white woman from England.

I was the first treasurer of the MCF and like all progressive organisations we always had acute financial problems but managed to survive with the help of very dedicated people who worked around Fenner.

The MCF set up a number of committees which dealt with many varied issues from the control of the White Highlands in Kenya through the struggle for Algerian independence and gave support to all the liberation leaders who came to London to seek backing.

As chair of the North Africa committee, we worked with the FLN in Algeria taking up the case of Ahmed Ben Bella kidnapped by the French on his way to Egypt, held in the Bastille in Paris and later becoming the first President of a free Algeria.

And during those years we worked with Habib Bourguiba and the Tunisians who were caught up in the same struggle.

We also had links with the Indian National Congress under Pandit Nehru and the issue of Goa, a Portuguese colony, was only resolved when India intervened after a massive demonstration in Bombay in 1960 attended by 400,000 people and addressed by Nehru and Krishna Menon.

India then played a very significant role in the Non-Aligned Movement which played an important part in defending the developing world at the time of the cold war and advancing the liberation struggle.

Hastings Banda, then a doctor working in Brixton, used to turn up at our meetings up after his surgeries, wearing a homburg hat and carrying a Gladstone bag, who, on his return home was greeted by a huge crowd of Africans as the only university graduate they had, later becoming the first president of Malawi and ending up as a dictator.

On another occasion we had a visit from Kenneth Kaunda, who later went back to become president of Zambia and was later subsequently overthrown in a coup. Another friend was Cheddi Jagan after US pressure had persuaded the British to remove him from office, who later went back to be president.

Tom Mboya from Kenya kept in touch with us as did Joshua Nkoma from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and we supported Mugabe when he was imprisoned by the Rhodesian government and was not even allowed to visit his dying son.

MCF organised a big demonstration in support of Nelson Mandela in 1964 at the time of the Rivonia Trial and maintained a long campaign with the ANC and others against apartheid.

At the time of Suez, it was the MCF that booked Trafalgar Square and then handed the booking over to the Labour Party where Aneurin Bevan spoke most powerfully at a time when Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the party, denounced this aggression because it broke the UN charter.

We also took up the case of Cyprus when the British were repressing the Cypriots in their demand for independence, and we had a Middle Eastern committee which worked with the Palestinians and Yemenis and others when Britain still held a powerful position in the Middle East.

This was an ongoing campaign and although the MCF had wide support in the Labour movement, the Fabian Colonial Bureau, whose leading light was Dr Rita Hinden, took a more paternalistic view of our colonial responsibilities and was critical of our support for those engaged in direct action.

For example, in Kenya, the Mau Mau were denounced as terrorists and that word was widely used to describe all those who had chosen to fight British Imperialism by taking up arms.

The parliamentary leadership was always more cautious protesting publicly its commitment to transform the British Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations more slowly, but we did have the satisfaction of seeing former “terrorist” leaders whom we had imprisoned end up at Buckingham Palace having tea with the Queen as head of new independent nations.

The MCF was never naive about political independence because we knew even then that when British troops were withdrawn the real economic power in those countries remained with those who owned the land and factories as well as the multinational companies that operated there.

Indeed, we saw in neo-colonialism what is now called globalisation that reflected the continuing domination of capital even when the political leaders had been elected locally.

Looking back on those campaigns now provides a very important historical perspective against which the new American empire can be seen and understood. For empires are very [much] like each other in the sense that they’re motivated by the demand for resources, made possible by industrial and military strength and just as they rise, they inevitably decline.

The decline of the American Empire will follow a similar pattern made up partly of resistance in the occupied countries and partly as a result of opposition in America itself where the peace movement is growing rapidly and could even lead to a regime change in Washington this autumn as Bush faces a backlash from those whose living standards and public services are threatened by the cost of the war and who see the rising number of casualties suffered by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is different is that the methods of communication are so much better now than they were when the MCF was founded. And, with the internet, coordinated international campaigns are possible as we have seen with the anti-globalisation campaigns and the peace movement itself.

Although the internet is not available to everybody it is widely available to those who organise liberation movements and we are no longer dependent on the media which has always rallied to the imperial cause and denounced its critics as troublemakers and terrorists.

The victory of the left in Spain and in the French regional elections and the growing strength of the progressive movement in Britain and America may usher in a new era in world politics.

Indeed, any sensible forward look at the world we live in should remind us that the human race faces massive problems with a rising world population and strictly limited resources.

We are, in a sense, like shipwrecked sailors in a lifeboat with a single loaf of bread and there are only three ways of distributing it.

The loaf can be auctioned so the rich get all the bread, or we can fight for it so the strong get all the bread, or we can share it so everyone gets a bit of bread.

That is the choice we have to make and it gives fresh relevance and meaning to what Rosa Luxembourg said when she argued that we must choose between socialism and barbarism.

Photo: Tony Benn speaking at the anti war demonstration in Hyde Park, London Saturday February 15 2003. CC BY 2.0 DEED

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This article first appeared in Liberation Journal

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