On the Contradictions of Whiteness, Revolution, and Freedom
Tyler Stovall Looks at the "Red Years" After WWI
We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy!
–W. E. B. Dubois, The Crisis, May 1919
Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa.
–South Africa Industrial Federation, 1922
The years immediately after the Armistice, what the Italians call the biennio rosso, the “red two years,” were notable for extreme levels of political conflict and mobilization. Throughout much of the world revolution loomed on the horizon, or at least seemed to. The transition from world war to global peace brought about a range of revolutionary political activism striking not only in its intensity but equally in its scope and breadth. From the Seattle general strike in February to the Amritsar, India, massacre in April, popular radicalism seemed poised to overthrow the established order. At the heart of the turbulence lay the defeated empires of Europe and Euro-Asia.
The Russian revolutions of 1917 had made the new Soviet Union the world’s revolutionary center, not only fighting its own civil war against conservative forces but also loudly calling for and trying to mobilize world revolution. In the chaos following the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires at the end of 1918, different national and political constituencies struggled to create new regimes based on popular sovereignty. At the same time the dominant Allied powers, both during and after the Paris peace talks, sought to contain the forces pushing for a new world in the established structures of imperial power. During 1919 and 1920 in particular, the relationship between popular freedom and imperial hegemony seemed to hang in the balance.
One particularly important aspect of new ideas of freedom in the postwar era was the new acceptance of women’s suffrage. Women had played an active role in the war industries and public service of most belligerent nations, and in many they campaigned successfully for female suffrage after the war. From 1917 onward a large number of countries, including not only the United States and Britain but Russia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, all voted to grant women the vote in one form or another. Among Western nations France was the main holdout, not finally enfranchising women until after World War II. While granting women the vote certainly did not bring about full gender equality, it effectively doubled the number of active citizens in many nations and gave the idea of freedom a much more universal quality than before the war.
At the same time, women’s suffrage tended to reinforce white freedom. The new female suffrage movement applied almost entirely to white women in Western countries and had no impact on the situation of colonized women. African American women, like African American men, remained essentially disenfranchised after World War I. It is also important to note that in several countries, such as Britain, female enfranchisement was at least limited to women of property, only later being extended to working-class women. The great wave of women’s suffrage after World War I thus both expanded popular ideas of freedom and equally demonstrated the racial limits of that ideal.
As we have seen above, the new emphasis on national freedom reflected in the Treaty of Versailles had a significant racial component, promoting democratic nationalism in Europe while firmly shunting it aside in Africa and Asia. This contradiction did not pass unnoticed by many colonial subjects. As a result, 1919 in particular saw an eruption of anticolonial revolts. In Korea, students inspired by President Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech began organizing to demand the right of self-determination and independence from Japanese colonial rule.
On March 1, millions of Koreans demonstrated throughout the country against imperial control, only to be met with brutal repression by Japanese authorities, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Similar violence erupted in India a month later. After a British crackdown on civil liberties triggered a massive protest movement throughout the country, Indians gathered in the Punjabi town of Amritsar to defy colonial repression. Colonial troops led by General Reginald Dyer responded by closing of the gathering and raking the crowd with machine gun fire, killing at least several hundred individuals.
Events in Egypt and Ireland formed a partial exception to the rule of white freedom after World War I. In Egypt, popular expectations that Egyptian representatives would be able to attend the Paris peace conference provoked a conflict with the ruling British authorities. The movement soon began demanding the end of the British protectorate over Egypt and the Sudan. Led by the Wafd party (Wafd means “delegation” in Arabic), a series of massive demonstrations broke out in March, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protestors at the hands of colonial troops. The movement continued into the summer, leading the British to appoint a commission, which eventually recommended the end of colonial rule. In 1922 Egypt achieved semi-independence, limited by Britain’s continuing right to maintain a military presence in the country and control of the Suez Canal.
In Ireland, the centuries-old struggle against British colonial rule came to a head in the years after World War I. British repression of the Easter Rising in 1916 had only increased Irish popular support for selfrule. In December 1918 the nationalist party, Sinn Féin, won an overwhelming victory during a national election, and the following month proclaimed independence for the island. Shortly thereafter the newly formed Irish Republican Army began a campaign of guerrilla warfare against British soldiers and institutions in the island. Britain responded in force, sending in the troops known as the Black and Tans, and for the next two years Ireland descended into violence and chaos. By 1921 the British concluded they could not win the war, and after extensive negotiations in 1922 the Irish Free State formally gained its independence.
Again, the examples of Egypt and Ireland complicate and also ultimately reinforce the importance of whiteness to national freedom in the aftermath of World War I. Unlike most of the imperial world, both were colonies that gained independence. For the Egyptians, however, this independence came with important limits, as would become clear during World War II, when the British essentially assumed control of the country. Irish independence was much more real, even though Ulster remained a part of the United Kingdom. When Ireland achieved independence it did so as a white European nation, similar to Poland and the other new nations of Eastern Europe. By the late nineteenth century Irish immigrants in both Britain and the US had largely achieved white status. The independence of the Irish nation in 1922 thus represented the culmination of that achievement in the home island itself. White Ireland could finally leave its colonial past behind, whereas brown Egypt could not.
The renewed emphasis on whiteness after World War I also took place within several Western nations. As we have seen, the war itself had brought large numbers of men of color to Europe, especially France, and in the United States had fueled the first Great Migration of African Americans to the North. The end of the war brought a powerful rejection of this wartime multiculturalism and a reassertion of whiteness, at times in conjunction with radical and revolutionary labor movements. The ultimate example of this came in 1922, when striking South African miners adopted the slogan Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa, but this was not an isolated incident.
The year 1919 in particular saw intense labor and revolutionary struggles as well as widespread race riots. From January to August of that year, for example, a series of riots erupted in Britain’s port cities, as white sailors and longshoremen attacked men from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia and the Middle East. In a climate of postwar economic downturn, white port workers and their unions attacked nonwhites for “taking” their jobs, often successfully expelling them from increasingly white workplaces on the docks of Liverpool, Bristol, London, and other cities. This took place in a climate of radical working-class politics in general, so that in Glasgow Scottish workers seemed to threaten revolution.
The situation was more extreme in France. During the war France had brought in more than 300,000 workers from its colonies and China to labor in its factories and fields. With the end of the war, tensions increased between industry, the government, and the unions over the role of labor in the postwar period. Dazzled by the specter of the Russian Revolution, many French workers moved sharply to the left, leading to the creation of the French Communist Party at the end of 1920.
At the same time, however, France needed labor more than ever. Roughly 1.6 million Frenchmen had died in the war, and many more had returned wounded and unable to work. Moreover, the nation had one of the lowest birth rates in Europe and would soon achieve negative population growth in the interwar years, while at the same time it needed more workers to rebuild the country and repair the destruction caused by the war. In this revolutionary climate, however, the one thing all the major parties could agree on was the need to get rid of colonial workers. By the end of 1919 French authorities had rounded up and repatriated 90 percent of the “exotic” workers in the country. At the same time, it made new arrangements to bring foreign workers from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose numbers would swell to the millions in the 1920s.This contradiction between freedom at home and racialized empire overseas remained more salient than ever in the years after the Armistice.
In making the argument for European over colonial labor, French authorities made clear their desire to reverse the multiracial immigration that had begun during the war, saying “[It is necessary] To call upon labor of European origin, in preference to colonial or exotic labor, because of the social and ethnic difficulties which could arise from the presence upon French soil of ethnographic elements too clearly distinct from the rest of the population.” The choice of European over “exotic” workers was a clear statement of the importance of whiteness to the character of the nation, and it paralleled the contrast between the extension of liberal democracy in postwar Europe and the continuation of imperial rule in postwar Asia and Africa.
Britain and France had emerged victorious from a war that, especially toward its end, emphasized the struggle for national freedom against German barbarism. At the same time, they remained the largest colonial powers in the world. This contradiction between freedom at home and racialized empire overseas remained more salient than ever in the years after the Armistice. The war itself had undermined that contradiction to a certain extent by bringing colonial subjects to Europe as both soldiers and workers, and it was vital to the racial politics of empire to reverse that phenomenon, to keep metropole and colony separate. European nations could remain free only if the colonial lack of liberty was not allowed to intrude into their political spaces, and the repression and exclusion of colonial labor (who, unlike colonial soldiers, had a reason to stay in Europe once the fighting stopped) played an important role in that process. In order to survive in Europe at the end of the war, freedom had to be white freedom.
Excerpted from White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea by Tyler Stovall. Copyright © 2021 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. Note: It is presented here without footnotes or references, all of which can be found in the published book.