Lamine Senghor, Anti-Imperialism, and Racial Solidarity in the Interwar French Metropole

Oumar Ba, Cornell University

 

The post-World War II era constitutes a privileged moment in the historiography of anti-colonialism, decolonization, Black internationalism, and Third World solidarity. Many of the initial iterations and founding moments of these movements, however, can be traced to interactions between people from the far corners of the empires who came into contact during the interwar period, especially in Europe. European capitals offered a hub for anticolonial militantism, as students, workers, conscripted soldiers, and other activists converged in the metropole, before and during the Great War. In the heart of interwar Europe, a burgeoning anti-imperial (and communist) coalition of various movements and figures was forged, shaking the imperial foundations of the world order. Using Lamine Senghor (not to be confused with Senegal’s first president Léopold Senghor) as an anchor figure of this period, this article revisits the anti-imperial moment in interwar France, highlighting the transracial and transcontinental junctions and solidarity coalitions amidst France’s racial anxieties and attempts to preserve the prestige of a declining empire. The article is based on primary sources located in the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence and the archives of the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam.

The Foundations of an Anti-Imperial World Order in Interwar Europe

As the League of Nations emerged at the end of the Great War, it was clear to the colonized world that the new sets of institutions were not designed for, or capable of, delivering emancipation since (Wilsonian) self-determination was never meant to be all-encompassing.[1] In such a context of disappointment regarding the League of Nations in interwar Europe, anti-colonialist movements crystallized around the formation of a new set of coalitions and institutions, including the League Against Imperialism (hereafter, LAI or the League). The League formed as a solidarity movement, a counterpoint to the League of Nations,[2] becoming therefore the first attempt to create a truly anti-imperial and anti-capitalist global movement.[3]

The League Against Imperialism was founded during its first congress in Brussels in February 1927, convening some 174 delegates from 34 countries and representing 134 organizations.[4] The meeting’s agenda included “The building of a permanent international organization in order to link up all forces combatting international imperialism and in order to ensure their effective support for the fight of emancipation conducted by oppressed nations.”[5] The goal was to achieve “Complete independence for China, India, Indochina, for the European countries, for Negro Africa, for the Latin-America and other semi-colonial countries, [and] complete right of self-determination for all oppressed nations and national minorities.”[6] As the journal La Voix des Nègresrecounted in its March 1927 issue, at the Brussels meeting, “over the course of five days and five nights, delegates of all peoples, nations, and countries, of all races and all classes … came together to denounce imperialism’s harms and exactions on their respective countries and call for its demise.”[7]

Yet, the League was not just anti-imperialist. It was equally anti-capitalist, and in the imperial metropoles where it took root it focused on the interconnectedness of the struggles across the far reaches of the empires. As Max Bloncourt, the Guadeloupean lawyer and member of the French Communist Party’s Union Intercontinentale (UIC), stated during his speech at the Brussels conference, “For the past ten years, events have occurred around the world. It is the Russian Revolution that made the Chinese Revolution possible. Because they defeated British imperialism, that will make India achieve its national independence.”[8] The League however lasted only a decade, having disintegrated by 1936, under the weight of internal conflicts, pressure from European governments, and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Lamine Senghor: An Agitateur in the Metropole

Lamine Senghor, the Senegalese tirailleur, communist, and anti-imperialist militant, emerged on the European scene in the mid-1920s as “the most influential black anti-colonial activist of the period.”[9] Although his time on the European anti-imperial stage was brief—barely lasting from his testimony as a witness in the Blaise Diagne–Les Continents trial in 1924 to his untimely death three years later—Senghor became one of the most prominent figures of the period and a headliner at the 1927 Brussels congress of the League Against Imperialism, where he was elected to the League’s executive committee.

Born in Senegal in 1889, Senghor was conscripted by French colonial authorities to serve in the 68th Battalion of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais[10] from 1916 to 1919.[11] Senghor’s contingent suffered a mustard gas attack in Verdun in 1917, which damaged his lungs. He would succumb to tuberculosis a decade later, at the age of 38. Following his injury during the war, the French authorities promoted him to the rank of sergeant. He was also awarded the Croix de Guerre and granted French citizenship for his service.[12] After the war, as a disillusioned and wounded war veteran—a “mutilé de guerre,” as he referred to himself—Senghor joined the French Communist Party (PCF), which connected anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, through the Union Intercontinentale (UIC), an outfit of the PCF’s Colonial Studies Committee. These were the circles in which both the young Nguyen Ai Quoc (later known as Ho Chi Minh) and Lamine Senghor collaborated. The journal Le Paria, where Nguyen Ai Quoc was editor and Senghor a writer, published “the most violent denunciations of empire of the period, [as] communism was the sole metropolitan movement of the mid-1920s to call for the independence of the colonies.”[13]

Yet, Senghor later realized that the French Communist Party did not offer much space for anti-colonial struggle, as he also became increasingly aware of serving as a faire-valoir (a token figure) for the party.[14]This disillusionment would lead him to create his own organization, the Comité de Defense de la Race Nègre (CDRN) in March 1926. In the January 1927 issue of the CDRN’s journal La Voix des Nègres, Senghor stated that his new organization would fight against “the unique author of universal misery: international imperialism.” He then lists the objectives of the organization as, one, fighting against racial hatred (la haine de race); two, working towards social emancipation of the Black race; three, fighting against and dismantling the oppressive system against the Black race in the colonies and all other races; and four, networking with organizations truly fighting for the liberation of all oppressed peoples and for world revolution.[15]

An Anti-Colonial and Transracial Coalition

In interwar metropolitan France, the communist agenda, and especially its anti-imperialist wing, had the potential to federate a large transracial coalition drawn from across the empire. The Commission Coloniale of the PCF was especially of concern to the French state. Agent Desiré—an especially prolific informant for the intelligence services of the Ministry of Colonies (the euphemistically named Service de Contrôle et d’Assistance des Indigenes des Colonies en France, CAI)[16]—listed the group’s leaders as the Algerians Mahmoud Ben Lekhal and Hadjali Abdelkader,[17] the Guadeloupean lawyer Max Bloncourt, Lamine Senghor, the Vietnamese Vo Thanh Long, and the future member of the French parliament Henri Lozeray.[18] As such, the communist anti-imperialist agenda in the metropole had the potential to facilitate an alliance between Africans, West Indians, and Indochinese, alongside French leftists. On April 14, 1926, at the headquarters of the PCF, a meeting of the Commission Coloniale brought together Nguyen The Truyen, Vo Thanh Long, Ben Lekhal, Hadjali Abdelkader, and the Guadeloupean Stephane Rosso. During the meeting, Nguyen The Truyen expressed his excitement that the comrade Lagrosillière had just returned from Guadeloupe with “interesting and fresh news” that could be published in Le Paria.[19] During a subsequent meeting on April 16, 1926 (attended by Bloncourt, Saint-Jacques, Ben Lekhal, Sadoun, Rosso, Nguyen The Truen, and Vo Than Long) the members decided that Bloncourt, as secretary general of the Union Intercontinentale, would take charge of Le Paria, assisted by Hadjali and Saint-Jacques.[20]

The communist appeal of the Union Intercontinentale did not, however, resonate among all the activists from the colonial world. Some of the members of this group, elsewhere referred to as the indigènes bolchevisants(the Bolshevik-aspiring natives)[21] by the intelligence services of the Ministry of Colonies, would later gradually distance themselves from the UIC and the Communist Party. In a move to maintain the coalition, Bloncourt proposed the creation of sections of the UIC for North Africans, one for West Indians, and one for the Indochinese. He believed such a move made sense especially because about 50 “North African Arabs” had agreed to join UIC.[22]

Still, the transracial and interconnected struggles are discernable. At the July 1, 1925, meeting, the idea of a fundraiser to help the “Chinese strikers” was proposed, funds were collected “for the poor Algerians living in France,” and Nguyen The Truyen and Vo Thanh Long contributed each 2 francs.[23] All these examples point to a broad attempt, in the words of the CAI intelligence services, to build a coalition with “all the revolutionary organizations of the Oriental natives.”[24] As the CAI’s Agent Desiré notes, “through the Annamites[Vietnamese] Nguyen-The-Truyen and Tran-Xuan-Ho, [the UIC] is in a close relationship with the Franco-Chinois group of Garenne-Colombes. For some time now, they are collaborating for an active propaganda campaign with the Comité Pro-Hindou.[25] Nguyen The Truyen was the founder of the Vietnamese Independence Party (Parti Annamite d’Independence, PAI) in 1926 and a former comrade of Nguyen Ai Quoc.[26] Ben Lekhal was the liaison between the Comité Pro-Hindou and the UIC, serving as the first secretary of the former and a member of the bureau of the latter.[27]

The Rif War (1921–1926) was another rallying cry for anti-colonial activism and transracial solidarity in metropolitan France during the interwar period. Leaders and anti-imperial activists from various corners of the empire joined together in their condemnation of the war. In the UIC circles, the Comité central d’action coloniale contre la guerre du Maroc, la vie chère et les impôts Caillaux (the anti-colonial central committee against the war in Morocco, the high cost of living and the Caillaux taxes)[28] was comprised of Ben Lekhal, Ali, Hadjali, Bloncourt, and Senghor.[29] On May 16, 1925, a rally organized by the French Communist Party brought together thousands of people, among them “a thousand Arabs, about 20 Blacks including 2 Senegalese, a few Annamites [Vietnamese] including Tran Xuan Ho and Nguyen The Truyen, some Chinese, and Indians.”[30] During the rally, the Algerian Ben Lekhal appealed to “French workers to protest, with utmost energy, against the war in Morocco.”[31] Meanwhile, Senghor “denounced…the sending of Senegalese troops to Morocco…where [France] obligates the Senegalese to dirty their hands with the blood of their Riffian brothers.” Senghor also condemned French imperialism “that makes the Muslims and Arabs believe that the Riffians are their enemies, just like in 1914 when it made French workers believe that the German workers were their enemies.”[32] In an appeal for transracial solidarity, as Agent Desiré reports, “Senghor…declares that he publicly expresses to his Arab brothers and his brothers from the Metropole the brotherhood of all peoples without any racial or color distinction.[33]

During his years of anticolonial activism and through his organizations, Senghor also denounced French duplicity in the treatment of the African mutilés de guerre compared to their French counterparts. His organization, the CDRN, pleaded for equal treatment of African, Malagasy, and Indochinese tirailleurs and mutilés de guerre and their French counterparts regarding the amount of their pensions.[34] Senghor also attended a ceremony organized by the local sections of the CDRN at the Gallieni cemetery in Fréjus[35] to pay homage to fellow Senegalese, Malagasy, and Vietnamese soldiers. At the March 1927 Brussels congress of the League Against Imperialism, Senghor referenced the connected struggles against colonial domination. “They murdered our brothers” he said, “in the first war in Morocco, the Great War, in the Rif and Syria, in Madagascar and Indonesia.”[36]

Conclusion

In revisiting the interwar period in the imperial metropoles, we clearly see episodes of transnational and transracial coalition building and the merging of anti-imperial and anti-capitalist agendas. This was made possible in no small part by the convergence of workers, students, and conscripted soldiers from the far reaches of the empire in European capitals and by their experience of working together with communist and leftist circles. For the French colonial state, such coalitions posed a significant threat to the future of a waning empire, since governing races, honor, and prestige became central to preserving and restoring the nation’s grandeur, especially after the wars.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association, however, did attend the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where he argued that Wilson’s principles of self-determination ought to also apply to Africans. See Katy Harsant, Selective Responsibility in the United Nations: Colonial Histories and Critical Inquiry (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022), 50

[2] Harsant, Selective Responsibility in the United Nations, 5. See also Randolph B. Persaud, “The Racial Dynamic in International Relations: Some Thoughts on the Pan-African Antecedents of Bandung,” in Meanings of Bandung: Postcolonial Orders and Decolonial Visions, eds. Quỳnh N. Phạm and Robbie Shilliam (London; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016).

[3] Lewis Twiby, “The League Against Imperialism: Interwar Anti-Colonial Internationalism,” Retrospect Journal(2020).

[4] Michele Louro, Carolien Stolte, and Sana Tannoury-Karam, “The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives,” in The League Against Imperialism: Lives and Afterlives, eds. Michele Louro, Carolien Stolte, and Sana Tannoury-Karam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 17. For a list of the organizations and delegates that attended the 1927 Brussels congress see LAI Archives ARCH 00804. 2, IISH.

[5] LAI Archives, ARCH00804.1, IISH.

[6] LAI, 1931.

[7] “Condamnation de l’Impérialisme et de la colonisation,” La Voix des Nègres, March 1927, CAOM SLOTFOM V 3. The materials from the French Archives (Archives Nationales de France and Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer) are in French and the English quotes are the author’s translation.

[8] “Discours de Bloncourt,” La Voix des Nègres, March 1927, CAOM SLOTFOM V 3. Note that this statement was made two decades before India became independent.

[9] David Murphy, “Defending the ‘Negro Race’: Lamine Senghor and Black Internationalism in Interwar France,” French Cultural Studies 24, no. 2 (2013): 162.

[10] The Tirailleurs Sénégalais (Senegalese infantrymen) fought in both world wars, but also in other colonial wars in the French empire. The first battalion of Tirailleurs Sénégalais was formed by the French governor Louis Faidherbe in 1857 in Saint-Louis du Senegal.

[11] Bakary Diallo and Lamine Senghor, White War, Black Soldiers: Two African Accounts of World War I, ed. George Robb (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2021), 4. On the history of the tirailleurs, see for instance Gregory Mann, Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).

[12] Diallo and Senghor, White War, Black Soldiers, 4–5.

[13] Murphy, “Defending the ‘Negro Race’,” 164.

[14] Hargreaves 1993, 261, cited in Murphy “Defending the ‘Negro Race’,” 166. Note that three decades later, another figure of the anti-colonial struggle, Aimé Césaire, would also leave the French Communist Party. In addition to the PCF’s refusal to reject Stalinism, Césaire found that the Party did not provide adequate room for the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle.

[15] Senghor 1927, “Ce qu’est notre comité de défense de la race nègre”, La Voix des Nègres, Janvier 1927, CAOM SLOTFOM V 3.

[16] On CAI, see for instance, Vincent Bollenot, Maintenir l’ordre impérial en métropole: le service de contrôle et d’assistance en France des indigènes des colonies (1915–1945). Histoire. (Université Panthéon-Sorbonne – Paris I, 2022).

[17] Hadjali Abdelkader and Messali Hadj co-founded l’Etoile Nord-Africaine in 1926, a movement for the independence of Algeria.

[18] “Note de l’Agent Desiré du 26 Septembre 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV 282.

[19] “Note de l’Agent Desiré du 14 Avril 1926”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV 282.

[20] Note de l’Agent Desiré du 16 Avril 1926” Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV 282.

[21] Note du Service de renseignements du 1er Mai 1926”, CAI, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Note de l’Agent Desiré du 1er Juillet 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282.

[24] Note de l’Agent Desiré du 28 Avril 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282.

[25] Ibid.  On the Comité Pro-Hindou or pro-India Committee, see for instance Henri Barbusse, “The Roy Case: A Protest,” The Labour Monthly 7, no. 3 (1925): 294–297. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/barbusse/1925/05/x01.htm. On the British Indian subjects living in Paris in the interwar period and leading an anti-imperial campaign, see K. Marsh, “‘The Only Safe Haven of Refuge in All the World’: Paris, Indian ‘Revolutionaries’ and Imperial Rivalry, c. 1905–40,” French Cultural Studies 30, no. 3 (2019): 196–219.

[26] Kim Khánh Huỳnh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986). 192.

[27] Note de l’Agent Desiré du 26 Avril 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282; Note de l’Agent Desiré du 28 Avril 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282.

[28] Les impots Caillaux refer to income taxes that were introduced by then Minister of Finance Joseph Caillaux.

[29] “Note de l’Agent Desiré du 26 Septembre 1925” Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV282.

[30] “Note de l’Agent Desiré du 20 Mai 1925”, Folder 110, CAOM SLOTFOM XV 282.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid

[34] Whereas a French mutilé de guerre would receive a yearly pension of 15,390 francs, his African counterpart of the same rank would receive only 1,800 francs. La Voix des Nègres, Janvier 1927, CAOM SLOTFOM V 3.

[35] Senghor died on November 25, 1927 in the military garrison town of Fréjus. Fréjus and Saint-Rachael were sites for African soldiers to stay over the winter during the war, and thus places that brought together West African, Malagasy, and Southeast Asian soldiers and workers. Gregory Mann, “Locating Colonial Histories: Between France and West Africa,” The American Historical Review 110, no. 2 (2005): 425–34.

[36] “Discours de Senghor,” La Voix des Nègres, March 1927, CAOM SLOTFOM V 3.