Paper given to the London Socialist Historians Group Conference “Attlee’s Labour Government at Seventy” on 28 February 2015.
EXITS FROM EMPIRE : BRITISH AND FRENCH CHOICES IN 1945
1945 will be remembered in Britain above all as the only year, past or future, in which a Labour government was elected which did anything of significance for the class it claimed to represent. But 1945 was also a major turning-point in world history. Firstly it saw the establishment of a new world order, which would last until 1989, in which international politics was dominated by the confrontation between the USA and the USSR. And secondly it saw the beginning of the end for the colonial empires of Europe, which had largely disappeared within twenty years. Any understanding of both the achievements and the limitations of the Attlee government requires that it be set in this international context. This paper will attempt to make a contribution to such an understanding by comparing the exits from empire of Britain and its near neighbour France.
In 1945 the map of the world was still dominated by the European colonial empires. The British Empire, which in 1918 had been the biggest empire in human history, covering a quarter of the globe’s population and land area, was still largely intact. Its nearest rival, the French Empire, had before 1940 covered nearly one tenth of the world’s land area, and five per cent of the world’s population. By 1965 all that remained of these two empires was débris and anomalies. The other smaller empires followed a similar pattern. The Netherlands – initially with British assistance – tried to cling on to Indonesia, but abandoned the attempt by 1949. Belgium’s hasty retreat from the Congo in 1960 led to a short-term economic crisis which in turn produced a historic general strike. The Portuguese empire, which more than any other continued to conform to the Leninist analysis of imperialism, finally collapsed in 1974‑75, bringing the mother country to the brink of proletarian revolution.
One of the defining acts of the Attlee government was the decision to move rapidly towards Indian independence in 1947. The initial proposal was opposed by the Tories in the House of Commons, though one observer noted that “the gulf between Government and Opposition was far narrower than some of Mr Churchill’s more sombre polemics might suggest”. Subsequently the Tories in parliament did not oppose the required legislation, and Churchill, the arch-imperialist, actually complimented Attlee.
Having unloaded the “jewel in the crown”, Britain moved away from empire quite rapidly. The process was finalised by Macmillan and the “wind of change” in around 1960. I have no desire to minimise either the brutality of the British Empire or the courage and determination shown by the people in the colonies who resisted it. I would go along entirely with the analysis presented in John Newsinger’s book The Blood Never Dried. Britain was particularly reluctant to withdraw when there were Cold War strategic concerns (Britain being almost totally subservient to US foreign policy), when there were important natural resources at stake (e.g. rubber in Malaya), or when there was a significant settler population (as in Kenya). John Newsinger may be exaggerating, though only slightly, when he claims that British repression in Kenya was “in some respects… worse” than the French war in Algeria, but that “the British were just better at covering it up”, but his basic point is very valid.
But it is nonetheless the case that there was no significant public opposition to the course of British decolonisation. Undoubtedly there were many people who were unhappy with the situation. I recall that in about 1950, when I was about ten years old, I and some of my schoolmates were given a lift in the car of one of my father’s friends. When we were settled inside he enquired “Are you boys all Conservatives?” and when we assured him that we were, he informed us “We should never have given India away”. Doubtless many thousands, most of whom had not thought through the logic of their position, agreed with him. But they did nothing about it. The League of Empire Loyalists, who sometimes disrupted political meetings in the 1950s and who advocated maintaining and rebuilding the Empire, were very much part of the British political fringe.
It is true that the situations in, for example, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and later Aden made the front pages of the newspapers from time to time, and that sometimes, though not always, they disrupted the consensus between the political parties. I might note that my own earliest recorded political act was shouting “How about Nyasaland?” at Harold Macmillan when he was addressing an election rally in Shipley marketplace in 1959.
But the question of the Empire did not make much impact on British political life. In none of the general elections from 1945 to 1964 was decolonisation a significant, let alone a decisive, issue; all the elections were fought primarily on domestic, economic questions. By contrast in the French 1955 election campaign of 1955, a poll asked voters to name the most important issue facing the incoming government: 25% named North Africa as against 15% for wages and the cost of living,
Only once did the disintegration of Empire threaten to disturb political life, with the Suez crisis of 1956-57, when a dishonest and incompetent Tory Prime Minister was removed and replaced by a rather more intelligent Conservative, Harold Macmillan. Here too there was a clear dividing line between the parties, with Labour actually taking an anti-war line, though largely motivated by pro-Americanism rather than internationalist principle. But it should be noted that the primary enthusiasm for the Suez intervention came from France, which believed that Nasser’s Egypt was playing a key role in inspiring and organising the Algerian revolt.
The French experience was very different. After the end of the German occupation and the second world war, France was at peace for less than two years before embarking on a major colonial war in Indochina. This lasted until 1954, when it ended with a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The French lost 20,000 soldiers; total casualties were at least 400,000. After the Communist Party was evicted from government in 1947 it waged a vigorous campaign against the war, with strikes and direct action, such as lying down on railway lines and throwing weapons into the sea.
The defeat in Indochina was followed within months by the outbreak of the war in Algeria. This lasted until French withdrawal in 1962; total French military losses were around 25,000, while some 300,000 Algerians died. Unlike in Indochina conscripts were used, so almost every French family had a stake in the conflict. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) organised among Algerian workers in mainland France; in October 1961 a peaceful demonstration by Algerians in Paris was attacked by police and over 200 were killed. Internecine war between the FLN and its rival the MNA left some four thousand dead on French soil. And when the French government made it clear it intended to withdraw from Algeria, the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS: Secret Army Organisation), which wanted to preserve French rule and which was supported by leading army officers who had defected and a former prime minister (Georges Bidault), launched violent action in mainland France, with bombings and an attempted assassination of the President.
All this had been too much for the French political system. The Fourth Republic was notoriously politically unstable – twenty-one governments in twelve years. Four Fourth Republic governments fell specifically as a result of colonial questions. And in 1958 the Fourth Republic itself collapsed amid rumours of civil war, leading to the return from retirement of General de Gaulle at the price of the establishment of a new constitution which enshrined authoritarian presidential power.
This is not the place to examine France’s disastrous colonial wars in detail. But although there were many occasions of choice in later years, essentially the die was cast in 1945. It was then that France decided that it would restore and hold on to the colonial empire it had possessed before 1939, while Attlee’s régime, pragmatically and somewhat half-heartedly, recognised that the time to withdraw had arrived.
The French government in 1945, preparing the process for the establishment of a new republic which would be established in 1946, was based on a balance between the different forces which had opposed the German Occupation. Prime Minister was General Charles de Gaulle, who had headed the Free French forces in exile. But the main parties backing his government were of the left or centre left – the Communists (PCF), who had been at the heart of the internal Resistance movement, the Socialists (SFIO), France’s other major working-class party, and the MRP, left Christian Democrats. The political forces of the right were for the moment largely disqualified by their collaboration with the occupiers.
There were two essential points in 1945 at which France’s fateful decision was consolidated. The first came in May 1945 in Algeria. Germany had finally surrendered on 7 May. On 8 May a victory parade was held in Sétif, a market town in Kabylia, a mountainous area on the Northern coast of Algeria. Many Muslims gathered, including members of the Muslim Scouts, a legal organisation set up by the main nationalist organisation, the Algerian People’s Party (PPA). The nationalists wanted a large but peaceful demonstration; they had no plans for violence. They brought banners calling for national independence and the freeing of nationalist leader Messali Hadj.
While it is hard to establish exactly what happened, it seems clear that one of the police opened fire, killing a boy who was carrying a flag. This enraged the crowd. Some Muslims were armed; many were not, but they used knives, bottles, clubs and railings. All Europeans were considered to be the enemy after long years of colonial repression; they were killed and their bodies mutilated. Altogether some hundred Europeans died. Some may have been mere bystanders, but years of accumulated bitterness, and the arrogance and brutality of the settlers, made such indiscriminate violence inevitable.
The rising spread throughout the region, and produced a rapid and disproportionate response from the authorities. Violence continued for four or five days. There were executions and widespread arrests. Villages were bombed from the air and a town was shelled from a cruiser at sea. The attacks were indiscriminate. The point was not to punish the original rioters but to teach the whole Muslim population to know their place. Settlers set up death squads and killed hundreds of Muslims. German and Italian prisoners-of-war were released to take part in the massacre. Torture was widespread. Probably at least fifteen thousand died, though some claim as many as fifty thousand. Even on a very conservative estimate, the Europeans killed fifty Muslims for every European life lost.
For many Algerians this was a vital turning-point. Any hope of peaceful progress towards independence was abandoned. Thus Ahmed Ben Bella, later to be one of the leaders of the FLN, had just returned home after fighting with the Allies in Italy. He had won a medal for his courageous conduct, presented by de Gaulle himself, and was invited to stay on in the French Army. But, he later recalled, Sétif made it clear that he must refuse, and devote himself to the cause of his own community.
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan quickly surrendered. This took the Allies somewhat by surprise; they had expected the war to continue into 1946. Rapid decisions had to be taken about territory occupied by Japan, notably Korea and Indochina.
The situation in Indochina was complex. Until 1945 it had been ruled by a French colonial administration controlled by the pro-German Vichy régime, which made an agreement with Japan in 1940. In 1945 Japan had occupied the territory. There was now a political vacuum. It was decided at the Potsdam conference that Chinese forces would occupy the northern part of Indochina, and British troops would occupy the southern half.
The reason for British involvement was twofold. Firstly France was still recovering from four years of occupation, and needed time to reorganise its armed forces; French troops started leaving for Indochina (by ship) only in October. Secondly, the British Foreign Office was keen to cooperate with the French, believing that British and French imperialisms had a common interest in face of the Americans, who were very much in favour of dismantling the European colonial empires. A rather more cynical view was taken by Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Theatre, who told Anthony Eden that it was vital that the French should liberate Indochina “in collaboration with us and that they should be properly grateful for us doing it for and with them”.
Things were complicated by the situation in Syria. Previously under French rule, Syria was occupied by Britain and the Free French in 1941. In 1945 France was determined to maintain its influence in Syria. In May 1945 demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo were met by French military violence. Churchill threatened to send troops to Damascus, to the great annoyance of de Gaulle who was obliged to order a cease-fire; the French were eventually obliged to withdraw. A furious de Gaulle told the British Ambassador: “We are not, I recognize, in a state to wage war on you now. But you have outraged France and betrayed the West. That can never be forgotten.”
Relations between de Gaulle and Churchill had not been good already during the war, and there was mutual distrust. De Gaulle was a hard-line imperialist. In Washington in September 1945 he assured President Truman that steps would be taken towards the early independence of Indochina. But his true sentiments were undoubtedly expressed in his broadcast the same month announcing the founding of the Fourth Republic: “Our ports are reopening. Our fields are being ploughed. Our ruins are being cleared away. Almost all those who left France have returned. We are recovering our Empire. We are established on the Rhine. We are taking back our place in the world.” Apparently the World War had just been an unfortunate interlude. The French were impatient and unwilling to devolve sovereignty in Indochina. In August de Gaulle appointed General Leclerc Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in the Far East; almost immediately Leclerc was at odds with Mountbatten, whom he accused of not acting energetically enough in French interests.
There was an alternative. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam The British forces, making use of recently defeated Japanese troops, intervened to prevent this and ensure that France would be able to reclaim its colony. The newly elected Labour MP Tom Driberg, who was visiting Indochina, offered to try and mediate between Britain and Ho Chi Minh, but his letter was delayed by the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Land Forces, General Gracey.
Labour prime minister Attlee was a busy man, but he must have been aware that large numbers of British troops (in fact mainly Indians and Gurkhas) were invading an Asian country. (Cabinet minutes show that Attlee and Bevin were directing this policy.) Britain played a similar role in Indonesia, in attempting to restore Dutch rule. But the episode receives not a single mention in biographies by Francis Beckett or Kenneth Harris. Alan Bullock’s sycophantic life of Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin gives it only a couple of paragraphs, unquestioningly justifying the British role. John Saville, however, dismisses Bevin’s parliamentary statement as “a louche statement of lies”.
Historical speculation is always problematic, but we might wonder what would have happened if Britain had not done its French ally a good turn at this point. Had an independent Indochina been established at this point – when Ho Chi Minh was playing down his Communist connections (in November 1945 the Indochinese Communist Party was officially dissolved, though the organisation undoubtedly continued to operate) – the long French war and the even longer American war need never have happened. Two million or more deaths would have been unnecessary. How the “judgment of history” might balance this against the creation of the National Health Service is an open but interesting question. Certainly there was a good deal of truth in the Vietminh broadcast of 5 October 1945 which stated: “The British delegation is entirely responsible for the bloodshed in Vietnam which heralds a third world war. The cowardly French Imperialists could not start trouble within Vietnam without the support of the British delegation.”
What is clear is that the French left made no visible opposition to the reestablishment of the French colonial empire. After Sétif the French Communist Party’s daily paper blamed the events on a “handful of big landowners who are responsible for starvation” and demanded the dismissal of pro-Vichy officials; and it demanded an announcement of the date of local elections. A few days later the paper called explicitly for the punishment of “the Hitlerite killers who took part in the events of 8 May and the pseudonationalist leaders who have deliberately tried to deceive the Muslim masses”. By implication the finger was pointed at the PPA, the organisation led by Messali Hadj which had taken over from the Étoile Nord Africaine when it was banned by the Popular Front government in 1937.
In July in the Consultative Assembly Communist deputy Étienne Fajon continued to blame the events in Sétif on a “fascist plot”. These fascists, he maintained, were determined to “provoke disorders which would line up the Muslims and the Europeans into two hostile blocs and would in their view justify the maintenance of an antidemocratic régime in Algeria.” So an apparently class-based appeal for unity of Europeans and Muslims was in fact used to eliminate any suggestion of national independence for Algeria.
Communist François Billoux, who was a member of de Gaulle’s government throughout 1945, has subsequently claimed: “We didn’t know the extent of the events of May 1945 and the repression until much later, for not all questions were brought before the government. Many things were settled directly by de Gaulle with the ministers concerned.” This may very well be true – de Gaulle certainly had an authoritarian style. But the French Communist Party was a mass organisation, with over half a million members, including several thousand, both European and Muslim, in Algeria. It could hardly claim it did not know what was going on. In his own book about the experience of governmental participation Billoux stresses the PCF’s anticolonialism, but makes no specific mention of either Sétif or the reoccupation of Indochina. Charles Tillon, a long-standing PCF member and participant in the Black Sea mutinies of 1919, was Air Minister, though he had no responsibility for military aircraft. Tillon’s own account, published after his final break with the PCF, blames the repression on pro-Vichy elements in Algeria (and notes that some former Resistance fighters sent to Algeria refused to participate in the repression).
The PCF likewise expressed no opposition to the recolonisation of Indochina. Indeed as late as 1947, after full-scale war had broken out, Communist ministers respected cabinet discipline by voting for war credits, though Communist deputies showed their opposition by abstaining.
The Socialist Party was equally keen to preserve the empire. Its position was summed up by Roger Vétillard: “As far as the colonies were concerned, the Socialists were sceptical of the ability of the emerging nationalisms to take on a genuine independence, and so they put forward the position that, left to their own devices, the overseas countries would inevitably fall under the influence of either America or the USSR. With the exception of a few militants on the left ….. none of the Socialist leaders questioned colonialism.” Hence, while advocating reforms in the areas of education, health, working conditions etc., the SFIO’s fundamental position was to assimilate Algeria to France. Veteran leader Léon Blum favoured the formula of recognising Vietnam as a “free state within the French Union”, but he justified it with a rhetoric that was very much that of imperialism: “There is one means, and one alone, of preserving in Indochina the prestige of our civilisation, our political and spiritual influence, and also those of our legitimate material interests, and that is a sincere agreement on the basis of independence.” In 1946 it was during Blum’s premiership that the Indochina war began, partly because Blum had failed to challenge the military leadership in Indochina that made war inevitable.
The SFIO was perhaps more pragmatic than the PCF, but in the last resort was pro‑imperialist. Philip Williams summed up their position: “On both Indo-China and Algeria they were radicals in opposition but standpatters in office.” They were very much dominated by the republican nationalist tradition, and always preferred alliances with the anticlerical Radicals rather than with the Christian Democratic MRP, though in political terms there was little to choose between the two.
Elsewhere on the left Pierre Mendès-France, who later liquidated the Indochina war, and eventually opposed the war in Algeria, seems to have shown no concern about colonial policy in 1945. A slightly more critical position came from the independent left-inclined press, for example the journal Combat, which had begun as an underground Resistance paper and in which Claude Bourdet and Albert Camus played leading roles. Camus, who had briefly been a Communist, had in the pre-war period written a powerful indictment of poverty in Kabylia. On 23 May 1945 Combat published an article by Camus headed “It is justice which will save Algeria from hatred”. He commended the movement “Amis de la démocratie” (Friends of Democracy) which advocated the extension of rights of citizenship and a “social policy of equality”. These aims, which Camus claimed were supported by Communists, Socialists and Radicals, were described as a “reasonable and humane” programme, and he argued that they represented “France’s last chance of saving its future in North Africa”. In other words he favoured justice and reconciliation; but he was quite clear that Algeria’s future must be as an integral part of the French nation.
Le Monde, a newly established daily which would acquire a reputation as an organ of the centre left, said nothing of the events in Sétif until the issue dated 15 May, when it carried half a column on page 8. This contained the time-honoured myth of the “outside agitator”: “On the morning of 8 May a taxi from Algiers brought to Sétif an agitator who was bearing a call for insurrection, after announcing that Algiers, Oran and Constantine were already covered with blood and fire.” The following day it carried a communiqué from the Ministry of the Interior explicitly blaming the Sétif events on the PPA.
A couple of days later Le Monde found it appropriate to publish a long two-part article by Jacques Driand called “The North African Crisis”, which essentially put the case of the European settlers, who were said to be “at grips with native masses excited by a policy of necessary emancipation”. Driand claimed that the Pan-Arab movement was “exciting the nationalists who are looking towards Cairo”. He insisted that “total assimilation” was impossible and not desirable, and that the Europeans were threatened by rising native wages although the Arabs had “very much lower needs than ours”. He drew particular attention to “the agitator Ferhat Abbas”. That Le Monde, which claimed to stand in the tradition of the Resistance, should give such prominence to an article of this sort is an indication of the way colonial questions were viewed even in progressive circles.
Le Monde likewise approved British occupation of Indochina at the beginning of September 1945, saying that this was an emergency measure and that British troops would withdraw as soon as the French were able to send troops. It noted with pleasure that “the French flag will again be flying in the Indochinese sky”. A few days later it published a front-page editorial stressing the need for Franco-British cooperation: “Old rivalries, here and there made worse by a few mistakes and above all by misunderstandings, have for too long obscured the necessity for this reconciliation”. And it assured its readers that “France, for its part, knows that the presence of British troops in Indochina must in no way threaten the establishment of its sovereignty there.”
In terms of the population in general it is easy to understand why there was general acceptance of France’s colonial policy. The defeat of Germany and the prospects for a new post-war society were at the front of everybody’s minds. Supporters of the Communist Party were inclined to accept the party’s judgment because of its Resistance record. Thus Edgar Morin, who had joined the party during the Resistance, recalled that he had not worried about the party’s line on Sétif: “We were absolutely certain that we were the representatives of all the victims of oppression in the world. We were sure that the least of our actions, even if it were clumsy or brutal, would hasten the emancipation of all humanity …. The dissonances of 1944-45 were absorbed into this admirable harmony … Why had the Communist Party been silent at the time of the Sétif massacres? Why was it not campaigning for the suppression of the colonial system? These problems were immediately submerged by the euphoria of victory and by our own intellectual euphoria …. As for the colonial problem, our principled anti-colonialism was self-sufficient …. It was so obvious to us that our cause was that of the human race that, even if we had been upset by Warsaw or Sétif, we would immediately have thrown onto the other side of the scales as a counterbalance the human race in its totality. Such arguments were to protect us for a long time.”
Only slowly did a realisation of the nature of French colonial rule begin to spread. On 22 December 1945 the independent left paper Franc-Tireur published a vigorous attack on French policy in Indochina, citing a letter from a French soldier which compared French actions in Indochina to the massacre at Oradour, one of the worst atrocities during the Nazi occupation of France. Jacques Soustelle, Colonial Minister, considered the effect on French public opinion to be “disastrous”. Henri Martin, a sailor and former Resister who had gone to the Far East expecting to fight the Japanese, found himself confronting the Vietnamese. He wrote home to his parents: “In Indochina the French army is behaving in the same way as the boches did in France. I am completely disgusted at seeing that. Why are our planes machine-gunning (every day) defenceless fishermen? Why are our soldiers burning, looting and killing? In order to civilise?” This recognition of parallels between the German occupation and French colonial rule was to become more frequent during the Algerian war.
Why the difference between France and Britain? Those who argue that Labour was and remained an imperialist party have to say that Britain got out of India because there was no alternative. Thus Robert Clough writes: “Labour conceded independence, not because it had wanted to, but because there was no other way.” Likewise DN Pritt, who sat as an Independent Labour MP from 1945 to 1950, but effectively presents the position of the British Communist Party, tells us: “It was growing clearer in the early part of 1947 both that the peoples of British India would not be content with anything less than independence, and that it would be impossible, in the face of popular resistance, for the British to continue to hold and administer the country for very long.” And John Newsinger assures us: “Any attempt to impose British terms on the Indian people was thought likely to involve another 15 years occupation of the country. This was just not possible. There were neither the troops nor the money.”
But there was an alternative. Britain could have firmly insisted that India would remain British permanently, sent some half a million National Servicemen to maintain order – and withdrawn in humiliation a few years later on. Those who say that this would have been unthinkable should remember that that is precisely what France did in Algeria. And France, emerging from Nazi Occupation, was weaker economically and militarily than Britain.
Were Britain’s rulers cleverer, more long-sighted than those in France? It seems unlikely. It may be true that Attlee would “certainly have won television’s Mastermind”, as Francis Beckett claims, but there were clever fellows in the French government too. It was ideology, not intelligence that was at stake.
Nor is it enough to argue that Algeria was a special case. It is true that Algeria had a large settler population, many with personal or family connections with mainland France. True also that Algeria was constitutionally part of France rather than a colony – although the majority of its inhabitants did not have full rights of citizenship until 1958. But 1945 showed that France wanted to hold onto its entire colonial empire, not just Algeria. And 1954 showed that France, its government and its army, had learned nothing, absolutely nothing from Dien Bien Phu. It was only the pressure of circumstances that meant that in 1956 it was willing to dump Tunisia and Morocco in order to tighten its grip on Algeria, and a little later it had to withdraw rather hastily from sub-Saharan Africa.
The situation cannot be explained in purely economic terms. It is true that changing economic patterns made it easier for Britain to withdraw from India; as Michael Kidron explained, British withdrawal had to be understood in a context where “growing industrial diversity in developed countries and the technological intensification it entails have done as much to lessen the need for primary materials as have secular boom and the growth of state purchasing to lessen the demand for auxiliary markets”.
But despite the horrors of France’s long and unnecessary wars, there is no evidence that France suffered economically from the loss of its colonial territories. The wars took place in the period often referred to as the “trente glorieuses” – the long post-war boom from 1945 to 1975. In 1968, just six years after Algerian independence, the Economist published a glowing account of French economic life, which noted that since 1958 France had “prospered mightily” and that “the average Frenchman eats and drinks better than the average Englishman … and is more likely to have a car”. (The irony was that this was published during the biggest general strike in history.) French capitalism was very easily able to adapt to life without colonies – the Renault management were having talks with the FLN (presumably with a view to future marketing) before Algeria became independent. It was not French capital, but the army and the settlers who opposed Algerian independence and made withdrawal so difficult.
The role of the United States is also significant. During World War II, especially while Roosevelt was still alive, the USA was actively opposed to colonialism and against the reestablishment of the European empires. Despite the rhetoric, this did not result from compassion for the “poor … huddled masses” of the world, but rather from a recognition that if the European empires were to withdraw it would make it easier to spread US political and economic influence.
British Labour, from the very start, was slavishly pro-American; this continued with the setting up of NATO and the opposition to Suez, the one time British foreign policy seriously diverged from American wishes. In France things were more complex; the PCF was obviously pro-Russian, though willing to police a brief post-war honeymoon. De Gaulle, due to his wartime experiences, was much more suspicious of the Americans (as was shown by his partial withdrawal from NATO in the 1960s). It was only in 1947, after the removal of both de Gaulle and the PCF, that a French government, headed by the SFIO, was able to take an openly pro-American position in the incipient Cold War. In 1945 the French government was distrustful of the Americans – and that distrust was manifested in a concern to maintain the French Empire.
The role of the army in French political life may also be of some significance. The French army had suffered a humiliating defeat in 1940, and was anxious to restore its honour; it saw Indochina as an opportunity to achieve this. The British armed forces, on the other, had nothing to prove – and in some parts of the world the troops were mutinous, demanding to return home.
There is also the fact of the instability of the Fourth Republic, as contrasted to the much‑vaunted stability of the British two-party system (at least until 2010). France’s multi‑party system (a reflection of its class structure with a large petty bourgeoisie), and the existence of a mass Communist Party which after 1947 was automatically excluded from all governmental combinations, certainly made parliamentary democracy an unwieldy instrument which found it hard to handle the crises caused by decolonisation. But this was a secondary factor – Italy too had an unstable parliamentary system, but it survived repeated governmental crises without anybody much noticing. (I remember being in Italy in 1969 and asking people I met – all political activists – whether there was a government at present; nobody knew.) But Italy had no colonies to shed.
Britain and France both had an honourable anti-imperialist tradition, embodied not only in the far left but in sections of the liberal bourgeoisie. This may have been stronger in Britain than in France, where the independent left was always under the shadow of the PCF with its opportunistic shifts on international questions.
However, I would argue that the principal factor that shaped the difference between French and British political choices in 1945 was the republican tradition which dominated French political thinking, especially on the left. This easily accommodated the notion that France’s role in the world was a progressive one, bringing civilisation and enlightenment to more benighted territories.
This was summed up neatly by Gilles Martinet, who in 1945 had been associated with the Revue internationale, a journal bringing together ex-Trotskyists and other leftists, and which offered an alternative to the politics of the mainstream left. Martinet later described the philosophy of the republican left:
Behind the refusal of many Socialist militants to recognise the legitimacy of the Algerian demand for independence it was possible to detect the idea that nothing was superior to being a citizen of the Republic, “one and indivisible”, and that an African – Arab or black – could hope for nothing better than to become purely and simply French.
I realise that reference to a “tradition” opens me up to accusations of idealism. But the tradition had a very solid material base, namely the French educational system. This has been, and remains, a central institution of French society - in France today just under a quarter of the population (24.7%) are involved in the education system, either as employees or as students.
The French system of universal secular education dates from the late nineteenth century. France was still substantially a peasant society, and national consciousness was not well developed, as Eugen Weber has shown. The establishment of an education system which would inculcate national values into all children was closely tied up with the development of French imperialism. It is no coincidence that the architect of the French education system, Jules Ferry, was also a prime mover in the colonisation of Indochina.
The establishment of a school-teacher in every village ensured that there was a force to counter the influence of the priests, who might put their allegiance to the Vatican ahead of their duty to the French state. Especially after the separation of church and state in 1905 the education system aimed to outweigh any rival loyalties that might exist in the population. The vicious anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus case and the subsequent rise of left anti-clericalism were two sides of the same coin. It was French primary education and its ideology of laïcité (secularism) that dragooned millions of peasants into the trenches in 1914.
In the 1920s it briefly appeared that at least a section of the French left had broken with republican imperialist ideology. The newly formed French Communist Party endorsed the Twenty-One Conditions of the Communist International; the eighth condition required that:
Parties in countries whose bourgeoisie possess colonies and oppress other nations must pursue a most well-defined and clear-cut policy in respect of colonies and oppressed nations. Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its “own” country, must support—in deed, not merely in word—every colonial liberation movement, demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, inculcate in the hearts of the workers of its own country an attitude of true brotherhood with the working population of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples.
The PCF launched an anticolonial paper, Le Paria, edited by the young Ho Chi Minh, and during the 1924 election campaign presented a North African candidate, Hadjali Abdelkader. In the course of the campaign he recruited a factory worker called Messali Hadj. Together they founded the Étoile Nord-Africaine, the first organisation to demand Algerian independence, from which the FLN was ultimately descended.
But with the Popular Front of the 1930s the PCF reverted to the republican family. The fact that the Comintern’s Popular Front strategy was relatively successful in France whereas it had much more meagre results elsewhere was precisely because the Popular Front corresponded to a long tradition of republican unity. One important manifestation of popular frontism was that the PCF dropped the demand for Algerian independence. Party leader Thorez used the specious argument that recognising the right to divorce does not imply that one should advocate divorce in a particular instance. The implication was that France’s relations with its colonies were comparable to a happy marriage. But if France was wedded to its colonies it had been very much a forced marriage.
After a brief interlude for the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the PCF continued to pursue a popular frontist line throughout the German Occupation, so at the Liberation its course was already set. The PCF’s conduct in 1945 is sometimes explained primarily in terms of its subordination to Moscow. It is certainly true that the PCF remained a solidly pro-Moscow organisation, as was shown by its sharp tack to the left with the start of the Cold War in 1947. But the PCF’s line over Sétif and Indochina was determined not just by allegiance to Moscow, but above all by its location in the republican tradition, which ensured that its policies would receive acceptance from its mass base. An Indochinese delegate who visited France in 1946 reported a meeting with PCF leader Thorez in which the latter declared that his party “had no intention of being considered as the potential liquidator of French positions in Indochina and that he ardently wished to see the French flag flying in all corners of the French Union.”
The strength of that tradition is shown by the way that most of the French left, including the far left, continues to regard laïcité as something positive to be defended by the left. Yet it is clear that in fact laïcité has become one of the factors supporting Islamophobia. In 2013 a Socialist Party Minister of the Interior supported the sacking of a nursery worker for wearing the hijab, arguing that the headscarf remained “an essential battle for the Republic”.
In general it appears that governments of the right handle decolonisation better than those of the left. The left in power, because it is afraid of losing votes by seeming too internationalist, is constantly looking over its shoulder to prove that it is just as patriotic as its rivals. It was de Gaulle, not the French left, who withdrew from Algeria. Such an ardent nationalist had no fear of being seen as “unpatriotic”. And until the Bush duo broke the pattern, it was the rule in American politics that the Democrats started wars and the Republicans finished them. (Though I persist in believing that if Gore had won in 2000 he would have nuked Iraq.)
British Labour was equally attached to imperialism. J.H. Thomas, Labour’s first colonial secretary, introduced himself to the Colonial Office with the words, “I am here to see that there is no such mucking about with the British Empire”. John Saville writes of Labour’s post-1945 Foreign Secretary: “For Bevin, then, the Empire was integrally linked with his constant insistence that Britain was still a Great Power alongside the USA and the Soviet Union.”
Yet British Labour has always been more pragmatic than the French left. Eclectic in its roots, and allegedly owing more to Methodism than to Marxism, Labour has never believed itself to be any part of a revolutionary tradition. Sections of the British Francophile left, captivated by the French left intelligentsia of the fifties, have argued that the British left was defective in comparison with the French, because it was short on “theory”. Thus Perry Anderson claimed, with a rather cavalier disregard for historical fact, that “mature socialist theory was developed in precisely the years of the British proletariat’s amnesia and withdrawal. In France, in Germany, in Italy, Marxism swept the working-class. In England, everything was against it.”
In fact the French left intelligentsia did have its heroic moments, such as the Manifesto of 121 supporting those who refused to fight in Algeria or gave practical support to the FLN – but only because the French state’s crimes were so much more horrendous. Some will object that Northern Ireland was Britain’s Algeria, and there is a deal of truth in this, but the crimes, real though they were, were more contained. (Britain had already partitioned Ireland, retaining control only of the areas with greatest pro-British support. Proposals for partitioning Algeria in 1961 came to nothing.)
It is important to recognise the ambiguities of the French Revolution. It was undoubtedly a vital step forward on the road to human emancipation. But contrary to the assertion of Clemenceau (republican strike-breaker and advocate of total war) the French Revolution was not a bloc but had deep internal contradictions, as studied by Daniel Guérin and confirmed by the work of such historians as Jean Marc Schiappa. The revolutionary slogan “War on the palaces, peace to the cottages” was indeed a declaration of support for the oppressed of all nations – but it also carried the implication that France had a special role – a “civilising mission” – in liberating the oppressed.
Both the British and French lefts are still bound by the past. Many on the British left celebrate “The Spirit of ’45”, setting on one side the facts that Attlee broke strikes (the army was used eighteen times against striking workers), sent troops into Indochina and Indonesia, and decided to manufacture nuclear weapons without even consulting the cabinet.
Meanwhile much of the French left continues to festishise laïcité, ignoring its deep roots in the history of French imperialism. Both the British and the French lefts need to scrutinise their own history in the light of the present. Such scrutiny is one of the most urgent tasks for socialist historians.
 Thanks to Richard Kirkwood and Steve Cushion for some helpful comments on a first draft.
 N Ferguson, Empire, London, 2003, pp. xii-xiii.
 K Harris, Attlee, London, 1982, pp. 382-4.
 London, 2006.
 I owe this categorisation to Richard Kirkwood.
 Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, p. 182.
 G Thayer, The British Political Fringe, London, 1965, pp. 53-63.
 This was, I think, recorded in the Bingley and Shipley Guardian, though I did not consider it of sufficient importance to check.
 L’Express, 16 December 1955.
 Cf. H Thomas, The Suez Affair, London, 1967, pp. 47, 55, 74.
 J Dalloz, La Guerre d’Indochine, Paris, 1987, p. 251.
 M Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Oxford, 2012, pp. 337-8.
 Evans, Algeria, p. 217 ; B Stora, La Gangrène et l’oubli, Paris 1991, pp. 143-44.
Those of Laniel (1954), Mendès-France (1955), Bourgès-Manoury (1957) and Gaillard (1958). See PM Williams, Crisis and Compromise, London, 1964, pp. 498-500.
For widely varying estimates see R Vétillard, Sétif, Mai 1945 : Massacres en Algérie, Versailles, 2008, pp. 206‑8.
 See R Merle, Ben Bella, London, 1967.
 For a full account see: TO Smith, Britain and the Origins of the Vietnam War, Basingstoke, 2007; P Neville, Britain in Vietnam, London & New York, 2007; J Saville, The Politics of Continuity, London, 1993, pp.176-204.
 Smith, Britain and the Origins, p. 71.
 See Saville, The Politics of Continuity, pp. 182-3.
 Neville, Britain in Vietnam, p. 70.
 Cited A Bullock, Ernest Bevin, volume III, Foreign Secretary 1945-1951, p. 44.
 Neville, Britain in Vietnam, p. 32.
 Smith, Britain and the Origins, p. 41.
 Le Monde, 6 September 1945.
 Neville, Britain in Vietnam, pp. 101, 104.
 Neville, Britain in Vietnam, pp. 87-88.
 F Wheen, Tom Driberg, London, 1990, p. 219.
 Neville, Britain in Vietnam, p. 181.
 F Beckett, Clem Attlee, London, 1997.
 Harris, Attlee.
 Bullock, Ernest Bevin, III, pp. 32, 151-2.
 Saville, The Politics of Continuity, pp. 202-3.
 Dalloz, La Guerre d’Indochine, p. 92.
 Smith, Britain and the Origins, p. 46.
 L’Humanité, 15 May 1945.
 L’Humanité, 19 May 1945.
 L’Humanité, 12 July 1945.
 Cited M Amrani, Le 8 mai 1945 en Algérie, Paris, 2010, p. 95.
 544,989 according to the party’s own figures: J Fauvet, Histoire du parti communiste français tome II, Paris, 1965, p. 364.
 One estimate is that the Algerian Communist Party in 1945 had 6000 to 7000 members, of whom a third were Muslims: J-L Planche, Sétif 1945, p. 92.
 F Billoux, Quand nous étions ministres, Paris, 1972.
 R Vétillard, Sétif, Mai 1945 : Massacres en Algérie, Versailles, 2008, p. 217.
 C Tillon, On chantait rouge, Paris, 1977, pp. 430-33. See also the recollection of Pierre Daix, who worked in Tillon’s ministry: P Daix, J’ai cru au matin, Paris, 1976, pp. 166-170. (Thanks to Steve Cushion for pointing out these two references.)
 Fauvet, Histoire du parti communiste français II, pp. 194-5.
 Vétillard, Sétif, p. 444.
 J Lacouture, Léon Blum, Paris, 1977, pp. 536-7.
 Williams, Crisis and Compromise, p. 98.
 A Werth, The Strange History of Pierre Mendès-France, London, 1957.
 See his “Misère de la Kabylie” (1939), in Actuelles III: Chroniques algériennes 1939‑1958, Paris, 1958, pp. 24‑62.
 A Camus, Œuvres complètes tome II, Paris 2006, pp. 617-20.
 Le Monde, 15 May 1945.
 Le Monde, 16 May 1945.
 Le Monde, 18 & 24 May 1945.
 Le Monde, 2-3 September 1945.
 Le Monde, 8 September 1945.
 E Morin, Autocritique, Paris, 1991, pp. 78-9.
 T D’Argenlieu, Chronique d’Indochine 1945-1947, Paris, 1985, p. 91.
 Letter of 18 May 1946, in L’Affaire Henri Martin, Paris, 1953, p. 41.
 See M Evans, The Memory of Resistance, Oxford, 1997.
 R Clough, Labour: A Party Fit for Imperialism, London, 1992, p. 86. Clough’s book contains some useful material despite an excessively orthodox reliance on Lenin’s theory of the “labour aristocracy”.
 DN Pritt, The Labour Government 1945-51, London, 1963, p. 131. Pritt mentions the British intervention “against the liberation struggle of the Indonesians”, (p. 63), but says nothing of Indochina, perhaps because any criticism of Labour’s role would reflect badly on the French Communist Party.
 Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried, p. 163
 Beckett, Clem Attlee, p. xii.
 M Kidron, Foreign Investments in India, London, 1965, pp.28- 29.
 Norman Macrae, “Old France in a Hurry”, The Economist, 18 May 1968.
 See H & C Benoîts, “The Algerian War Seen from Renault-Billancourt”, Revolutionary History 10:4 (2012).
 I am grateful to Steve Cushion for suggesting this point.
 For the recollections of a British mutineer in the Middle East see Duncan Hallas, “Swimming Against the Tide”, Revolutionary History 8/2 (2002) https://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/2001/02/egypt.htm
 G Martinet, Le Marxisme de notre temps, Paris, 1962, p. 140.
 See statistics for 2014 at http://www.education.gouv.fr/cid57096/reperes-et-references-statistiques.html
 See E Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, London, 1979.
 J Moneta, Le PCF et la question coloniale, Paris, 1971, pp. 132, 136.
 P Devillers, Histoire du Viêt-Nam de 1940 à 1952, Paris, 1952, p. 268.
 J Wolfreys, “The Republic of Islamophobia” at http://www.hurstpublishers.com/republic-islamophobia/ .
 RW Lyman, The First Labour Government 1924, London, 1953, p.106.
 Saville, The Politics of Continuity, p. 99.
 A proposition attributed to Morgan Phillips, General Secretary of the Labour Party.
 P Anderson, “Origins of the Present Crisis”, New Left Review I/23 (1964).
 See G. Dallas, At the Heart of a Tiger, (London, 1993), pp. 292-7.
 D Guérin, La lutte de classes sous la première république, Paris, 1946, revised edition, Paris, 1968.
 J M Schiappa, Les babouvistes, Saint-Quentin 2003.
 The title of Ken Loach’s 2013 movie.
 G Ellen, “Labour and strike-breaking 1945–1951”, International Socialism Journal 2:24 (1984), pp. 45–73, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1984/isj2-024/ellen.html.