Book Review: Neelam Srivastava, Italian Colonialism and Resistances to Empire, 1930-1970, London: Palgrave, 2018. 266 pp. ISBN 978-1-137-46584-9.

Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in the autumn of 1935. The invasion happened late in the history of European imperialism, at a time when transnational anticolonial and antiracist activism was gaining momentum. Both Italy and Ethiopia were members of the League of Nations, and had signed the League’s covenant that protected the territorial integrity and political independence of member states. Although the Italian attack was in violation of the League’s charter, the League’s response was mild, indecisive and ineffective. Sanctions were imposed on Italy, but the UK and France kept trying to appease Mussolini, including secretly proposing a partition plan that would have given Italy large swathes of Ethiopian territory. The invasion and the failure of the League to stop Mussolini sent shock waves among anticolonial activists. “The outrage felt by black communities all over the world, from Harlem to London, from Port of Spain to Accra”, Neelam Srivastava tells us in her Italian Colonialism and Resistances to Empire, 1930-1970, “was fuelled both by the act of the invasion itself and by what was perceived as the betrayal of a black nation by its white so-called allies in the League of Nations” (p. 67). Chapters 3 and 4 of Srivastava’s book trace how the 1935 Italian invasion united and strengthened the anticolonial black front, acting as a catalyst for interwar black internationalism. Ethiopia was the only part of the African continent to have retained its independence through the Scramble of Africa, crucially defeating a first Italian invasion attempt at Adwa in 1896. Black nationalists and Pan-Africanists saw it as a beacon of freedom and independence, and “Ethiopianism” was embraced as a liberation ideology by secular and religious movements in South Africa, North America, and the Caribbean.

Italian Colonialism and Resistances to Empire, 1930-1970 makes two important interventions in the fields of intellectual history and postcolonial theory. Many anticolonial thinkers identified with socialism or communism, but we need to “complicate the narrative of origins whereby the ‘rightful’ place of anti-colonial and postcolonial thinking belongs exclusively to the history of international Marxism” (p. 7). The lack of Western support for Ethiopia at the time of Mussolini’s invasion led many prominent black intellectuals to distance themselves from mainstream communism and to denounce its Eurocentric bias. Anticolonial thought was defined precisely by the criticism of orthodox Marxism and European communism. George Padmore’s gradual disappointment with the Comintern is a perfect example of this growing disappointment, and Claude McKay’s recently re-discovered novel Amiable with Big Teeth similarly offers a stark critique of communism’s betrayal of black struggles. We cannot smoothly assimilate anticolonial politics with the narrative of communist anti-imperialism, Srivastava argues. These anticolonial critiques expanded and enriched Marxist theory, re-energising it from the so-called “global peripheries”. The protagonists of such Marxist renewal were from the Third World, and deeply influenced European thinkers throughout the rest of the century. The dynamic engine of Marxist theory in these years was in the “peripheries”, not in the “centre”. It is time to overcome diffusionist understandings of political ideas as merely radiating towards the colonies from their inevitably-European point of origin.

Srivastava’s second argument further disrupts ideas of “centre” and “periphery”.  When we study anti-colonial thought, what comes to mind are Third World politicians, activists and intellectuals that fought for the liberation of their own people. Postcolonial theory tends to present the “colonizers” and the “colonized” as two internally homogeneous blocs in antagonism with each other – the colonized fighting for their liberation, the colonizers fighting against it. But the history of anticolonial thought, Srivastava shows us, is much broader than this dichotomy implies. In the period between the two world wars, anticolonial thought was truly global, extending to European countries as well. Several Europeans actively campaigned in favour of Ethiopia and against Fascist Italy. Among the British pro-Ethiopian sympathizers were George Steer, author of Caesar in Abyssinia, and Sylvia Pankhurst, the indefatigable editor of the newspaper New Times and Ethiopia News.

To understand these anticolonial intellectuals from the “centre”, Srivastava reconceptualizes the notion of “partisan”. The “partisan”, according to her, can be thought of as an irregular, camouflaged figure, capable of “self-othering” and moved by “voluntary empathy”, a “commitment to a political cause that does not come from a filial relationship to their culture or nation but from an affiliative one, a chosen allegiance, as it were” (p. 6). These “partisans” fought against an oppression that did not directly affect them – although they also had a clear idea of how different forms of oppression were structurally related and intertwined.

Film poster for Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966)

The first “partisans” that the book talks about, from this point of view, are the exponents of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1930s. The PCI activists who campaigned against the invasion of Ethiopia were all in exile at the time, which facilitated the development of internationalist sympathies for colonized people. PCI thinkers drew parallels between the oppressed working classes within Italy, particularly in the impoverished south, Italian manual labourers who had emigrated to other European countries, and non-European “subalterns”, a crucial term in Antonio Gramsci’s thought was also applied to colonized peoples. In Chapter 2, Srivastava narrates how the PCI’s major anti-fascist campaign was waged around Ethiopia, not Italy. In redefining the notion of the “partisan”, Srivastava also expands the timeframe of the Resistenza (the Italian resistance against Nazi-Fascism in 1943-45), tracing its origin backwards in time. In 1938, the PCI sent some emissaries to Ethiopia, one of whom, Ilio Barontini, spent two years training Ethiopian resistance fighters. Counter-hegemonic politics in the 1920s and 1930s was at once anticolonial and antifascist. This is perhaps the main argument of Srivastava’s book: that in the interwar years antifascism and anticolonialism were co-constituted, spoke the same language, and were conceived as part and parcel of the same struggle for justice.

The last two chapters of the book talk about the influence of Third Worldism on post-1945 Italian literature and film. The Algerian war of independence against the French had a big impact on the Italian left, leading to a renewal of Italian radical culture and to a new aesthetics of resistance. Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers is the perfect example of this political and aesthetic trend. In these years, Italian radicals such as Giovanni Pirelli thought that Third-Worldism was the future of social justice movements, and stressed the intellectual and political leadership of the Third World in the global struggle for freedom and equality. Pirelli expands the temporal frame of the Resistenza as well, this time stretching it forward into the future. The Resistenza is, for him, an unfinished battle, an open-ended political project. Srivastava picks a powerful quote to illustrate Pirelli’s dedication to the anticolonial cause:

Remember that the Resistance did not at all end with the defeat of fascism. It continued and continues against everything that survives of that mentality, of those methods, against any system that gives to the few the power to decide for the many. It continues in the struggles of the peoples subject to colonialism, imperialism, for their real independence. It continues in the struggle against racism. (p. 247)

And yet, there was a deep ambivalence to the politics of Italian left, and Srivastava reminds us that “while Italian leftists stood alongside supporters of the Algerian struggle for independence, they also made no comment on Italy’s own colonial history, which had seemingly been erased from public memory after the Second World War” (p. 195). This amnesia, the book repeatedly points out, is still pervasive in Italy nowadays.

And indeed this is a book about internationalist synergies, but also about the ambivalences and internal tensions of the interwar anticolonial and antifascist front. Alongside the history of coalitions and collaborations, there is an equally profound history of misunderstandings and betrayals. The book’s protagonists spend much of their time and energies trying to iron out and reconcile these differences. Every alliance seems to generate its own set of contradictions. For example, “the fact that an Italian communist would be fighting in the name of a despotic emperor such as Haile Selassie shows the extent to which improbable anticolonial alliances were forged on the eve of the Second World War in Ethiopia” (p. 46). Or again: “the decade of the 1930s was a period of important transnational alliances between communists and anti-colonialisms, though at the same time, such alliances were riven by divisions and a perceived sense of betrayal” (p. 75). Perhaps the most painful ambivalence of all was the relationship between Ethiopia on the one side and black nationalism and Pan-Africanism on the other – a relationship fraught by the suspicion that Ethiopians did not really identify with blackness.

Several of these contradictions are still with us today, and are perhaps bound to exist in every internationalist project, past or future. Srivastava’s book shows us how complex and painstaking the building of internationalist politics is. Even if the objectives are shared, the motives could be vastly different, and every “partisan” has his or her blind spots.


Author information: Dr Neelam Srivastava is Reader in Postcolonial and Comparative Literature at Newcastle University, UK. She has co-edited Indian Literature and the World: Multi-lingualism, Translation and the Public Sphere (2017) and The Postcolonial Gramsci (2012), and has published widely on Italian colonial/postcolonial cultures and on South Asian literature. She is the author of Secularism in the Postcolonial Indian Novel (2007). She is an Associate Editor of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies and co-founder of the Postcolonial Print Cultures International Research Network, a collaborative project between Newcastle and New York University. Her research interests include Indian/South Asian literature in English, theories and narratives of violence, anti-colonial and postcolonial cinema, Italian colonialism, postcolonial literature, and postcolonial theory.