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  • From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain
  • James Smethurst
Susan D. Pennybacker. From Scottsboro to Munich: Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 400 pp. $27.95.

In recent years, there has been considerable scholarly interest in various aspects of political culture and race in the United States during the 1930s. Yet similar investigations of race and politics in the United Kingdom during the “Red Decade” are virtually nonexistent. Susan Pennybacker’s groundbreaking From Scottsboro to [End Page 283] Munich does much to correct this imbalance, seeking to illuminate the complex and often contradictory approaches to race by liberals and leftists in Britain from the “Third Period” of the Communist Left in the early 1930s through the Popular Front.

While domestic populations of racial minorities in Britain, primarily immigrants from colonies in Africa and the African diaspora and in South Asia, were then relatively small and largely confined to London and ports such as Liverpool and Cardiff, the position of the U. K. as the preeminent colonial power controlling nearly a quarter of the world’s territory made the interlocking issues of race, colonialism, and the “national question” in Britain a matter of great international concern. Pennybacker skillfully traces the disparate and sometimes dissonant ideological strands influencing British approaches to racial politics in the 1930s, including Third International Communism, Trotskyism, Laborite social democracy, black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, liberal descendants of the British Abolitionist movement, antifascism, and anticolonial independence movements. Often these strands combined in strange ways, as in the use of minstrel-style images by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). And sometimes what might seem to be a relatively coherent strand could fray on closer inspection. For example, the positions of the CPGB, the Comintern, and the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) on the significance of race in party work were often quite different even though, as Pennybacker shows, all had an impact on racial politics in the U. K.

From Scottsboro to Munich is largely organized into chapters focusing on iconic figures closely connected to a range of racially inflected events or issues. These include chapters on Ada Wright, mother of two of the Scottsboro defendants who toured Britain as part of an international campaign around the case; on Trinidadianborn George Padmore and his transition from Comintern activist to noncommunist and later anticommunist Pan-Africanist; on Lady Kathleen Simon, liberal head of a major anti-slavery organization that played a contradictory role in Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia; and on Shapurji Saklavala, a Bombay-born Communist who became one of the few British M. P.s elected as an open Communist and who played an important role in the Meerut trial of Indian (and a few British) Communists, trade unionists, and independence activists by colonial authorities in India. The book ends with more general chapters on Jewish refugees from Nazism and the period from the Munich Conference to the onset of World War II.

As noted above, one of Pennybacker’s central concerns is the uneven and contradictory nature of the intersections of different ideological and institutional ways of approaching race during the period of fascism’s rise in Europe. For example, the CPGB and the Communist Left did much to make the Scottsboro case and the more violent manifestations of U. S. Jim Crow visible in Britain. At the same time, the CPGB vision of the British working class as fundamentally white (a vision that would remain long after the demographics of the British working class changed dramatically later in the century) hindered the efforts of black Communists, such as Padmore and Arnold Ward, to organize black workers in Britain. Another example of the contradictions of the moment can be seen in the case of Kathleen Simon, a figure who even Padmore considered a champion of Africans and African-descended peoples, who supported the Italian invasion of Ethiopia on the basis of the claim that Mussolini’s troops would finally abolish the institution of slavery in Ethiopia. Simon in general saw empire, both British and Italian, as a bulwark against human bondage in Africa.

Pennybacker also convincingly argues that anticolonialism on the British...


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pp. 283-285
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