Photo Credit: Amarjit Chandan and Manmit S. Jabbal
This is an extract from a revised version of earlier articles on Makhan Singh. It will be published in Reflections on Makhan Singh and Trade Unions in Kenya (forthcoming).
The “Disappeared” History of Makhan Singh
The entire history of anti-colonial struggles by people of Kenya has, in general, been suppressed or interpreted from an imperialist perspective. Similarly, struggles waged by trade unions and working class for economic and political liberation have often been seen in terms of the needs of the ruling classes. The working class, organised around trade union movements, played a critical role in the struggle for independence as well as in achieving the rights of working people. Within this struggle, Makhan Singh stands out as the towering figure who helped lay the foundation for the militant trade union movement in Kenya. It is therefore not surprising that he was the target of attacks from colonial authorities, not only in Kenya but in India as well. This also explains the fact that after independence, the ruling class, which was no friend of the liberation movement and which stayed firmly within the US-British imperialist orbit, similarly saw Makhan Singh as a threat to their continued control and power in post-independence Kenya.
Both these forces, imperialism and the neo-colonial regimes in Kenya, saw the liberation movement as a whole, and the trade union movement at the vanguard, as threats to their minority rule. In particular, they saw the liberation movement with its agenda of equality and justice, its uncompromising leadership and its strong organisation which united working class and peasant forces, as particularly dangerous for their continued survival. When the radical trade unions and progressive anti-imperialist political forces came together, they created a powerful movement that posed a major challenge to colonialism and imperialism, not only in Kenya but globally too. The response from colonialism-imperialism was a military attack on the one hand, and a suppression of the three aspects of the liberation movement: its ideology, organisation and leadership. In all these aspects, Makhan Singh was identified as one of the greatest threats, hence the harshest punishment was reserved for him.
It was not only the person of Makhan Singh who was singled out for special punishment by imperialism. His history, ideas, actions and experiences were deemed too a powerful a force against imperialism and their comprador allies. These would have provided the younger generation of workers ideological and organisational weapons for their post-independence struggles. This was not acceptable to imperialism. Thus even when Makhan Singh was released from long detention and restrictions in 1961, his ideas, ideology and actions remained in imperialist prisons. Even his vast archives, a unique collection of documents that were an essential resource on the history of working class and of Kenya have been left with no promotion and no digitisation as they gradually face deterioration. School and university curricula have no place for the trade union experience of Makhan Singh and others who led a pioneering trade union movement against colonial employers and government. There are no textbooks on him that the new generation can read and learn from his experience. There are no monuments to him. Even the trade union movement after independence, careful nurtured by imperialism in its own interest, pays little or not attention to him today.
Makhan Singh and his ideas face a similar fate to that of Pio Gama Pinto, a trade unionist, a socialist and a champion of working class in Africa and India. Imperialism could not tolerate him either. While Makhan Singh was sentenced to long detention, Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated in 1965. Such is the history of the working class in Kenya and the people who led them.
Enter Makhan Singh
Makhan Singh played a crucial role in Kenyan people’s struggle against colonialism and imperialism. His was not a narrow perspective of gaining a limited political independence under imperialism. He saw the economic as well as political liberation of working people and the achievement of a society based on principles of social justice and equality as the ultimate goals of trade union and the nationalist struggles. He saw the need for achieving the economic and political rights of working people who had been marginalised by colonialism, imperialism and, ultimately by capitalism, as the primary goal for people of Kenya. His base for achieving his goals was the trade union movement which he did much to organise and radicalise along class lines. He realised that the economic demands of working people could be met only on the basis of becoming active on the political, as well as, economic fields. He was among those Kenyans who saw clearly what the needed of the time were. He devoted his life to developing and committing himself totally to a vision of a society that was fair and just for working people. He helped set up appropriate organisational framework – in trade unions and in the political field – as a way of ensuring the achievement of his vision. He developed appropriate forms of communication to raise class consciousness among people. This ensured that people understood the working of capitalism and took necessary action at different stages of their struggle. He lived by the principles he believed in, making sacrifices which very few people were – or are — ready to make.
In spite of his revolutionary contribution to the cause of real liberation for Kenyan working people, or perhaps because of it, not many people know about him today. His achievements had been side-lined by colonialism-imperialism and also by the ruling classes in Kenya after independence. Information about his work and his enormous achievements are not in the public domain. The ideals he struggled for, remain forgotten in the rush towards an unequal society created by corporate greed and sustained by the rich elite in power. Schools do not teach about him. Trade unions have been tamed into silence about him. Few are inspired by his writings, his actions and his vision for a society based on justice and fairness because of lack of access to such material. As a nation, Kenya has not celebrated the crucial role that Makhan Singh played in the struggle for the rights of working people and for liberation of Kenya. And yet, his outlook, his vision and his political stand are as necessary today as they were in his time – perhaps even more so, given the globalised impoverishment of working people sponsored by capitalism in the world today. Today, we lack a visionary activist like Makhan Singh to guide us out of our current problems.
And yet there is no lack of material on and by Makhan Singh about the personal and national struggles he was involved in. He has left a vase legacy, not only of his experiences of activism and commitment to people’s liberation, but also in over 20,000 documents available in the Makhan Singh Archives at the University of Nairobi. He has also left the first working class history of Kenya in the form of his two books on the history of trade unions in Kenya. Joecking (2013) confirms this marginalising of Makhan Singh in today’s Kenya when he says, ‘I had an A in History both in GHCR and History in form Four, but this is the first time I am hearing of Makhan Singh’.
Reasons for the Strange National Silence
The reasons for this strange national silence about Makhan Singh are complex. But they become understandable given the geo-political situation in the capitalist world today, when information has become a weapon of choice of corporations and finance capital to defend their unjust global control over wealth, power and resources. The silence is also explained by the social and political conditions in Kenya just before and after independence. Makhan Singh understood very well the social forces at play and his own position in the social and political struggles of his time. His was the voice of the working class which had been rendered powerless and condemned to poverty by capitalism and imperialism. But he refused to remain silent even if this led to his detention and restriction for the longest period in the history of Kenya – this was in addition to similar treatment he suffered under the Indian colonial administration.
It is not only Makhan Singh who has been forcefully silenced. His vision of a Kenya, based on principles of equality and justice under socialism, has also been silenced. Not only that; the class that Makhan Singh fought for — the working class — itself has been similarly suppressed and oppressed by the comprador who rule on behalf of capitalism and imperialism. Makhan Singh, his legacy and his vision can only be achieved when the class on whose behalf he fought has also been liberated from the clutches of capitalism and forces of international finance which have captured working people around the world.
Colonialism-imperialism did strike a damaging blow to the twin struggles that Makhan Singh was involved in – working class and national struggles. Makhan Singh’s removal from the struggle – as also of many others, including Chege Kibachia, Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai — made it easier for the conservative forces, both internal and external, to marginalise working classes and divert independence into a neo-colonial future. Kinyatti (2008) shows the transition from the militant stand of the radical trade unions into a “reactionary, pro-British” one:
In 1950, the colonial state had proscribed the East African Trade Union Congress (a pro-Mau Mau, anti-imperialist trade union) and imprisoned its leadership without trial. A reactionary, pro-British element consisting of Aggrey Minya, Tom Mboya and Mucegi Karanja took over the leadership of the labour movement with the support of the British. (p.176).
Thus a lasting damage was done to the movement for workers’ rights and to achieving an independent nation free from imperialist manipulation. It remains a matter of speculation as to what might have happened had Makhan Singh and others not been prevented from continuing their liberation struggles. However, it should be noted that the struggle did not die out as others took up the mantle of Makhan Singh into independence and beyond.
Imperialism has a short-term perspective on people’s resistance to its domination over people’s rights and resources. Its interest is to maximum power, profits and control. Its approach is that the long-term would take care of itself — assuming the world survives the environmental degradation created by capitalism. On the other hand, those who resist imperialism, of necessity, have to have a long term perspective on their struggles, their sacrifices and their victories. Each battle lost provides lessons for the next battle; each victory strengthens the prospects for a final victory.
Thus imperialist defeat in Vietnam is easily forgotten amidst the euphoria of current victories of globalisation and new conquests, both at home and globally. Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Nkrumah, Lumumba, Kimaathi, among many others, are turned into villains and best forgotten. To their way of thinking, Makhan Singh is but a passing phase, easily disregarded and whose memory is sealed in dusty archives. Pio Gama Pinto matters little; Mau Mau has but little interest amidst the new conquest of the Kenyan state after independence.
But people who struggle, who resist, who lose lives, land and freedom forget little. The surface may be calm. But deep waves run under the calm surface. Makhan Singh is dead, but his revolutionary legacy cannot die. It will arise from the depths as a deadly tsunami to take charge of the next wave of resistance and struggle. That is the lasting – and perhaps the best – testimonial for Makhan Singh and heroes like him.
People like Makhan Singh never expect any rewards. They do selfless service to whatever cause they passionately believe in, then quietly depart, leaving a great mark behind, says Hindpal Singh. The mark that Makhan Singh has left can never be erased. Ever.
Shiraz Durrani is a Kenyan political exile living in London. He has worked at the University of Nairobi as well as various public libraries in Britain where he also lectured at the London Metropolitan University. Shiraz has written many articles and addressed conferences on aspects of Kenyan history and on politics of information in the context of colonialism and imperialism. His books include Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau Mau and its Legacy of Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism, 1948-1990 (2018, Vita Books). He has also edited Makhan Singh – A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist (2017, Vita Books) and Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr,1927 – 1965 (2018, Vita Books). He is a co-editor of The Kenya Socialist. and edited Essays on Pan-Africanism (2022, Vita Books, Nairobi). His latest book (2023) is Two Paths Ahead: The Ideological Struggle between Capitalism and Socialism in Kenya, 1960-1990. Some of his articles are available at https://independent.academia.edu/DurraniShiraz and books at: https://www.africanbookscollective.com/search-results?form.keywords=vita+books