The Communist Study Groups in France’s African colonies

Nathan Macé

21 May 2024


The end of the Second World War inau­gu­ra­ted a new era of the 20th century: the old Euro­pean colo­nial powers had been greatly weak­ened, a new socia­list world system had emer­ged across Asia and Eastern Europe, and the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments in Africa and Asia were invi­go­ra­ted with a new dyna­mic. Aspi­ra­ti­ons for natio­nal inde­pen­dence clas­hed with the fierce colo­nial appa­ra­tus that sought to main­tain control over terri­to­ries, resour­ces, and popu­la­ti­ons. Yet, in just under twenty years, this hold over Africa and Asia collap­sed, culmi­na­ting in a decade in which a multi­tude of terri­to­ries wres­ted their inde­pen­dence. The factors behind this shift are many and complex, but one in parti­cu­lar inte­rests us in this article: the Grou­pes d’études commu­nis­tes (GEC, Commu­nist Study Groups). These orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are often over­loo­ked in histo­ri­cal accounts of Africa’s inde­pen­dence move­ments, but they played a role of some importance. French commu­nist histo­rian Jean Suret-Canale, who was directly invol­ved in the GECs during the 1940s-1950s, is the author of a short book on the subject, Les Grou­pes d’études commu­nis­tes (G.E.C.) en Afri­que Noire, which forms the basis of this article. In his book, Suret-Canale looks back at the GECs, their orga­ni­sa­tion, member­ship, and the impact they had in the former French colo­nies. It is an inva­luable account since sources on the subject are very rare. This article exami­nes the expe­ri­ence of the GECs, the colo­nial context that led to their estab­lish­ment and the impact they had on the inde­pen­dence and trade union move­ments in Africa. 

Left-wing parties and the French colonial context 

“If you do not condemn colo­nia­lism, if you do not side with the colo­nial people, what kind of revo­lu­tion are you waging?”, declared Nguyen Aï Quoc at the Tours Congress of the French Section of the Workers’ Inter­na­tio­nal (SFIO) in 1920. The man who would become famous as Ho Chi Minh was the only repre­sen­ta­tive of the “colo­nised” in the French colo­nies. His inter­ven­tion, at this pivo­tal event for the French Left, exem­pli­fied the atti­tude of the colo­nised peop­les towards the French Left at the time. The latter – which in 1920 split between the refor­mist Section fran­çaise de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO) and the revo­lu­tio­nary Section fran­çaise de l’Internationale commu­niste (SFIC, later the Parti commu­niste fran­çais) – had a rather ambi­va­lent stance towards the colo­nies of the French empire.

The Tours Congress in 1920, where the majo­rity of the French Section of the Workers’ Inter­na­tio­nal (SFIO) voted to join the Commu­nist International.

Indeed, for a long time, SFIO and SFIC policy on the colo­nies was marked above all by a form of poli­ti­cal oppor­tu­nism and disin­te­rest in the colo­nial ques­tion. While some mili­tants, such as Paul Louis, theo­ri­sed the need to discuss the fate of the popu­la­ti­ons of the colo­nies, many members showed little inte­rest in them, prefer­ring to focus on the fate of the working prole­ta­riat in metro­po­li­tan France. The first turning point came in 1920, howe­ver, when the split at the Tours Congress was trig­ge­red by the desire of the majo­rity of the SFIO to join the Third Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal (Comin­tern). Poli­ti­cal parties seeking to join the Comin­tern were requi­red to commit them­sel­ves to twenty-one condi­ti­ons: one of which, the eighth, rela­ted to the anti-impe­ria­list and natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments in the colonies.

“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.” – Extract from the Terms of Admis­sion into Commu­nist Inter­na­tio­nal (July-August 1920)

In the years that follo­wed, the French Commu­nist Party (PCF), as the SFIC was rena­med in 1921, embarked on nume­rous campaigns to oppose and denounce French colo­nial policy. It oppo­sed the French inter­ven­tion in the Rif War in 1924 for exam­ple, orga­ni­s­ing strikes with hundreds of thou­sands of workers to denounce French actions. The Second World War and the rise of fascism in Europe, howe­ver, saw the PCF shift its focus away from the colo­nies once again, as all forces were now concen­tra­ted on the fight against the fascists. 

GECs in Africa

The origins

While the PCF upheld the fight against French colo­nia­lism from metro­po­li­tan France, the ques­tion soon arose as to how to coor­di­nate this with the struggle of the colo­nised popu­la­ti­ons. Indeed, they were the ones suffe­ring directly from French colo­nial policy. There was in fact a growing number of requests from the colo­nies seeking to join the PCF. The Party, howe­ver, did not want to create local sections of the PCF in the colo­nies, but rather sought to encou­rage the emer­gence of inde­pen­dent parties speci­fic to each terri­tory, built by local cadres with local know­ledge. This idea can be found in a letter writ­ten by Raymond Barbé, direc­tor of the PCF’s colo­nial section, to Saïfoul­laye Diallo, who would later become a minis­ter in inde­pen­dent Guinea. When Diallo had asked to join the PCF, Barbé replied that this would be inad­vi­sa­ble, but this “does not prevent those who wish to do so, because of their sympa­thy for commu­nist ideas, from grou­ping toge­ther in Commu­nist Study Groups, where they can further their commu­nist educa­tion and poli­ti­cal trai­ning with a view to best serving the orien­ta­tion and aims of their party”.

During the 1940s, more and more Euro­peans living in Africa joined “patrio­tic asso­cia­ti­ons” (such as the Grou­pe­ment des victi­mes des lois d’exception de l’AOF, the Grou­pe­ment d’Action Répu­bli­cain which became the Front Natio­nal, the Amis de Combat, France-URSS, etc.), which sought to bring toge­ther acti­vists around common themes such as anti-colo­nial educa­tion and resis­tance to the Vichy colo­nial regime. While these asso­cia­ti­ons tended to be left-leaning, they consis­ted exclu­si­vely of Euro­peans (the colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion being strictly oppo­sed to any asso­cia­tion between nati­ves and Euro­peans). They thus repre­sen­ted only a small propor­tion of the popu­la­tion in the colo­nies. These asso­cia­ti­ons, which gradu­ally disap­peared after the Second World War, were an embryo­nic form of the GECs. It was here that certain mili­tants and orga­nisers met before setting up the first GECs, which gradu­ally repla­ced the patrio­tic asso­cia­ti­ons in the more left-wing circles of Euro­pean society in Africa after 1945.

Although the first GECs began to form unof­fi­ci­ally in the early 1940s, it wasn’t until 1945 that a real move­ment was laun­ched in Africa, nota­bly after the publi­ca­tion of a circu­lar by the PCF secre­ta­riat in Septem­ber 1945, which forma­li­sed the desire to create “Grou­pes d’Études Commu­nis­tes”. In the same circu­lar, the PCF set out a number of objec­ti­ves for these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons: firstly, the GECs should open up to Afri­can popu­la­ti­ons and no longer be limi­ted to a Euro­pean member­ship; secondly, the trade unions that alre­ady operate in Africa should be united and the sepa­ra­tion between Euro­pean and Afri­can unions must be over­come; finally, the ulti­mate goal should be to create new demo­cra­tic and progres­sive poli­ti­cal parties that could be the bearers of a libe­ra­tion move­ment. The programs of these parties should be inspi­red by the new program of the Conseil natio­nal de la Résis­tance (CNR).1

A map of the Grou­pes d’études commu­nis­tes (the red points) across France’s Afri­can colonies.

The crea­tion of the GECs was thus prompted by seve­ral factors: firstly, ongo­ing requests from Afri­can mili­tants to join the PCF; secondly, the presence of patrio­tic orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in Africa, which provi­ded a rally­ing point; and thirdly, theo­re­ti­cal inspi­ra­tion from Joseph Stalin. On 18 May 1925, the Gene­ral Secre­tary of the Central Commit­tee of the USSR gave a speech to students at the Commu­nist Univer­sity of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, in which he explai­ned the stra­tegy to be adopted in colo­nised count­ries where there was prac­ti­cally no prole­ta­riat to lead the struggle for inde­pen­dence and revolution.

“We have now at least three cate­go­ries of colo­nial and depen­dent count­ries. Firstly, count­ries like Morocco, which have little or no prole­ta­riat, and are indus­tri­ally quite unde­ve­lo­ped. Secondly, count­ries like China and Egypt, which are under-deve­lo­ped indus­tri­ally, and have a rela­tively small prole­ta­riat. Thirdly, count­ries like India, which are capi­ta­li­sti­cally more or less deve­lo­ped and have a more or less nume­rous natio­nal prole­ta­riat.” – Joseph Stalin

Accor­ding to the PCF’s analy­sis, many West Afri­can count­ries fall into the first cate­gory, as they were essen­ti­ally agri­cul­tu­ral, with no major indus­try and ther­e­fore no real prole­ta­riat. Commu­nist mili­tants should ther­e­fore set about uniting their forces to create a popu­lar anti-impe­ria­list front.

The GECs were not imme­dia­tely repres­sed by the colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion: at the time, the commu­nists were one of the leading poli­ti­cal forces in main­land France, enjoy­ing great popu­la­rity thanks to their role during the resis­tance to and the libe­ra­tion from Nazi occu­pa­tion. The PCF was active in all govern­ments until 1947.

In Africa, GECs began to deve­lop gradu­ally. But, like the patrio­tic asso­cia­ti­ons, they met with only mode­rate success at first, and were made up almost enti­rely of Euro­peans. Soon, howe­ver, Afri­can intellec­tu­als began to take up cont­act with the GECs, and their influence grew. Little by little, more and more Afri­can workers joined these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, sharing a common distrust of the colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion and the actions of the refor­mist SFIO. Each GEC opera­ted auto­no­mously, only commu­ni­ca­ting with the secre­ta­riat of the PCF’s colo­nial section and with each other at a regio­nal level. Their acti­vi­ties were mani­fold: orga­ni­s­ing poli­ti­cal discus­sion circles, hosting theo­re­ti­cal trai­ning sessi­ons, holding evening clas­ses (as with the crea­tion of a Univer­sité Popu­laire Afri­caine in Dakar), writing and distri­bu­ting news­pa­pers, orga­ni­s­ing demons­tra­ti­ons, etc. The GECs also regu­larly wrote “reports” to the metro­po­li­tan head­quar­ters, in which they descri­bed the econo­mic and social situa­tion in their region. The GECs were spread throug­hout the conti­nent: in the Repu­blic of Congo, Sene­gal, Gabon, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, Benin (form­erly Daho­mey), Burkina Faso (form­erly Upper Volta), and much further afield (Mauri­ta­nia, Mada­gas­car and even a little in the Pacific).

But the GECs also exhi­bi­ted flaws and weak­ne­s­ses. First and fore­most, their exis­tence reflec­ted the PCF’s some­what pater­na­li­stic view of Afri­can mili­tants, whom it did not consider ready to lead the struggle for inde­pen­dence. This pater­na­lism was illus­tra­ted by the fact that the vast majo­rity of GECs had been set up and were for a time run by Euro­pean mili­tants. As the Afri­can inde­pen­dence move­ments were still in the process of being struc­tu­red, these cadres provi­ded a certain ‘mili­tant rigour’. The link between the GECs and the PCF’s central struc­ture in metro­po­li­tan France was mainly due to the fact that the PCF was the ‘poli­ti­cal’ relay in Paris for Afri­can demands from the colo­nies. As the PCF’s central policy shifted towards strong support for inde­pen­dence move­ments in the colo­nies, a more important role was given to Afri­can mili­tants, who gradu­ally took control of the GECs. Nevert­hel­ess, the Groups were ulti­m­ately fragile struc­tures, heavily depen­dent on the most active members running them. As a result, it was not uncom­mon for certain GECs to go dormant or even disap­pear altog­e­ther if one or two key members left. What is more, after the popu­lar front govern­ment in metro­po­li­tan France broke down in 1946/47, the colo­nial admi­nis­tra­tion became incre­asingly repres­sive towards these cells of commu­nist poli­ti­cal agita­tion, in which colla­bo­ra­tion between Euro­peans and Afri­cans was increasing.

One exam­ple of this repres­sion concerns the Dakar GEC, of which Jean Suret-Canale was a member. In Febru­ary 1949, when a workers’ strike was orga­nised to demand higher wages, Sene­ga­lese Confé­dé­ra­tion Géné­rale du Travail (CGT) union leader Abbas Gueye was prose­cu­ted for leading an “ille­gal strike”, while Suret-Canale was arres­ted in the early hours of the morning and depor­ted on the first plane back to metro­po­li­tan France. Follo­wing a protest move­ment against these decis­i­ons a month later, many acti­vists were arres­ted, dismissed, and depor­ted. This method of expel­ling Euro­pean GEC members to the main­land sought to desta­bi­lise the inter­nal orga­ni­sa­tion of the GECs. While this was often initi­ally effec­tive, it also contri­bu­ted, almost ironi­cally, to the streng­thening of auto­nomy amongst the Afri­can acti­vists, who then took over leader­ship roles or turned to the new progres­sive parties.

But the repres­sion against the GECs and against the labour move­ments more gene­rally also took more violent and drama­tic forms. At the end of Septem­ber 1945, armed sett­lers fired on stri­kers demons­t­ra­ting in the streets of Douala (Cameroon), killing hundreds of people. Follo­wing these events, seve­ral Euro­pean members of the Yaoundé GEC were arres­ted and depor­ted to France, marking the end of the local Group. Local Afri­can mili­tants then recon­sti­tu­ted their own GEC in 1948. 

The GECs and the Rassemblement démocratique africain (RDA)

In Octo­ber 1946, at a congress held in Bamako (Mali), the Rassem­blem­ent démo­cra­tique afri­cain (RDA) was born as a pan-Afri­can fede­ra­tion of major parties on an anti-colo­nia­list basis. Despite many attempts to torpedo the congress (seve­ral leading poli­ti­ci­ans, such as Léopold Sédar Seng­hor, oppo­sed the event at the behest of their SFIO allies), the dele­ga­tes were successful at crea­ting the new party, thanks in no small part to the help of the PCF, which hoped the RDA could become the anti-colo­nial united front it had long been seeking to promote in Africa. Pro-colo­nial forces did not take kindly to this new anti-impe­ria­list revi­val. The SFIO, parti­cu­larly fear­ful of losing influence in Africa, pursued a divide and conquer tactic by, for exam­ple, brib­ing certain poli­ti­cal leaders to oppose the RDA. The PCF’s parlia­men­tary group, mean­while, grew much closer to the leaders of the pan-Afri­can RDA.

“With an appearance of reason, they (the colo­nists) denoun­ced the fact that we were elec­ted only by a mino­rity of Afri­cans. But it wasn’t us who had estab­lished the elec­to­ral college. It was the colo­nists… We ther­e­fore asked for the support of a large Afri­can move­ment, a large popu­lar move­ment that could support our action in the French Parlia­ment, and extend the action that we oursel­ves had just carried out in diver­sity… But we had coun­ted without the impe­tuous of divi­sion.…” – Félix Houphouët-Boigny, first presi­dent of the RDA

The role of the GECs in this process cannot be unde­re­sti­ma­ted, as many of the big names who took part in the Bamako congress had been members of Marxist groups at the time. Among them were Léon M’Ba (GEC of Libre­ville, future Presi­dent of Gabon), Fran­çois Tombal­baye (GEC of N’Djamena, future Presi­dent of Chad) and Modibo Keïta (GEC of Bamako, future Presi­dent of Mali). A few months before the congress, seve­ral GEC leaders had visi­ted the PCF head­quar­ters in Paris to discuss the possi­bi­lity of crea­ting a united front in French Africa. The PCF helped these Afri­can mili­tants to draw up a mani­festo, which the GECs then used to convince Afri­can leaders to join the RDA.

In the years that follo­wed, the GECs contin­ued to main­tain links with the RDA, nota­bly through their common member­ship. But in fact, from 1946 and follo­wing the crea­tion of the RDA, the GECs with­drew from local poli­ti­cal acti­vism to concen­trate on their primary acti­vity: trai­ning and educa­ting the next gene­ra­tion of mili­tants. Their links to the PCF and RDA meant, howe­ver, that they remained targets of colo­nial repres­sion. On 13 April 1950, for instance, the US-RDA (the Sene­ga­lese section of the RDA) orga­nised an anti-Franco demons­tra­tion in front of the Spanish consu­late in Dakar. Thirty-eight members of the RDA and GEC were subse­quently arres­ted and seven senten­ced to up to six months in prison, or depor­ted to France. Gradu­ally, local RDA sections repla­ced the various GECs, which had also become more Afri­ca­nised over time. By the early 1950s, most GECs had been absor­bed into the struc­tures of the RDA.

In the face of massive colo­nial repres­sion and the wave of anti-commu­nism in metro­po­li­tan France, the unity in the RDA soon broke down. Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the RDA’s first presi­dent who would later become presi­dent of Ivory Coast, nego­tia­ted with the French govern­ment in 1950 to secure a poli­ti­cal posi­tion for hims­elf in exch­ange for the evic­tion of Commu­nist members from the move­ment. On Houphouët-Boigny’s orders, RDA members in the French Natio­nal Assem­bly aban­do­ned the PCF’s parlia­men­tary group to inte­grate them­sel­ves into the government’s Centrist group. This betra­yal frac­tu­red the base of the RDA throug­hout Africa, and the ten years that follo­wed were marked by strong repres­sion and the ousting of most commu­nist-minded members. The RDA even­tually collap­sed comple­tely in 1960, as the new inde­pen­dent parties of Africa strug­g­led to agree on a poli­ti­cal line for the Rassem­blem­ent and future paths of deve­lo­p­ment for their respec­tive countries.

Jacques Foccart, a French busi­ness­man and chief advi­ser to French presi­dents on Afri­can affairs, welco­mes Félix Houphouët-Boigny to Paris in 1973.


The Grou­pes d’Étu­des Commu­nis­tes were a tran­si­ent pheno­me­non in the long anti-colo­nial struggle of the 20th century. They cannot be unders­tood outside of their histo­ri­cal context. The GECs arose in the final phase of the Second World War, when commu­nists, social demo­crats, and libe­rals were still united in the inter­na­tio­nal struggle against fascism. Yet as this anti-fascist front broke down in the second half of the 1940s, the staunch anti-colo­nia­lism of the commu­nists came into sharp conflict with the pro-impe­ria­list poli­cies of France’s libe­rals and social demo­crats. The colo­nial appa­ra­tus was deployed to divide and destroy the GECs and the wider Pan-Afri­can movement.

The scar­city of docu­men­ta­tion on the GECs and the hosti­lity towards Soviet-aligned orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in the Third World has meant that the history of these Grou­pes has long been over­loo­ked, down­played or simply writ­ten off. Howe­ver, without ascrib­ing them a role and importance that were not theirs, it must be acknow­led­ged that the GECs had a signi­fi­cant influence on the anti-colo­nial struggle and the deve­lo­p­ment of poli­ti­cal parties in Africa. A scan of the long list of mili­tants who were members of these orga­ni­sa­ti­ons proves this point: Félix-Roland Moumié, Léon M’Ba, Fran­çois Tombal­baye, Ruben Um Nyobé, Ousmane and Alas­sane Ba, Modibo Keïta, Abdou­laye Diallo and many others. These figu­res, who shaped the poli­ti­cal history of Africa and the struggle against colo­nia­lism, were at various times active in the GECs.

As descri­bed above, some of the most promi­nent members of the GECs and RDA ulti­m­ately betrayed the anti-impe­ria­list struggle in Africa in order to secure power for them­sel­ves. This reflec­ted the diffe­ren­tia­tion process that unfolded in the Third World as the anti-colo­nial struggle advan­ced. Dome­stic clas­ses that had hitherto been united in their oppo­si­tion to colo­nia­lism sought to ensure that their own inte­rests would shape the newly inde­pen­dent states. Yet while figu­res such as Houphouët-Boigny (Ivory Coast) and Léopold Seng­hor (Sene­gal) inte­gra­ted their count­ries into France’s neoco­lo­nial orbit, others such as Sékou Touré (Guniea) and Modibo Keïta (Mali) led the anti-impe­ria­list social revo­lu­tion in Africa for many years. The GECs not only rallied toge­ther a gene­ra­tion of mili­tants, but also helped to orga­nise trade union forces in Africa such as the Union Géné­rale des Travail­leurs d’Afrique Noire, Africa’s largest trade union that was foun­ded in 1957 under the leader­ship of Sékou Touré. If we bear in mind the three primary objec­ti­ves set by the PCF in 1945 – grea­ter ancho­ring of the struggle within the local popu­la­ti­ons, coor­di­na­tion and unity amongst the trade unions, and crea­tion of progres­sive anti-colo­nial parties in Africa – then the GECs can be conside­red as rather successful.

In order to learn more from the valuable expe­ri­en­ces of buil­ding and sustai­ning the GECs, it will be neces­sary to carry out a more in-depth exami­na­tion: to delve into Suret-Canale’s studies and track down his sources. This short article is an open door to such an approach and looks forward to being built upon.


Bian­chini, Pascal, Ndongo Samba Sylla and Leo Zeilig. Revo­lu­tio­nary Move­ments in AfricaAn Untold Story. Pluto Press, 2024.


Galeazzi, Marco. “Le PCI, le PCF et les luttes anti­co­lo­nia­les (1955–1975)”, Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’histoire critique, n.112–113, 2010, pp. 77–97.


Kipré, Pierre. Le Congrès de Bamako ou la nais­sance du RDA. Éditi­ons Chaka, 1962.


Madja­rian, Grégo­ire. “La Ques­tion colo­niale et la poli­tique du Parti commu­niste fran­çais (1944–1947)”. Crise de l’impé­ria­lisme colo­nial et mouve­ment ouvrier. La Décou­verte, 1977.


Ruscio, Alain. “2. Le PCF et la ques­tion colo­niale (de 1920 à 1935)”, Les commu­nis­tes et l’Al­gé­rie. Des origi­nes à la guerre d’indépendance, 1920–1962, sous la direc­tion de Ruscio Alain. La Décou­verte, 2019, pp. 27–53.


Suret-Canale, Jean. L’Afrique Noire, De la Colo­ni­sa­tion aux Indé­pen­dan­ces. Éditi­ons Socia­les, 1977.