Persia has often been described as a semi-colony. This term, familiar as an operational concept from the works of Lenin and Mao, has usefully drawn attention to the special conditions of imperialist penetration in countries which, throughout the period of brutal imperialist expansion, preserved their juridical independence. The theory of semi-colonialism, however, has scarcely advanced beyond the stage of a preliminary conspectus. Indeed, reflection on the history of modern Persia and comparison of its experience with that of, for instance, China, Japan, Egypt and Thailand, quickly suggest the limitations of the concept. Yet the elaboration in these countries of a quite distinctive set of techniques of exploitation and control by the interested imperialist powers, consolidated over half a century, makes it possible to talk of them collectively as semi-colonies, in that period at least and despite extreme differences in their previous histories and subsequent development.

Many special historical, geographical and political circumstances permitted the maintenance of juridical independence in the semi-colonies. These included the established presence of a domestic state and military apparatus, the logistic problems of the imperialist powers, uncertainty about the resources of the area, the daunting cultural identity of its people. But perhaps most important were the rivalries between the imperialists and the consequent demarcation, more or less formally, of stalemate situations and buffer zones. These rivalries both helped to preserve antiquated local governments and dynasties and were reproduced within them, through the intrigues of the rival ambassadors. The local bureaucracies and courts, dependent on foreign subsidies and foreign arms, were at the same time weakened internally by foreign quarrels and foreign auctions. Thus the ruling class was inflated while it was fragmented, preserved while it was corrupted. These initial conditions decisively affected the future evolution of the semi-colonial countries, economic, social and political, and sharply differentiated them from pure colonies or dependencies. Mao recognized this: “China is a semi-colonial country—the disunity among the imperialists has caused the disunity among various ruling blocs in China. A semi-colonial state controlled by several countries is different from a colony controlled by a single country.” (Strategic Problems of China’s Revolutionary War, 1936.)

The process of imperialist aggression and exploitation in these countries shows several common features over a determinate historical phases—roughly from the middle of the nineteenth to the second decade of the twentieth century—after which their evolutions increasingly diverged. First came the military and political subjugation of local state power. The overwhelming military ascendancy of the western powers was immediately clear. The suppression of the Indian mutiny, the British victory in the Opium War, the shellings of Kagoshima and Trengganu, the Russian victory over Bokhara at Irdjar, soon confirmed this ascendancy in blood. In these circumstances very few Asian rulers were foolhardy enough to challenge imperialist incursions. Those that did —Thibaw in Upper Burma, Tu-Doc in Vietnam—were promptly suppressed and their thrones abolished or filled with a candidate of the imperialists. Only Afghanistan and Tibet, the most remote and physically exacting, were able to survive and even they were seriously threatened. The majority of Asian rulers capitulated. The most elementary concessions—extra-territorial legal privileges for foreigners, the admission of foreign consular guards—were summarily extracted. Others—cession of treaty ports, lions-share commercial treaties, tariffs favourable to foreign commerce—soon followed. In Japan there was exceptionally strong resistance. But the subsequent transformation of Japan into an imperialist power in its own right could hardly have happened without the consent of Britain, the dominant foreign power in the area, glad to see Russian advances checked. (The Japanese navy, for example, was built on Clydeside.) But in China, Thailand and Persia imperialist depredations became more and more extensive.

The preservation of these antique, semi-feudal or patrimonial states as the administrative and military substructure of imperialist exploitation at the same time discredited the old ruling order and provided it with the means of survival. It was precisely the mortgaging of the national economy and resources to foreigners (treaties, concessions, abandonment of tariffs) which supported the regime and created the ramifying network of compradors, contractors, profiteers and complicit officials in whose interest the system worked. Thus the state became the expression and instrument of the coalition of imperialism with the traditional ruling class. In the absence of settlers or a colonial bureaucracy, the dynasty, big landlords, warlords, compradors and military elite themselves constituted the bridgehead of imperialism. In Persia, as in China, it was principally through foreign loans that the government was supported against its own people and indebted to imperialist powers. The interest was guaranteed against customs receipts collected by excise officers commanded by foreigners. Gradually foreigners came to occupy more and more key posts in the actual local administration. In Thailand a Dane commanded the gendarmerie, British officers trained the police, an Italian headed the military college, a Belgian was the king’s general advisor.

Eventually new foreign-originated and foreign-oriented structures completely dominated the indigenous pre-imperialist order. Local economic development ceased and in many sectors—especially the artisanate—was wrecked. In China and Persia massive railroad concessions were obtained. In Thailand the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation acquired most of the teak concessions. Thus a foreign-dominated advanced sector of the economy was imposed, completely unintegrated with the backward traditional sectors. The seat of actual power passed from the local administrative capital and the local state apparatus to the foreign embassies and commercial enclaves. Gradually two societies were created: a comprador, westernized elite, entirely parasitic on foreign power and neglectful of its traditional responsibilities and a backward agrarian society with no perspectives for development.

This deformed economic and social development was of course found in pure colonies as well. But the conditions of semicolonialism in many ways aggravated this deformation and—in particular—confused popular consciousness of it. It is far from the case that semi-colonial conditions are by definition only half as exploitative and oppressive as pure colonial conditions. For, firstly, the semi-colonial state aparatus proved quite incapable of laying down the technical and social infrastructure essential to national integration and development. The sole sources of infrastructural modernization were private concessionary companies operating according to the logic of maximum profitability, or else crude military and logistic considerations. Persia, for instance, was left with retarded communications, an anachronistic legal system, utterly inadequate statistics, derisory health and education services. In comparison the achievements of colonial governments were systematic and comprehensive.

Secondly, lacking the transparent modes of domination and the tangible physical presence of foreigners throughout the country which are characteristic of pure colonies, the special conditions of semi-colonialism create special difficulties for the antiimperialist movement. In particular, there is extreme ambiguity about the nature of the state. The state embodies national continuity and is the repository of national traditions. Yet many ruling dynasties—the Manchu, the Qajar, the Khedivate—had alien or disreputable origins; they were obviously anachronistic, privileged and complicit with imperialism. Hence the initial demand for a constitutional regime. Constitutional restraints, the separation of office from person, a popular chamber, would, it was thought, without affronting the crown and the historic and cultural values residual in kingship, yet change the relationship of the state with the foreigners. These formalist and timid aspirations failed to grapple with the realities of power. No meaningful transformation took place.