Michael Barratt Brown’s After Imperialism is undoubtedly one of the most important economic works recently published in English—indeed probably the most important for socialist theory and practice. The author’s purpose is ambitious: to test Lenin’s definition of imperialism against the realities of the British Empire, from the eve of the industrial revolution up to the present day. In doing so, he provides a fascinating history of the British Empire’s rise and decline, and describes the economic and social transformations both in Britain and in the colonial countries from which it sprang, and the economic and social changes it has in turn wrought in all the countries it has touched.
For the first time, the whole history of the British Empire has been analysed by a scholar with a good knowledge of marxist method, an excellent knowledge of academic economic theory, and an exceptional gift for the exposition of economic history.
The development of the Empire is divided into four periods: a period of exploitation by plunder, often camouflaged as trade, culminating in the rape of India on the eve of the industrial revolution, and roughly ending with the Napoleonic wars, which established Britain’s naval, military and commercial supremacy on a worldwide scale; a second period which extends roughly till the First World War (or the beginning of the 20th century), during which the expansion and consolidation of the Empire was mainly based on the need to conquer safe markets and keep the trade routes open, under the control of military and naval strongholds; a third period, which stretches from the beginning of this century till the early fifties, in which the Empire (and the Commonwealth which formally succeeded it) became mainly a means whereby big vertically-integrated oligopolistic trusts could preserve their private sources of raw materials and private markets, in the face of competition from other capitalist powers; and a fourth period, which we have very recently entered, in which the sharpening of international competition, as well as the changed structure of industrial output, forces the dominant oligopolies—especially in the heavy engineering and mass production sectors—to create subsidiaries in the sterling area countries, in order to defend their exports in a more efficient way than simply by protected markets.
This classification seems substantially correct for Britain. Michael Barratt Brown himself makes the point that Lenin’s definition of the main driving forces behind colonial conquest was already correct in the case of Germany before the First World War, and became more and more correct for most imperialist countries after the First World War. An analysis of the specific nature of each particular colonialism is certainly necessary. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that the particular nature of Portuguese colonialism lies in its rôle as purveyor of cheap manpower and as the generally parasitic middle-man for oligopolistic colonial companies of other nations (mainly British and Belgian). French, Dutch, Belgian, German and Italian colonialism should each be analysed in the same specific way as Barratt Brown analyses British colonialism. And when one abstracts from these specific traits, Lenin’s general characterization retains its overall validity—an abstract one, it is true, but Lenin did not intend to generalize on any other level than that of abstraction.
I must take exception however to the title of the book, and to the way that its author has neglected to summarize his own characterization of the present stage of the Empire (Commonwealth) in a single formula. The French have coined such a formula, which has already been widely accepted. They call the present phase of imperialism, in which the former colonies have gained formal political independence, but continue to be subjected to economic domination and exploitation by foreign companies, neo-colonialism. That would have been a more correct title for the book. For its whole analysis drives home this very point: that imperialism—in the sense of domination by monopoly capitalism of underdeveloped countries—has not disappeared, but has only changed its form.
Before he lays bare the roots of neo-colonialism, Barratt Brown deals with a mass of fascinating problems, many of which I have also dealt with in my book, Traité d’Economie Marxiste. It will not surprise many Marxists that, using the same methods while not always the same sources, we arrive at substantially identical conclusions. This holds true for such different problems as the reasons why the first industrial revolution was located in Western Europe; the rôle and impact of colonialism on the economy of the colonial countries, which were arrested in their development and often actually regressed; the relation between the agricultural revolution (increase in productivity and output of agriculture) and the industrial revolution;footnote1 the real nature of today’s so-called ‘mixed economy’ in Western Europe, which is in reality a
One of the interesting questions Barratt Brown tries to elucidate is Lenin’s theory of a ‘labour aristocracy’, said to have been created in the metropolitan countries where imperialists distributed some crumbs of their colonial surplus-profits to the upper layers of the working class. Barratt Brown presents a convincing array of evidence to undermine this theory. I substantially share his ‘revisionism’ on this point. (Incidentally, the first Marxist to question this particular theory of the ‘labour aristocracy’ was the late Fritz Sternberg, in his book Der Imperialismus.)