as mr. macleod makes arrangements for the granting of independence to each of Britain’s African colonies, socialists and radicals are bound to try once more to take their bearings. In the past 15 years almost all of the 1,300 million people who lived in 1945 under colonial rule have won the right to govern themselves. What, then, is left of imperialism?
In this article, it is proposed to review some of the connections between the history of capitalism and empire; then to examine the special connections between imperialism and the monopoly stage of capitalism; and finally to see how far something that may be called imperialism still exists today. This subject has recently received close examination by John Strachey in his new book, The End of Empire, the second of his projected studies in the Principles of Democratic Socialism (Gollancz, 1959). Points where his analysis differs from that presented here will be referred to in footnotes throughout.footnote1
What started Britain on the road to Empire? Innate superiority, absent-mindedness, a semi-mystical will to rule, our island geography?footnote2 None of these stock answers can be satisfactory for a Marxist. We shall look for a technological basis for understanding the social relations of any human culture, but we shall not forget that social relations gain a life of their own. Nonetheless, over broad sweeps of history, one may follow Marx’s divisions of human history into Slave. Feudal and Capitalist Societies, and Marx’s subdivisions of Capitalist society into the periods when merchant capital, industrial capital and finance capital were uppermost.
Each of these societies has been a class society, in the sense that a dominant group or class has been able to get others to work for them in various forms of servile labour. Empires historically have been an extension of the area of domination of the ruling group or class from its own people to other peoples. The fact that this group may have shared with its own people some part of the advantages accruing to them—the free bread and circuses of Imperial Rome, for example—should not blind us to the central class, rather than national, character of the exercise.footnote3 Some distinctions must be drawn between the drives to empire of merchant capital, industrial capital and finance capital. In the first stage, merchant capital looked mainly to buy cheap and to sell dear, if possible to plunder—silks, spices, sugar, precious metals and other rare luxuries from overseas lands for sale at home and in Europe. Trading posts and plantations were established to this end. However, different developments followed in North America, where the empty land was settled by European immigrants and a new capitalist society established, and in Africa, India and South America, where no such settlement was possible.
There can be no doubt that this first stage of conquest and plunder, though small, did much not only to set back economic development in the plundered lands, but to nourish the early years of Britain’s industrial revolution.
But the first stage of plunder had to be ended. If markets were to be opened up for British goods all over the world, the competition of Indian and Chinese textiles and handicrafts had to be destroyed. It is from this period that the division of the world into rich advanced industrial lands and poor under-developed lands may be dated.
But even then, only in India was direct colonial rule extended. In this second stage, so supreme was Britain’s naval and military strength after the Napoleonic wars, and so superior was British industry, that the whole world was Britain’s colony.