‘Financial’ imperialism is a fashionable term. It is supposed to be different in nature from the ‘mercantile’ imperialism of the 17th and 18th centuries, to have matured during the last quarter of the 19th century and to have led to the ‘informal’ and then the ‘formal’ take-over of the world, culminating in the sharing out of the last unoccupied territories—Africa, the Ottoman Middle East and Indochina. This theory has been put to severe trial recently. The huge colonial empires, which had taken centuries to build, broke up in a few years without proportionate violence and without any marked impoverishment of the great imperial parent states or any reduction in their capacity to exploit the rest of the world.

The concepts of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism are unsatisfactory. They were devised for argument’s sake, in the face of an unexpected situation, and they fail to save the traditional theory. For it is becoming increasingly obvious that political domination, far from having been the condition or even the crowning of economic domination (or what I would call exploitation), really ran counter to it. It is a sign of the times that in such a traditionalist context as the 1970 Seventh World Congress of Sociology, held at Varna in Bulgaria, a voice should have been raised to condemn clearly and frankly ‘the false identification of imperialism with colonialism’ and to assert that the colonial phenomenon, from 1880 to the last war, was only an ‘avatar’ of imperialism, which has existed long before it and which it both distorted and hindered, although it was none the less a historical necessity.footnote1

Unfortunately a certain piety towards Lenin’s writings still prevents Marxists from disengaging themselves intellectually from the influence of a marginal work which never had any scientific pretensions, and which was written rapidly, in the difficult conditions of exile, with no other documentation to hand but the Bern library. The author himself described it as a simple ‘attempt at popularization’; and far from being a general theory of imperialism, it was only an empirical analysis conditioned by a particular historical situation.

I believe this quasi-religious attitude explains the repeated misunderstandings and deficiencies of revolutionary Marxism in the face of all the major events that have accompanied decolonization—such as the secessions of Katanga and Rhodesia, the Biafra war, and even the Algerian war and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Marxists seem to circle round and round these problems without knowing from which angle to tackle them. Innumerable ‘mini-theories’ are produced that contradict one another; words are refuted by other words; and no current doctrine of imperialism is accepted by more than a small group, even within the great ‘left-wing’ parties themselves on those occasions when reflection is encouraged, allowed or simply tolerated. This confusion becomes unbearable when the inadequacy of the old concepts is recognized and people try to save them with a multitude of deductive developments instead of firmly replacing them by new ones.

The main aim of this article is to show up a particular deficiency of the traditional schemas. This is their failure to recognize a third factor that intervenes between imperialist capitalism and the peoples of the exploited countries, i.e. the colonialists themselves. Not only does this deficiency seem to us to be the most topical one and the one most immediately linked to certain present-day problems of the utmost urgency, but its examination will enable us to consider in logical order a whole series of other contradictions between accepted notions and reality.

It is useless to go into the various constraints and inducements that suddenly launched the policy of colonial conquest and expansion at the end of the 19th century. As J. Galagher and R. Robinson put it, ‘Why, after centuries of neglect, the British and other European governments should have scrambled to appropriate nine-tenths of the African continent within sixteen years, is an old problem, still awaiting an answer.’footnote2One thing seems certain, however, and is beginning to be widely accepted. Whatever the motivating forces behind this adventure, the advanced capitalist world did not receive any supplementary benefit from the direct administration of these new territories.

Without going into the details of Coquery-Vidrovitch’s demonstration mentioned above, or into those of authors like Strachey, Brunschwig, Crouzet, etc,footnote3 one can say that the imperialists’ easy renunciation of their colonies and the fact that it caused them no loss or reduction of earnings, provides a strong argument, at any rate a posteriori, in favour of the theory according to which direct administration of the underdeveloped countries ceased, at a certain moment, to be profitable, and from then on added nothing to the automatic machinery of exploitation and ‘blocking’ constituted by the free play of world economic forces and relations of production.