Theo Rothstein December 1901
Source: Social Democrat,Vol. V, No. 12, December, 1901, pp.359-363;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
It is absolutely necessary, if our action in the near future is to be not merely empirical, but guided by intelligence and foresight, to understand what Imperialism really means, and what is its place in the sum total of forces that are likely to mould England's destinies in the coming period of her history. That it has come to stay, and to exercise a dominating influence over the whole course of English political life, can no longer be doubted. But it would be a grave mistake to conceive it under that particular form and in those particular terms under and in which it has been exhibited to our gaze and recommended for our acceptance by its Birmingham high priest and exponent. It is just because that high priest and exponent happens to be a vulgar political parvenu, bereft of all the great traditions of English statesmanship, and merely endowed with a shrewd mind and a pushful temperament of a third-rate commercial traveller, that Imperialism has become clothed in such a mean, repulsive, and frankly-brutal garb. With the impatience and the ambitions greed of a genuine screw manufacturer, who deals in small articles and is used to small profits and quick returns, Mr. Chamberlain could not or would not understand that social processes require time to work themselves out to fruition, and that a true statesman will confine himself to merely leading them on their course, gently, patiently, though steadily. He seized them with a rough hand, brought them violently to an issue, and with peacock-like shrieks of triumph dragged out into broad daylight the fruit that was yet unripe and altogether unfit either for the eye or for the taste. No wonder that everybody was shocked - some by the hideous sight, thus cynically displayed before the eyes of the world, others by the novel method of dealing with political problems on shopkeeping principles. Even his own colleagues, one cannot help thinking, must secretly blush at this vulgarity and mischievous ignorance of the upstart, and when he goes - and go he must and will, together with his thoroughly un-English ways - a sense of relief will possess even them.
What, then, is the genuine Imperialism, that Imperialism which is to rule the future?
The, genuine Imperialism, however paradoxical it may sound, is inseparably bound up with some sort of State and municipal Socialism. It is no mere accident that the shining lights of that bastard movement, Fabianism, have joyfully wedded themselves to Imperialism; that Lord Rosebery, the democratic ex-chairman of the London County Council (reputed to be the forerunner of the "London Commune "), the popular arbitrator in the great miners' strike, and one of the three "Socialists" in the last Gladstonian Administration, is and always has been en Imperialist; that the same creed has been openly proclaimed by the other "Socialist" in the same Administration, who has lately been busy with sketching out a "social programme," Mr. Asquith; and that, for instance, that "Socialist" Eldorado, New Zealand, is brimming over with Imperialist enthusiasm. Imperialism - I mean the concrete English Imperialism: of the near future - is in its essence nothing but the application outside the British Isles of that socio-political principle which, when applied at home, leads to "State Socialism" That principle is the organisation and the consolidation by the power of the state of what is euphemistically termed the interests of the community, but is in reality nothing but the interests of the capitalist classes. That this principle is quite a new thing in modern English life, need scarcely be mentioned. It has long been noticed by shrewd observers - among others, I believe, by Bagehot - that neither in the political system of England, nor even in her political vocabulary, is there, properly speaking, such a thing as a State. There is an English people, there is an English Government, but there is no English State. That is substantially quite correct. Of course, it is nowadays an altogether exploded notion, shown to have been largely based on false assumptions and false interpretations, that capitalism in England is a natural growth, whilst on the Continent it is an artificial product created by the State; we know now from innumerable facts, that throughout the earlier centuries, but more especially so since 1688, the State in England was using every then available and known means to encourage, to foster, and to protect her industries. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that since the industrial revolution of the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the State. in England has for all positive industrial and social purposes ceased to exist. The capitalist class, which had at that time attained to power, wisely calculated that, sufficiently strong and resourceful as it was to manage its affairs by its own individual efforts, it was not worth while purchasing the additional resource afforded by the support of the State; by allowing, as it was bound to, the same support to be given to the land-owning class. And so a hue-and-cry was raised against the interference of the State with the "eternal" economic laws, and the State was abolished. We all know how brilliantly the expectations of the capitalist classes had been justified by the events. With their individual initiative and resourcefulness left untrammelled, with the feudal restrictions and agricultural tariffs abolished, and with the practically unlimited command of the world's market assured, the capitalists of England soon formed the richest and most powerful class of private individuals ever known in history. That the result should have reacted on the theory and the practice was only too natural. The Manchester doctrines gained ascendency in economics and social philosophy, while "State Nihilism," decentralisation and democratic liberty of the individual and nation became the main principles in the domain of practical politics. It is, as we know, on these doctrines and practical principles that the great Liberal Party was formed - the party that made England the watchword all the progressive world over.
To say that this state of things could not last for ever is but to say that all human affairs are, in general, unstable. Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, while capitalist England was resting on her oars, the other States - more especially Germany and America - were using the whole of their collective, efforts to work out the various problems of industrial organisation, and to forge, in the shape of protective tariffs, export premiums, national systems of technical, commercial and general education, model factories, effective consular services, experimental laboratories, &e., such weapons as could with advantage be used by their respective capitalist classes in the struggle for the world's market. Of course, those efforts were at first much derided and condemned by the English economic and political school as "paternal State tutelage" and "mischievous meddlesomeness," but the derisions and condemnations gradually ceased as the nations one after the other entered the international arena of industrial and commercial rivalry, and, equipped by the weapons placed at their command by their States, little by little worked themselves up to challenge England's supremacy. That was no longer a matter for joke. It meant, in the eyes of the more thoughtful, the bankruptcy of the laisser faire doctrines and of the whole individualistic philosophy, as reflected in economic and social theory and practice. It was just then that the Socialist teaching of the insufficiency of individual effort, and of the necessity for collective-action, met with a certain amount of perverted recognition among the more intelligent section of the middle classes and gave birth to the Fabian movement - a thorough bastard and a mongrel, which was bound to be popular with its wench of a mother, the bourgeoisie.
And so the idea of the State began to make way in the minds of the public. The more the economic peril that was threatening England became realised, the deeper and the wider the conviction grew that the atomic theory and practice in industry and commerce is a failure, and that under modern conditions it is the whole of the consolidated forces of the State that must be brought to bear on the question of economic survival, let alone supremacy. The Liberal Party - the party of laisser faire, not only in economics, but also, as is but natural, in politics, home and foreign and colonial, national and local - began, as a consequence, to rot (for 25 years, we know now, Mr. Gladstone was mainly engaged in mending old clothes, that is, resisting the disintegration of his party), and a new current, fed by the new requirements, began to make itself felt both among the leaders and the rank and file. That this current has given itself and still wears the name of Imperialist is very natural, seeing that it is the question of consolidation or non-consolidation of the Empire that has hitherto had the occasion - first and feebly in Egypt, then stronger in Ireland, and now, strongest of all, in South Africa - to assume an acute form and to bring to consciousness the differences between the old and new parties; but that name is too narrow. Even as it is, even within its own and proper domain, it gives no expression to the fundamental and really important fact that it is the desire for the general organisation and concentration of the forces of the State which lies at the bottom of the desire for the more particular consolidation of the Empire; but over and above this it simply leaves out of all account the other items of the programme that are of a still greater import and constitute a more direct application of the principle which rules the whole. But that is only for a time; even at the present moment, when the deep shadow of the war is cast over the whole of English public life, we can hear in the, speeches of the various Liberal-Imperialists and read in the articles of their allies, the Fabians, some hints as to their "social" programme; and though much in them must be put down to mere demagogy, or self-deception, nevertheless their general trend must be accepted as perfectly genuine and expressive of the future policy of the party.
It is, then, this party, the bearer of the State-idea, which is destined shortly to man the English ship and to steer its course through the troubled waters of the next historical period. Its captain, there can be no doubt, will be - at least, for a time - Lord Rosebery, whom all the Circean arts of the grand old clothes-mender could not prevent from escaping from Houndsditch, and whom all the frantic and clumsy efforts of Sir Campbell-Bannerman will not prevent from safely arriving at Downing Street. Its programme will be all directed towards the strengthening of the power of the State by means of an Imperial Federation, of a greater centralisation of the administrative functions of the State, and the subordination to them of those of the municipality, of a radical army reform on conscription lines, and, perhaps, of an enhancement of the power of the monarchy; further, towards the limitation of the rights of the subject by means constitutional, judicial, administrative, and otherwise; and, lastly, towards the entrenchment of the economic position of the ruling classes by direct means of protection-tariffs, export bounties - perhaps nationalisation of the railways, &c. - and by indirect means of social reforms, calculated to raise the physique and morale of the working classes. Such will be an improved system, of national education, some grappling with the housing question, old age pensions in some shape or other, a further development of factory legislation, &c., &c.
Of course, this is all in the nature of surmise; it is so much easier to foresee the general direction in which a movement will proceed than the particular forms which it will assume at the different moments of its career. Besides, what is intended here is not so much to sketch out the possible or even probable programme of the Imperialist Party as to illustrate the different measures which it may try to carry out in conformity with its fundamental principles. And this, after all, is to us Socialists the most important. We need not concern, ourselves at the present stage with the particular shape and smell of the various red herrings that are going to be trailed across the path of the working classes in their march towards emancipation; what we have to do is to ascertain beforehand the general species of those herrings, and, by interpreting it to our public, thus forestall the Imperialist demagogues. Happily, as far as can be seen, the danger from the movement is not so very great. The resuscitation of the State from the oblivion of the past can easily prove to be a Frankensteinian experiment; and what with the burden of militarism and increased taxation pressing upon them, with the enhancement of the cost of living, consequent upon the fall of Free Trade, and the curtailment of the various liberties, inevitable with the growth of State-power, the working classes may yet grasp the simple truth that the utilisation of the organised forces of the community for class interests is a game which two can play at, and that if self-help is an exploded panacea for the ills of the middle classes, it must be so for the proletariat, too. The working classed will then form a distinct political party of their own, and, like their continental brethren, enter the lists and compete for the valuable prize. It is this process that we Social-Democrats have to accelerate by our timely propaganda and carefully-directed action.