E. Belfort Bax

Imperial Extensions and Socialist Intentions

(20 May 1899)

Imperialist Extensions and Socialist Intentions, Justice, 20th May 1899, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In a well-known passage Marx has laid down the axiom that no social formation can be superseded until it has exhausted all the forms under which it can possibly maintain its existence. Now, it has hitherto been taken for granted by Socialists that the present capitalist system is (to use a favourite expression) “breaking down by its own weight” – that, like Goethe’s “magicians apprentice,” it is being overpowered by the very forces it has itself called into being. Unfortunately, Socialists have been too apt either to ignore the truth of Marx’s law, or at least to be blind to the imminence of the danger of its application to the modern capitalist world. Few Socialists seem fully alive to the fact that modern imperialism is simply the dead weight lift of capitalism in extremis to save its life for a season yet. The assumption of the speedy collapse of the capitalist system so often expressed by Socialists would be quite correct were it not for the omission to take into account this one factor in the calculation. And, unhappily, it is precisely this factor which threatens to upset the whole estimate hitherto formed by Socialists as to the immediate future.

That the sufficiently rapid opening-up of the African Continent and the Chinese Empire to the world market must prolong the life of Capitalism in all human probability for a time cannot be too strongly insisted upon. The capitalist class is well aware of the desperateness of the situation as it stands, and that the only hope for its own life lies in huge schemes of market-expansion forced on at a more than hothouse pace. For what is the present situation? Old markets have become not merely exhausted as recipients of wares, but actually themselves competitors of those whose customers they formerly were. An unparalleled development of the power of production in itself, and an equally unparalleled increase of the area in which it operates, within less than a generation. Unless, then, the capitalist class can succeed in securing for itself sufficient breathing-space within a measurable distance of time, the days of the capitalist system are numbered. The immediate future of society lies in the results of the Colonial expansion now beginning. If it succeeds in overtaking the situation before Capitalism reaches the impasse to which, in the natural course of its development, it is hurrying, as already said, capitalism is saved for a season. If, on the other hand, the march of economic events in the civilised world is too quick for the process of “opening-up” the barbaric and savage world, then undoubtedly the present economic system will indeed “break down by its own weight,” and that speedily. In one case Capitalism will have found a fresh form under which it can develop itself ; in the other, it will have come to the end of its tether.

The sure instinct of class self-preservation recognises this – it recognises that the question of to-day for class-society as it exists, is the bringing of the barbaric and savage worlds under the complete domination of the world-market of European Civilisation ; in other words, of the modern great industry. Naturally there are jealousies between the rival “great powers” of the capitalist world as to the relative share of the spoil and the relative influence in the anticipated new capitalist epoch of the various States, i.e., of course the governing classes of those States. But these are, after all, only family quarrels. All the “powers” are well aware that the cause of capitalistic civilisation must not be sacrificed to national rivalries. All must in the last resort take part in the “ white man’s burden” of plundering, murdering and exploiting the black man, the red man or the yellow man, as the case may, be, if the present system of class-privilege is to be maintained. This is abundantly manifest to-day in the international disputes which arise, invariably, of course, over rights of possession or influence it: some new market in process of being “opened up.” There is plenty of brag on both sides, but no fighting. International quarrels, which no longer than a generation ago would have inevitably led to an appeal to arms, are now settled, after the requisite amount of “bounce,” in an amicable manner. The two brother-enemies agree to divide the spoil, and there the matter ends. The fighting is reserved for the barbarians and savages who dare to resist the simple-minded white man’s invasion of their native countries, and who, destitute of Maxims and Gatlings, ignorant of the modern art of war, and unable to take accurate aim, form an excellent and safe target for the heroes sent to bring them the gospel of shoddy and the world-market.

The capitalist class of no country is more alive to the solidarity, the world over, of capitalist interests, than that of Great Britain, hence its affection for the policy of the “open door,” an application of which we have just seen in the Sirdar’s free-trade edict for the newly conquered provinces of the Soudan. The great point is that the Soudan should be brought within the vortex of the world-market, thinks Kitchener, with true capitalistic instinct. As Britain may not be able to accomplish this fast enough, alone, it is desirable to throw the new country open to international trade competition.

It is striking and very significant how the instinct of class-preservation oftentimes overrides even that of personal gain with the modern capitalist. For instance, it is unquestionable that the new railway schemes of Rhodes, if carried out, would give an incalculable stimulus to the “opening-up” of Africa, and hence do yeoman’s service for the salvation of the capitalist system from imminent collapse. On the other hand, no sane man doubts that the individual capitalists who put their money into these schemes will infallibly come out the losers. Yet there seems every prospect of the “investing public” pouring its money down this gullyhole. If it does not it will be the first tine that it has refused to fling its capital into colonial railway enterprise at the behest of the masters of finance. Why this eagerness, with men otherwise shrewd and careful enough, to fling money into personally unprofitable enterprises for the benefit of Capitalism at large, if it be not due to unconscious or half – unconscious class interest?

The immediate objective of militant Capitalism is Africa and China, but the Turkish Empire is assuredly destined to follow at no distant interval. Like the bourgeois political parties and religious sects, so the State-system of Christendom is more and more assuming the form of “one reactionary mass,” its internecine rivalries are hulling down, and it is preparing to show a united front alike against the “enemy” at home, the Socialist Party of the class-conscious revolutionary Proletariat, and the “enemy” abroad, the barbaric and savage populations of the earth to be exploited first of all as the dust-bins into which to shoot the superfluous rubbish of the great industry, and later as competitors in the labour-market with the white wage-slave. It is well that those sections of the European and American working-classes who are still indifferent or wavering in their political attitude should bethink themselves what they are voting for when they give their suffrages to middle-class parties pledged to “Imperial expansion” and a “forward” Colonial, policy, and what they are applauding when they cheer, say, a Kitchener – that they are helping to forge fresh chains for themselves and their class, and are acclaiming as heroes those who are engaged now in making these chains, and who will not be slow to rivet them when the time comes!


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 24.5.2004