E. Belfort Bax

The International Congress and Colonial Policy

(14 September 1907)

The International Congress and Colonial Policy, Justice, 14th September 1907, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is some twelve years ago now since Herr Bernstein put forward, in the Neue Zeit, the view that Social-Democracy, however much it might criticise the methods of capitalism in opening up new countries and “civilising” backward populations, did not object to these things in themselves, but, on the contrary, admitted their necessity. This statement, put forward in a manner suggesting that it admitted of no contradiction, the present writer was not slow to protest against in Justice. This protest led to a challenge from Bernstein to fight the matter out in the review in which the statement criticised had appeared, and this again to the well-known controversy in which Bernstein for the first time clearly enunciated his “Revisionist” position. The above, however, is ancient history. The interesting point in connection with it is, that in the recent International Congress, Bernstein, in conjunction with his friend David, again put forward the same views, though this time from the rostrum, in a controversial sense, after having succeeded in getting them embodied in a resolution by the Colonial Commission, and that the Congress resolutely rejected them in favour of an uncompromising, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial counter-resolution drawn up by Kautsky and Ledebour.

The main issue, as regards the “opening-up” and colonisation of savage and barbaric countries, from the Socialist stand-point, cannot be too often insisted upon. Capitalism to survive needs expansion. It needs expansion commercially in the shape of markets in which to dump its surplus. It needs expansion industrially in the shape of cheap labour en masse and raw material with which to create its surplus. This is the whole secret of the rush to occupy new countries. The necessity of force to back up the proceedings of capitalism in these countries gives rise to imperialism, which means the right to invoke the Governmental force of the mother-country on the part of capitalists at home and the bureaucrats abroad who are their tools. The stoppage of the process of colonisation means the speedy end of capitalism. Its progress, whether intensively or extensively, means a proportionate continuance of life to capitalism. The foregoing is in a few words the kernel of the whole matter of colonisation.

But now comes the commonplace fallacy, often exposed but as often repeated as though a self-evident truism, and once more shouted by Herr David from the rostrum at Stuttgart: – “But these (savage and barbaric) populations must necessarily sometime or other pass through the capitalist phase!” To which we reply No, Herr David, the “must” exists solely in your shallow and mechanical conception! One would have thought anyone but a callow schoolboy would have been able to grasp the obvious fact that a given phase of historic evolution having been once attained by the complex of races in the van of progress, races in the rear can overleap the intermediate phases and, circumstances favouring, attain at once to the highest point reached by the former. This has been signally illustrated in recent years by the case of Japan. From a feudal State, with primitive methods of production Japan has bounded, almost at one stride, into the position of a modern constitutional State dominated by capitalist production, without passing through any of the intermediate stages which Europe underwent from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Further illustrations of the fallacy of the theory that there is any inherent necessity for any given line of evolution to be passed through in its entirety more than once in history, might be found in the development of capitalism in Britain and the Continental countries respectively. In Britain alone were all possible stages exhibited. Hence it was that Marx took British industry as the classical type of the economic evolution of capitalism. As comrade Ledebour remarked to the present writer after Herr David’s speech, in modern Europe we have the Albanians and Arnauts, and other peoples of the Balkan Peninsula still in a tribal state of society and with primitive modes of producion still dominant; and yet, will anyone in his senses maintain that, given the transformation of West-European Civilisation into Socialism, it would be necessary for the Albanians (say) to pass through all intermediate social stages up to date before being absorbed into the new world of Social-Democracy?

Apart from this pseudo-philosophical argument, so plausible to the half-baked superficial student of historical development as applied to colonies in general, we were treated at Stuttgart, on the part of an English female delegate, to the usual talk about the “pax Britannica ” in India as justifying British domination: “If India were left to herself to-morrow, the next day the native States would be at one another’s throats!” and that sort of thing. To which the obvious answer is “that is their affair; if they like to go for each other’s throats, let them”! As was pointed out at the time the modern nations of Europe lived, not many centuries ago, in a state of internecine war among their component elements, then ununified. Yet, had some great oriental despotism benevolently crushed Western Europe at the opening of the sixteenth century into a compact pacific mass of tributary subjection, it is reasonable to suppose European civilisation as we see it would not exist to-day – in other words, a crucial stage in human progress would have been indefinitely postponed. And who can say at present what the Asiatic races, left to themselves, may yet be destined to accomplish for humanity? The above assumes the statement itself, as to the danger of internecine native warfare in a free India, to be true, which, by the way, it certainly is not. On the whole, the argument based upon it seems about on all fours with that of the thief, who, accused of stealing the bad man’s purse, pleaded justification on the ground of the wicked uses to which the bad man might have out his money.

The insufferable impudence of the bloated capitalist “civiliser” of native races is evinced in the talk about his mission to “educate” such races to “self-government.” Every savage and barbaric people has already its own self-government suited to the stage of social development it is passing through. This the capitalist civiliser destroys by cajolery or violence, and then has the nauseous hypocrisy to talk about “educating” his victims up to “self-government” of a modern European type; which may suit his purposes, but which is quite unsuited to their needs and aspirations.

Truly viewed, all subjugation of native races, however “humanely” carried out, is but a relic of the old principle of negro slavery – what is now euphemistically known as the “white man’s burden,” was then the right of the white man to enslave the black races. That this is so was illustrated by the remark of one of our Dutch comrades who voted in favour of the “Revisionist” resolution, when he expressed the view to me that “we must have our coffee, etc.,” and that if the natives did not furnish us with it to meet our requirements we should be justified in using force to compel them to send it in. What is this but old slavery under a new name? The Congress, in affirming the radical opposition of the international Social-Democracy to a colonial policy in any and every form, has, at the same time, condemned unequivocally, as incompatible with Socialist principle, all forcible interference with backward races.

But what, it may be asked, is our attitude to colonies such as Australia, New Zealand, or the Cape, where the white race has been for generations established in populous communities. The answer is, they do not concern us as colonies. Even long-established colonies in this sense cannot as such be the objects of a Socialist policy. Socialism is not Imperialism. It is the antithesis of Imperialism. These societies concern Socialism merely as independent communities, and not as dependencies of a dominant mother country. By its resolution the Congress has made an end of all compromise on one question at least.


E. Belfort Bax


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