R. Palme Dutt

The British Empire

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. V, No. 4, October, 1923.
Published: 162 Buckingham Palace Road, London.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE propaganda of the Empire as a cult for popular consumption has been assiduously cultivated in this country, but has never taken root.

The real basis of the Empire is not the artificial cult of Empire Days, Kipling, the King-Emperor, &c., but a severely material basis woven into the lives of everyone and holding them by ties not always seen.

As a result our counter-propaganda has commonly missed the mark. It has made the mistake of fighting the Empire as an idea, by attacking or ridiculing “Empire-mongers” or “imperialism,” or occasionally arousing sentiment over especially atrocious samples of British rule.

The result is no real opposition to the Empire, but only a sentimental tradition of opposition, which is not really understood and is therefore never translated into anything positive and is rapidly discarded as old-fashioned prejudice by Labour politicians when they rise to be taken in by the governing class.

We need to change this by attacking the real material basis of the Empire, by laying bare its results in working-class division and corruption, racial separation, tyranny and militarism, and the destruction of working-class internationalism, by making clear the inevitable break-up and destruction of its material structure, by exposing the new plans of the Imperialists as an attempt to arrest this decay and cut off the British workers from the tide of the world-revolution in a prison house under conditions of artificial isolation bound to bring great suffering on the working class, and by showing the way to counter this effectively in attacking the system at its weakest spot, and changing from the position of a White Labour aristocracy having Utopian “sympathies” with other sections to the leaders of a working-class revolt of all the exploited and subject forces against the real seat of power of British capitalism.

This transformation of British Labour politics can only take place as the result of a very patient and widespread explanation of the real position of the British working class, of the plans of the Imperialists, and of the future prospects awaiting the workers. Socialist propaganda in this country is still almost exclusively national in character (“Britain for the British”) with an added dose of “internationalism” as a kind of preventive against war, and is thus wholly unsuited to modern conditions.

While actual post-war experience is changing and is bound to change this outlook, the expression of this change in programme and policy is still to come. The Empire is still the unspoken premise of all British Labour and trade union politics. Modern capitalism as a conflict of world systems, the displacement of white labour by Asiatic and African, the shifting of the basis of world capitalism and the de-nationalisation of capital, all these fall outside the prim suburban photo-frame of “Labour and the New Social Order.”

What is the British Empire? Why has this collection of miscellaneous and unassociated territories, states, populations, and economic systems, scattered and sprawling over every quarter of the globe, come into being as a single political system dominated from this island?

According to the Daily Herald, quoting Seeley, it all began “in a fit of absence of mind.” The great colonial wars of the eighteenth century were not fought for the sake of the colonies; on the contrary, they were fought because of the quarrels of diplomatists and kings and other habits of the bad old past, and the colonies were an accidental result.

Because the French were in Canada and could be attacked there when we were at war with them, we acquired half of the Continent of North America. Because the Dutch were in South Africa when we broke up their sea power we established ourselves at the Cape, whence we have spread far northward.

It was only when we found ourselves in occupation of vast expanses of territory in all parts of the world that we developed what psychoanalysts would call the “Imperialist complex.”—Daily Herald, August 13, 1923.

This quotation is worth noting as a good example of current Labour expression on the Empire. Its servile repetition of imperialist elementary school history, which not even any bourgeois historian of standing would take seriously, is a striking illustration of the political irresponsibility and easy swallowing of capitalist claptrap that follows from a non-Marxian outlook. The practical consequence is that the Empire is blissfully accepted; all that is attacked is a mysterious state of mind called “the Imperialist complex” existing as a bee in the bonnet of certain professors and others who call out for a higher birth rate, larger armies and navies, &c. “Imperialism,” declares the sapient leader-writer, “seems to be a kind of lunacy.” The “British people,” however, intend to have nothing to do with it: they “will not be treated as pawns for crazy Imperialists.”

The windmill “Imperialism” having been thus successfully disposed of, the British Empire is of course cheerfully accepted. As John Scurr declared at the I.L.P. Summer School, speaking as hypothetical Labour Minister for the Empire:—

The organised worker was apt to assume Imperialism was wrong. [Foolish organised worker!] We might be opposed to Imperialism, but we must admit the Empire was a concrete fact, whose existence carried with it duties and responsibilities that Labour would be cowardly to ignore.

It is this kind of deliberate Imperialist cant, consciously contrary to all direct working-class interests and politics, that we have got to expose, smash, and exterminate from the movement if the British working class is to recover from the yellow associations that entangle it and enter on a clear direct fight with the forces of capitalism. This can only be done by a constant and tireless statement of the plain facts of the position.

What is the British Empire? The British Empire may be defined as the expansion of the first great capitalist State into the non-capitalist world. This condition explains its scattered and unscientific character. It is not the natural association of some large unit, such as the United States, Russia, or Central Europe. It is as haphazard as the pluckings of the ripest fruit in an orchard by the first invader. Britain was the first State to reach that strength of capitalist economy at home to carry through a successful colonial policy, as against France, Spain, or Holland—that is, the domination of territories all over the world for trade, tribute, and monopolies. The success of this early colonial policy made possible the vast development of British manufactures which established Britain as the classic country of industrial capitalism and so brought it first in the field again for the new imperialism of our day—the imperialism of direct finance-capitalist exploitation which has added the remaining threat to the British Empire.

What, then, is the British Empire? It is conquered territory added to the estates of the British bourgeoisie for the purpose of larger scale exploitation. It is thus a great plantation of pure capitalist slavery. It has no other link—racial, religious, geographical, or sentimental—save the single link of capitalist exploitation. Therefore it has no future save for and within capitalist exploitation. Capitalist Germany may become Workers’ Germany, a living section of the Workers’ International. But the capitalist British Empire can become nothing but the capitalist British Empire, since its only liberation is its dissolution.

Around this slave-plantation is endeavoured to be woven the myth of free association in order to conceal its artificial character. So legends of free settlers, pioneers, explorers are made to replace the records of freebooting, piracy, slave-trading, plunder, penal settlements, extermination of natives, &c., which have accompanied the extension of capitalist rule. The British Empire, where seven in eight are subject to autocratic rule, is held up as the palladium of liberty. Even, so great are the concessions which the bourgeoisie are prepared to make in this present hour of difficulty, they are prepared to call the Empire a Commonwealth—a step that has proved highly successful and popular in Labour circles.

What is the “Commonwealth”? The Commonwealth is the association of garrisons of the Empire around their masters, the British bourgeoisie—garrisons a little restive and discontented, inclined to bargain increasingly and insist on their rights, sometimes even toying with the thought of starting on their own or (as with Canada) taking service under a new master, but essentially recognising their identity of interests with their masters so long as these have the cash and the power. Into this circle of White garrisons is being also introduced tentatively, and in the face of considerable distrust and prejudice, the representatives of the rising bourgeoisie of India, who, it is hoped, will help to buttress the weakening White garrison in the Indian treasure-house of exploitation.

Because these privileged garrisons consist of both colonial bourgeoisie and white workers, these two elements, however divided between themselves, are at present united against the vast mass of coloured workers and dispossessed races who form the basis of pure exploitation in the Empire. Hence arises the peculiar character of “Dominion Labour,” even when most “advanced,” in its demands for its own members, its isolation from the international movement, its imperial solidarity, its unity with capitalism in all national issues, its citizen-militarism, its bitter opposition to all outside the privileged ranks, and even readiness (as in South Africa) to blackleg on the coloured workers when these are striking to improve their conditions. It is the garrison outlook, politically termed the Imperial outlook.

This hidden spring of capital-Labour harmony, whose results are so conspicuous in the Dominions, is no less operative among the white workers of the home country, although with less consciousness and open expression owing to the lack of direct confrontation with the non-privileged strata. The British workers are nearer in instinct to a simple working-class outlook of sympathy with all workers, and the contrary imperialist outlook has to be laboriously instilled by their leaders; while the conscious expression of imperialism, the Social Democratic Federation, most closely corresponding in outlook to Dominion Labour, is in Britain a manifestly exotic growth without roots in the movement. Nevertheless the deeper workings of the same principle are no less present, revealing themselves in the weakness of working-class solidarity and easy corruption of sections, the unlimited success of capitalist doping processes of sports, Press, and drink, the facile waves of jingo and anti-alien emotions, and the national isolation and capitalist dependence of the working-class movement. This unity with capitalism, which is at the root of the separation of the British workers from the international working-class movement, is simply the reflection of a material situation that has temporarily placed a section of the world proletariat in a peculiar position. This temporary situation is bound to disappear with the advancing tide of world capitalism and world revolution, and the beginnings of that process are strongly visible. But until then the outlook reflecting that situation is bound to be isolated. The outlook of Dominion Labour and, in its own way, of British Labour is “middle class” in the sense of not realising the necessity of ranging itself either with the international bourgeoisie or with the international proletariat; but regarding itself as holding some peculiar position of immunity or “freedom” and sharing with the bourgeoisie a tutelary guardianship of the “subject,” “native,” or “non-adult” races. The realisation of the falsity of this position, and that the interests of the white workers are not identical with those of the bourgeoisie, is the first step to their own emancipation.

There are no “free” and “subject” races in the Empire. This is the fundamental fact that cannot be too often proclaimed. There are only jailers and jailed. There are only palace slaves and plantation slaves. And the palace slaves play unconsciously into their masters’ hands by looking down upon the plantation slaves as inferior beings, and discuss gravely in their masters’ language whether it is “safe” to give to them the “freedom” that they, the palace slaves, enjoy. That is the epitome of the Empire and of the situation of the British workers in the International.

What, then, are the issues that are now facing this system and the workers within it? Why is the whole form of bourgeois policy now concentrated on the Imperial Conference, and why is every attempt being made to attune Labour expressions to it? The answer to this question is the key to the future in British Labour policy.

On the structure of the Empire as it was in 1914 the war delivered a tremendous shock. The British bourgeoisie was fighting for its existence. Therefore every element of subjection under them was stimulated by the opportunity of the war into asserting itself and becoming conscious of its strength. “Unrest” became a universal feature of the Empire, from Ireland to India and from the Clyde to the Rand. The separate garrisons took advantage of their indispensability to establish their claims to independent existence, even while recognising their identity of interest for the moment. But deeper than this seeming “constitutional revolution” within the palace came the revelation of the real forces beneath, the seething of the vast masses of exploited and dispossessed on whose backs the Empire is built. The moment the garrisons were weakened by the drainage of the war, revolt broke out on every side.

The eventual victory of the British bourgeoisie in the war, at the cost of placing themselves in the hands of the American bourgeoisie, enabled them to concentrate their attention on overcoming the forces of revolt and rebuilding their shattered structure. This was the task of the past four years. By the success of the capitalist offensive at home, by the skilful playing of section against section in the different parts of the Empire, by the conciliation of the upper bourgeoisie in India, Ireland, and elsewhere, by open and even humiliating concessions to the Colonies, and by ruthless suppression of all the revolting exploited elements, this task was accomplished. With 15,000 Republicans jailed in Ireland, with Gandhi jailed in India, with the dead strikers on the Rand and the dead tribesmen on the Bondelswartz, with the treacherous surrender of Black Friday, and the shootings of Amritsar and the bombing of the Mesopotamian villages, order was restored in the Empire.

At length in 1923 the imperialists could turn to reconstruction, and the long-delayed Imperial Conference due to settle all questions after the war could be held. With the Imperial Conference comes the new task to repair somehow the damage done and rebuild a stronger system for the coming trials of external and internal struggle. The Imperial Conference is a conference of imperial reconstruction to make of the dissolving and disintegrating Empire a single closely-knit unit.

It is rapidly clear that this unification cannot be achieved simply in political terms, as was hoped in the days of the war and just after. The disintegration has gone too far for that. The independence and even open defiance on the part of the Colonies, revealed above all in the Chanak crisis and the Canadian-United States Treaty, made even the touching on this ground dangerous, and can only leave the hope that the excitement of war, when the time comes, will enable all to work out for the best.

The only hope of unification now is on economic lines. Such a unification would fit in very well with the existing situation and aims of the British bourgeoisie. The failure of Europe and the competition of America in the Pacific field naturally turn attention to the possibilities of a more economic and self-sufficing organisation of their own domains. In the face of all existing facts the conception of the Empire as an economic unit gains ground, and the increasing prevalence of this artificial and essentially militarist conception strikingly reveals the decaying forces and desperate straits of capitalist production.

It is unnecessary here to demonstrate the economic weaknesses of this conception. The proportion of Empire trade is roughly one-third of the total of British trade, and has remained practically at the same proportion both before and since the war: nor is there any prospect of altering this radically in a rapid time save by artificial means (subsidies, preference, special credits, &c.) such as would be far too costly for present resources. The only possible basis of unification would be the abandonment by the Colonies to Britain of the most profitable forms of manufacturing production and relegating themselves to primary production—the exact reverse of their present line of development. On the contrary, at present, the most favourable form of British trade with the Colonies is the export of machinery of production—in other words, the weapons of their own undoing. The whole process of capitalist development of the Colonies and India compels that they shall become increasingly every year the rivals and not the colleagues of Britain.

But what matters here is the immediate significance of these proposals for the working class. For there is no question that these proposals will be presented in an attractive light, in the guise of a busy harmony of international exchange and production, offering work and prosperity for all. And the Labour coquettings with the conceptions of the “British Commonwealth of Nations” and all the other baits of progressive imperialism make the success of such a propaganda fatally easy. Therefore it is essential from the earliest moment to set out in the harshest possible outline what these proposals mean in fact.

The new plans of the imperialists mean in brief three things for the working class.

First, they mean what is euphemistically described as “Scientific Distribution of Surplus Population”—or, in other words, compulsory emigration of the proletariat according to the needs of the moment of capital. This proposal can only be accomplished in the most barbarous form of the planting of slave-colonies after the fashion of the eighteenth century, since all voluntary forms are impracticable, as has been abundantly revealed by the failure of the Empire Settlement Act, which in fourteen months of its operation has only been able to spend one-twentieth of the funds with which it was provided and settle 32,000 persons. The fate of the unhappy wanderers, dumped as unwanted from home, has been vividly revealed in the fortunes of the harvesters in Canada and the homeless immigrants in Australia.

Second, the plans of the imperialists mean a system of preference, rebates, special freights, credits, subsidies, guaranteed purchases and prices, or whatever other method and juggling may be adopted to establish in fact a protectionist system of the Empire. The Colonial representatives have all made abundantly clear that on no other basis can business be done. The establishment of such a system, with the inevitable raising of prices and creation of monopolies it will involve, will break down all possibility of the maintenance, far less recovery, of working-class standards, and will grind out a temporary and artificial imperial reconstruction from the unlimited exploitation of the workers. The final and inevitable outcome of such a development, of which signs are already not lacking, would be the establishment of some kind of tariff on food (perhaps in the form of control of foreign purchases and a guaranteed price within the Empire) which would mean the final subjection of the industrial workers.

Third, the establishment of such a system, although under the peaceful and benevolent guise of free trade within the Empire, being in fact an exclusive system of so large a part of the earth’s surface against the world outside, would inevitably mean the bitter hostility and combination of the world powers outside, and in consequence a period of heavy militarist rivalry leading up to a culminating war which would wipe out every gain that could be accomplished by the intensive economic development of the Empire.

These are the real and practical dangers which the new plans of the imperialists are bringing to the British working class. It is because of these dangers that the easy toying with the Empire and Empire development by Labour politicians (the Tory motion in the House of Commons on Empire development was officially received by the Labour Party with “general support”: “They were,” declared their spokesman, Mr. A. Short, “interested no less than hon. members opposite in the progress and development of the British Empire”) is not an act of sentimental folly, but of direct treachery to the most vital interests of the working class.

To fight these dangers will need the most vigorous rallying of every effective force of the working-class movement. It is no good endeavouring to fight them on the old liberal formula of free trade. Free trade is out of date in its old liberal laisser-faire sense and has ceased to hold. It held against the new imperialist attack in the decade before the war because it was maintained by the combination of the industrial workers and the older capitalist interests of textiles and shipping. Both these holds are weakening to-day. The Bradford resolution on a tariff has revealed the weakening hold in textiles. The Glasgow revolt against free trade has revealed the weakening hold in Labour. Tariff reform and the Empire is the British form of Fascism, the British form of winning over the workers to capitalist leadership by appearing to offer them some prospect of solid advantage and development.

Against these it is necessary to set a positive alternative, and not the negative grounds of free trade and national self-government. The new tendencies that are showing themselves are a symptom of the fact that the national basis has broken down, and that a wider than national economic organisation is already essential in the present conditions of production. But the Empire is only the extension of all the old nationalist evils on to a larger scale. The only practical alternative now that meets the actual needs of present-day production is the Workers’ International, the World Union of Soviet Republics for the world organisation of production.

We have reached a stage when the only alternative to the Empire is the International, and we have got to show that the International is the only alternative to the Empire. We have got to show that the Empire is a slave-compound, leading nowhere, and with destruction and war as its outcome. And we have got to show that the International is the real path of the British workers as of the Colonial workers in the Empire, united in revolt and in the common struggle of mastering the conditions of production, and united with all the other workers of the world in the future reign of free humanity.