Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

Imperialism and national liberation

Throughout the history of capitalism the employing class has always looked to an additional source of wealth – the seizure of wealth produced in other countries.

The growth of the first forms of capitalism at the close of the Middle Ages was accompanied by the seizure by western states of vast colonial empires – the empires of Spain and Portugal, of Holland and France, and, of course, of Britain. Wealth was pumped into the hands of the ruling classes of western Europe, while whole societies in what has become known as the Third World (Africa, Asia and South America) were destroyed.

Thus, the ‘discovery’ of America by Europeans in the 16th century produced a vast flow of gold into Europe. The other side of that coin was the destruction of whole societies and the enslavement of others. For example, in Haiti, where Columbus first established a settlement, the native Harawak Indians (perhaps half a million in all) were exterminated in just two generations. In Mexico the Indian population was reduced from 20 million in 1520 to 2 million in 1607.

The Indian population of the West Indies and of parts of the mainland was replaced by slaves captured in Africa and transported across the Atlantic under abominable conditions. An estimated 15 million slaves survived the Atlantic crossing while about 9 million died in transit. About half the slaves were transported in British ships – which is one reason why British capitalism was the first to expand industry.

The wealth from the slave trade provided the means to finance industry. As an old saying put it, ‘The walls of Bristol are cemented with the blood of the negroes’ – and this applied just as much to other ports. As Karl Marx put it, ‘The veiled slavery of the wage worker in Europe required for its pedestal slavery pure and simple in the New World.’

The slave trade was complemented by pure looting – as when the British conquered India. Bengal was so advanced that the first British visitors were stunned by the magnificence of its civilisation. But this wealth did not stay long in Bengal. As Lord Macaulay wrote in his biography of the conqueror, Clive:

The immense population was given up as prey. Enormous fortunes were thus rapidly accumulated at Calcutta, while 30 million of human beings were reduced to the extremity of wretchedness. They had been used to living under tyranny, but never tyranny like this.

From that point onwards Bengal became renowned not for its wealth, but for a grinding poverty that every few years saw millions starve to death in famines, a poverty that continues to this day. Meanwhile, in the 1760s, at a time when total capital investment in England was no more than £6 million to £7 million, the annual tribute to England from India was £2 million.

The same processes were at work in relation to England’s oldest colony – Ireland. During the Great Famine of the late 1840s when Ireland’s population was halved by starvation and emigration, more than enough wheat to feed the starving population was sent from the country as rent to English landlords.

Today, it is usual to divide the world into ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries. The impression is given that the ‘underdeveloped’ countries have been moving in the same direction for hundreds of years as the ‘developed’ countries, but at a slower speed.

But, in fact, one reason for the ‘development’ of the Western countries was that the rest were robbed of wealth and pushed backwards. Many are poorer today than they were 300 years ago.

As Michael Barratt Brown has pointed out:

The wealth per head of the present underdeveloped lands, not only in India, but in China, Latin America and Africa, was higher than in Europe in the 17th century, and fell as wealth grew in Western Europe.

The possession of an empire enabled Britain to develop as the world’s first industrial power. It was in a position to stop other capitalist states getting their hands on the raw materials, markets and profitable areas of investment within its third of the world.

As new industrial powers such as Germany, Japan and the United States grew up, they wanted these advantages for themselves. They built up rival empires or ‘spheres of influence’. Faced with economic crisis, each of the major capitalist powers tried to solve its problems by encroaching on the spheres of influence of its rivals. Imperialism led to world war.

This in turn produced huge changes within the internal organisation of capitalism. The tool for waging war, the state, became much more important. It worked ever more closely with the giant firms to reorganise industry for foreign competition and war. Capitalism became state monopoly capitalism.

The development of imperialism meant that capitalists did not just exploit the working class of their own country; they also took physical control of other countries and exploited their populations. For the most oppressed classes in the colonial countries, this meant that they were exploited by foreign imperialists as well as by their own ruling class. They were doubly exploited.

But sections of the ruling classes in the colonial countries also suffered. They saw many of their own opportunities to exploit the local population stolen from them by imperialism. In the same way, the middle classes in the colonies, who would have liked to see a rapid expansion of locally run industry so as to provide them with good career opportunities, suffered as well.

The last 60 years have seen all these various classes in colonial and ex-colonial countries rise up against the effects of imperialism. Movements have developed that have attempted to unite the whole population against foreign imperialist rule. Their demands have included:

Such were the demands of successive revolutionary upsurges in China (in 1912, 1923-27 and in 1945-48), in Iran (in 1905-12, 1917-21 and in 1941-53), in Turkey (after the First World War), in the West Indies (from the 1920s onwards), in India (in 1920-48), in Africa (after 1945) and in Vietnam (until the United States was defeated in 1975).

These movements were often led by sections of the local upper classes or middle classes, but they meant that the ruling classes of the advanced countries faced an additional opponent as well as their own working class. The national movement in the so-called Third World challenged the imperialist capitalist states at the same time as did their own working classes.

For the working class movement in the advanced countries this had great importance. It meant that in its fight against capitalism, it had an ally in the liberation movements of the Third World. So, for example, a Shell worker in Britain had an ally in the liberation forces in South Africa who were fighting to take over the property which Shell owned there. If Shell can thwart the aims of the liberation movements in the Third World, then it will be more powerful when it comes to resisting the demands of workers in Britain.

This is true, even if the liberation movement in the Third World country does not have a socialist leadership – indeed, even if its leadership merely wants to replace foreign rule by the rule of a local capitalist or state capitalist class.

The imperialist state which is trying to smash that liberation movement is the same imperialist state that is the greatest enemy of the Western worker. That is why Marx insisted that ‘a nation that oppresses others cannot itself be free’, and why Lenin argued for an alliance between the workers of the advanced countries and the oppressed people of the Third World, even when these had a non-socialist leadership.

This does not mean that socialists will agree with the way in which non-socialists in an oppressed country lead a national liberation struggle (any more than we necessarily agree with how a trade union leader leads a strike). But we have to make it clear before anything else that we support that struggle. Otherwise we an all too easily end up supporting our own ruling class against people it is oppressing.

We have to support a liberation struggle unconditionally, before we are entitled to criticise the way it is led.

However, revolutionary socialists in a country which is oppressed by imperialism cannot leave matters there. They have to argue, day in day out, with other people about how the struggle for national liberation should be waged.

Here, the most important points are contained in the theory of permanent revolution developed by Trotsky. Trotsky began by recognising that often movements against oppression are initiated y people from middle class or even upper class backgrounds.

Socialists support such movements because they aim to remove one of the burdens that weighs upon the most oppressed classes and groups in society. But we also have to recognise that those from the upper or middle classes cannot lead such struggles consistently. They will be afraid of unleashing a full-blooded class struggle, in case this challenges not merely oppression from outside, but also their own ability to live by exploiting the most oppressed classes.

At a certain point they will run away from the struggle they themselves initiated, and, if necessary, unite with the foreign oppressor to smash it. At this point, if socialists, if the working class does do not take the leadership of the national liberation struggle, it will be defeated.

Trotsky also made one final point. It is true that in most Third World countries the working class is only a minority, often a small minority, of the population. But it is nevertheless often quite big in absolute terms (for example in India and China it is tens of millions strong), it often creates a huge proportion of the national wealth in relation to its size, and it is concentrated in overwhelming numbers in the cities which are key when it comes ruling the country. So in a period of revolutionary turmoil, the working class can take the leadership of all other oppressed classes and seize control of whole countries. The revolution can be permanent, beginning with demands for national liberation and ending with socialist demands. But only if socialists in the oppressed country have from the beginning organised the workers on an independent, class basis – supporting the general movement for national liberation, but always warning that its middle class or upper class leaders cannot be trusted.


Last updated on 12 February 2019