Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

I. Introduction

The majority draft resolution of the Commission on Colonial Policy at the Stuttgart International Congress begins as follows:

Congress confirms that the general usefulness or necessity of the colonies – particularly for the working class – is highly exaggerated. However, congress does not in principle reject all colonial policy for all time, as it could have a civilising effect under a socialist regime.

After various deliberations this sentence was finally to have been replaced by the following:

Taking into consideration that socialism will develop the productive forces of the whole world and will raise all peoples to the highest cultural level, congress does not reject all colonial policy on principle because it could have a civilising effect under socialism.

This formulation narrowed the concessions made to the concept of colonial policy, but in spite of this it was rejected by the majority of the Congress.

The Essen Party Conference then declared its unanimity with this resolution.

Of course it did not discuss the question whether the Stuttgart minority or majority had been correct but only if there had in fact been a difference between the majority and the minority.

And in fact if one restricts oneself to the wording of the resolutions, the differences do in fact seem insignificant at first glance – not worth occupying ourselves fully with or even getting excited about. On the one hand there is a mere verbal dispute over the concept of ‘colonial policy’, and on the other there is brooding over unlaid eggs, speculation about the circumstances of a future, which is perhaps distant, but which at any rate is not discernible to us today.

But in reality these things are not so harmless. It is naturally quite unnecessary to indulge in subtle enquiries about the future, insofar as we have no influence on it and it has no influence upon us. But our total activity in the present counts for the future. The way our future takes shape depends to a large extent upon the nature of our present activity; and on the other hand, the shape of our activity in the present depends considerably upon the picture we form of the future, upon the aims which we regard as possible, desirable or necessary. The clearer our recognition of the future the more purposeful our activity in the present, and the more purposeful this is, the shorter and easier will be the way to our objectives.

If a socialist society requires colonies, then it is obvious that we also approve the acquisition and retention of colonies for the present as well, and our rejection of all colonial policy on principle fails: we can at most oppose the ways and means by which colonies are occupied arid administered.

On the other hand, however, socialists who regard it as desirable that we participate in present day colonial policy are naturally driven into asserting the necessity of the foreign domination by civilised peoples over peoples at a lower level even where a socialist regime is concerned.

Thus the idea of a socialist colonial policy is connected most closely with our present policy with regard to the colonies. For the Stuttgart discussions on the matter were exclusively confined to present day policy, and were concerned with the question whether social democracy considered that present day acquisitions were necessary or not.

Van Kol, reporting from the Commission, explained:

The minority resolution denies the possibility of developing the productive forces of the colonies by capitalist colonial policy. I am quite unable to understand how a thinking man can hold this position. One has only to briefly consider the colonisation of the United States of America. Without colonisation the natives would still be living in the most needy cultural circumstances today. Is Ledebour going to withdraw from the present social order indispensable raw materials which are provided by the colonies? Is he going to sacrifice only for the present the immeasurable riches of the colonies? Do those German, French and Polish delegates who have subscribed to the minority resolution wish to undertake the responsibility for simply abolishing the present colonial system? Colonies have existed as long as mankind and I believe they will continue to exist for a long time to come. There will indeed not be many socialists who consider colonies to be unnecessary to the future social order. But we need not discuss this question today. I only ask Ledebour whether he has the courage to give up the colonies now under a capitalist regime. Perhaps he will also then tell us what he will do with the surplus population of Europe: in what countries those having to emigrate should seek their cities, if not in the colonies? What will Ledebour do with the growing produce of European industry, if he will not create new sales territories in the colonies? And will he as a Social Democrat reject the duty of continually working to further civilise and develop under-developed peoples?

A more powerful plea for the participation of social democrats in a colonial policy under capitalism is scarcely imaginable.

Bernstein followed in van Kol’s tracks. He remarked:

We may not occupy a purely negative standpoint on colonial policy, but must pursue a positive socialist colonial policy. (Applause), We must get away from the utopian idea which Leads to disposing of the colonies. The final, consequence of this approach would be to return the United States to the Indians. (Protests) The colonies are here to stay: we have to come to terms with that. Civilised peoples have to exercise a certain guardianship over uncivilised peoples – even socialists have to recognise this. Let us base ourselves on real facts, which will lead us to oppose capitalist colonial policy with a socialist one. Much of our economic life rests upon products from the colonies which the natives were not able to utilise. On all these grounds we must accept the resolution of the majority.

Despite “all these grounds” we are concerned not with framing colonial policy under a distant socialist regime, but with framing the colonial policy of socialists within capitalist society.

David was the third to defend the proposal of the majority of the Commission. From his speech we extract the following sentences:

If the minority is saying that there is absolutely nothing that can be done to improve present day colonial policies, that it is harmful for the natives and for the country pursuing it under all circumstances, then the minority must, if it is to be consistent, demand that colonies must be done away with. (Quite right!) Ledebour calls to me, that is what we want: (Lively ‘Hear! Hear!’) Then the English comrades who support Ledebour’s resolution must propose in their Parliament that their colonies be abrogated, and the same goes for the French comrades. And if the supporters of this view were really in the position to do away with colonies as such: that would mean giving them back to the natives. What would in all probability happen to the colonies then? Humanity would not govern in them, they would fall back into barbarism. (Quite right!) Now comrade Ledebour has sought to give the impression that the view that a people can be justified in pursuing a civilising mission in the colonies is reprehensible in a socialist. Against this I refer-to Bebel’s declaration of 1st December 1906, in which he laid down the standpoint of social-democracy on colonial policy. He said: ‘The pursuit of a colonial policy is of and for itself no crime. (Hear! Hear!) The pursuit of a colonial policy can under certain circumstances be a civilising deed. It depends on how colonial policy is pursued. (Hear! Hear!) If the representatives of civilised societies come to foreign peoples as friends, as benefactors, as educators of mankind, to help them utilise the treasures of their land in their own interest and in that of the whole of civilised humanity, then we are in agreement with this’. But to educate means to place under tutelage! Ledebour has declared that we have no right to tutor less civilised peoples... If they do not wish merely to pose questions, but wish to be consistent, they must accept the first sentence of the resolution: the colonies must also pass through capitalism. They will not jump from savagery into socialism. (Very good!) Nowhere is mankind reprieved from the painful passage through capitalism, and it is precisely according to the scientific view of Karl Marx that this is a precondition for a socialistically ordered economy.

In his conclusion, van Kol finally directed himself against my ‘book-wisdom’ – the view that we should use only peaceful methods in trading with the natives of overseas territories – and put up the following bold assertion:

We have to go there arms in hand, even if Kautsky calls this imperialism.

That these views were in sharp contradiction with those expressed by the minority in the Stuttgart Commission appeared clear to the International Congress. Nobody taking part in its proceedings expressed the view that people were quibbling over trifles.

Comrade David, one of those who fought most passionately in Stuttgart, has continued to point out the depth of the contradiction between his position and ours since the International Congress. He wrote in the Mainz Volkszeitung (26 August):

Comrades Ledebour and Kautsky are not representative of the main point of view held by the social democratic fraction up to the present, a view which has also been accepted by the German delegation by an overwhelming majority. These comrades rather represent their own particular conception which is in the sharpest contradiction to the declarations of the Reichstag fraction and to the motion which then passed against a disappearing minority in the German delegation ... It was clear after the formal rejection of the main motion of the German delegation, respective replacement by the purely negative minority conception, that the whole resolution had to become unacceptable to all those supporters of the German motion who did not wish to become guilty of severe inconsistency. In view of this state of affairs it in fact takes an unusual amount of effrontery to attempt to celebrate the Stuttgart proceedings as a ‘victory’ for the Ledebour-Kautskyite point of view: for the pure utopian-radical negation. In reality this position was defeated.

Van Kol saw the thing somewhat differently: he reproached German social democracy for its position on the colonial question up to the present and accused it of being based on the same viewpoint of “pure utopian-radical negation”, which David discovered in Ledebour and myself. In contrast to David, van Kol saw both of us as representatives of the approach on the colonial question accepted up to now by German social democracy, and for this reason exclaimed in Stuttgart:

I ask German social-democracy: Where is your colonial programme? You have always protested against the barbarities and injustices of the colonial policy only in your hearts, and I have read Ledebour’s warmhearted speeches with lively sympathy. But it is sad to have to say: You have done nothing for the development of the German colonies. Spiritually, German social democracy has not been up to the mark on the colonial question. Where are your writings, who are your authors who have written on the colonial question? Who among you has been to the colonies to study them? It was your duty not merely to oppose, but to act. But like France, you have done nothing ... I particularly deplore in Germany’s interest the fact that social democracy there has limited itself to disputing the necessity for and the practicability of colonies.

However, despite this contradiction, van Kol and David agree that there are two tendencies within international social democracy which are sharply contradictory. Since then David has retracted this view, at least as far as German social democracy is concerned, as he put the point of view in Essen that people were only fighting over trifles in Stuttgart. Also, the resolution of the minority did not find the slightest opposition in Essen. It has been accepted by German social democracy as the foundation upon which its activity regarding colonial endeavours is to be based.

However this has not produced the clarity demanded by such an important and complicated question. The Stuttgart discussion has, as we have seen; called forth a series of arguments on the colonial question which had been disputed by one side, but accepted by not a few comrades, as evidenced by the voices in agreement. Amongst these are arguments which sound very plausible and cannot just be shoved aside with a sweep of the hand; arguments which have to be thought through, particularly as we are continually meeting our opponents in the press, in gatherings, in legislative bodies.

Its investigation becomes the more important the more colonial policy becomes the pivot of all international policy, and the more it threatens world peace, which there is little else to disturb otherwise. As, however, our practical approach to present colonial policy is determined in essentials by our expectations of the future, and as, furthermore, the matter concerns distant, little known situations, it is essential to formulate our views on these matters sharply and to differentiate clearly between different positions. On questions which touch upon the daily practice of the proletariat, its instinct, deriving from such practice, can very often be a truer guide than the assertions of the theoreticians, who are distant from this practices This guiding light fails where the colonial question is concerned. Unless there is clear, sharp thinking and ‘book-learning’ here, one can easily land on the worst by-ways – and not just theoretically, but practically. And thus it is no mere idle verbal dispute to consider what is meant by the term “colonial policy”, but a question of the greatest importance for our activity and propaganda. Any smudging of concepts here lends assistance to the emergence of tendencies which are fundamentally incompatible with the nature of the proletarian struggle for emancipation, and which in the last analysis must damage it. The recognition of this struggle for emancipation is however the solid foundation upon which we must base all our efforts, on which alone it can rest safe and indestructible.


Last updated on 11.12.2003