Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

II. A Positive Colonial Policy

Unclear thinking is always a great fault in practice; it makes activity uncertain, fluctuating, contradictory, dependent on general feelings and inspirations, and thus on chance. But it provides a good safeguard against criticism. What approach can be used to criticise an idea not held clearly even by its defenders who conceive it now this way and now that depending on the needs of the moment? A sharp sword which will cut through a coat of mail will stick in a mass of soft dough.

Likewise it is not easy to bring about clarity on what van Kol calls a “positive” or “socialist” colonial policy. What are we to understand by this? According to van Kol, a policy of the kind rejected up to the present by German Social Democracy. David supports the same policy and yet seeks to prove to us that this is precisely the policy already pursued by our fraction in the Reichstag up to the present. Who is right?

Different people manifestly understand different things by a socialist colonial policy. As the representatives of this policy have not defined it precisely, we ourselves must do it: but we must first of all define the idea, “colonial policy”, before we criticise socialist colonial policy. This investigation is no idle hair-splitting, as little as would be, for instance, an investigation into the concepts, “militarism”, or “capital”. If one person understands the word “militarism” as meaning arming the people and another as the system of standing armies sealed off from the people, the two will scarcely be able to come to an understanding. They may both want the same thing, perhaps a militia system, and yet one of them may reject militarism and the other may become indignant over this rejection, on the grounds that it means disarming the people, leaving them defenceless.

And if, out of two people, one understands capital as being means of production and the other as a power to exploit based on private property in the means of production, again, they may both want the same thing, the abolition of the exploitation of labour, and yet the one may consider capital to be an indispensible precondition for all production whose abolition would be a fatal step backwards, whilst the other thinks that the progress of mankind can only be brought about through its abolition.

And that’s how it is with colonial policy as well.

Now what are we to understand by it? Manifestly, a policy which sets out to acquire and to hold colonies, tracts of land mainly situated in overseas regions. Without a colony, without an overseas possession, no colonial policy.

However colonial policy itself poses two questions:

  1. Are we to fight against or support the acquisition and retention of colonies?
  2. Are we to fight for reforms in the colonies, once they exist, or not?

It is clear that it is by no means necessary to say yes to the first question, if one does so to the second. One can resolutely say no to the first, and yet equally resolutely demand an improvement in the circumstances of the colonies, which are held against our will. One can attempt to act ‘positively’ in the colonies and yet purely ‘negatively’ oppose the basis of all colonial policy: the possession of colonies. He who is not able to see the logical consistency of this view, fails also to understand the nature of the whole of social democracy, which likewise consists in this: that one can fight capitalism, negate it, demand its complete abolition and yet at the same time seek positive reforms within it. This combination of positive and negative struggle which we pursue with regard to the whole of capitalism is also valid for each of its component phenomena. German social democracy has always acted in this way on colonial policy as well.

Some of our comrades certainly do not seem to have comprehended this. They do not tire of asserting that formerly we would merely have operated negatively while now we are operating positively; or ‘radicals’ and revisionists are distinguished by the fact that the former merely negate while the others wish for positive action. Van Kol betrays a singular view of party history when he says:

When we still were a small group, when we still believed in the theories of catastrophe, we considered it was sufficient to protest against capitalism, to continually remind our supporters of their present sufferings while painting the future paradise in stark contrast to the existing state of affairs. Now we have recognised the duty of acting against capitalism.

If van Kol intends to sketch his own development with these words, that may apply. Marxist social democracy has from the beginning “recognised the duty of acting against capitalism”, and emphasised the uselessness of purely sentimental protest.

Thus German social democracy has never limited itself to mere protests on colonial policy, but rather has intervened most energetically for the improvement of the lot of the natives, as only recently in the Herero War. The whole of German social democracy is united on this and there is not the least difference between us; Ledebour, like David and Bernstein, recognises the necessity for “positive” action on the colonies, and he has proved this often enough by his parliamentary activity.

Neither has van Kol offered any proof in his denunciation of our party on this matter; he has not named a single instance of neglect with regard to the colonies.

Indeed if he really wanted to make international censures, he would have found a richer field outside Germany. For instance, it is nothing less than edifying to see how much India is neglected in the British Parliament. There is certainly much of a “positive” kind that could be done here which is being neglected. But, to be sure, if van Kol had spoken of the English, the whole of his much-vaunted proofs would have slipped through his hands, for amongst the English socialists, the most energetic defenders of the Indian people are precisely the most determined Marxists; and where “positive” cooperation with the government predominates, interest in the welfare of India declines. It is demonstrated particularly clearly in England that the fundamental rejection of any colonial policy, far from limiting practical activity for the subjugated colonial peoples, rather stimulates it to the greatest extent: which is as natural as the fact that the most energetic proponents of the Eight Hour Day are not the bourgeois social reformers but the revolutionary social democrats.

The things van Kol brought up against German social democracy on the colonial question were therefore nothing more than empty phrases without any substance. Our Party has no changes to make whatsoever in this connection.

But do we not lack a colonial programme, do we not lack literature on the colonial question? Have we neglected its study?

It is possible that we could have accomplished more on this matter. If, however we are to be charged with neglect, it can hardly be ascribed to the “purely negative” attitude of German Marxists. Not only has the “positive” work on colonial policy – the energetic defence of the rights of natives – been done principally by Bebel and Ledebour in the Reichstag, but our colonial literature has also mainly been attended to by representatives of the left wing of our party.

The first investigation of the relationship between colonial policy and the proletarian class struggle to have appeared in book form comes from a very “negatively” orientated comrade. We refer to the excellent book published by Parvus in Leipzig a short time ago with the title, Die Kolonialpolitik and der Zusammenbruch (“Colonial Policy and the Collapse”). It would be highly gratifying if the need of our “positive” comrades for deeper study of colonial policy brought many new readers for this book.

But Parvus is not the only one of us who concerns himself with colonial policy. I am referring to the person who is nearest to me, that is myself.

The preparations for my first work on the Einfluss der Volksmehrung (“Influence of Population Increase”) which appeared in 1880 caused me to study the Indian situation, as the misery of India was attributed by the Malthusians to the rapid increase of its population. Then, urged on by Marx and Engels, I turned to study of prehistoric societies, which naturally required me to investigate the conditions of primitive peoples, who are the objects of colonial policy. I started at the examination of this policy itself the moment Germany began to show a desire for colonial acquisitions and thus opened the era of modern colonialism. By March 1880 I had already published, in Seyfferth’s Staatswissenschaftlichen Abhandlungen (“Political Essays”), an examination of the question Soll Deutschland Kolonien Gründen? (“Should Germany Found Colonies?”)

In the first volume of Neue Zeit, 1883, there appeared a longer essay of mine on Auswanderung and Kolonisation (“Emigration and Colonisation”), in which I already formulated the view which has determined the position of our party on colonial policy from then up to the present.

In the course of the same year I published an article Aegypten and seine Zukunft (“Egypt and its Future”); in 1884 there was an article on the Sudan, then on Tongking, in 1885 on the Indian Question and also on the Working Class Question with regard to New Guinea, in 1886 on the Chinese Railways and the European proletariat, also in 1886 on the Cameroons.

Ten years later I turned anew to the study of colonial policy, as this had been given a new and dangerous character by the naval preparations. There appeared in Volume XVI, 1. Aeltere and neuere Kolonialpolitik (“Past and Recent Colonial Policy”), XVI, 2 Kiautschou (“Rubber”), XVIII, 1 Der Krieg in Südafrika (“The War in South Africa”), and also Schippel, Brentano and die Flottenvorlage (“Schippel, Brentano and the Naval Proposals”), XXIII, 2 Die Folgen des japanischen Sieges and die Sozialdemokratie (“The consequences of the Japanese Victory and Social Democracy”).

It can be seen that it did not require an admonition from van Kol to induce me to occupy myself with colonial policy, which I have been following for nearly thirty years, and that he would be hard put to it to find in the “positive tendency” of German social democracy a comrade who did it with equal urgency.

However, I am not the only one in fundamental opposition to colonial policy who has been driven to study it more thoroughly as a result of his labours. I will recall only my friend Cunow, editor of Vorwärts, the most important ethnologist in Germany and perhaps even in the entire international social democratic movement, which has been made exceedingly well informed by his studies on the colonial policy of the various states.

To be sure none of us has made study trips to the colonies, but neither have our “positive” comrades in German social democracy. So what can these reproach us with? We have as little hindered them from making study trips as from working out programmes and books on colonial policy. Quite the contrary. Should some of these comrades wish to go to the Cameroons or South-West Africa, I would propose that the Party pays their travel expenses.

But van Kol will have to allow that in general we view the results of the study trips of individual delegates and other European politicians with a certain mistrust. Such trips by people without an ethnological background, who are active in Europe and therefore can only briefly leave their country, are much too short to allow them any deep insight into the situation Also, freedom of movement is not unlimited in most colonies. As a rule, the authorities allow the traveller to observe only what it suits them. He then sees little more than Potemkin villages. By these means, travellers investigating Russia have been induced to sing the praises of Siberian jails. It is even more difficult to enquire into the truth in the colonies than in Russia because of the language difficulty.

It is not the passing traveller who can be counted a reliable source on colonial circumstances, but rather the person who remains there longer, lives among the natives, and comes into disinterested contact with them, an investigator, doctor, missionary or engineer, not a trader or soldier. He who remains in Europe and reads the reports of such people will get a truer picture of colonial circumstances than one who spends some weeks inspecting one or a few colonies. Of course, one of these reports will not suffice. Accidents play a big part in the personal experiences of every individual. It is essential, however to sort out the general, the typical, the necessary and the essential and to separate it from the accidental, the transitory, or the local. Individual personal experiences are not sufficient for such a task, for which it is necessary to draw together the experiences of many observers of the most different times and countries. Not one study-trip but the investigation of colonial literature can enable us to have a deeper insight into the nature of colonies and colonial policy. Study trips can then lend colour and shape to the picture gained in this way, but they can never replace working through the literature without giving a false picture.

Thus we must place only a little value on study trips, especially as it is a matter of accident whether one of us has the necessary time and petty cash. If Comrade van Kol was in that position, and if his previous lengthy activity as an engineer in the Dutch East Indies enabled him to see more on his last trip than travellers normally get to see, then this is certainly very satisfactory, but it is by no means a result of his “positive” standpoint. If there has so far been no one in the same position amongst German social democrats, it is pointless to accuse us of neglect of duty and to see this as the result of an alleged tendency to negate, and of wanting to do nothing positive.

We admit that German social democracy has emphasised the protest against colonial policy as such more than our Dutch sister party has done. Perhaps the latter has also achieved more in the way of colonial reforms. But that is not because our basic rejection of colonial policy keeps us from any useful reform activity, but because our political situation is different to the one in Holland.

In the first place, it makes a big difference that the German Reichstag has much less to discuss in the way of colonial matters than the Dutch Chamber. But there is also the fact that there is no longer the slightest danger of Holland’s empire being extended. On the contrary, everyone there thinks it is already too big. In fact, van Kol was so good as to propose in the Dutch Chamber, that certain colonial territories which are too burdensome to Holland should be sold to Germany, and this ingenious plan met with the applause of the respectable bourgeois colonial politicians of his country.

On the other hand, in Holland there is a demand for reforms which will rejuvenate the colonies – which are becoming impoverished frighteningly quickly, and which in their present state threaten to become an oppressive burden on the mother country. Thus particular proposals for reform made by socialists have under certain circumstances a prospect of acceptance, if they do not harm the capitalists.

The matter is different here. True, German colonial policy is, if possible, a still worse business proposition for the state than the Dutch, but in relation to the size of the state, the German colonies are far less significant than the Dutch, and their threat to state finances was, until recently at any rate; a lesser one. For this reason also, the interest of the mass of the people, particularly of the possessing classes and their following, in the reform of colonial administration, is far less active, and thus it is far more difficult for us to effectuate such reforms.

But it is just the insignificance of the German colonies which constantly spurs our colonial fanatics to try to obtain an extension of the empire. This gives rise to the impulse for an intolerable increase in naval armament, which brings about the situation of having a Damocletian sword of a world war of colonial expansion continually suspended over Germany, as was shown so terribly only recently by the Moroccan affair. For this reason it is vital to direct all efforts against this side of colonial policy, the most dangerous one for Germany, and thus it appears a natural necessity that the struggle against every extension of colonies, the fundamental rejection of colonial policy, remains the priority in the political activity of German social democracy, and that the struggle for reforming the colonies has a lower priority, whilst the reverse is true in Holland. This difference springs from the fundamental difference in the situation in these two countries: it has absolutely nothing to do with the question whether one rejects colonial policy decisively or not.

However, van Kol does not merely assert that, the Dutch socialist fraction has by its action obtained significant gains for the colonies in Parliament, but has also added:

In no other field can easier, or greater victories against capitalism be obtained than in this.

This reveals an abnormal capacity for illusion. The first precondition which needs to exist to make gains against capitalism is a working class willing and able to fight. The finest protective laws are practically useless if there is not a proletariat behind them, watching over their implementation, and ready to fight for them if necessary Now this factor is lacking far more in the colonies than in the mother country The power which wins the protective laws is far removed from the colonies and it is only with difficulty able to supervise their implementation. And yet it is supposed to be easier to limit capitalism in the colonies than in Europe: Experience up to the present proves the contrary. Nowhere is it more difficult to tame capitalism, nowhere is it able to give vent to its fury so boundlessly, as in the colonies

Comrade van Kol unfortunately also neglected to give the slightest hint in his report on the colonial question, put before the Congress by the Dutch delegation, as to what the powerful advantages are, which he and his friends have gained in Parliament for the colonies. And yet the Report covers over 30 printed pages. Surely that was room enough to set out such an edifying example for our benefit.

A few years ago van Kol was still saying:

We cannot help the Indies, even if we were to ruin Dutch finances to do it ... We are too powerless to honourably return what we took away in the Indies.”Yet there is one way, despite all pessimistic considerations: Reduction of our colonial possessions.

In 1903 van Ko1 still thought it impossible to obtain any considerable gain for the Indies without reducing Dutch colonial possessions. That condition ha not been fulfilled to this day. Was van Kol deluded at that time or has he become more modest as he became more “positive”? Should “positive” activity in the end only be taken to mean self-limitation, sacrifice of everything not voluntarily conceded to us by the ruling classes? In that case, only those politicians who prostitute themselves to the ruling classes would work “positively” for the proletariat or the colonies; whilst those who stubbornly stand upon their honour while taking everything they can get without declaring themselves satisfied with anything not fully corresponding to our principles, and who do not proclaim any of the crumbs falling from the table of the rich reveller to be a meaningful gain leading to powerful advances – these would be purely “negative”.

We could certainly not be enthusiastic for a “positive” policy in that sense. Should the fundamental rejection of colonial policy keep such a “positive” policy off our backs, then so much the better. Such a principled rejection will not only not hinder a genuine fight for reforms and improvements, but on the contrary will further it in the most powerful way.


Last updated on 11.12.2003