Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

III. The Ethic of the Colonial Policy

We have seen that the necessity of looking after the interests of the subjugated nations in the colonies is no reason for not fundamentally rejecting colonial policy, that is the occupation and retention of colonies.

But our friends supporting socialist colonial policy are able to produce still other arguments for it, ethical and economic.

Bernstein pointed to the right of peoples with higher culture to “exert tutelage over” peoples with lesser culture, that means to govern them. He spoke specifically of a controlling relationship. David also fought for this position and van Kol explained, in addition, that one has to go “arms in hand” to the natives if one wishes to civilise them.

If this ethic is valid, then we may certainly not reject colonial policy which is its necessary expression.

I am far from underestimating the role of ethics in politics. While it is true that its power is in the final analysis only that of an instinct, not that of a clear conviction gained from scientific knowledge, instinctive ethical impulses have predominated in every mass movement up to the present, and no one, not even a person who allows his views to be determined by the scientific investigation of experience, can dispense with ethical impulses.

But ethics is not a power which stands outside and above society, but one which springs from the society and changes with its changing needs, and which is also different for every class. Every class has its particular ethic; this forms a weapon without which it cannot pursue its fight for existence, which is suited to its particular relations of existence, and to which it must remain true if it is to assert itself as a class and grow to its greatest strength.

Thus the proletariat has its own ethic, which is necessary to it. Does the idea of the right of the higher culture to exert control and tutelage over the lower have a place in this ethic?

Not at all. On the contrary, this idea is a necessary component of the ethic of capitalism. Capitalism is a relationship of exploitation, and thus is also a relationship of control and tutelage But exploitation does not rest on naked force, nor on the right of the strongest, nor even on state structures, but on the economic freedom of the individual, which is turned into subjection by the fact that one side possesses nothing whilst the other monopolises the means of production. However, the lack of property brings with it the lack of cultural resources and thus also of culture. Culture accordingly appears to be limited to the ruling classes. Thus the dominion of the ruling class over the proletariat gains the appearance of the dominion of culture over ignorance, a dominion of select intelligence over the great mass of the unwashed, “the great unwashed”, as the English say. [Kautsky’s phrase is in English. – Note by translator.] And the possessors hold fast to this appearance, as it gives the best ethical justification both to themselves and to the rest of society for their exploiting relationship. According to this ethic, they do not exploit the proletariat for their personal advantage, nor for the sake of profit, they exert tutelage over it purely in the general social interest. The fight for the privileges of higher culture is the ethical lie preserving the life of capitalism, just as the fight for the true religion was for feudalism, especially at the time of the transition to capitalism.

Within one’s own nation, this ethic appears as the vindication of the higher right of the ‘haves’ over the ‘have-nots’. With regard to other nations, who are to be exploited, this ethic proclaims itself as nothing else than the right of capitalist nations to dominion over the whole of mankind.

The proletariat could not make this ethic its own without sanctioning its own exploitation and disavowing its own fight for emancipation True, the proletariat feels acutely its own lack of culture, but it feels the drive to share in culture no less acutely. And the feeling exists in the proletariat that it is just its dependence, the ‘tutelage’, the relationship of dominion, which prevents its ascent to a higher culture; that this ascent can only be opened up in the fight against the tutelage and dominion which press upon it and by their final overthrow. A class exerting tutelage, or ruling class, has never yet raised its subjects to greater maturity and independence of its own accord. This rise has always occurred against and not through the upper classes.

If the ethic of capitalism says that at is in the interests of culture and society for lower classes and nations to be ruled, the ethic of the proletariat says that precisely in the interest of culture and society the oppressed and those under tutelage must throw off all dominion.

The proletariat as the lowest of all classes cannot throw off the domination which oppresses it without making an end of all dominion, without abolishing all class rule.

But is this not to apply to the colonies, are we to accept the ethic of capitalism for them? Are we to proclaim the abolition of all class rule in our own country only and at the same time erect a new class dominion in the lands outside European civilisation: the domination of the white race over the dark-skinned races (including the Hindus)? The ethical awareness of the class-conscious proletariat rebels strongly against this idea. And if the attempt made to rob the proletariat of the conviction that it was not merely fighting for itself but for the whole of mankind, this would grievously weaken the ethical force of its class struggle.

Of course Bernstein now appeals to Marx. The sentence he quotes seems particularly conclusive to him. He has already quoted it once, a decade ago, in his Voraussetzungen (“Presuppositions”), to show approval for colonial policy and he is forever bringing it forward. Unfortunately he quotes it without the preceding sentence, which is necessary and gives meaning to the subsequent sentence. The former reads:

From the standpoint of a higher economic social formation, private property of single individuals over the earth’s surface will appear quite as absurd as private property of one person over another person.

Now follows the sentence quoted by Bernstein:

Even a whole society, a nation, even all the contemporary societies taken together are not owners of the earth. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and have to leave it to the following generations like boni patres familias. (Capital, Vol. III, 2, p.309)

If Bernstein had also quoted the previous sentence, then it would at once have been clear to everyone, that here Marx was not in the least thinking of colonial policy. It is not a matter of him approving the latter, but of condemning private ownership of the soil. No trace is to be found here of the right of higher culture to dominion over backward races, of the introduction of governing relations.

The paragraph forms the conclusion of the investigation into capitalist ground-rent and capitalist ownership of land, and insofar as one may wish to draw a recommendation from it, it can never be that primitive peoples should be subjugated but only that the landowners of capitalist nations should be expropriated.

In fact, if we wished to infer from the Marxist sentence that all those nations must be expropriated who do not manage the earth like a good paterfamilias, we would have to begin in Europe first of all. The way the English marnage in Ireland, for example, is just now again coming flagrantly to the fore. Ireland’s population is in constant decline: In 1841 there were still 8,175,000 heads, in 1901 only 4,459,000, and the figure drops continually. In 1906 there were only 4,386,000. The number of occupied houses dropped from 1,329,000 in 1841 to 858,000 in 1901.

Perhaps we should first refer to Scotland, where the landlords transform immense stretches of fertile land into hunting grounds? The same process is proceeding today in the Austrian Alpen lands. In England proper, as in the rest of Europe, an incessant flight from the land is taking place, because private property in the soil under the capitalist mode of production condemns agricultural workers to barbarism. Finally in Russia, we find rapid ruin of agriculture and increasing impoverishment of the peasant class

Why, therefore, should we stray afar, when it is necessary to stop the desolation of the soil and the oppression of the peasants in Europe itself?

However, Marx’s sentence can to some extent be reconciled with colonial policy. It results from a view which must influence socialists not less but even more than the fundamental rejection of all class domination and thus also of foreign domination. The fight against class rule is only one side of the proletarian class struggle. This dominion cannot be overcome without a certain degree of the productivity of labour. The development of the productive powers at the disposal of humanity is of the greatest importance to the proletariat But what if this development should require a colonial policy? What if the two fundamental endeavours of the proletariat – that for the abolition of all class rule and that for the highest productivity of labour – should come into contradiction with each other? That would be a serious problem for the proletariat: the consistency, and with this also the weight and the uncompromising nature, of its struggle would be broken if liberation could only be obtained by the simultaneous enslavement or domination of another section of mankind.

We must therefore investigate the effect of colonial policy on the productive powers of mankind. But one may not take this investigation as being a question of whether there are workers who gain out of colonial policy in the sense that it provides them with an occupation.

Van Kol does this for the Dutch colonies when he says in his Report to the Stuttgart Congress:

The working class of Holland gains to some extent from the colonial possessions.

In any case, the Dutch workers draw only an insignificant 31 to 35 million approximately in wages from the colonies.

Van Kol himself remarks that they would probably earn these wages even if Holland did not possess any colonies, but in spite of this he spoke in his Resolution of the utility, even necessity, of this – of course, often described in exaggerated terms. However the most determined protest must be made against this kind of argumentation and calculation. We would land up in the most dangerous situation if we followed them through.

There is a tendency for all activity in the capitalist mode of production to take the form of wage labour Does this imply anything at all about the utility of these activities for the working class? Van Kol himself makes the comparison between colonies and militarism, which also provides work and wages for many workers. Well, look at all the things that provide work and wages: Building churches, providing court luxuries, even prostitution and crime. Marx once parodied this approach beautifully by an exposition of the utility of crime, which provides work and wages for so many judges, lawyers, policemen, prison warders, hangmen, workmen building bridewells etc. Then one could draw up a resolution on the utility of crime for the working class.

An investigation of the economic effects of colonial policy may not be pursued in this manner. It has been to the credit of the fighting proletariat up to the present that, wherever it conducts its struggle for emancipation with full vigour, it allows itself to be guided only by general social considerations, and never allows the capitalist calculation of personal gain to be decisive in its evaluation of a political measure or demand.

The English textile workers in the early sixties of the last century offer a shining example of this, and there are some similarities with present colonial questions. The American Civil War over the abolition of slavery had broken out. The English capitalists placed themselves on the side of the slave-owners, for, they said, the negroes are children who require tutelage. They only work when they are forced to do so. Without slavery, no cotton; without cotton, no cotton industry. The abolition of slavery, the liberation of the negroes meant the ruin of the English textile industry, the starvation and death of the workers, the retrogression of culture.

And the facts seemed to bear this out. Import of cotton stopped, a shocking crisis occurred in England, fearful misery prevailed amongst the workers.

But the workers remained firm. They did not allow themselves to be fooled by those demonstrating to them the utility of slavery for the workers of England. True to the sentiment required for the abolition of all class dominion, which had been awakened so forcibly in them by the Chartist movement, they not only did not allow themselves to be misled into speaking for slavery, but on the contrary opposed it most energetically; and it is they who have to be thanked that the English Liberal Government did not declare war against the North of the United States, to save slavery in the South.

It is in this spirit that we wish to approach the investigation of the economic effects of colonial policy. Not that we have anything to fear from the reckoning in van Kol’s sense. It is precisely the German colonies that are miserable business. Therefore it may suggest itself that only the business view should be emphasised during the investigation of the colonial question, and that colonial possessions should be rejected for this reason. But that would be a deviation from the correct position in a fundamental discussion of the question.


Last updated on 11.12.2003