Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

IV. Work Colonies

If we wish to investigate the significance of colonial policy for the development of the productive powers of mankind, there is one sharp distinction that we must make. There are two kinds of colonies which are as different as fire and water. Anyone who confuses them instead of clearly distinguishing between them will never attain a clear understanding of the colonial question.

In my article of 1880 I named two types of colonies: “Work Colonies” and “Exploitation Colonies”. I still hold these descriptions to be valid today.

The work colony is settled by members of the working classes of the motherland, craftsmen, wage workers, and particularly, peasants They forsake their native country to escape economic or political pressure, and to found a new home for themselves free from such pressure Such a colony rests upon their own labour, and not on the labour of subdued natives.

On the other hand, an exploitation colony is settled by members of the exploiting classes of the motherland, where the booty did not suffice them, who therefore aspire to extend the field of their exploitation, They go to the colonies, not in order to find a new home, but in order to forsake the colony when they have squeezed enough out of it; not to escape pressure at home, but in order to become capable of exerting even greater pressure in the motherland. The economic utility of such a colony does not rest on the labour of the colonists, but on the plundering or forced labour of the natives.

Work colonies are possible for European nations only in temperate climates; in hot zones the European cannot perform the heavy work demanded by the cultivation of a colony. They are only possible in very thinly populated regions, in which a very primitive mode of production predominates, perhaps hunting, which requires immense territories to support a single individual. In heavily populated territories with developed production, the settlers would of course find no room, and they would not find the freedom they demand, for there they again stumble upon private property in land, ground-rent, state and military structures, which they had sought to escape.

If settlers from the European civilisation come into a practically unpopulated land, and apply themselves to its cultivation, they immediately raise its productive power. They replace a backward economy, which hardly produces but rather mainly gathers what nature freely offers, with the highest productive methods of their time. Even more: freed from hidden pressure, and burdens of ground-rent, taxes, military service, etc., they are able to develop spiritual and material forces much more freely than in the mother country They do not merely replace the tiny productive force of the savages with the high productive force corresponding with their cultural level, but ar able to develop their own productive force much quicker than the motherland, and thus become one of the powerful driving forces for developing the general productive forces of mankind The most shining example of this is provided by the United States of America.

We certainly cannot take an attitude of rejecting this kind of colonialism. But do we not thereby come into conflict with our rejection of every kind of colonial dominion? Not at all. These colonies originated in the effort to escape class domination, they do not rest on the exploitation and oppression of the natives, but on the settlers’ own work. Thus the latter are not founding a special, new kind of class domination over the natives. Certainly, up to the present, these have led everywhere to the repression, are often to the complete destruction of the natives, but that was not an unavoidable result of this kind of colonialism. The territories opened up to cultivation are so massive here that they are easily big enough to support both the new settlers and the old inhabitants, if these were instructed and civilized and made familiar with the new mode of production. But these colonists were peasants, and, more than any other class, peasants lack the flexibility and understanding to fit into a foreign setup. This results from their immobility and isolation, which limits their horizon to that of the parish, especial where trading relations are little developed, The peasant is also too much absorbed in his work to find time to happily absorb himself in a foreign structure and to act as educator and civiliser. All attempts in this direction made with regard to the savages in peasant colonies were within a short time again given up, not because it was impossible to civilise the savages, but because it was complicated; and the peasant confronted the savage without under standing and with distrust from the beginning. The peculiar nature of the savage, free and bold, seemed immoral paganism and devilish wickedness to the narrow peasants and petty bourgeois who came from Europe. Thus conflicts easily arose which called forth deep and endless hostility. So there never was any systematic and lasting work of enlightenment amongst the savages in the peasant colonies That this was not impossible is shown by the shining success of the Jesuits in Paraguay, who raised some 100,000 wild Indians to a significant level of productive power, without the use of arms, without subjugation – in fact, because these were not used – until the violent intervention of the Spanish destroyed their work. We must greatly regret that in the work colonies the natives were not likewise civilised, preserved and made into useful citizens of the country. But that should not cause us to mistake the massive advantages of such colonies for the development of human productive power.

With regard to the work colonies, therefore, one must very often condemn the way the natives are treated, but may not reject the colonisation itself on principle, but rather recognise it as a powerful lever of human development.

Should we understand Bebel’s declaration on our position regarding colonial policy in this sense? He said:

Gentlemen, the pursuit of a colonial policy is of and for itself no crime. In some circumstances the pursuit of a colonial policy can be a civilising act; it only depends on the way the colonial policy is pursued. There is a great difference between what colonial policy should be like, and what it is like. If the representatives of cultivated and civilised societies, as for instance the European nations and the North American are come to foreign peoples as liberators and civilisers, as helpers in necessity, to bring over to them the acquisitions of culture and civilisation, in order to civilise them into cultured people, if it occurs with this noble intention, and in the right way, then we social democrats are the first to support such a colonisation as a great civilising mission. If they therefore come to the foreign societies as friends, as benefactors, as civilisers of mankind, in order to help them, in order to help them use the treasures of their land, which are different to ours, in order to be useful to the native and the whole of civilised humanity, then we agree with this.

If this declaration is to be taken to mean that we approve every colonial policy consisting in the demand for work colonies, where the cultural elevation of the natives is simultaneously catered for without using force – then one would certainly be able to agree with it without any qualification.

But if so, this declaration has only academic and not programmatic significance, for there is scarcely an opportunity for colonial activity of this kind anywhere, certainly not to any significant extent any longer.

All those territories which may be considered as possible work colonies are already occupied, and in fact have become independent states, formally in many cases: the United States, Canada, South Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Australia, South Africa. They have all ceased to be objects of a European colonial policy, working in a civilising manner to enable them to develop their productive forces; some of them, on the contrary, have the power to bring a higher civilisation and improved productive forces to Europe.

This fact must not be let out of sight if one wishes to be clear about colonial policy. The bourgeois colonial enthusiasts purposely seek to obliterate the distinction between work colonies and exploitation colonies, in order to exploit the sympathy aroused by the former to win support for the latter, which are the only ones coming into practical consideration today It is our task to stop their game by never letting the difference and contradiction between the two different kinds of colony be forgotten, This task is unfortunately often neglected. The defenders of the socialist colonial policy in Stuttgart have also mixed up the two kinds of colonies indiscriminately.

Thus van Kol says:

The Minority Resolution further denies the possibility of developing the productive forces of the colonies by a capitalist colonial policy. I am quite unable to understand how a thinking person can hold that view. One has only to think for an instant of the colonisation of the United States of North America. But for the colonisation of America the natives there would today still be living in the poorest cultural circumstances ... I ask Ledebour only this, whether he has the courage to give up the colonies now, under capitalism. Perhaps he will also tell us what he will do with Europe’s surplus population, in what Lands those people obliged to emigrate are to find cities to live in, if not in the colonies?

I will not raise the question whether present-day emigration is to be attributed to ‘over-population’ or rather, as in the past, to political and economic pressure.

It is precisely the most thinly populated countries of Europe which today despatch the greatest number of emigrants – Ireland, Russia, Hungary, Italy, the Balkans.

But let us follow through this quite peculiar conception of emigration, which it is very strange to hear from the mouth of a socialist Perhaps van Kol will kindly tell us to which colonies he wishes to direct the stream of emigrants. Should it flow to Java and Borneo? Or to Burma and Siam? To the Congo or Cameroons? In 1905, 28,075 Germans emigrated through German and foreign ports. Of this 27,202 went to America, 84 to Australia, 139 to Africa, to Asia: none.

Really, what a terrible situation the European ‘over-population’ would get in if there were no longer any African or Asiatic colonies!

But it is these, and these alone, which are concerned in the present day colonial question. Only the exploitation colonies are under consideration, tropic colonies whose nature precludes a mass emigration of working elements from Europe.

Let us now examine the effect of these on the development of the productive forces of mankind, whether these attain the same significance as work colonies whether we have come to the irreconcilable conflict between those two principles by which we have to judge our whole struggle.


Last updated on 11.12.2003