Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

V. Old Style Exploitation Colonies

Exploitation colonies work quite differently from work colonies. They lie in the tropics where the European cannot perform hard work. There, the working classes can only be composed of natives or of imported inhabitants of other tropical or sub-tropical countries, perhaps Negroes, Hindus or inhabitants of Southern China. From the outset, Europeans came there only as the exploiters of foreign labour. As a rule their residence there is only temporary, as they cannot stand the climate permanently, and because, as members of the European exploiting classes, they are accustomed to a way of life and to pleasures, which are rarely available in the tropical colonies The European does not seek a home in the tropical colony but rapid enrichment.

The quickest way to this, however, is by plunder, and the richer and more numerous the people are who are to be plundered, the greater the riches yielded. If the working colonist seeks empty deserts for his settlement, the exploiting colonists first direct their aim at territories with a high level of culture, provided that they are not able to defend themselves properly. It is the lack of defences, the lack of martial spirit and military technique, and not the lack of culture, that makes a country an exploitation colony. However rough a people may be, however much it may need higher culture, if it possesses nothing attracting covetousness, but on the contrary has the means and courage at its disposal to defend itself, no European nation would consider applying the right of higher culture to it and fulfilling a cultural mission there. But if people of non-European culture is not skilled in human massacre and is not familiar with the most modern murder machines, then the urge to apply the ‘right of higher culture’ against it will develop the sooner and more strongly the higher its own culture is. Nobody has yet attempted, for example, to ‘exert tutelage’ over the Montenegrins to lead them to a higher culture. But India is highly developed, filled with the finest culture, a place, which has produced magnificent art and deep philosophy, has since the end of the Middle Ages formed the main object of every European colonial policy. India and the way to it: all colonial policy revolves around the striving for India and the search for a way to it.

This society has nearly as many inhabitants as Europe – the latter contains 400 millions, India 300 million; it comprises twice as many inhabitants as all the other present colonial territories taken together. This enormous mass of peoples, in part highly civilised, has been the object of continual plunder by Europeans for hundreds of years – at first direct robbery in the literal sense of the word, and when this no longer paid, they were systematically bled dry through the taxation system. In ancient times and the middle ages India was famous for its riches and the well-being of its inhabitants. Diodorus (at the time of Augustine) praises this country for never having famines. It was still richer than Europe in the 14th century, Marco Polo called it the most noble and richest country in the world. Since then this territory has sunk to complete poverty, to a state of constant famine and wretched pestilence.

Such is the development of productive forces brought to a population of 300 millions people by the colonial system.

Whilst searching for the shortest way to India, America was discovered.

In America, instead of a country with an ancient culture, rich treasures in gold and silver were opened up to European greed When these had all been taken from the inhabitants, the precious metals themselves began to be mined. But abundant labour was required to do this. The natives, in possession of their means of production, not accustomed to working for strangers, were not voluntarily to be had for mining work. Thus they were forced to work. And when the work killed them and they died out, they were replaced by imported negro slaves. As soon as the ‘labour question’ was solved in this way, and there was abundant labour power available, further products started to be produced for sale to Europe, sugar-cane, coffee, cotton etc.

Did this increase the productivity of labour in the colonies? Not at all. True, the number of products the colony furnished to the world market was increased. But that does not mean the same as developing productivity. Increasing productivity means increasing the products produced by the same expenditure of labour. That is the determining thing for the proletariat. The capitalist is concerned only with the mass of products and the mass of surplus value, without concern for the expenditure of labour by which they were produced. He himself does not, of course, work. Whether the rising surplus value and the rising masses of products are manufactured by the growing productiveness of labour, or by growing overwork and undernourishment of the worker, is of no concern to the capitalist – but does concern the proletariat. It wishes to free itself from the heavy drudgery which weighs upon it, but this can only be done, whilst the productivity of labour remains constant, by reducing the mass of products at the disposal of the society. If it does not wish to reduce this mass of products, but on the contrary wants to raise it, whilst simultaneously reducing its burden of work, this can only be done by raising the productivity of labour.

Such an increase, however, has not been brought about by forced labour in the colonies, even if it has periodically brought an increase in production.

Forced labour is always unproductive labour. The forced labourer does not direct his whole energies to doing his work most efficiently, but only to cheating and doing damage to his hated master and slave-driver. As little work is done as badly as possible, working animals and tools are abused in the worst way. Furthermore, wage labourers on starvation wages do not work much better.

In spite of this, even forced labour, slavery or bondage could in former times become the basis of technological advance, in that it produced a class of exploiters who were given the leisure to devote themselves to the arts and sciences, and thus also to serve technological advance.

But the forced labourers themselves were not the most suitable people to apply these advances. Free workers were needed for this. A higher culture cannot arise where labour power takes the form of slavery. The advanced technique of the ancients, such as the handicrafts of the middle ages, was carried on by free city workers. Where social development makes unfree labour the general form of labour, it leads to a dead end, out of which a way to further advance can only be opened by the destruction of this culture by free labourers, or by labourers who have freed themselves. That can very often only happen by the victory of a lower culture over a higher one. So much for the ‘rights’ theory of the higher culture over the lower.

Thus, for instance, the culture of Greece and Rome came to a dead end in the ruins of the society of the Caesars, which led to the victory of the German barbarians. According to Bernstein’s principles, the Roman Caesars would have had a right to ‘tutelage’ over the Germans, and the victory of the latter over the Romans, started in the battle in the Teutoburg forest, would have been one of the worst defeats of human advance.

Later on also, some revolutions meant, to begin with, the victory of a lower culture over a higher one, if the latter had been created through the exploitation of labourers. For the cultural level of the exploited will often be a lower one than that of the exploiters, who have at their disposal full leisure and the richest material resources. I have shown in my Thomas More that the protestant reformation meant the rebellion of peoples of lower culture against the more highly developed Italians, and that the stormers of the Bastille from the Parisian suburbs were far behind the lords and ladies of the aristocracy as far as culture was concerned.

Where there are class contradictions, the exploited class, if it is less cultured, can advance to a higher culture by overthrowing the higher culture oppressing them.

But to return to our subject. We have seen how the colonial system completely disrupted India’s productive power, in that its European conquerors – Portuguese, Dutch, English – stripped it and threw it into deep poverty; how, on the other hand, the colonial system reduced the productivity of human labour to a minimum in the territories where precious metals were acquired and the plantations established by turning it into forced labour.

But was not the productivity of labour in Europe, at least, raised substantially by the products of this abominable and awful squandering of materials and human energies?

Certainly the robbery of the exploitation colonies brought enormous riches to Europe. But the robbers did not take pleasure in their booty. Its lustre aroused the jealousy and greed of neighbours, against whom the acquired riches and their sources had to be defended in bitter conflicts: conflicts which increasingly exhausted the country. Neither in Portugal, nor in Spain, was the productive power of the country raised by colonial policy, rather was it limited and undermined, so that even today both countries languish in its consequences. Also, the industrial development of France and Holland was restricted by the unending colonial wars. The development of Holland’s industrial boom stopped after the 17th century, and it is still industrially backward today.

France’s productive power was completely ruined in the 18th century, the age of its colonial expansion. Its industrial revival did not again begin until after the great revolution, after it had almost completely lost its colonial empire.

Only one country has drawn rich profit from colonial plunder and used it for a powerful development of productive forces: England. Thanks to its insular position it did not have to exhaust itself in simultaneous battles on land and sea, like the other colonial powers. Almost all its strength could be devoted to the fleet, whose pre-eminence enabled it to defeat its enemies everywhere.

But the increase in productive power deriving from the colonial policy did not signify an all-round improvement, even for England Not only the merchants and industrial capitalists, but also the great landowners won increased strength. Whilst in France the aristocracy was financially ruined, and so prepared for its collapse in the great revolution (which gave such powerful impetus to the development of the productive forces), in England the aristocracy was so strengthened by colonial booty that it has maintained itself as the ruling class of England to this day, despite the revolution of 1648. In this way a powerful conservative class was created, but at the same time it gained the means which allowed it, in the main, to live without exploiting agricultural labour. This leads, where it is in operation, not to the abolition of that exploitation, but to the abolition of agricultural labour itself, to the clearance of peasants and transformation of cultivated land into parks and hunting grounds.

The industrial capitalists of England, however, used the power they gained from the colonial policy, not merely to develop the productive power of their own country, but also for the suppression of the industrial power of other, competing countries. Thus all industrial progress was limited both in Ireland and the American colonies, and in India blooming industry was destroyed.

At the same time the aristocracy and bourgeoisie used their superiority, resulting from the colonial policy, to depress the working classes to the utmost and to burden them with the entire weight of the endless wars, which were prosecuted in the colonies and about the colonies, often until the masses were completely exhausted. The epoch when England drew the greatest riches from the colonies, when its colonial empire expanded most rapidly, when its colonial policy gained the most shining success, was also the time of the greatest misery, the deepest degradation of its working classes.

That is another lesson for the working class on the use of colonies.

The exploitation colonies thus reveal themselves to be a very two-edged sword as far as the development of the productive forces are concerned. They advanced the development of England’s productive power, but not in every sphere even here, and this development was bought at an outrageous price: it cost the fettering – even large scale destruction – of the productive forces of the greatest part of the rest of the world.

This phase of colonial policy, however, is today almost as much a thing of the past as the establishment of work colonies. The European peoples lost interest in colonial policy to a great extent in the first decade of the last century. Large-scale capitalist industry had taken a firm hold in Europe, and provided ever greater amounts of new capital, so that colonial exploitation receded in importance. This was all the more so because at the time of the (French) revolution, or even directly before it, the most important colonies apart from India, the American colonies, had broken loose from the mother countries which were limiting their economic development.

It is not until the eighties of the last century that a new era of colonial policy begins. This now sets its sights on the rest of the undivided world, on Africa and China. Here it can also only be a question of exploitation colonies there is no room for immigrants in China, rather China itself pours floods of emigrants into the rest of the world. But in Africa it is the climate which prevents Europeans from farming it with their own manual labour, except in the furthest South, which is already colonised.

The new colonial system nevertheless has a completely different character from its predecessor.


Last updated on 11.12.2003