Karl Kautsky

Socialism and
Colonial Policy

VIII. The Necessary Transition Through Capitalism

The advocates of socialist tutelage over foreign peoples have still another argument against giving up the colonies, in petto: The colonies must definitely pass through capitalism if they are to be able to get to socialism In order to make them ripe for socialism we must give them the opportunity to develop capitalism, and therefore social democracy – it necessarily follows – must pursue a capitalist colonial policy. Of course this must occur without using capitalist methods.

David explained in Stuttgart:

The colonies also have to pass through capitalism. There can be no jump from savagery into socialism there either. (Very good!) Nowhere is mankind reprieved from the painful journey through capitalism and it is precisely according to the scientific postulation of Karl Marx that this path is a preparation for a socialistically organised economy.

Van Kol brought on the heavy guns in his final remarks:

Ledebour has called the endeavours of the majority reactionary. I am quite unable to understand how a man of science can fail to recognise that capitalism is necessary in the colonies before there can be thought of socialism. For this reason we work far the revolutionary (?) development of the colonies because it will facilitate the transition from feudalism to the modern state, through capitalism to socialism. The jump from barbarism to socialism is impossible. (Very true!) The contrary view is not only unscientific, it is stupid and narrow-minded.

So van Kol speaks here not only as the “man of experience”, whose 16 years in Java have made him the practical judge of colonial policy on the entire surface of the earth, past present and future, but also as the man of science who delivers his annihilating verdict. True he only aimed at Ledebour, but I felt myself hit as well and felt unmasked in my stupidity and narrow-mindedness.

What was left to me? There is no appeal against the verdict of science, like that of the supreme court. I can do nothing but look for mitigating circumstances. Perhaps I will be excused to some extent if it emerges that I am the victim of seduction.

In a piece of writing dated 1894 we read:

It is not only possible, but certain, that, after the victory of the proletariat and after the transfer of the means of production into common ownership amongst the peoples of Western Europe, those countries which have only just fallen under the capitalist mode of production, and have still preserved gentile arrangements or remnants of them, are given in these remnants of common ownership and in the corresponding popular habits a powerful means by which to significantly shorten the process of their development to socialist society and to spare themselves the greater part of the suffering and struggles which we in Western Europe have to labour through. But the example and the active assistance of the hitherto capitalist West is an indispensible condition for this. Only when the capitalist economy is defeated in its homeland and in the countries of its greatest development, and only when the remaining countries see in this example ‘how it is done’ – how the modern forces of production are placed at the service of the community as collective property – only then can they make a start on this abridged process of development. But then also with certainty of victory. And this applies to all countries at the pre-capitalist stage, not only Russia.

The man who expounded this stupid, narrow-minded and naively doctrinaire piece of book learning was called Frederick Engels. The work in which he outlined it is in the postscript to his essay Soziales aus Russland (“Socialism and Russia”) printed in the pamphlet Internationales aus dem Volksstaat (“Internationalism and the Nation State”), p.66. Marx shared Engels’ point of views which so completely differs from the “scientific” view of Karl Marx, which David developed.

But to be sure, the matter is not settled with an appeal to Marx and Engels. They could err, and Bernstein and Sombart certainly assert that, excellent though the scientific conceptions of Marx and Engels are, they are disfigured and distorted by their revolutionary requirements.

Let us therefore turn from the authorities to the decisive factor in science: experience. To be sure, we unfortunately have as yet no experiences of the transition from capitalism to socialism. About this we have only scientifically grounded conclusions drawn from experience up to the present. But of course we possess experience in plenty of the course of development of peoples up to capitalism. Now do van Kol and David wish to assert that every people reached their present stage of development along precisely the same path, and had to pass through all the same earlier stages of development as other equally developed or more highly developed nations? If so, one glance at colonial policy itself is sufficient to reduce this ad absurdum.

Present day colonial policy depending on the export of capital is distinguished by the fact that it carries capitalist exploitation and capitalist production into all the colonies whatever their level of development. Therefore it can well be said that there is no colony which does not consequently jump over one or more stages of development.

That applies even to the most advanced of the nations outside the European cultural area, a nation which became acquainted with capitalism not through colonial policy but through the more complete and effective method of unforced trade: Japan. None of the nations outside the European cultural area was as far advanced as Japan when it took up capitalism, and yet to do this Japan had to skip a whole series of centuries, It missed the centuries during which feudalism became corrupt in Europe whilst mercantilism and the manufacturing system were ripening within it. Insofar as one may compare Japanese with European conditions, one can say that the Mikado’s realm jumped straight from the 15th to the 19th century.

However the leaps made by colonies with primitive populations are still greater. The Kaffirs in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa make an unmediated leap from the realm of the gentile system to that of modern capitalism, of the trust system and the rule of industry by high finance. Mr. Cecil Rhodes has by no means taken the trouble to first raise the Kaffirs to the next stage of development, which would perhaps have been comparable to the Franks under Charles the Great, and allow them then to run through the whole European development so that they would end up something like the Parisian proletarian of today.

One has only to transpose the David/van Kol law of “science” from the level of a figure of speech to that of specific ideas in order to understand its absurdity immediately.

It is obvious that a nation will only bring to another nation methods of production and knowledge which it has attained itself, and not methods, tools and ideas which it has long recognised as being inadequate and which no longer have a living existence and are only to be found in museums and history books. And it is equally clear that a people will prefer to trade with the most developed people with which it is in contact, and that it will prefer its more advanced methods and tools to the less advanced ones of other nations, even if it has free trading relations and is not forced into cultural advance by means of armed force.

Naturally an economically backward people cannot use everything manufactured by an advanced people; and it has to fit everything it receives into its own particular conditions – that is, incidentally, another reason for preferring civilising to occur by means of free trade rather than by the compulsion of the colonial system, for strangers can only with difficulty perform this adaptation judiciously and without friction and injury. But the backward nations have since time immemorial learned from the more advanced, and they have often therefore been capable of leaping with one bound over several stages of development which had been climbed wearily by their predecessors.

In this way limitless variations arise in the historical path of development of nations, just as variations arise from the difference in the natural conditions of individual territories. And these variations increase the more the isolation of individual nations decreases, the more world trade develops, and thus the nearer we come to the modern era. This variation has become so great that many historians deny there are any historical laws. Marx and Engels succeeded in discovering the laws governing the variations, but they have only provided an Ariadne’s thread for finding one’s bearings in the historical labyrinth – they have definitely not transformed this labyrinth into a modern urban area with uniform, strictly parallel streets. It is David and van Kol who have achieved the latter feat. They never tired of reproaching us Marxists with stereotyped thinking, but it is to them that the Marxist law which governs phenomena in the last analysis appears as a stereotype, as a form, which must be taken on by every manifestation of the history of peoples.

Whoever conceives Marxism in this manner will not find it a means of getting his bearings in the real world, of comprehending reality, but a means of coming into conflict with reality at every possible point, of bumping against it. Indeed he will from time to time perceive the need to revise this kind of Marxism, which in fact is in desperate need of revision.

The proletariat has not the slightest cause, either at the present time, or after its victory, to advance the development of capitalism amongst the agrarian peoples in the alleged interest of socialism. Certainly socialism presumes a certain level of development of capitalism, that is, a given level of development of the productive forces and a given power in the proletariat, which grows with capitalism itself. A socialist mode of production can as little proceed from economically backward countries as from economically backward branches of production. It can as little develop, for example, from our own small peasants as from Central Africa. If however the basic branch of capitalist industry is so strongly developed in the old capitalist countries that on the one hand its oppression has become unbearable, and on the other hand the might of the proletariat has so grown as to lead to a defeat of the capitalist class, and to their political and economic expropriation – then socialism can and will rapidly overflow from these centres of economic life into those branches and areas of production which are not so highly developed economically, and it will be able to take these over much quicker than capitalism, for unlike capitalism, it will bring to the producers in them not misery, subjugation, degradation, but all-round improvement and satisfaction. Certainly there can be nothing said today about how that will happen. Socialism will have to undergo the most varied alterations and accommodations in the differing situations. We are just able today, if necessary, to use past experience to draw conclusions about future development: but only about its regular, typical course, which in the final analysis always recurs. The peculiar manifestations which in real life result from the conjuncture of the most advanced with the most backward forms of societies and states never happen twice and therefore cannot be foreseen. At this point it is only possible to spin an infinite web of speculation which would have no practical purpose because it can have no influence upon our present activity. For this we only need to know that spreading capitalism to backward countries is definitely not a requirement for the spread and victory of socialism.

But it would also be absolutely monstrous if the proletariat, which fights capitalism most sharply at home, were to set itself the task of giving it a clear passage in other countries. What would this mean? Is it only commercial capital that is to be brought to them, or perhaps usury capital? Certainly not. These kinds of capital on their own do not form any pre-requisite for socialism. It is productive capital which is meant. But capitalist production is impossible without a proletariat. Bringing capitalism to the colonies means first that a proletariat has to be artificially created where there is none to hand, means the colonial labouring classes have to be expropriated and brought under the whip of capitalism. On the other hand, where a big enough proletariat already exists, it means that it has to be kept under the whip of capitalism, and the state power has to be asked to suppress every rebellion of the proletariat against capital. Capitalism cannot exist without a state power to protect capitalist exploitation. If we consider that capitalism is unavoidable in the colonies, it would be the task of the struggling, as well as the victorious, proletariat to place state power in the colonies at the disposal of capital!

Of course there are also people who assert that the proletariat must advance capitalism even in Europe, as this is a precondition of its own freedom. There is nothing more erroneous than this position. The building up of capitalism is the historical task of the capitalist class, and we can quite happily leave it this task. It will do justice to it under all circumstances as long as it controls the necessary power. And if it no longer controls this power – then it has become redundant with the loss of its power.

The historical task of the proletariat is from the start determined by its economic opposition to the capitalist class. It consists of the fight against capitalist exploitation and thus also against capitalism.

However the false idea that the proletariat has the task of advancing capitalism arises in the following way: The proletariat is not the only opponent of capitalism. Others are to be found among the producers in the modes of production that capitalism overcomes, for instance, craftsmen and peasants. These also fight against capitalism, but in a different manner to the proletariat. We have seen that the proletariat’s greatest aim is to advance the productivity of labour. Even the way it opposes capitalism must be subordinate to this principle. It can only use methods to restrict capitalist exploitation which do not limit the productivity of labour. But this can be done despite shortening of the hours of labour and rises in wages or other improvements in working conditions. In fact such improvements have a beneficial effect on the productivity of labour. However, a proletariat schooled in socialism has never conducted a struggle against machines or against female labour.

On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie and other opponents of capitalism, who are not so much exploited as made redundant by capitalism, seek to fight against it in ways which do restrict the productivity of labour, which place limits on large scale industry, on the use of machinery, and on science. The proletariat cannot employ such methods but must reject them. It must advance technical development, and thus arose the illusion that it has the task of advancing capitalism.

In truth, the proletariat must fight against capitalism, but it is confined to certain ways of doing this because of its concern for the productivity of labour.

However, if we are not able to support the craftsmen and peasants when they want to fight against the technical development of capitalism by constricting it, then we are even less able to support the capitalists or large landowners when they want to summon up the state power to advance their own interests against the petty bourgeoisie and peasants. Here our other principle comes into force, which makes us fight against the oppression of any class by another. And thus the solidarity of all labouring classes becomes evident. The proletariat is of course recruited from the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry. The more depressed these are, the more difficult is its own struggle to maintain and raise its standard of living. For this reason every action the state power takes against the petty bourgeoisie and peasants in the capitalist interest, even if it occurs indirectly, as for instance through tax legislation, must receive determined opposition from the proletariat. It may never make itself responsible for such a promotion of capitalism.

Our position with regard to the backward agrarian peoples who are the object of present day colonial policy is exactly the same as towards the petty bourgeoisie and peasants, There are comrades who feel a great interest in the modes of production of agrarian countries, e.g. Morocco, and who regret their disappearance. From the aesthetic point of view that is very often justified but, despite that, such regret is a romantic sentimentality which is too much in contradiction with the tendencies of economic development to have a useful purpose. Wherever our personal sympathies may lie, we can and must place no obstacle in the way of competition where the capitalist mode of production comes into free competition with backward modes of production.

But the situation changes if we are asked to help the state power to fight for the interest of the capitalist class against the backward nations, and to subdue these for them with armed might, as happens in colonial policy. We must resist this with determination. The proletariat must never let itself become the voluntary policeman of capitalist exploitation.

This is ruled out by its ethical sensibilities, which make the proletariat the defender of all the oppressed and disinherited, of whatever country, race, religion or sex. But this is also ruled out by the solidarity of interests which unites the proletariat with the labouring classes of all countries, for every oppression abroad has an effect back on its own position at home.

In Germany, where colonialism is a recent development, it has not yet had the effect of bringing the blacks expropriated in Africa to Europe, to reduce wages here, but has had an effect at the other pole: on the capitalist class.

If colonialism expropriates great amounts of labour power, which is then defencelessly exposed to every oppression and exploitation, then this nurtures in the exploiters the greatest disregard and cruelty in their treatment of their labourers. For every exploiting class goes to the furthest limit that will be tolerated in the treatment and mistreatment of their victims. In this way the colonial sections of the ruling classes are made brutal, and this has an effect back on the parts remaining in the homeland, which corresponds directly to the amount of interest these take in colonial matters.

Almost a quarter of a century ago I already had occasion to comment, in the article referred to above, Auswanderung und Kolonisation, on the orgies of cruelty and greed the mere prospect of colonies had called forth in many colonial enthusiasts among the German people: that nation which once believed that its idealism was its permanent distinguishing characteristic, which raised it high above the “shopkeeper nations” with colonial policies, such as the English and Dutch.

I then commented:

And is the German people to give itself up to such brigandry – there is no other name for such a colonial policy – to a form of economy which assumes such horrible forms even on paper in the study, and which will be made ever more hideous in practice by conflicts of interest? Are we to covet the fame of being able to point to our Pizarros, Warren Hastings and van der Bosches, who are so unashamedly cited by our Messrs colonial-fanatics as their models?

And to what purpose? Mr. B.F. himself explains with his brutal candour, which may be very uncomfortable for some of his like-minded comrades, that with the introduction of his “System”, consumption ‘in the colonies’ will not rise; on the contrary, local trade will near enough cease!! How are the poor slaves, be they contract labourers or forced labourers, to obtain the means to procure European commodities? The colony to be founded will scarcely provide an extensive market for German industry. But it will enable enormous riches to flow into the pockets of all those who exploit it: the plantation owners, the trades people, the functionaries All the spendthrifts in the German kingdom who are gifted with the required lack of scruples will turn to the colony in order to squeeze a sufficient amount of unpaid labour from the slaves and then return home. But they will not employ their acquisitions ‘for the benefit of the domestic labouring population’ in ‘liberal manner’ (as the colonial enthusiasts assured us then – K.) but they will lay it out in industrial undertakings. A large part of the capital of the country, and thus the disposal of thousands of workmen, will fall into the hands of the most depraved section of the nation, which will wish to continue the habits acquired in the handling of slaves when they come to deal with free labourers. Business morality here, which even now is tottering, will definitely change for the worse, and the treatment of labourers will become rougher and more careless.

Whoever thinks these views far-fetched should read up on the corrupting influence which the English who got rich in India, the ‘Nabobs’, exercised on the morality of English society. It is significant that in English drama and belles-lettres of the last century (the 18th), the fashion was to portray the scoundrel in the form of a Nabob returned home from India.

What I then expected from a colonial policy has since come to pass. The German colonies to this day have not become an extensive market for German industry. But a decline of morals and a coarsening of behaviour has certainly taken place in the colonies and this has been transferred into the ruling class of Germany, even if their power to lavish riches did not develop as was then expected. The heroic picture of this tropical frenzy has become the model of all the tricksters and Junkers, who want to arrange their relations with their own workers in the same way. And this new heroic age has already captivated the fantasies of the poets and thinkers, who hail a simple Simon, and carry over the cult of brutality and vulgarity into art, philosophy and social relations.

It can be seen that we have every reason to perceive the best preparation for socialism in the advance of capitalism in the colonies!


Last updated on 11.12.2003