Arthur Rosenberg

The Import of the British Imperial Conference

(18 October 1923)

From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 3 No. 67 [43], 18 October 1923, p. 754.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2023). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The art of government peculiar to the British bourgeoisie has led to the opening of the British Imperial Conference, on October 1, in the historical house at No. 10 Downing Street. The British capitalists are only too anxious to flee from the crisis in Europe, far into the boundless spaces of the British empire. The idea that England can and must find compensation in other quarters of the globe for her losses and reverses in Europe, was what chiefly inspired the conservative propaganda at the last election to Parliament, which brought Bonar Law to the helm of state. Bonar Law’s promise has been redeemed by Baldwin: the representatives of Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Newfoundland, India, and now even of Ireland, have met together in London for the purpose of consulting as to how the bourgeoisie of the British empire can best combine its powers in order to emerge successfully from the international crisis.

For this reason the British imperial Conference is of considerable Importance for the international proletariat. If it were possible to place international capital on a sound basis again, this operation would have to be started by England. A real and permanent economic recovery in Great Britain would fundamentally change the prospects of the world’s evolution. And it is clear that the political discussions being held by the Imperial Conference in London are completely predominated by economic considerations.

It cannot be asserted that the consultations of the Imperial Conference have so far been distinguished by any exaggerated optimism. At the opening meeting Baldwin observed that; “If we look at Europe as it is today, and compare this picture with the hopes which we cherished four years ago, we find little to entourage us in our work.” He added that today, the armies and the expenditure for war purposes are greater than in 1914. At the same session General Smuts, the representative of South Africa, laid his finger on one of the sorest spots in England’s economics, the mighty burden which England has shouldered by undertaking to pay her debts to America. With regard to the Smuts said: “If the world does not really recover, if it does not prove possible to set trade and commerce going again in the world, then it will turn out that England has undertaken an unbearable burden.” The agreement for the payment of the English debt to America had been regarded as the best means of forming a bloc between the two Anglo-Saxon powers. Today it becomes more and more evident that it is just this gigantic loan of debt to America which is inevitably driving England into antagonism against the United States. The British bourgeoisie, if it is to continue to exist, must, by some means or other, shake off the tribute obligation to America. And what will follow? The Times remarks that the Imperial Conference will occupy itself in detail with the question of the naval base at Singapore. The Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand have already expressed their unqualified agreement to the construction of this new naval base. The decision of the English government to develop Singapore into a naval base of the first rank signifies, in actual practice, that the Washington disarmament conference is null and void, and that the English bourgeoisie is preparing for forthcoming armed conflicts in East Asia in the Pacific Ocean, within America’s sphere of power.

Sober critics promise themselves nothing from this Imperial Conference. Thus the Daily Herald hits the nail on the ad when it writes, on 2 October:

“It is an illusion, therefore, to base upon this Imperial Conference any hope of escape from our disastrous unemployment, due to the breakdown of Production for Profit. No doubt it would be some help to us if we could sell to the Dominions more of the products of our factories; but it is futile to suppose that fewer than 20,000,000 people, with growing manufactures of their own, could, even if they dealt with none of our competitors, take the place of the 100,000,000 in central Europe with whom we did such valuable trade before the war.”

This observation is exceedingly pertinent. The key to the present economic situation lies in Europe. The impoverishment of the greater part of Europe has brought about the English crisis, and the Dominions will never be able to attain to a superabundance of purchasing power compensating the English manufacturers for the loss of the European markets. The Economist, the leading English economic organ, also greeted the Imperial Conference with an extremely critical and sceptical article, published on 29 September. This periodical lays special emphasis on the fact that the British Empire cannot form in itself an adequate economic unit:

“Many of its raw materials and industrial products are compelled to seek a foreign market, whilst it is necessarily obliged to obtain other goods from abroad. Should for instance, the import of maize and meat from Argentina into England be subjected to artificial limitations in the interests of Canadian and South African production, what would become of English exports to South America? Or, if it were possible to keep Scandinavian and French timber from the English market by means of other trading restrictions, it would then become more difficult to finance English exports to Scandinavia and France. This would be highly detrimental to our shipping, for three quarters of the cargoes leaving England consist of coal, and the English coal export to the Dominions and Colonies is quite insignificant.”

In point of fact it is perfectly childish for anyone to persuade himself that the disease from which the British Empire is suffering is to be cured by means of preferential tariffs, or by means of creating a uniform tariff wall around the British Empire. These prescriptions of the elder Chamberlain are useless today, when it is a question of strengthening the buying powers of the world. If the British Empire buys less from foreign countries, it thereby weakens their buying powers, and indirectly increases its own difficulties. This is the endless circle from which it is impossible to escape by means of any tariff of imperial customs duties

The complete futility of all attempts to form an artificial economic unit out of the British Empire is rendered sufficiently clear by the relations between Canada and the United States. The Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King declared to a representative of the Times that in the year 1914, the American capital invested in Canada amounted to 650 million dollars. Today it is 2½ milliard dollars! The English capital invested in Canada is however about the same today as it was in 1914, that is, about 2,700,000,000 dollars. Mr. King is of the opinion that English capital should interest itself more in Canada, and points out the favorable economic situation obtaining in Canada at the present time. But his declarations make it perfectly clear that Canada will become a colony exploited by New York big capital, should present developments continue for any length of time. This dispels all illusions concerning the idea of the economic and political unity of the British Empire.

The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, as also Lord Curzon, consider it necessary to furnish the representatives of the Dominions with detailed reports on English foreign politics. The statesmen from Canada, South Africa, and Australia, will however, not content themselves with merely listening; they will demand guarantees that the Dominions will not some day be entangled in some of England’s foreign political crises. When Lloyd George brought matters almost to the brink of war on the Dardanelles question, there was the greatest consternation everywhere in the Dominions. Probably these things will be very thoroughly discussed in the secret sessions of the Conference. It goes without saying that Australia and New Zealand will be very pleased to accept the help of the English fleet against any attack on the part of Japan, but on the whole the great Overseas Dominions have become more and more independent of late years, both economically and politically. In the great war, under essentially different conditions to those now prevailing, the British Empire was united. But what would become of the unity of the Empire if, for instance, there were a war between England and the United States?

Anyone who gives these economic and political facts an earnest consideration is bound to arrive at the conviction that the politicians from the five continents of the globe now assembled in London, will not accomplish more than eloquent word spinning. Capitalism in its hour of need will just as little find the philosopher s stone at the London Imperial Conference as it found at at the international conferences in Genoa and The Hague!

Last updated on 1 May 2023