Alfred Rosmer

British Imperialism and French Imperialism After The London Conference

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 6, September 1924, No. 9, pp. 535-543
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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The Conference of London marks the beginning of a new phase in the carrying out of the Treaty of Versailles and in the enforcement of the Peace. Its essential characteristic is, obviously, the role played by America. Not only does she participate actively, for the first time, at the Conference, instead of being satisfied with the role of observer, as formerly, but, in fact, she dominates it. Her bankers are there and have the means of imposing their conditions, without its being necessary to resort to the brutal method of ultimatum. If the Conference does not want them they withdraw—themselves and their dollars; no loan and the Experts’ plan fails. Once again, America succeeds in playing the part of the pacifist nation which benevolently consents to aid Europe in a difficulty, at the very same moment as she assures her hegemony by the omnipotence of riches accumulated when the belligerents were exhausting themselves in an endless butchery. She is the grand profiteer of war and of peace.

All the same it is not this aspect of the Conference which has been the most generally underlined. The English, French and German Press has principally referred to the discussions between the Allies, and then between the Allies and the Germans, when the Premiers had at last found a compromise. The evacuation of the Ruhr, which was not formerly on the agenda of the Conference, nevertheless imposed itself because such was the wish of the bankers, and because, in the end, it could hardly have been otherwise. In France the newspapers of the “Left Bloc” speak emphatically of the results of the Conference: it is the beginning of a new era. The Entente Cordiale, threatened by Poincaré’s policy, is reconstituted. It is the theme also developed by MacDonald. These problems have too their importance. Have English Imperialism and French Imperialism found a common ground of understanding; can they find a common ground of understanding? That is the subject of this article.

In order to answer this question it is necessary to recall the conditions in which the Entente Cordiale was realised and on what points British Imperialism and French Imperialism came into conflict on the morrow of the German defeat.


At the opening of the present century the foreign policy of Great Britain underwent a radical transformation. One witnesses a complete reversal of the policy of the preceding period. With Germany England had cordial relations. Russia was the enemy which, by its proximity, threatened India, and by its watch on Constantinople and the Narrows threatened the route from London to India. Between Great Britain and France as a result of the latter’s colonial ambitions there broke out conflicts, which at times went so far as threats of war.

The South African War was a disagreeable surprise for the British jingoes. It put the Empire in a difficult and humiliating. position. The enemies of British power publicly showed their joy. There even were on their part hints of intervention. When the affair had been liquidated, an examination of the situation, suddenly revealed by these hostile manifestations, became necessary. The result of this examination was a total reversal of foreign policy. Peace would be made with Russia and with France, and Germany would be regarded as the sole enemy against whom all blows should be directed.

It is interesting to note that the idea of this radical change, whose consequences were to be so serious, was originally expressed by the ultra-nationalist National Review. The proposal, at first stupefying, was justified in the following manner:—

Perhaps the main fact which should impress itself upon Englishmen in considering the actual international outlook is not merely the extraordinary growth of Germany—who has achieved greatness by trampling on her neighbours—but the fact that this formidable community is becoming increasingly dependent on a foreign food supply, as well as on foreign supplies of raw and partially manufactured articles. This necessarily involves the development of Germany as a Sea Power, and it is a matter for every European State to ponder over.

. . . . She (Germany) is becoming transformed from an agricultural into an industrial community, and if the process continues for another quarter of a century, while remaining secured against actual starvation by her land frontiers, she will become no less dependent on the ocean highways for her prosperity as we are. Great Britain is therefore confronted with the development of a new sea power founded on the same economic basis as herself, and impelled by a desire to be supreme. But l’ocean ne comporte qu’un seul maître. We have secured in the past the sovereignty of the seas, and our sceptre cannot be wrested from us without a desperate and bloody struggle.

The article was published in a way which emphasised its importance. There was no author’s name and this fact was explained by stating that it expressed a collective opinion rather than the views of any particular individual. Naturally it was emphatically declared that it had not, in any way, been inspired by “those responsible for the conduct of British Foreign Policy.”

In spite of its exceptional importance, the French Press commented very little on it. Clemenceau, who was editing a weekly, Le Bloc, reproduced from it some important extracts. His commentary was, as a whole, sympathetic, although discreet. The vague Anglophobia, let loose by the Boer War, was still too strong for a period of patient preparation not to be necessary. This was perfectly understood by the National Review and to establish cordial relations with France advances were made via the detour of Russia. In case of success, two birds would thus be killed with one stone. The conclusion of the “prolonged contest” with Russia would bring England back to friendly terms with France, perhaps the only nation, it was candidly added, ready to make sacrifices and to run risks in favour of those who rejoice in her friendship.

The war plan outlined by the National Review was to be realised by Edward VII, whom too zealous servitors saluted at his death as Edward the Peacemaker. An agreement was reached with Russia in 1907 on the subject of Persia. It was a real partition of this country in the form of zones of influence. The signatory for the British Empire was the Liberal Sir Edward Grey. The Entente with France had occurred several years before. Edward VII had found a servile ally in the person of the Radical Delcassé. The encircling of Germany was followed out successfully, and the consequence of this policy was the war of 1914. With the crushing of Germany, the reduction to nothing of its fleet, the division of its colonies, Great Britain saw her essential war aims realised. In spite of this she hurled herself against French Imperialism.


With Delcassé, France had unreservedly lent herself to the achievement of the policy of Edward VII. Russia found in Poincaré an instrument equally docile and in full agreement with its aims. The correspondence of the Ambassador Isvolsky, discovered in the archives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and published by our Russian comrades, furnishes proof positive of that. Moved by the latent spirit of revenge, France could easily and at the chosen hour be dragged into a war against Germany. It is what happened in 1914. But it was on France that the war weighed most heavily; it was she who furnished the largest contingent of victims, and it was her territory that served as battlefield.

At the conclusion of hostilities Great Britain and France found themselves in very different positions. The former’s war aims were achieved. The latter could only count its ruins. Yet it was her generals who had conducted the war. It is they who wear the halo of victory. That the war might “pay” impossible indemnities must be demanded from Germany, and to win the hegemony of Europe what remains of Germany must be encircled, but this time under the direction of French policy. This policy must dominate the new states which have arisen from the war and are grouped, in the Little Entente: Jugo-Slavia, Czecho-Slovakia, Roumania. France provides them with military instructors and munitions. She does the same with Poland. She manoeuvres in such a way that the left bank of the Rhine may be occupied for a long time. To consolidate that occupation and at the same time to satisfy the ambitions of the Comité des Forges, France decides, with Poincaré, to occupy the Ruhr. French Imperialism is on the way to attaining its aim. Yet there is a weak point: its finances. The French State is, in fact, bankrupt. It is at this weak point that British Imperialism—anxious at the French hegemony of Europe—delivers its attack. In that it is aided by American finance. A redoubtable offensive is let loose against the franc whose fall takes on a catastrophic appearance. To stay the fall Poincaré has to issue an appeal to the American and English bankers and to accept their conditions. Under menaces, he has to resign himself to accept the terms of international finance, which he had denounced until then as an occult and evil-doing power. Before his fall, he accepted “without restrictions or reserve” the plan of the experts, which involves the evacuation of the Ruhr.


On leaving for the Conference M. Herriot had committed himself before the French Parliament in the Following terms. “I am going to London,” he said, “but the question of the evacuation of the Ruhr will not arise.” All the same this question did arise. It even dominated the Conference; M. Herriot was obliged to consent to that, and to agree to fix a latest date for evacuation. He frankly explained this contradiction. “I could,” he said, “have maintained my point of view: it would have meant the rupture of the Conference. That was a heavy responsibility which I was unwilling to take.”

But it is not only the question of the evacuation of the Ruhr that M. Herriot had to allow to be posed at London. It was also that, even more essential in the eyes of the French Imperialists, of the evacuation of the left bank of the Rhine. M. Jacques Bardoux, after a characterisation of the methods of British diplomacy, adds that the representatives of the Foreign Office did not let all their attention be absorbed by the immediate objectives of the Conference, and that they by no means forgot “that they have for centuries been charged with the task of barring France from the left bank of the Rhine.” With this aim in constant view they permitted themselves a manoeuvre which consisted in associating the occupation of the Cologne zone with that of the Ruhr.

French Ministers, and Poincaré in particular, have always affirmed that since Germany has not fulfilled its engagements the allotted period of occupation has not yet begun to expire. England would be brutally repudiating that contention in insisting on the evacuation of the Cologne zone at the same time as that of the Ruhr, that is to say, on August 15, 1925. She would further demand that her troops, on leaving Cologne, should proceed to occupy the next zone to be evacuated, that of Coblenz, in order to be able five years later to carry out the evacuation of this second zone. And, in conclusion, cries M. Jacques Bardoux dramatically: “Is the Rhine barrier lost?”

The left bank of the Rhine is, in fact, a principal objective of French Imperialism. During the war, at the very time when the governments of the Entente were solemnly affirming that they had but one objective—to beat back German Imperialism—and were swearing that they did not dream of dismembering Germany, it is now known that they were concluding among themselves secret treaties by which they shared out in anticipation the spoils of victory.

It was thus that France obtained Tsarist Russia’s co-operation in support of its claims on the left bank of the Rhine. The negotiation was carried through by the Radical Doumergue, to-day President of the Republic. A letter from France's ambassador at Petrograd, Paleologue, to his Minister, dated January 30 (February 12), 1917, informs us exactly as to the French pretensions. This is the text:—

Monsieur le Ministre,

On January 21 (February 3) last His Majesty the Emperor was good enough to grant a special audience to the first delegate of France at the Inter-Allied Conference.

In the course of this meeting, His Excellency M. Gaston Doumergue informed His Majesty of the claims and territorial guarantees which the Government of the Republic proposes to be imposed on Germany. They may be summarised as follows:—

(1) Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France.
(2) Its frontiers will reach at least as far as those of the ancient Duchy of Lorraine and will be traced, at the pleasure of the French Government, in such a way as to cover all strategic needs and to re-integrate in French territory all the iron basin of the region, as well as all the basin of the Sarre valley.
(3) The other territories situated on the left bank of the Rhine, which are actually incorporated in Germany, will be entirely detached from the latter and separated from all economic or political dependence on her.
(4) Those of the territories that are not incorporated in French territory will form an autonomous and neutral State, and will remain occupied by French troops “as long as the guarantees insisted upon by the allies to safeguard a durable peace shall not be realised, and in a general way so long as the hostile States shall not have integrally satisfied all the conditions of peace.”

It is known that at the time of the Peace Conference this question was one of those which embarrassed the negotiators. Clemenceau defended tenaciously the ambitions of French Imperialism. But there was no longer any Tsarist Russia to back him up and he found himself faced by Lloyd George and Wilson, who energetically resisted him. J. Maynard Keynes, and others subsequently, have thrown light on the laborious and secret negotiations. They have shown how Wilson, in the end, gave in, and how a compromise was reached. The French only secured a limited occupation, but, in their heart of hearts, they held the conviction that once the French army was installed on the left bank of, the Rhine it would be easy to find pretexts for keeping it there indefinitely and thus to obtain, in spite of all, their end.

The occupation of the Ruhr was the tangible manifestation of an offensive spirit on the part of French Imperialists. The London Conference, on the other hand, is evidence of a retreat. Once the Ruhr is evacuated and the evacuation of the left bank begun, the plan of French hegemony in Europe would find itself seriously threatened. But it remains to be seen just how far M. Herriot will be able to go. The Conferences, which have followed one another since the signature of the Treaty of Versailles, have already tried the gentle method of conciliation. Everything has been tried, even direct accord with Germany. But what France can receive from Germany in the name of reparations is so infinitesimal compared with what Clemenceau’s ministers looked to and compared with what would have to be received to cover even a poor part of the financial deficit, that a return to the nationalist offensive is always possible.

M. Herriot has at the moment a sound enough political position. But the foundation on which it is based is rather narrow. He has been put in power by the petite bourgeoisie, by the peasantry, by the official class, which, frightened at the cost of the grand imperialist policy, brutally rejected the men of the bloc national to whom they had accorded an unreserved confidence four years ago. They constitute the strata of the population the least politically conscious, and it will always be possible to dupe them as long as M. Herriot is unable to offer them substantial realisations. He can make speeches about peace, but he cannot bring them peace. French policy must waver between the brutal activity of the Comité des Forges representing the interests, of heavy industry, and the hesitant pacifism of the Radicals, representing the petite bourgeoisie and the peasants, such as M. Herriot.

British Imperialism and French Imperialism had one aim in common during the war, when they each wanted to beat Germany. But as soon as the war was finished their fundamental antagonism revealed itself. Great Britain, turning back immediately to its traditional policy, wants at all costs to bar the road to French Imperialism, impatient to establish its hegemony on the continent. But France, who wants compensation for the heavy losses she suffered, seeks it in the development of her power, while the Comité des Forges dreams of realising, under its own domination, the union of the iron of Lorraine and the coal of the Ruhr, thus securing metallurgical hegemony. So that numerous and deep causes of conflict exist. One can endeavour to disguise them. That is what MacDonald and Herriot compel themselves to do. But they arise again at the first opportunity as soon as the field of oratory and of pacifist phrase-making is left.

British Imperialism and French Imperialism which MacDonald and Herriot find themselves forced to serve as well as Lloyd George and Poincaré, though by different ways, will not give the world peace. They are powers of rapine and domination. The first rests on the enslavement of hundreds of millions of men in Asia and in Africa. The other is, above all, the agent of the Counter-Revolution in Europe. It is a permanent menace to the working class of all countries, impatient to free itself from the Capitalist yoke. One and the other they constitute together the greatest obstacle to the emancipation of the workers. The latter have got to direct against them their attacks and to prepare to beat them.

Workmen of Great Britain and of France do not know each other enough. While the governments of the two countries frequently meet and make plans together, the two proletariats remain practically isolated, ignoring each other. That is a position unfavourable to their common struggle and which must disappear. Each conference of the Franco-English Government representatives ought to be accompanied by a simultaneous Franco-English working-class conference, which, closely following the proceedings of the other, would reveal its real motives to the working masses. It is difficult for the workers to know where they stand in the midst of all these proceedings, all the more as the Capitalist Press is engaged in cleverly presenting them in such a way as to conceal the meaning. Successively as they develop their double character should be exposed, on the one hand, the inability of the Capitalist States to solve the problems presented by the great imperialist war, and, on the other hand, the desire to make the workers alone bear the expenses of this odious slaughter. Once well informed the workers could no longer be duped by the lacqueys of capitalism. The conviction that their real enemies are the capitalists of their own countries would take root in them. Uniting their forces, learning co-ordination in the common struggle, basing all their activity on the solid rock of the Russian Revolution, aided by the Communist Parties of France and of Great Britain, they could engage in the decisive battle against the two great instruments of war and of reaction, British Imperialism and French Imperialism, which constitute a permanent menace to their security and an obstacle to their emancipation, and so lead this hard fight to the final victory.

France, August 23, 1924.