Th. Rothstein, under his pseudonym John Bryan 1917

Cotton Iron and Imperialism

Source: The Call, 8 March 1917, p.2 (editorial), (1,229 words);
Transcribed: Ted Crawford,
HTML Markup: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

A theory propounded recently by the American Socialist, Louis B. Boudin, and based upon the views of a Russian Socialist writer, M. Pavlovitch, seems to have made considerable impression in certain Marxist circles in this country. The theory is not devoid of interest. It is to the effect that Capitalism in the era dominated by King Cotton was pacifist, and has now, in the era of Iron and Steel, become bellicose, the reason being that cotton conquered the markets, so to speak, by its own merits, whereas iron and steel need conces­sions, guarantees and other exclusive privileges and modes of protection against rivals. This is the theory in its briefest formulation, and is rendered very plausible by a number of illustra­tions and interpretations taken from the wide field of economic and political history. Any Socialist student inclined towards Marxism is apt to get impressed by it: it seems to supply a key to the understanding of Liberal capitalism of the past and of Imperialist capitalism of the present, and of the war now raging in particular.

As we say, the theory is not devoid of interest; unfortunately it is utterly devoid of any real foundation in fact. Its author has allowed himself to be misled by the pacifist doctrines of the founders of the “Manchester School” and by a one-sided view of the political practice of this country known under the comprehensive name of “splendid isolation.” As a matter of history, we know that the pacifist doctrines were originally added by Cobden with a view to capturing the Quakers for the cause of Free Trade; and we further know that the attitude of “splendid isola­tion” only applied in practice to Europe. Indeed, one need only take up the colonial history of England in the latter half of last century — the half that was ushered in by the triumph of Free Trade — to see that it was full of wars, that there was scarcely any .interval of more than three or five years between the innumerable wars, expeditions, military actions or whatever they may have been called in China, Abyssinia, Ashantee, Afghanistan, Zululand, Burma. Mashonaland, the Soudan, Somaliland, and so on, and so on. It is certainly a most sweeping generalisation, in face of these well-known facts, merely relying on Cobden’s pro­paganda among the Quakers, to assert that King Cotton was pacific. So far from relying on its own merits, Cotton was in the habit of sending missionaries and whiskey dealers to the further­most corners of the earth to prepare the ground for a future punitive expedition in order to grab territory and compel its inhabitants to accept Lancashire goods or to grow raw material for Lancashire mills. And in Europe itself: was it “splendid isolation” when this country went to war with Russia in 1854, or sent her fleet to the Sea of Marmora in 1877? Was she not in a state of almost chronic quarrel with France and Russia? If no actual war took place either with Russia since 1856 or with France, was it not due rather to the fact that this country each time achieved her aims by threat and diplomatic combinations, than to her pacifism?

The other part of the theory is not less erroneous. It is neither true that iron and steel are essentially bellicose nor is it true that bellicosity is prompted essentially by iron and steel. Long before the present Iron and Steel age, England had been constructing railways, exploiting mines, establishing iron and steel works under conces­sions in all the four quarters Of the globe; yet no war ensued therefrom. In the ’seventies and ’eighties of last century Austria (baron Hirsch) constructed railways, on the account of Turkey, all over the Balkans, but history has not recorded any wars resulting therefrom. On the other hand, we have heard of wars in China and Egypt waged by this Country, and of wars in Algeria, Tunis, Madagascar, China, and other places waged by France (to name but two of the most bellicose modern countries), which were prompted by anything but iron and steel interests. The cam­paign in Egypt of 1882 was the first distinctly Im­perialist war of modern time; was it a war of iron amid steel? If any material of production played a part in this war it was just cotton! .Another distinctly Imperialist war was that in South Africa was it iron and steel, and not a totally different metal, which brought it about? The third great Imperialist war of modern times was the Russo-Japanese of 1904-5: who does not know that it was caused by the Imperial interests in forest concessions in Korea?

Whichever way you take it, the theory simply does not hold water. It is a generalisation from accidentals, not from essentials, and is contrary to historical facts. It derives a totally erroneous con­ception of the nature of the modern Imperialist phase of capitalism, which does not depend upon the character of the predominant industries, but upon the rise of finance as the driving force of capitalist activity. It is the part played, and the character displayed by financial capital which stamp the modern capitalist era as Imperialist. Long before Germany showed the methods by which financial capital can be abstracted from industrial and commercial capital and made a force by itself, England had been employing it in the way it is being. employed now. England had been Imperialist before the modern imperialist era, by investing her capital and seeking “pacific penetration” in various foreign countries and her own dominions. Since then, on the initiative of Germany, all other Powers, without being economically so advanced, had learnt the trick of using the banks for time purpose of forming financial capital as an instrument of “pacific penetration” in various countries. As capital is generally indifferent to the particular form in which it obtains its interest and dividends, it has applied itself with equal zeal to oil (Rumania, Mexico) as to phosphates (Tunis), to forests (Korea) as to gold (South Africa), to india rubber (Congo), as to cotton (Egypt), to kilometric guarantees (Bagdad railway), as to iron and ore (Morocco). It is all a mere question of oppor­tunity, and iron and steel only come in in so far as railways and guns are now the indispensable means of “modernisation” of every country and as im­proved methods of production have supplied the means of supplying them to any extent desired. Imperialism, therefore, is not iron and steel, but iron and steel and everything else in heaven and on earth to which financial capital, a free, fluid and independent economic force, can apply itself with advantage to its owners.

As for its bellicosity, this is a chapter by itself. Until the rise of financial capital as a force compatible even with a low stage of industrial and commercial development (as witness Russia and Austria), England, through her vast capital accumulation from trade and exploitation of colonies, was the only country which could engage in the business of foreign concession hunting and foreign investments. She had no rival and needed no wars to maintain her monopoly in the markets. With the ubiquitous rise of financial capital rivalries became, inevitable, and it became bellicose. That is the whole story which explains the history of modern Imperialism and is at the bottom of the present war.