Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

In Struggle!

Documents for the criticism of revisionism

Anti-imperialist struggles up to the Second World War

First Published: In Struggle! No. 228, November 25, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Anti-imperialist struggles continue to provoke hot and heavy debates among Marxist-Leninists. They regularly bring to the fore various political questions which are not always that easy to resolve. How will revolution be accomplished in the oppressed countries? What role will the national bourgeoisie play? What should the relationship be between the class struggle and the national liberation struggle?

Communists have raised these questions over and over again especially since the First World War. That is why we think it is a good idea to look at the growth of anti-imperialist struggles and the ways in which communists reacted to different concrete situations up to about 1939 in this article on the world-wide devalopment of colonialism.

Colonialism and capitalism

It took capitalism just about 400 years to take over the world. A rapid look at that expanse of time will show just how closely intertwined the histories of colonialism and capitalism are.

Dutch, Spanish, British, Portuguese and French ships set sail for the New World in the sixteenth century. Colonialism was established largely by the capitalists of these countries. As often as not, they formed shortly after the initial voyages into private trading companies charged with the responsibility of carrying out colonization. That was what the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada was all about.

The merchant capitalists made their fortunes, with a lot of help from their friends in the army and Church, by trading in furs, gold and sugar. All of those basic goods were the product of exploitation, pillage and a policy of genocide carried out against the Native peoples of the Americas. This trade was very important. Virtually all the sugar consumed in Europe during the 17th century, for example, came from Brazil.

At this primitive stage of capitalism, the initial mass of capital that would later fuel capitalist industrialization was accumulated through trade. Colonial trade played a major role in that process.

The industrial revolution in the West

The Industrial Revolution in the West and the industrial bourgeoisie’s rise to a position of dominance were to have considerable effect on colonialism. The colonial system grew wider and penetrated deeper until it covered the entire globe.

The 19th century saw Britain’s and Spain’s colonies in the Americas freed. But in the same period, new colonies were established through conquest in Asia and later in Africa, India, Algeria, Indochina and many other countries became colonies. Every capitalist country that was the least bit developed got involved in the race for colonies. Well before the First World War had even begun the whole world was carved up between a few big powers. The war merely passed colonies from one set of hands to another. A new set of oppressed countries were generated such as Libya, Syria, Palestine and Iraq by the splitting up of the Turkish empire.

The situation between the two world wars was to remain very complex both in terms of the diversity of conditions in different places and the differences in levels of development. There were the old colonies like India where the penetration of imperialism was very deep indeed. There were the more recent colonies in Africa which had as yet been transformed very superficially. There were the semi-colonies like China where the imperialists made sure they were accorded exhorbitant privileges. There were what might be called the neo-colonies in South America where British capital ruled and imposed its law. There were the new countries of the Middle East that the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations) had placed under British and French protectorates.

Despite the diversity of forms of imperialist domination, the colonies all played a common role: they were markets for industrial goods produced in the metropolitan countries that regularly faced the spectre of a crisis of overproduction and a source of industrial and agricultural primary goods. The change from the merchant capitalist era, where trade was confined to rare or exotic foodstuffs and other like products is striking.

Colonialism was an important factor in the economic development of the advanced capitalist countries. It brutally destroyed the pre-capitalist societies wherever it took root. It radically upset the existing economic and class structure.

India is a classic and very interesting example of the impact of colonialism on the colonized societies. The British colonialists introduced private ownership of the land, which had up to then been held in common. They did so in order to set up their mines and plantations and to offload their goods. The use of money was promoted and market relationships which had been fairly limited in scope were spread far and wide.

A minority grew up that accumulated land-holdings and took in the money from the land rent which no longer could be paid in kind. Hoarding capital and goods was facilitated. Meanwhile, the ranks of poor peasants dispossesed of their land swelled. The colonialists replaced the crops which fed the local population with ones that could be exported. Colonialism made short shrift of local needs, giving primacy to the particular needs of the metropolis for cotton, wheat, rubber, etc. It thereby was the direct cause of the terrible famines which ravaged colonial India. Imperialism sharpened class contradictions in the countryside considerably. Indeed, the imperialists even encouraged the rise of a new landowning class linked to imperialism.

Local capitalists develop in the colonies

The railroads and ports built by imperialism to pillage the colonies were eventually to help the territories that had been fragmented to unite politically under British rule. The local bourgeoisie of course wanted to establish its rule over these same areas.

The Indian bourgeoisie started to grow up from 1870 on, principally in the commercial sector. The colonial State left little opportunity to get involved in industry. The British refused to set external tariffs to protect Indian industry from foreign competition. In fact, Britain raised its tariffs considerably against Indian fabrics. Indian artisans were all but totally crushed by the influx of British textiles.

Imperialism brought some development with the mines, plantations, communications networks, etc. that were established. But at the same time it held back industrial growth. Therein lies the foundation to the struggles conducted by the bourgeoisies in the colonies against imperialism in the following years.

The working class came into being, even though its numbers were very limited. It was concentrated in imperialist enterprises. A petty bourgeois intelligentsia developed too which was as often as not sent off for a Western education to be indoctrinated with the ideals of bourgeois democracy. The intelligentsia was the source of a large number of activists in the national movement.

As the capitalist countries reached the stage of imperialist development, the export of capital to the colonies became increasingly important. The same developments in the colonies which we have already noted continued to take place at an even more furious pace. Colonialism thus relentlessly imposed capitalism on all those areas of the world where it had not existed before.

All of this mind you was not carried off without provoking organized resistance by the people being colonized. Indeed, those, struggles were to become central in the international political situation.

Anti-colonial struggles

The Native peoples in the Americas were the first peoples to be colonized. They have resisted unceasingly the pillage and ruin to which they have been subjected. But they never managed to reach the level of a liberation struggle that was capable of winning.

A new stage of anti-colonial struggles was begun in 1800. By then the United States had won its freedom. The Spanish colonies in South Amefica were to do the same between 1810 and 1930. Canada would experience an anti-colonial uprising in 1837.

The anti-colonial struggles in many places bore a remarkable resemblance to the struggles which the bourgeoisies in the metropolises had waged against the feudal classes in their own countries. The object was to fight colonialism to establish. an independent national bourgeoisie that could impose its hegemony over a given territory. There were a large number of peasant revolts in various colonial countries in the 19th century. Resistance came just as frequently from the formerly dominant classes, that could loosely be described as feudal in nature. They organized into secret societies and sought only to maintain the old order. In most cases, they ended up making a deal with imperialism. Resistance was this widespread in this period but it never reached a level where it became really dangerous for imperialism.

The first world war opened a new stage in the struggle. Imperialism was unable to keep as firm a grip on its colonies while the fighting raged in Europe. It would have to resign itself to seeing the local bourgeoisie and proletariat develop in the conquered countries.

After the war, the colonies got heavily involved in the vast revolutionary movement which shook the whole world. Nothing had changed for the colonies except for the former Tsarist possessions which the Soviet Union freed.

As a result, there were outbreaks everywhere: three months of uprising in Iraq against British control; the great May-June 1919 anti-imperialist movement in China, strike waves in Egypt and India where the British army fired on unarmed crowds, etc. In Turkey, power passed into the hands of a bourgeois national movement headed by Kemal Ataturk. The new Turkish government would be sympathetic to Soviet Russia and hostile to imperialism at least at the beginning. A somewhat similar movement in Egypt, the WAFD, managed to take power in 1923.

These are examples of a new characteristic marking the colonies between the two wars: the emergence and/or strengthening of structured organizations led by the bourgeoisie which enjoyed notable mass support. The Kuomintang in China, the Congress Party in India, the Indonesian National Party, the Thirty Comrades Movement in Burma and other similar organizations in other countries all fall into this category.

The bourgeois nationalist organizations were sometimes reformist and sometimes revolutionary. They aimed at removing the obstacles holding back the development of local capitalism. The primary target was the colonial control over State power.

Parallel to this bourgeois movement a purely proletarian movement also grew up. Workers organized into unions to uphold their basic demands. Communist parties were created all over. The two movements, bourgeois and proletarian, were to enter into a very definite set of relationships with one another in a context where the peasantry was overwhelmingly still the majority class.

The communists and the colonies

Marx did not develop his thinking on the colonial question all that much relative to other matters. He was writing in an era where colonialism had not yet fully matured. He observed the creation of a single world market and predicted that the relatively progressive capitalist mode of production would destroy the pre-capitalist ones. Marx says both that the future of the colonies depends on what happens in Europe and that the, colonies might well ignite the revolution in Europe.[1]

The Second International (1889-1914) did not advance the analysis of the colonial question any further when it took the matter up at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress. A large minority in fact came out in support of colonialism because it supposedly brought civilization to backwards peoples and material well-being to the workers of Europe. Colonialism must not be set aside, even in a socialist country, argued the minority.

A slight majority felt that colonialism should be condemned. However, anti-colonial struggles were not seen as being very central in importance to the world revolutionary process by any social democrats in this period. Everything would be decided in Europe.

The Communist International (Comintern, 1919-1943) made a major step forward when it came out for the joining together of the struggles of the proletariat with the anti-colonial struggles against the common capitalist enemy. That policy remained the same throughout the history of the Comintern.

The Comintern policy did of course change a number of times in response to changes in what might be called the strategic perspectives of the anti-colonial struggles. These changes produced shifts in attitude toward the bourgeoisie, the united front tactic, etc.

Promote worker and peasent soviets

The core thesis adopted in 1920, in a period of full-blown revolutionary upsurge when soviets were being set up in many countries, reflects the nature of the period.[2]

The strategic perspective of the anti-colonial struggle at that point was to promote a movement for worker and peasant soviets. Such movements would link up with the soviet movements in other countries to eventually form a huge federation of soviet republics. There was even talk of relying on the support of the working class in the developed countries to make it possible for people in the backward areas to skip over the stages of capitalist development. The Comintern theses called for support to liberation movements as long as certain definite conditions were met, mainly the condition of total independence for the working-class movement.

From 1922 on, the prospects of world revolution dwindled to nil. The Comintern’s strategic perspectives changed. It called for the creation of anti-imperialist United Fronts. A number of communist parties in the colonies were criticized for confining their work to unionizing workers and giving little attention to the national struggle. The parties should be promoting the interests of workers and peasants within the existing national movements. The Chinese communists were encouraged to join the Kuomintang. The Comintern would help the Kuomintang to get organized more efficiently and put demands reflecting the interests of popular strata into its programme. The Kuomintang was no longer viewed as the party of a single class. Rather it was seen as an expression of the United Front, a “bloc” of several classes, only one of which was the bourgeoisie.

The Kuomintang carried out a great massacre of workers and communists in 1927. The Comintern made a another turn the following year. In the colonies, the goal of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and setttng up soviets was back on the agenda. Having had their fingers burned more than once in recent years, the communists rejected the policy of forming blocs with the bourgeoisie. New stress would be put on linking the national struggle to the class struggle. That connection had been considerably blurred for a few years. Communists would again make a clear demarcation between what they were fighting for and bourgeois democracy.[3]

The new stress on the class struggle within the colonial countries often had the practical consequence of cutting down on the struggle against colonial rule, and, simultaneously on the influence of communists. In some countries, like India, the bourgeoisie moved quickly and easily to head up the anti-colonial movement. The Congress Party of India organized a massive campaign of civil disobedience between 1930 and 1933 to promote the cause of national independence. The bourgeoisie were able to pose as the genuine leaders of the masses. It was like that all over. The bourgeois liberation movements gained in influence, especially with the new upswing in anti-colonial struggles provoked by the 1929 world-wide Depression. The communists were unable to counter this trend to popularity of the capitalists even in China where the Kuomintang continued to receive mass support.

Joint rule of all classes

In 1934-35, the Comintern altered its strategic perspectives on the anti-colonial struggle again. The object of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and the immediate slogan calling for the formation of soviets were set aside. The anti-imperialist United Front was back again, but with a very different content from the old one.

The class struggle, agricultural revolution and so on would be soft-pedalled in order not to alienate various forces that might otherwise be persuaded to join the United Front. The new line was for the joint rule of all the classes participiting in the United Front, including the bourgeoisie which had been rehabilitated and were now referred to as anti-imperialist fighters.

This new line – known as New Democracy – was applied by the Chinese party. Communists actively worked in various anti-imperialist united fronts in Brazil, Cuba, Chile and other countries. The communists in Algeria even proposed a Franco-Algerian United Front against fascism. That idea did not drum up much support among the colonial peoples.

Colonialism was thus to be an important factor in establishing capitalism on a world scale in what is in fact a pretty brief period of time. The anti-colonial struggles enabled the backward areas of the world to progress quickly. In fact, those struggles were what made it possible for whole peoples to get away from patriarchal and feudal oppression and onto more advanced paths of development.

Looking at the overall picture, the anti-colonial struggles remind one a lot of the Europe of 1848: the struggle is not directed at making socialist revolution against the bourgeoisie but rather at removing the obstacles to the free development of capitalism. The major obstacle blocking capitalist development in the colonies was the colonialists’ control over State power and secondarily the partly broken down system of feudalism. When you look at the struggles carried out over a long period of time, the only possible conclusion is that they were above all national struggles. The only communist parties to develop in this period were those that acted in that way, the most notable example being the Chinese party.

Later we intend to return to take a look at the different positions put forward by various communists on these matters. Those views and the anti-colonial struggle must needs be seen in conjunction with what was going on at the same time in Europe and within the U.S.S.R.[4]


[1] Marx, Capital Book 1, Section 8, chapter XXXI (the first five pages) and chapter XXXIII. These sections of Capital provide some essential points in the analysis of the role of colonialism in the development of capitalism.

[2] On this subject, see: Manifestes, thèses et résolutions des quatre premiers congrès mondiaux de l’Internationale communiste 1919-23, reprinted by IN STRUGGLE! (in French only), pp 57-60. Look particulary at the Thèses et additions sur les questions nationale et coloniale.

[3] In the text from the 6th Comintern Congress in 1928 there is a very detailed study of the colonial situation at the time, Very much worth reading. The texts have been reprinted in a reissuing of the Comintern organ, Correspondence Internationale dated December 1 1928.

[4] For a collection of pieces on the colonial question from Marx up to the present day take a look at H. d’Encausse and Stuart Schram Marxism and Asia.