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International Socialism, Spring 1967


Martin Chanock

Lenin Lives On


From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Colonial Empires
D.K. Fieldhouse
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

It is a rare event for an academic historian to commit himself to a survey ranging from the 18th century – and one which concentrates on a search for similarities rather than differences. The striking feature of the modern empires, says Fieldhouse was their ‘similarity of character and experience.’ But here the brave effort ends, submerged in a doughty struggle against a benighted horde armed with the thoughts of Lenin’s Imperialism. Rusty weapons are arrayed to vanquish a non-existent enemy. The result is an admirable text book on imperial and colonial history and historiography; but there is no indication of what it is all about.

‘Empire meant power,’ writes Fieldhouse. Modern empires were acquired as pawns in a diplomatic power game. What the stakes in the game were is not considered relevant; what power was for – or, more important, who it was for – is not discussed; the nature of the metropolitan state is not considered a material factor. The definition of what the empires consisted of is rigid and unhelpful: first, they are considered only as extra-European entities; and secondly, only those territories are included which were under the direct and formal administration of a metropolitan power. Yet the conclusion of a lengthy chapter designed to disprove ‘Lenin’s theory ... shorn of its ideological trimmings’ is that formal political empire was of little relevance and that ‘the profitability of investment in primary producing non-European economics (sic), many of which were colonies, depended more on international economic factors than on the special advantages which Lenin thought colonies provided for their masters.’ Quite so – political empires, the colonies, were but a part of the whole. The fact that some territories outside Europe were brought under political control at particular times is one incident in the history of the European capitalist state system. To demonstrate, as Fieldhouse does, that no phenomenal advantages were derived from the extra-European dependencies in the short run, tells very little about the reasons for their acquisition. Equally, to show that there were single staple economies in the Baltic as well as in the West Indies doesn’t absolve anyone from a charge of exploitation; and to say of the 1914-18 war that it was fought for power in Europe not about colonies is not inconsistent with the contention that it was an ‘Imperialist War.’ We need not look to the handing out of Germany’s pitiful colonies to prove this – our sights need be raised no further than Central and Eastern Europe.

By the 1930s over 84 per cent of the surface of the globe was made up of colonies or ex-colonies; those which had escaped were like Mongolia and Central Arabia wholly unattractive or like Persia and China protected politically by the balance of power though both were in the throes of an aggressive and alien economic system. The very universality of the colonial process might lead one to think that a more insidious myth than Lenin’s about modern imperialism is that of the new historiography – a neo-’fit of absence of mind’-ism. The French, Fieldhouse tells us, did not really want to conquer North Africa, they were drawn into it by the financial weakness of the debtor Sultans. Apparently the causes of this weakness and the necessity to control it were not part of the expansionist process. Bismarck too didn’t want colonies – partially though, he needed to please the National Liberals – though why this party of aggressive bourgeoises wanted colonies is again outside the purview of the book. Nothing is more familiar than the painfully reluctant stance of a generation of British statesmen unwillingly annexing tract after tract of territory. Yet their unwillingness is not because they were accidental imperialists. They were happy to dominate without annexation – if competition from other powers or local resistance made it impossible – then, regretting it, they would move in an expensive administrative apparatus. Once this was done, vested interests in prestige, jobs, and local development made abandonment impossible.

It is true too that the bulk of the colonial empires were run at a loss, and that the economic facts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries bore no relation to the promises of advantage made. But there is another factor wholly overlooked in this book. The Imperial powers were war machines; their colonies were additional insurance for wartime. French Africa and British India were vast (and often tapped) military reservoirs. The wild spasms of mercantilism into which Britain in particular lapsed during and after the 1914-18 war are more significant than a set of figures showing that in peace-time trade did not follow the flag. One can sympathise with Fieldhouse in his attempt to introduce a cool rationality into the literature of colonialism, but those nurtured on Fanon will not have the chips knocked off their shoulders by the restrained blindness of this book.

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