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Irving Howe

World Politics

Imperialism – New Style

(22 July 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 29, 22 July 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Is the lion nestling against the lamb?

Are the imperialist powers voluntarily surrendering their colonial possessions, suddenly convinced – as if by a miraculous conversion – that the peoples whom they have exploited and enslaved for decades should now be “given” their freedom?

This is the eager interpretation which the capitalist journalists, including the inescapable liberals, have given to recent events in the Philippines and India. They point to the Declaration of Philippine Independence and to the British plan for India as proof that imperialism is gradually becoming obsolete, that it “doesn’t pay” and that the free brotherhood of man is soon to appear – all these blessings the result, not of a socialist revolution, but of capitalism’s magnanimity.

A pretty and touching picture, with one flaw – it isn’t true.

The Economy of the Islands

Let us take a glance at the Philippines. The sugar economy of these islands is intimately connected with and at the mercy of American Big Business. In the Philippines a native variety of semi-feudal agriculture is buttressed by American dollars and bayonets (not to mention American rhetoric and religion which provide moral solace to accompany inhuman economic exploitation). The islands’ economy is dependent on American investment. To rebuild slightly the destroyed cities such as Manila – victims of World War II – the Philippines must borrow from the U.S. government, thereby placing themselves still more at its mercy. American naval and army bases dot the islands. And in return for U.S. loans, American businessmen receive equal economic rights in the Philippines, which in view of America’s vast financial superiority, means unquestioned American domination.

The Philippine laborer still breaks his back to enrich America’s Trusts. The “suggestions” of the American ambassador – which are given point by the twin symbols of this country’s civilization: the dollar sign and the bayonet – are the same as commands.

Why then the formal declaration of independence? – which, of course, whatever its limitations, we support. For several reasons:

(1) It is a great moral-political advantage for American imperialism to be able to point to its action in “freeing” the Philippines.

The substance of its economic exploitation remains as before, but the removal of the more blatant political form of colonial dependence is a good talking point for political press agents and other scoundrels. In a world increasingly sensitive to colonial problems, the U.S. can point to its behavior in the Philippines secure in the knowledge that only such rude people as write for Labor Action would mention America’s economic domination of most of Central and South America.

The Methods of Imperialism

(2) The move is calculated to head off the continued movements for total independence among the Philippine people.

Though not generally known in America, there has been a series of violent struggles for independence in the Philippines ever since Aguinaldo defied the Americans when this country, took the islands away from Spain. During the Second World War this desire for national independence spread like a prairie fire through the Far East – a fire which touched Philippine hearts and which is not yet halted. Happy though the people may be at their formal separation from American overlordship, they will not long be satisfied with the mere shell of freedom; they will want their meat too. And that means to rid their country of American domination, be it through the dollar or bayonet. Which leads us to the most important point:

(3) We are witnessing, this writer believes, a modification of the methods of traditional imperialism. In its infancy capitalist imperialism found very often that political-military domination was a necessary prerequisite for economic exploitation. Thus, the marines were often sent by Big Bluster Theodore Roosevelt to help United Fruit in Central America. The British ruled politically so that they could milk their pounds and shillings from those whom they claimed to be civilizing.

Today imperialism does not always need to resort to such methods. Some of the weaker powers such as France and Holland have used force, brutally and without restraint, to suppress colonial revolutions in Indo-China and Indonesia. But in both the Philippines and India, the ruling powers have been forced, when pressed, to surrender formal political rule to maintain their economic control. For we are living in a world in which the processes of concentration of wealth and power develop at an increasing pace: real independence of action on the world arena is increasingly the privilege of two or three great powers alone. Even countries themselves once imperialist come under the domination of the irresistible powers: Poland and Czechoslovakia under Russian sway; Belgium, Holland and to a lesser degree France under Anglo-American influence. (Britain itself, though still the possessor of the largest empire in the world, jigs to America’s tune; in a sense, Washington is the receiver of London’s empire.)

The world comes under the sway of the few major super-powers. If Bulgaria is formally independent – it even has its own flag! – is it not actually a pawn in Russia’s hands? If Egypt is formally independent, is it not still under Britain’s thumb? And does not the American dollar throw its long shadow over the whole world?

Imperialism then can in certain circumstances forego direct political rule. Its economic grip over the colonial world persists nonetheless. It may be a new style of imperialism, but there’s still the same smell to it.

To say however that formal independence attained by the Philippines and perhaps tomorrow to be attained by India does not yet mean full and true national freedom – this is not the same as saying the struggle for national independence is meaningless or futile. On the contrary, it merely underlines the fundamental Trotskyist idea that for the colonial nations to reach full independence, their struggle must be led by the colonial working-classes who will drive out every wedge of imperial domination and struggle against their “own” capitalist class which is every ready to compromise with the foreign imperialists.

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