Colonialism and Imperialism: Classic Texts

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Colonialism and Imperialism: Classic Texts

Introduction. Colonialism, in the recent historical sense, designates the occupation and ruling of oversees territories by European powers, aiming at economic, political and military benefits. The era of colonialism began in the 15th Century, with the ‘discovery’ of America and of the passage to India via the Cape of Good Hope. The naval powers of the time, Portugal and Spain at the beginning, and later Holland, France and England, also became the major colonial powers. Two types of colonies were thus created: Settlement colonies for Europeans (e.g. Canada, Australia) and pre-capitalist societies ruled by European powers (e.g. India). Through the military victories against its rivals, Britain became, in the 18th Century, the world’s greatest colonial power, taking under its rule, for instance, India (1757), Canada and other parts of North America (1763), and later Australia (1788).

Classical Political Economy. Political economy, from its very beginning, was interested in colonialism. Adam Smith considered colonialism to be economically beneficial to both the colonial powers and the colonies, and he was only opposed to the exclusive (monopolistic) trade conditions which the mother countries established with their colonies. As he said: “The discovery of America ... By opening a new and inexhaustible market to all the commodities of Europe, … gave occasion to new divisions of labour and improvements of art, which, in the narrow circle of the ancient commerce, could never have taken place …” (Smith 1776: IV, I, pp. 348). However, “The exclusive trade of the mother countries tends to diminish ... both the enjoyments and industry of all those nations in general” (Smith 1776: IV, VII, III, pp. 467; emphasis added).

David Ricardo, criticizing Smith’s approach to international trade, pointed out, though, that a colonial power may benefit at the expense of its colony. As he said: “The trade with a colony may be so regulated that it shall at the same time be less beneficial to the colony, and more beneficial to the mother country, than a perfectly free trade” (Ricardo 1821:231).

Marx’s View. Karl Marx conceptualized colonialism as a major moment in the historical process of PRIMITIVE ACCUMULATION, and therefore as a precondition for the domination of the capitalist mode of production (CMP). As he said: “The colonial system ripened trade and navigation as in a hot-house ... The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder flowed back to the mother country and were turned into capital there” (Marx 1990:918). Colonialism was conceived, therefore, as part of the general conditions for the expanded reproduction of commercial and manufacture capitalism, until the formation of industrial capitalism.

Furthermore, Marx believed that colonialism did not automatically lead to the prevalence of the CMP in the colonies, since the latter, as well as capital ACCUMULATION, “have for their fundamental condition the annihilation of that private property which rests on the labor of the individual himself; in other words, the expropriation of the worker” (Marx 1990:940). “The obstacles that the internal solidity and articulation of pre-capitalist modes of production oppose to the solvent effect of trade are strikingly apparent in the English commerce with India and China” (Marx 1991:451). These social obstacles to CAPITALISM were also noticed by Smith, who claimed that a settlement colony for Europeans “advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society” (Smith 1776:IV.vii.b 1), whereas in colonies “inhabited by barbarous nations ... it was more difficult to displace the natives and to extend the European plantations” (Smith 1776:IV.vii.c 100).

New Trends and the Work of Hobson. The antagonism between the world’s major capitalist countries led, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to conflicts for the re-partition of colonies and for the rule over unoccupied territories, vis-à-vis the rise of nationalism in all capitalist countries. The concentration and centralization of capital advanced rapidly, big cartels and trusts were formed, FOREIGN DIRECT INVESTMENT made its dynamic appearance in international economy, the rates of capitalist development varied in different countries, new capitalist powers emerged (e.g. USA, Japan), and all these changes were pushing towards a new equilibrium in the international relations of power. In the period 1876-1900, the colonial territories of the eight major powers increased from 46.5 million sq. km and 314 million people to 72.9 million sq. km and 530 million people. (Sternberg 1926: 428-29).

In this new conjuncture, a new term also emerged, to describe the colonial empires and the antagonisms among them: Imperialism. Under this title, J.A. Hobson published in 1902 a book in which he stated that free-competition capitalism had been replaced by the era of MONOPOLY CAPITALISM, which constituted a historical period of capitalist decline and parasitism, and therefore, the last stage of capitalism. To defend his position about the parasitism of monopoly capitalism, Hobson, ignoring the social obstacles to capitalism in underdeveloped regions, claimed that the colonies would gradually attract production assets, mainly due to the low labor costs, thus leaving to European ruling classes the role of renters.

Hilferding, Luxemburg and Bukharin. Hobson’s ideas influenced the classical Marxist theories of imperialism. However, the latter are theoretically more sophisticated and thorough, compared with Hobson’s approach. For instance, Rudolf Hilferding, in his Finance Capital (1910), concentrated on the fusion of bank and industrial capital, which attained then, as finance capital, its most developed, ultimate, form. As Hilferding said (1910:326): “The policy of finance capital has three objectives: (1) To establish the largest possible economic territory; (2) to close this territory to foreign competition (...; and ) (3) to reserve it as an area of exploitation for the national monopolistic combinations”.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her Accumulation of Capital (1913), conceived imperialism mainly as a struggle among developed capitalist countries for the domination over still unoccupied non-capitalist territories. On the basis of an underconsumptionist approach, Luxemburg thought of these territories as the major reservoir of ‘third party consumers’, who alone could absorb that portion of SURPLUS VALUE, which neither capitalists nor workers could (supposedly) realize (Milios 1994).

Both Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin (in the latter’s Imperialism and World Economy, 1915) conceived capitalism as a unified world structure. In other words, they claimed that in the era of imperialism the expanded reproduction of the CMP takes place on the world scale, not on the level of each capitalist social formation. Thus, the “World economy is one of the species of social economy in general. ... The whole process of world economic life ... reduces itself to ... an ever widening reproduction of the relations between two classes -the class of the world proletariat on the one hand and the world bourgeoisie on the other” (Bukharin 1917:27).

Lenin’s View of Imperialism. Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) defined imperialism as “capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed” (Lenin 1917:106). Lenin explained the intensifying contradictions among imperialist powers as being due to the UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT of capitalism, which made the formation of a stable “ultra-imperialist” alliance of capitalist powers impossible. This in turn was giving rise to alternating forms of peaceful and non-peaceful struggle out of one and the same basis of imperialist connections and relations” (Lenin 1917:144-145; original emphasis).

All of the above Marxist approaches considered colonialism to be an indispensable feature of imperialism. Lenin was skeptical of theories which place undue emphasis on the unified global nature of capitalism, and which underplay the role of nations and states. Lenin showed that capitalism cannot be reduced to the (world) economy, by ignoring the state, or the political and ideological relations of power. He emphasized that the nation state is an important influence on the way economies are organized in the normal course of capitalist development, and that there are important economic forces propelling the reproduction of nation states. Capitalist power over the working classes is at the same time economic, political and ideological, and it is ‘condensed’ by the capitalist state in each national social formation. He thought that the articulation and intertwining of all existing capitalist powers, each of which possesses a different strength and development level, forms the world ‘imperialist chain’, the weakest ‘link’ of which was Russia in 1917.

Imperialism is thus a tendency to expansion of a developed capitalist power, a tendency created, in the last instance, by economic processes, but also supported by political and ideological processes. Major historical events, like World War II, show that it was not the economically most developed capitalist country, i.e. the USA, which challenged the British colonial-imperialist supremacy, but nazi-Germany, i.e. an imperialist country mainly motivated by ‘national claims’ against its neighboring states.

Lenin’s analyses on imperialism, the national question and the state differ significantly from what was called the ‘Leninist theory of imperialism’, i.e. the dogmatic version of Marxist theory, mainly formulated by Soviet Marxists under Stalin and his successors, and according to which: a) the Marxist theory of the capital-relation is substituted by the simplistic scheme of ‘the monopolies’, and b) capitalism is at a phase of mortal decline, of ‘rotting’, stagnation and disintegration. Rather, for Lenin, the analysis of imperialism should be linked to the political economy of exchange, markets and crises (not simply ‘monopolies’), and imperialism may promote the growth of capitalism rather than necessarily hinder it.

More Recent Work. After World War II and the national liberation movements which followed, most former colonies won their national independence, which led to the dissolution of empires and to the end of colonialism. Most post-war Marxist approaches to imperialism consider, though, that ex-colonies and developing countries are still subordinated to imperialist countries through dependency relations. For instance, as Popov states: “A special type of development of the countries dependent on imperialism is characteristic of the international capitalist division of labour within the framework of the world capitalist system. The dependence created by colonialism is still manifested in all the key spheres of the developing countries’ economic life” (Popov 1984:119). (See the entries listed below for discussions of these perspectives of imperialism.)

See also: dependency theory; development political economy: history; world-systems theory; core-periphery analysis; comparative advantage and unequal exchange; global crisis of world capitalism; hegemony in the world economy.

Selected References

Bukharin, N. (1917) Imperialism and World Economy. London: The Merlin Press, 1972.

Hilferding, R. (1910) Finance Capital, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lenin, V.I. (1917) Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Cappitalism: A Popular Outline. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.

Marx, K. (1867) Capital, Volume One. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Marx, K. (1894) Capital, Volume Three. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

Milios, J. (1994) “Marx’s Theory and the Historic Marxist Controversy on Economic Crisis (1900-1937)”, Science and Society, vol 58, no 2.

Popov, Y. (1984) Essays in Political Economy. Imperialism and the Developing Countries. Moscow: Progress Publishers

Ricardo, D. (1821) The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Sternberg, Fritz. (1926) Der Imperialismus. Berlin.

Smith, A. (1776) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: Ward, Lock & Co, no date (reprint of the 1812 edition).
John Milios National Technical University of Athens Athens, Greece. [Version Final] [29 July 1997] [1884 words]

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