New Internationalist

No Kidding

Issue 167

new internationalist
issue 167 - January 1987

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Illustrations: Mikki Rain

Just what makes some countries need to dominate others has
fascinated friends and foes of imperialism since the time of Julius
Caesar. While opposing explanations fight for credibility, the din of
battle can drown the self-serving interests of the empire-builders.
So beware of the smoke screens in this more-or-less
straight-faced NI guide to theories of imperialism.

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Helping the lesser races

What have the Romans done for us? Remember the orator in Monty Python's movie Life of Brian who asked this question and was given a long list of benefits arising from Roman rule? Advanced nations have always claimed that by taking over other territories they help primitive people by bringing them the 'fruits of civilisation' - law, health, good communications, technology and a higher standard of living.

As far back as the third century BC the Indian emperor Asoka provided newly conquered territories with enlightened laws based on Buddhist thinking. The Romans spoke of a 'Pax Romana': the peace brought about by Roman rule and law.

Religious reasons have also been advanced to justify conquering other nations: Spanish rule in Latin America and the advance of the British empire were seen as bringing the Bible to 'heathens'.

British imperialists followed the Romans in referring to a 'Pax Brittanica' as their empire expanded massively in the late nineteenth century. Together with this went a belief in the civilizing mission - Lord Lugard spoke of the 'dual mandate' - giving the white race the right to exploit Africa, but the duty to prepare Africans for their place in the modern world.

The nineteenth century also saw a growth in support for social Darwinism - a belief that Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' explanation of the evolution of animals could be applied to relations between the races - whites were technologically more advanced and therefore superior to blacks.. Hilaire Belloc summed this up as 'We have the Maxim Gun and they have not'. Theories of racial superiority were developed between the two world wars by fascists as justification for invading the territory of 'lesser races' and a policy of genocide towards Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals.

 

Leninism

Lenin, writing during the First World War after the most intensive period of imperial expansion by the major western nations, adapted theories initially devised by the economist J A Hobson to explain not only how imperialism developed, but how it inevitably caused war.

Western capitalism, Lenin argued, had moved into a new stage - monopoly capitalism - in the early years of this century. Monopoly capitalism was an attempt to control their own economic crises (seen by Lenin as resulting from the falling rate of profit), through the abolition of competition by price fixing. As the world became dominated by a tiny group of capitalist powers competition became fiercer on the international level, leading to world war between imperialist nations.

In the advanced countries, meanwhile, the surplus profits derived from imperial conquest would be used as a way of giving higher wages to buy off the working class, particularly the trade union and socialist leadership. This meant that the working class of the advanced countries would not become increasingly impoverished and so lead a world revolution, as socialists had assumed. Instead, the revolutionary spark would come from the colonized,the 'weak links' in the imperialist chain, and the defeated countries such as Russia and Germany.

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Plain traders

Where Lenin argued that the desire to export capital was imperialism's driving force, other commentators have pointed to the need to export goods and import raw materials.

French politician Jules Ferry said 'The foundation of a colony is the creation of a market', when he tried to justify his policy of encouraging colonial expansion in the late nineteenth century. The trade depression of that period may have encouraged major trading companies to look for new markets.

The import of raw materials played an important part in encouraging colonization: for example, the Hudson's Bay Company, which exploited the furs and other natural resources of Canada, encouraged settlers to move westwards. British merchants were also heavily involved in colonising parts of Africa where they developed cash crops like coffee, sisal and cocoa And raw cotton from India was one of the key materials in British industrial development.

 

Magnetic colonies

Many modern historians, notably David Fieldhouse, have argued that explanations of imperialism have concentrated too much on the colonizing countries, and not taken enough notice of events in the colonies themselves. He refers to 'The magnetic force of the periphery' - in other words, the colonies. The arrival of Europeans, whether as traders, farmers or officials, had a disruptive effect on Asian and African societies. In some places there were revolts from the native population. The Europeans felt threatened and their home governments intervened to protect them and their property. This happened in 1882 in Egypt when there was a popular uprising. The UK government was concerned that the Suez Canal, a vital route to India, would fall into unfriendly hands. Within three years the British government was drawn further in, sending the disastrous Gordon expedition to Khartoum in attempt to put down a revolt that threatened Egypt. Britain didn't intend to take over Egypt, but it became an effective colony for 40 years In other societies rulers made tactical alliances with the European against internal enemies - almost invariably leading to European control. It was always possible for the Europeans to claim that they were restoring order. Having got involved the European nation would be drawn into internal affairs and disputes until a complete takeover was the solution that best served its interests. It could be argued that Soviet policy in Afghanistan and the American involvement in Vietnam are modern reflections of the force of the periphery.

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Sideshow wars

Small nations have often found themselves becoming instruments of the foreign policy of larger ones Today, it is claimed, they find themselves acting as surrogates' - substitutes for a larger nation in a conflict, and coming to a great extent under the control of their giant ally. Direct confrontation between the superpowers would be massively destructive, but they carry on indirect struggles in areas of tension such as the Middle East through those they support.

Similar motives, the theory goes, were at work in the late nineteenth century. Europe was tensely and delicately balanced, with the growth of a system of military alliances Instead of using independent states as surrogates the competing powers could, it has been argued, manoeuvre for position and diplomatic advantage by competing for colonies in Africa. This saved them - for a time - from having to take on the much higher risks of a major European war.

War fought in a surrogate nation also gives ambitious soldiers and administrators something to do and could be popular politically. It has been argued that the German Chancellor Bismarck's support for colonial expansion in the 1880s was an attempt to find a unifying cause for conservative forces at home to rally behind. In turn, this group helped him keep power. So-called foreign adventures often provide governments with a convenient and popular diversion from domestic discontent - provided they do not go wrong. Proponents of the side show theory point to the Falklands War to demonstrate this.

 

Dependency theory

There are very few colonies nowadays - most countries have become independent since 1945. But this doesn't mean that poorer, less advanced nations aren't exploited by, and dependent upon, richer countries Economists such as Paul Baran and Samir Amin have argued that the world economy is organized in a way that ties poorer countries to the economies of richer ones, and makes it impossible for them to break out of this relationship.

This 'dependency theory' argues that the economies of colonies were developed in relation to those of their rulers - they provided raw materials and received manufactured goods in return. While no longer colonies they must continue to sell their raw materials to pay for the manufactured goods Their own industry does not develop because it cannot compete with the massive, technologically advanced multinational companies And their wages are not high enough to create a large home market. The multinationals take their profits from manufacturing out of the Third World nations, and maintain a monopoly over important technological advances

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The NI wishes to thank Huw Richards for his help in preparing this feature.

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