You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

The long and bloody history of imperial conquest
The truth about empire

May 23, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

WORDS LIKE "colonialism" and "empire" were once frowned upon in the U.S. mainstream media as worn-out left-wing rhetoric that didn't fit reality. Not anymore. A growing chorus of right-wing ideologues, with close ties to the Bush administration's war-making hawks, are encouraging Washington to take pride in the expansion of its power over people and nations around the globe.

But this project depends on erasing--or justifying--the long and bloody history of imperial conquest that began with the dawn of capitalism. Socialist Worker columnist and International Socialist Review associate editor PAUL D'AMATO tells the truth about empire.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE HISTORICAL whitewash of imperialism and colonialism is in full swing.

"We need to err on the side of being strong," William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and chair of the Project for a New American Century, tells us. "And if people want to say we're an imperial power, fine."

Wall Street Journal editorial features editor Max Boot agrees. "Given the historical baggage that 'imperialism' carries, there's no need for the U.S. government to embrace the term," he wrote in a recent column. "But it should definitely embrace the practice."

Scottish historian Niall Ferguson urges the U.S., as Rudyard Kipling once did in 1899, to "take up the white man's burden"--though he prefers to leave out the part about white men. In his new book Empire, Ferguson argues that there is a "plausible case that the [British] empire enhanced global welfare--in other words, was a Good Thing."

Boot and Ferguson don't ignore all of the awful things that empire-building inflicted on the world. Boot, for example, mentions in passing the "mistreatment of the Indians." Ferguson admits that Britain was part of the18th century slave trade, practiced "forms of racial discrimination and segregation"--and notes that when colonial subjects rebelled, the "response was brutal." Ferguson even concedes that the British Empire not only "was negligent" regarding famines in India and Ireland, but "in some measure [was] positively culpable."

Nevertheless, to these drawbacks, Ferguson counterposes the great achievements of the British Empire. In addition to the "triumph of capitalism," he lists the "Anglicization of North America and Australia," the "internationalization of the English language," the spread of parliamentary institutions and "the enduring influence" of Protestantism.

Ferguson seems completely oblivious to the fact that the majority of the world's people are neither white, nor are they English-speaking Anglo-Saxon Protestants--and therefore might not see all this as "achievements." And wasn't the slaughter and removal of native peoples the condition of making both Australia and the U.S. "Anglicized"?

In other words, this is a barely disguised version of theories of Anglo-Saxon superiority that permeated the thinking of many 19th century imperialists.

Ferguson claims that the idea of "liberty" was another benefit that the British Empire bestowed on the world. "Indeed," he writes, "so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain's imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character."

This seems a particularly absurd defense of empire--it was good because it eventually ended. But then, it must not have been that good to start with.

The idea of "liberty" that arose from the 17th and 18th century revolutions in Britain, the U.S. and France became, in the age of imperialism, a cover for conquest. The nationalist movements that rose up to challenge imperialism were influenced by these ideas of "liberty." But, as Ferguson admits, they were answered with brutal repression, not approval.

The idea of a "self-liquidating" empire only has meaning if we assume that Ferguson is making the same racist assumptions made by his colonial predecessors--that the majority of the world's people are "unfit" for self-government and need to be "tutored" by an enlightened colonial power.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FERGUSON REJECTS the "central nationalist/Marxist assumption" that "every facet of colonial rule...was at root designed to maximize the surplus value that could be extracted from the subject peoples." Yet this is not a bad characterization of the aims of imperialist conquest. The maximization of surplus value--Karl Marx's term for the profits from economic exploitation--was founded on horrific atrocities that the words "mistreatment" and "neglect" can hardly encompass.

As Marx wrote in Capital: "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moment of primitive accumulation."

As industrial capitalism took off in a handful of countries, bursting the boundaries of the nations in which it first arose, an initial phase of mercantile colonialism gave way to imperialism.

The new imperialism was distinguished from what came before by the sheer scale of conquest. In 1876, for example, Africans controlled almost 90 percent of African territory. By 1900, Europeans controlled 90 percent.

The great powers sought colonies and semi-colonies in order to secure sources of raw materials (produced with cheap, sometimes forced, labor) and keep out competitors. So, for example, Britain's Malaya colony was transformed into a massive plantation system for producing cheap rubber and extracting tin. In southern Africa, Africans were forced off their land and compelled to work as cheap laborers in the gold and diamond mines, making a handful of men like Cecil Rhodes and J.B. Robinson extremely rich.

One example gives some flavor of the character of British intervention in Africa. In the 1880s, gold was discovered in Matabeleland. Lobengula, the chief of the Matabele people, refused to accept a treaty that he had been tricked into signing, which gave Rhodes and his associates the right to mine for gold anywhere they wanted. Rhodes, who was already rich from mining diamonds, organized an army and invaded Matabeleland, massacring thousands. Each of the 672 soldiers in Rhodes army was promised 6,000 acres of land and 20 gold claims.

Thus, Britain brought enlightened rule to Africa.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE CASE of the Belgian Congo is the most horrific example of how the effort to extract maximum profit caused a holocaust.

King Leopold of Belgium formed a society called the International Association of the Congo, whose "noble aim" was to render "lasting and disinterested services to the cause of progress." The association's lasting service was, in reality, to provide a humanitarian cover for naked plunder.

Leopold established a system to force Africans in the Congo River basin to bring in ivory and rubber. Women were rounded up and held as hostages to force men to work. Men were chained at the neck and used as beasts of burden until they dropped dead from exhaustion or starvation. Africans were forced into militias to hunt down other Africans who refused to collect rubber. These militias were instructed to cut off the hands of the dead to keep a count of how many they killed. But often, hands were cut off the living as a warning to those who refused to work.

Historians estimate that Leopold's effort led to the deaths of roughly 6 to 10 million people between 1885 and 1908. This genocidal "mistreatment" of Africans was extremely profitable. The Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploration Company made a profit of more than 700 percent in the Congo.

The impact of British rule in India was no less atrocious.

Three things happened to cause devastating famines in India under British rule. First, India's indigenous textile industries were destroyed by London's high tariffs and the import of cheap British manufactured products, impoverishing millions of town dwellers who were forced into the countryside to compete for dwindling land. Second, India's traditional granary reserve system, designed to offset the impact of bad harvests, was dismantled. Third, India's peasants were pressured into growing crops for export, making them dependent on fluctuating world market prices for their means of subsistence.

As a result, tens of millions of people died of starvation. These famines were not caused by shortages of food. They took place at the very same time that annual grain exports from India were increasing.

According to author Mike Davis, during the famine of 1876, "the newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought stricken districts to central depots for hoarding...In Madras city, overwhelmed by 100,000 drought refugees, famished peasants dropped dead in front of the troops guarding pyramids of imported rice."

The British refused to provide adequate relief for famine victims on the grounds that this would encourage indolence. Sir Richard Temple, who was selected to organize famine relief efforts in 1877, set the food allotment for starving Indians at 16 ounces of rice per day--less than the diet for inmates at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

As Davis concludes: "If the history of British rule in India were to be condensed to a single fact, it is this: there was no increase in India's per-capita income from 1757 to 1947." In fact, incomes may have declined by 50 percent in the last half of the 19th century.

The process profited a handful of wealthy British administrators, capitalists and Indian landowners. It killed tens of millions of people and impoverished even more.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

WITH THE world's strongest economy, the U.S. has relied on a more informal empire. Where it was unable to establish its own exclusive sphere, for example, in China, it promoted an "open door" policy in order to push its way in.

But in its own self-declared "backyard," the Caribbean and the Pacific, the U.S. established a "closed door" policy, using its military power to establish absolute hegemony. Starting from the turn of the 20th century, Washington seized as colonies, semi-colonies or annexed territories anyplace that it considered strategically important--Hawaii, Guam, Wake, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and the Philippines.

And its policies were justified by the same racism promoted by the other world powers. President William McKinley explained to a group of Methodist church leaders in 1899 that granting the Filipinos "self-government" would undoubtedly create "anarchy and misrule." Therefore, the only choice for the U.S. was to "take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

"It may be necessary," said Gen. William Shafter in the same year that McKinley spoke to the missionaries, "to kill half of the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords."

Entire island populations were rounded up and placed in special concentration camps, and nationalist guerrillas fighting for independence were hunted down and wiped out.

The barbarism of the U.S. in the Philippines prompted the great author Mark Twain to become a staunch opponent of American imperialism. "I left these shores...a red-hot imperialist," Twain told a New York Herald reporter in 1900. "I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific." However, he explained, "I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem...And so, I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."

Even where the U.S. shunned formal colonies, its practices were almost identical to those of the colonial powers. At the very point that President Woodrow Wilson was making public statements about never again seeking "one additional foot of territory by conquest," U.S. Marines were invading and occupying Haiti, the Dominican Republic , the Virgin Islands and Cuba.

The U.S. tried six times to "persuade" the Haitian government to sign a treaty handing control of its customs houses--the chief source of national revenue--over to the U.S., and each time the government refused. U.S. troops finally occupied Haiti and stayed there from 1915 to 1934. They imposed a new constitution that opened up Haiti to foreign land ownership and handed the countries customs houses and banking system over to the National City Bank of New York.

The occupiers introduced a forced labor corvée system to build roads, and the economy was shaped into a system of plantation agriculture financed by private U.S. investment. When Haitians organized a national resistance under the leadership of Charlemagne Péralte, U.S. troops killed him and thousands of others. But the U.S. was eventually forced to withdraw after a period of mass protests and riots.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

TODAY, THE "U.S. eagle" is once again sinking its talons into other lands. And the same old ideological justifications, slightly dressed up to accommodate modern sensibilities, are being put forward to justify it.

The systematic plunder that characterized the imperialism of the past characterizes the imperialism of the present. But the plunder isn't only in places like Iraq, where U.S. crony capitalists are lining up at the oil spigot for their share of loot. As always, the plunder also takes place at home, where tax policies and massive cuts in living standards are transferring billions of dollars in wealth from the working majority that produces it to an obscenely wealthy minority.

The first phase of imperialism ended in revolutionary upheavals, both in the imperialist countries and in the colonies, by millions fighting for a different kind of society. But capitalism was able to regroup and retrench--and the U.S. emerged as the world's sole "superpower."

Our task today is to build an effective challenge to U.S. power--the main promoter of a system that continues to pile up enormous wealth on one side and terrible misery on the other.

Home page | Back to the top