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How the European Left Got Imperialism Wrong


Two books came out in 1902 about imperialism, one by an Indian nationalist writer Dadhabhai Naoroji, another by John A. Hobson. The books are, ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule’ & ‘Imperialism: A Study’. Who did the western Left choose to get their opposition to imperialism from? Whose theoretical language did they adopt?

They chose Hobson, the British small-l liberal who endorsed colonialism “because it has made for the creation of free white democracies”. And why did Hobson claim that imperialism was an outgrowth of capitalism? Because in his view, capitalism resulted in gross inequality which meant the rich looked to invest overseas rather than at home. In other words, for Hobson, “imperialism” was just capital flight, and had nothing to do with explaining the economic relationship between the two-thirds world and the European powers that had conquered and occupied them.

Naoroji on the other hand wrote about the ‘drain’ on India in meticulously sourced mathematical detail, and concluded that “India’s own wealth is carried out of it, and then that wealth is brought back to it in the shape of loans, and for these loans she must find so much more for interest”. He demonstrated that a distinction had to be drawn between two types of British ‘colonies’, India on the one hand was being looted by not being paid for its exports (which were far higher than imports), whereas by contrast, the Anglo settler regimes were recipients of capital investment, and imported far more than they exported.

Lenin borrowed from Hobson, and claimed that the economic mechanism of imperialism was the “export of capital”, and in doing so, lumped India and Australia in the same category (as recipients of exported British capital) while claiming that “the export of capital influences and greatly accelerates the development of capitalism in those countries to which it is exported”. Why in that case did it not “accelerate the development of capitalism” in India as it did in the Anglo settler-colonies?

Naoroji had the answer. It was because these Anglo settler-colonial regimes would not have been possible without British investment which would not have been possible without the conveyor belt of “free” unpaid for raw materials arriving in Britain from India that fueled the industrial revolution and backed the value of the Pound Sterling, thus generating the finance capital that expanded production when exported to settler regimes, but squeezed consumption when “exported” to India. The flow of surplus was from India to Britain to Australia, first as resources, then as capital.

John A. Hobson (left), Dadhabai Naoroji (right)

Lenin made a theoretical mistake (that is grossly outweighed by his other theoretical contributions) but it was one that was already deeply entrenched in European thinking. Besides, actions speak louder than words, especially given that he established the precedent of Russia siding with the third world geopolitically, and at the Second International in 1907, his party had to fight tooth and nail against a motion that was in favour of colonialism, alongside Naoroji who was one of the key speakers. The vote margin was narrow, and the pro colonial side would have won if India and Russia weren’t allocated more votes because of their large populations.

Given this history, is it at all surprising that the political Left of Britain and its settler offshoots are constantly driving their knives deep into the backs of the third-world while feigning some vague solidarity? The ones who won’t tolerate sexism in their backyard but support rapist warlords in Syria? The ones who claim to be against racism but also supported racist “revolutionary” mercenaries in Libya who have reintroduced the enslavement of Black Africans? The ones who openly support the economic sanctions on Syria, starving civilians in the name of saving them, and not getting the irony?

The ones who don’t know that they’re doing it, and yet they’re doing it, to paraphrase Marx’s definition of ideology. They exist because they were created in the image of European colonialism, and that’s not an easy coma to wake an entire political culture from. What’s needed isn’t ideology as much as methodology. The essence of Marxism is dialectics applied to history – that’s the ‘baby’, and the mentioned European delusions are the ‘bathwater’.

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