This pamphlet below was published in 1975 and is the beginning of a series on Imperialism in the British Isles we will be publishing in the coming months.
The picture above is from a New book on the British Empire.
Editor of Democracy and Class Struggle
THE MARXIST THEORY OF IMPERIALISM AND THE
BRITISH LABOUR MOVEMENT
By Stuart Macintyre
The British labour movement derived its original understanding of imperialism from
outside its own ranks. Just as the trade unions in Victorian Britain drew on Liberal¬
ism for their ideology and political leadership, so at the end of the nineteenth century
the critics of Empire turned to Hobson and the Radicals for a diagnosis of the
phenomenon. Whereas the Left in Germany, Austria and Russia produced its own
body of anti-imperialist theory, on a clear working-class basis, it was to take another
twenty years for the British working-class to throw off this Radical legacy. The pur¬
pose of this essay is to trace this process.
1. THE RADICAL THEORY OF IMPERIALISM
The focus of J. A. Hobson's seminal tract, Imperialism, A Study, is British. While
he appreciated that the dynamics of imperialism were common to all capitalist
economies, his primary interest was in the dramatic upsurge of British expansionism
in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Moreover, while Hobson and his com¬
panions professed a genuine concern for the victims of imperialism, they were
primarily alarmed by its domestic impact. They formulated their theory of imperial¬
ism at a time when jingoism and xenophobia seemed to have captured the national
consciousness, when it appeared to them that all sections of British society had been
caught up in an emotional wave of support for colonial conquest. The problem
which Hobson, a man of no revolutionary disposition but of deep moral concern,
set himself to answer was this: why had the nation taken leave of its senses ?
He found the answer in the 'economic taproot' of imperialism.1 The capitalist econ¬
omy was beset by an inherent tendency to under-consumption: the working-class
received only a proportion of the wealth it produced; the capitalist class was unable
to consume its unequal share of this wealth, and generally spent the surplus over its
personal consumption needs on durable-use production goods. But these new instru¬
ments of production merely aggravated a tendency towards a glut of consumer goods
on the market, goods that could not find a buyer because of the widespread poverty
among the working-class. 2 The capitalists had accordingly turned to overseas markets
which offered 'swifter and bigger returns'.3 In the modern phase of imperialism the
export of capital had replaced the export of commodities, there was increasing inter¬
national rivalry for these outlets, and the state was acting as the agent of its
It was clear to Hobson and the Radicals that imperialism benefited only a small minor¬
ity of the British population. 'The reason for the too rapid export of capital abroad
is, in short, the bad division of wealth at home. 4 More than this, the Radicals regarded
imperialism as unnecessary and irrational. For while imperialism provided the capitalist
entrepreneur with 'unsettled countries with populations more easily exploited than
our own' and thus 'tended to depress the conditions of workers in the mother
country' to his immediate benefit,5 there was a far more sensible way of ordering
economic relations. If the wages of the working-class were raised, then consumer de¬
mand would increase and the entrepreneur would find profitable fields of domestic
investment, thus eliminating the need to invest abroad. In addition, he would be freed
of the tax burden necessary to sustain the wars of imperial conquest. The only real
beneficiary of imperialism was the financier. Thus for the Radicals the problem of ex¬
plaining imperialism resolved itself in final analysis to explaining why both consumers
and producers should countenance a foreign policy ultimately inimical to their better
interests. The Radical solution to this problem was particularly unconvincing, resting
as it did on a piece of crude economic reductionism remarkably similar to vulgar
Marxism. The Radicals alleged that the British electorate had fallen victim to a colossal
confidence trick. 'The businessmen who mostly direct modern politics require a screen;
they find it in the interests of their country, patriotism. Behind this screen they work,
seeking their private gain under the name and pretext of the commonwealth.'6 Hobson's
writings on the Psychology of Jingoism are coloured by an aloof contempt for the
working-class. Thus he writes of imperialist interests propagating their views in music
halls, 'appealing by coarse humour... to the 'animal lusts of an audience stimulated by
alcohol into an appreciative hilarity'.7 The anti-imperialist strategy of the Radicals was
to dispel the Psychology of Jingoism, teach the British people its real economic mean¬
ing, and persuade them that it was contrary to their own interests.
For twenty years after its publication, Hobson's Imperialism dominated anti-imperialist
thinking in this country. Whenever a Labour spokesman sought intellectual substance
for his opposition to Government colonial policy, it was to this book that he turned.
This is not to suggest that Hobson's analysis was the only source of anti-imperialist
sentiment in the Labour Party and trade unions. Labour had inherited from Liberalism
a widely diffused anti-imperialist tradition owing as much to Cobden and Bright as to the
later New Radical economic doctrine. Given a working-class twist, this 'Little England'
sentiment-a compound of internationalism, anti-militarism, hostility to secret diplo¬
macy and attachment to free trade—was propagated by the pre-war Independent Labour
Party, and can be found in the writings of Hardie, MacDonald and Snowden.8 But for -
a more rigorous and substantial anti-imperialist doctrine, Labour depended on Hobson.
It is also necessary to emphasise that the Labour movement was by no means unani¬
mous in its opposition to imperialism.9 Among trade unionists and Socialists alike,
there was no absence of flag-waving, patriotic pride in the British Empire. This attitude
was certainly encouraged by influential members of the Fabian Society and Robert
Blatchford's Clarion, but it undoubtedly also reflected a strongly ingrained working class
mentality. The impact of empire on the British proletarian consciousness was
immensely powerful and traces of it remain today. Perhaps the most significant feature
of this working-class imperialist sentiment is its supra-political character: the Labour
supporters of Empire did not accept that there was any inconsistency between Labour
principles and support for the Empire, for they considered the imperial question to
lie outside the ambit of Labour politics.
From the very formation of the Social Democratic Federation in 1881, British
Marxism reflected the division of opinion within the wider labour movement. While
most Marxists opposed imperialism, a minority which included the redoubtable
H.M. Hydman expressed some satisfaction with Britain's imperial role.
2. THE MARXIST THEORY OF IMPERIALISM
109. TUC Report 1925, p.535.
In a recent Our History pamphlet, Bill Baker rightly emphasised the success of the inter¬
nationally-minded section of the SDF in combatting Hyndman's pro-imperialist
views; but it must not be forgotten that Hyndman was not alone in taking his posi¬
tion, and that in 1916 a sizable minority followed him out of the SDF's success over
this very question of support for the war.10 And if the SDF was unimpressive at the
political level in its struggle against imperialism, its theoretical performance was
much worse. British Marxism before the First World War simply failed to produce
any comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon, and drew its analysis from Radical¬
ism. Like the rest of the labour movement, it did not at first make direct use of
Hobson's writings on imperialism when they began to appear at the turn of the
century, but it drew freely on Radical terminology and concepts which were current
by the end of the nineteenth century and predated the actual publication of Hobson's
major work. Thus we find repeated reference in SDF writings to the need of British
capitalism to find fresh outlets for goods and surplus capital, and allegations that
capitalist 'cliques' were fostering jingoism for this purpose.11 These Radical themes
were in fact surprisingly similar to the ideas of Kautsky and the German SPD, which
were generally accepted within the Second International before the First World War.12
While leading members of the British SDF encountered these ideas at various congresses,
they found little expression in their own writings, and the great majority of British
Marxists were unaware of continental Marxist writings on the subject. The Radical
theory of imperialism was not contested until after the First World War.
2. THE MARXIST THEORY OF IMPERIALISM
Before examining the impact of the Marxist theory of imperialism in this country, it
may be useful to summarise some of its important points of difference from the
Radical theory. First, there is a difference in focus. To the Radicals imperialism
meant the exercise of power by a developed capitalist state over relatively undeveloped
peoples living in pre-capitalist societies. While Hobson was keenly aware of the competi¬
tion between capitalist states to extend their empires, he thought the arena of this
conflict was in the colonies. The Marxist sense of imperialism is a more general one; it
shifts the emphasis from the nation-state to supra-national monopoly capitalism, and
extends the field of imperialism to incorporate other capitalist economies. That is,
centres of capital are not just competing for the control of peripheral non-capitalist
economies, they are also attempting to capture or win control over each other. While
it had been 'customary', wrote Bukharin during the First World War, 'to reduce imperial¬
ism to colonial conquests alone', in fact the more imperialism developed 'the more it
will become a struggle for the capitalist centres as well'. 13 For the Radicals, on the
other hand, imperialism 'centres around the relations between Western civilisation
and civilisation of Africa and the East',14 and they usually concentrated on relations
between one particular capitalist power, Britain, and its imperialist network. Marxists
dealt with this aspect of imperialism under the heading of the Colonial Question, and
they understood it within the more general framework of imperialism in its wider
Beyond this disagreement over the meaning of imperialism lay crucially different
understandings of the economic and political process. Hobson and the Radicals did
not accept the Marxist theory of value. The accumulation of surplus value, and the
need to find profitable new fields for investing it, were explained by them as the out¬
come of unequal bargaining power in the economic process: the owners of land and
capital extortionate returns at the expense of the workers. As we have seen, they did
not regard this imbalance as structural to the capitalist mode of production, and
urged redistribution as a cure for under-consumption and its imperialist consequences.
Here the gulf could not be wider. While Marxists diagnose imperialism as an attempt
to stave off the declining rate of surplus value, and therefore as an inescapable stage
of capitalism, in the eyes of the Radicals it was a usurpation of the state by a knot of
financiers who wished to maintain an irrational misallocation of resources.
There are of course different Marxist schools of analysis of imperialism and in this
study we shall deal with three of them. Apart from the theoretically undeveloped re¬
sponses of Kautsky and the German SPD, the first school was formulated by the
Vienna School, notably Otto Bauer and Rudolph Hilferding, at the beginning of the
twentieth century. These theorists used the distinction between two branches of
production, the production-goods department and the consumption-goods depart¬
ment; they maintained that these departments could be developed in proportion and
that capitalism could remain in equilibrium. Imperialism was therefore not a matter
of strict economic necessity, it was essentially a policy to increase profits. The banks,
which in the era of 'finance capital' had come to exercise a dominant role, switched
capital to those fields offering the best returns—in certain cases this meant the export
of capital. Thus the Vienna School offered a financial theory of imperialism as one
direction of capitalist development. We may also note that Hilferding's belief that
organised capitalism could avoid crises provided the foundation after the war for a
Second International theory of 'ultra-imperialism'. This foreshadowed the elimination
of inter-capitalist rivalry by a united finance capital.15
The second school appeared in 1913 with the publication of Rosa Luxemburg's Die
Akkumulation des Kapitals. 16 Luxemburg developed Marx's own scheme of capital¬
ist accumulation, divided into a production-goods department and a consumptiongoods
department, to show that it would be impossible within the pure capitalist
mode of production to realise the surplus produced in the consumption-goods depart¬
ment. That is, neither the capitalist nor the working-class constituted a sufficient
market for consumption goods to enable expanded reproduction of capital to occur
indefinitely. She concluded that capitalism relied for its necessary expansion on a
'third market'. Third markets existed within contemporary capitalist societiesamong
the peasantry, for example, who were not part of the capitalist mode of pro¬
duction—but as they became bound up in market relations with capitalism, they
would be destroyed as independent entities and absorbed into the capitalist mode.
An alternative third market was offered by overseas pre-capitalist societies and this
accounted for the recent growth of imperialism. We can therefore see that Luxemburg
reverted to a commercial theory of imperialism-it was goods, not capital, that had to
be exported, even though capital export occurred subsequently as natural economies
The third school of imperialist theory was formulated by the Bolsheviks, in particular
by Lenin and Bukharin. 18 Their theory drew on both Hilferding and Hobson, and it
has been asserted that they added nothing new to these two writers.19 Yet Lenin's
analysis represents a distinct theory of imperialism and Bukharin reached broadly
similar conclusions independently (though first published in 1918, his book was
written in 1915). Unlike both Hobson and the Vienna School, who considered
imperialism was a policy of capitalism, and unlike Luxemburg, who saw it as a ten¬
dency inherent since capitalism began, Lenin saw imperialism as a distinct stage in
capitalist development. Imperialism represented a higher stage of capitalism in which
monopolies played a decisive role; bank capital and industrial capital had merged into
finance capital; the export of capital had become more important than the export of
commodities, and the world was divided among the great imperialist powers. Lenin
and Bukharin emphatically denied that capitalism was driven to imperialism by the
need to find markets. Of course there was competition for markets, just as there was
for raw materials. More important, however, was the fact that capital invested in back¬
ward areas, particularly under monopoly conditions, yielded super-profits. "It is thus
obvious that not the impossibility of doing business at home, but the race for higher
rates of profit, is the motive power of world capitalism."20
3. THE IMPACT IN BRITAIN OF THE MARXIST THEORY OF IMPERIALISM
Since none of these continental writings was translated prior to the First World War,
and because none of the leading British Marxists was interested in them, the Marxist
movement in this country remained unaware of these theoretical controversies. It
was the Russian Revolution which first stirred an enthusiasm for Bolshevik doctrine
and thus opened British eyes to the Leninist analysis of imperialism. 1917 was un¬
doubtedly a turning point for the Marxist movement in this country, and for its under¬
standing of Marxist theory, but its full effects were not felt for several years. Beyond
the fact that the chief texts of Communist theory were not translated for several
years (those of Bauer, Hilferding and Luxemburg waited many years more, and some
remain untranslated to this day), it is a gross over-simplification to make translation
and publication the sole test of a doctrine's impact. Theoretical advances are not
achieved by a purely cerebral process. While Lenin enjoyed an immediate prestige in
the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, prestige which assured his writings of a wide
British readership, his doctrines depended for their full acceptance upon an integra¬
tion into the practice of the British left. It therefore took several years for British
Marxists to assimilate the Leninist theory of imperialism.
The novelty of the Leninist theory of imperialism and the controversy caused by its
introduction can be studied in the newspaper of the largest Marxist organisation, the
BSP. The conventional interpretation of imperialism came from J. T. Walton Newbold,
who had advanced during the war from Radicalism to Marxism and would be a mem¬
ber of the Communist Party in the early 1920's, but who, like so many Marxist con¬
verts, retained an under-consumptionist understanding of the economic process.
Newbold interpreted the war as the outcome of capitalist rivalry for markets and there¬
fore as the natural culmination of capitalist development. The era of free trade and the
export of consumption goods, especially cotton, had simply given way to the era of
iron and steel, which led to protectionism, direct colonial control and war.21 Newbold's
views were derived in a general sense from Hobson and more immediately from the
American Marxist, Louis Boudin. Boudin's Socialism and War, which enjoyed consider¬
able popularity among British Marxists, was a re-statement, laced with Hobson, of the
old commercial theory of imperialism of nineteenth century Marxism. He described
imperialism as 'the politico-social expression of the economic fact that iron and steel
have taken the place of textiles as the leading industry of capitalism .... Textiles, there¬
fore, mean peace; iron and steel—war. 22 This description differed from the Leninist
approach in its crude technological reductionism, its concentration on only one charac¬
teristic of modern imperialism, and its interpreation of imperialism simply as rivalry
for markets. The views of Newbold and Boudin were indeed indistinguishable from
contributions published in the Call during the same period by two Radicals, E.D.
Morel and H.N. Brailsford, a fact which emphasises the derivative character of native
Marxist discussion of the subject.23
In contrast, two influential Russian exiles, Chicherin and Theodore Rothstein, criti¬
cised Boudin and Newbold, and argued for a Leninist understanding of imperialism.
Capitalism, they maintained, had reached a new and distinct stage, the "dictatorship
of High Finance". The historical distinction between peaceful cotton capitalism and
bellicose heavy industrial capitalism did not explain the current situation and was in
any case inaccurate. The war should properly be understood as the outcome of the
epoch of finance capitalism as a world system.24
Though contested, the Radical theory of imperialism retained its following among
British Marxists for some time, and can be detected in many writings of the period.
Like the Radicals, and unlike Lenin and Bukharin, these British Marxists saw the
origins of imperialism in the European expansion that began in the 1870s as a search
for markets. A pamphlet written by the Scottish Marxist, William Paul, at the end of
the war is typical in its exclusive concentration on the market requirements of capi¬
talist industry. And in his influential A Worker Looks At Economics, which was
widely used in the Labour Colleges, Mark Starr explained imperialism as the result
of over-production and consequent "struggle for markets". A similar Radical orienta¬
tion characterised the popular Plebs Outline of Modern Imperialism, another Labour
College textbook. Relying primarily on Hobson for its explanation of modern im¬
perialism as "the outcome, primarily, of the change from textiles to iron and steel
as the staple product and export of capitalist countries", it added a Marxist appen¬
dix in which imperialism was presented alternatively as "the consummation of the
capitalist process of development from competition to monopoly". (The confused
and eclectic character of the Plebs Outline was aggravated by its preparation in
several stages by different writers.) 25
The new Leninist theory of imperialism had therefore to struggle against a Radical
perspective which was deeply rooted in the British left. It was also handicapped by
the fact that the locus classicus, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, was
not published in English until 1926. French and German translations were published
in 1920 and an American translation appeared in Britain in 1923, but it was in¬
complete, lacking the crucial last four chapters.26 So until 1926 only a handful of
intellectuals with a command of foreign languages had access to the theory in its
entirety. For others a reasonably comprehensive account did not come before 1922,
when Michel Pavlovitch's lectures on the subject were translated and published.
Pavlovitch's lectures had been originally delivered in 1918 and 1919 to the General
Staff of the Red Army. Yet even Pavlovitch was an advocate of the metallurgical
theory so that his exposition of Lenin sat uncomfortably alongside a subsequent
chapter devoted to Imperialism as the Policy of Syndicalist Metallurgical Industry. 27
A deeper problem underlay British Marxists' understanding of the problem until the
middle of the decade. Because they inherited an understanding of imperialism in the
Radical sense of exploitation of pre-capitalist societies, they continued to concen¬
trate on publicising Britain's treatment of her colonies. Furthermore, their interest
in imperialism did not spring from analysis of the capitalist mode of production, as
it did with Luxemburg and Lenin, for British Marxists held a static view of economic
relations and were not at this stage interested in the problem of realising or maintain¬
ing the rate of surplus value. For them it was enough to expose the cruelty and ex¬
ploitation of colonial practice, and trace the economic rivalries of world powers.
Newbold's many articles in the Communist Review can be treated as an extreme
example of this approach. He always concentrated on uncovering the shadowy activ¬
ities of a small knot of financiers who were responsible for dragging their countries
into confrontation and war. Sir Basil Zaharoff was Newbold's special bete noir and
was invested with an aura comparable to that of the arch-villain in the John Buchan
genre. Newbold is in some respects an extraordinary case but many Marxists writing
on imperialism at the end of the war were infected by the same conspiratorial view
of imperialism, and did not feel it necessary to probe further into its origins. Thus on
the one hand a pamphlet such as T.A. Jackson's British Empire has almost nothing
to say about the reasons for the phenomenon; while the early general textbooks of
Communism made little or no mention of imperialism at all.28
The weakness persists even when we turn to the relatively small group of Marxists
with a substantial grasp on economic theory and a command of foreign languages, of
whom Rajani Palme Dutt can be taken as an example. In 1923 Palme Dutt made a
well-publicised attack on the shortcomings of British Marxism, condemning the
Plebs Outline of Modern Imperialism for "clinging to the skirts of the U[nion of]
Democratic] C[ontrol]", and for failing to follow Lenin.29 Yet apart from alleging
that the Outline failed to appreciate the political effects of imperialism on the work¬
ing-class, Dutt gave no explanation how the Leninist school differed from the Radical
in its underlying analysis. And even though he subsequently became perhaps the
leading authority of his generation on this question, Dutt's treatment of the theory
of imperialism remained limited at this stage. In books and pan Mile is, such as
'Empire' Socialism, Modern India and Free the Colonies he simply assumed the
valdity of Lenin's views. 30
So far we have been concerned with two schools of thought, the Radical and the
Leninist. We have seen that while British Marxists were alive to the fact of imperial¬
ism, they were far more adept at description than analysis. In the absence of any
textual guidance, many preferred the familiar Radical theory to the Leninist, or else
confused the two. But as we saw earlier, the Leninist theory of imperialism was but
one of several distinct Marxist theories. Two Marxist theories other than the Leninist
were also introduced during the 1920s, that of Luxemburg and the post-war theory
of Kautsky and Hilferding.
The popularisation of Luxemburg can be attributed largely to one man, Morgan
Philips Price. After reporting the Russian Revolution for the Manchester Guardian,
Philips Price served as the German correspondence of the Daily Herald between
1919 and 1923, and became a Communist. While in Germany he read Luxemburg's
Die Akkumulation des Kapitals and began sending back summaries of her arguments.31
Philips Price returned to England in 1923 and left the Communist Party shortly
after, but he continued to find an audience in the Labour College movement. His
importance lies in the fact that Luxemburg's book was not yet available in English
translation, so that his accurate and forceful summary informed British readers of a
debate of which they would otherwise have remained ignorant. 32 Among those he
influenced was Mark Starr, at this stage also a Communist, who took up Luxemburg's
disproportionality argument in 1921, and in A Worker Looks at Economics and later
editions of A Worker Looks At History, he grafted it on to his hybrid Marxist-
Radical treatment of imperialism.33 This eclecticism is indicative of the confusion
Luxemburg was an international Communist martyr, and while her theoretical writ¬
ings were neglected, they were not actually contested (except by Bukharin) until
later in the 1920s. The usual objections then were that she disregarded the distinc¬
tively monopolist character of imperialism, concentrated on the export of produc¬
tion goods rather than capital, and therefore failed to appreciate the strength and
immediacy of barriers to further capitalist expansion.34 But these shortcomings did
not place her beyond the pale: Lapidus and Ostrovityanov cited Die Akkumulation
des Kapitals with approval in their Soviet textbook Outline of Political Economy,
which appeared in English in 1929,35 and as late as 15 January 1931 the Daily
Worker described her book as a "great contribution to Marxist thought". Criticism
was extended later in 1931 when Stalin published his attack on the theories of the
Left German Social Democrats, but this attack was motivated by contemporary
political considerations and bore only a tenuous relationship to Luxemburg's actual
views.36 Nevertheless, its effect was practically to eradicate her from the considera¬
tion of British Marxists-even though Ralph Fox referred darkly in 1932 to the
continued existence of a group of "carriers" of this "semi-Menshevik burden".
The second non-Leninist theory of imperialism claimed that inter-capitalist rivalries
could be surmounted and a new stability attained. This argument was only advanced
in a complete form in 1928, but its origins can be discerned as early as 1924 during the
debate among the left over the Dawes Plan. Philips Price and Walton Newbold, who
had both recently left the Communist Party for the Labour Party, disagreed with the
Communist Party's criticism of the Labour Government's acceptance of the Plan.
What the Communists overlooked, wrote Price, was that the Dawes Plan signified a
new "atmosphere of stability", International finance capital "is strong, it is young,
and it has the whole machinery of the State .... It may be that we shall see several
decades of its rule yet." 38 To these initial arguments about the harmonisation and
strength of international capitalist interests, Price and Newbold later added techno¬
logical arguments about the stabilising effects of a new industrial revolution. Finally
in 1928 Price extended the argument to include the colonial areas. Addressing his
own Luxemburgist ghost, he asserted that "international industrial agreements"
could eliminate over-production and abolish the necessity of dumping goods on
colonial markets. The previous brutal exploitation of the colonies could thus be re¬
placed by a controlled export of commodities designed to raise colonial living
standards. In general, therefore, the new advances in techniques of production and
supersession of conflict by international cartels meant that "it is not necessary to
postulate catastrophe".40 The resemblance of these ideas to the doctrine of 'superimperialism'
advanced during the 1920s by Kautsky and Hilferding is unmistakable.41
Let us now return to the Leninist theory of imperialism. We have seen how it was
both poorly understood and contested for several years after the war. In February
1925 the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Communist International
sent the British Party a lengthy summary of its theoretical deficiencies, and the
absence of "theoretical discussion of the question of imperialism" was singled out
for particular emphasis. In future, the Comintern instructed, "the problem of
imperialism must not be discussed within the narrow limits of the British Empire"
but should be treated on a world basis with an emplicit theoretical foundation.42
These instructions had an immediate and beneficial effect: Lenin's Imperialism was
translated and published within a year, and an effort was made to publicise the
question in all party organs. Henceforth the Communists and those sympathetic to
Leninism in the Labour College movement began to stress the distinctive features of
Lenin's theory and to explain their significance. Imperialism was not just "a certain
type of foreign policy"; it was "the present stage of capitalism", the inevitable cul¬
mination of previous development. Imperialism was not confirmed to the domina¬
tion of non-capitalist areas by capitalist ones; it was a world-wide system of capitalist
rivalry. Nor was imperialism the outcome of any single motive; it represented the
search for better markets, cheaper materials, cheaper labour, more profitable invest¬
ments—in short, "the search for profits". And after 1925 the Leninist doctrine of
super-profit was also properly explained as an additional attraction of imperialism.43
Like so many elements of British Marxism, the doctrine of imperialism unfortunately
degenerated into dogma as Stalin began to exert his own theoretical influence. Stalin's
rigid formalisation of the doctrine in Theory and Practice of Leninism appeared in
English in 1925 and thus preceded the publication of Lenin himself. There were no
actual changes in content but Lenin's extremely cautious formulations, which were
meant to provide a guide for further analysis, were fossilised into an infallible dogma.
Where Lenin had warned that any formal definition of imperialism "can never em¬
brace all the combinations of a phenomenon in its full development",44 Stalin laid
down a set of laws. We can provide only one example of the effects of this degenera¬
tion, but it is a particularly significant one for it concerns Bukharin, who, even if he
had differed from Lenin in certain respects, had been a close collaborator in originally
investigating the problem.
In his Imperialism and the World Economy (1915), Bukharin had predicted that the
monopolist tendencies of modern capitalism would lead to the creation of a state
capitalist trust within each leading capitalist economy, and thus "reduce to a mini¬
mum" competition within national economies. Competition would increasingly be
waged at a higher level on the world economy.45 Even though Bukharin specifically
repudiated the Second International doctrine of ultra-imperialism, and even though
Lenin had written an introduction to Bukharin's book, his distinction between
national and international competition proved unacceptable when he employed it
in speaking on the world economic situation to the Sixth Congress of the Commu¬
nist International. It was condemned at the Plenum in 1929 and Bukharin himself
retracted it in the following year. 46 In Britain the typical tardiness in translating
important foreign texts led to a bizarre volte face: Imperialism and the World
Economy was condemned within a year of its publication.47
4. THE COLONIAL QUESTION
Before the 1920s the question of the British Empire was peripheral to the left's dis¬
cussion and strategy. While the pre-war British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour
Party and Independent Labour Party all publicised colonial exploitation and called
for working-class internationalism, nevertheless they all believed that the workers'
struggle would be resolved in the domestic arena. The colonial question was not an
issue which would fundamentally affect the outcome of the class struggle, it was
essentially a question of conscience.
Insofar as this attitude was discarded during the 1920s, it was discarded under the
influence of two men, Lenin and M.N. Roy. Lenin's interpretation of imperialism,
which won increasing acceptance during the decade, elevated the colonial question
to a far more important position than had previously been the case (and this was
the chief difference between his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and
Bukharin's Imperialism and the World Economy). In this sense Lenin was the
"mediator between Marxism and the non-European world".48 He attached impor¬
tance to the question for two reasons: first, because exploitation of colonial
areas gave a fresh lease of life to capitalism; second, because part of the spoils of
colonial exploitation were used to bribe the metropolitan proletariat. Other Marxists
either did not appreciate the significance of these two factors or else, like Luxemburg,
were extremely pessimistic about the possibility of colonial revolution. In either case,
like the British, they pinned their hopes on the European working-class. Lenin stood
capitalist struggle. In addition his theory of the 'weakest link1, which was advanced
to explain the success of the Russian Revolution, reinforced the broader perspective.
We should not exaggerate the distinctiveness of his position, however, for he continued
to think that the activity of the European working-class was so important that "A blow
delivered against the power of the English imperialist bourgeoisie by a rebellion in
Ireland is a hundred times more significant politically than a blow of equal force de¬
livered in Asia or in Africa". 49
Manabendra Nath Roy, a young Indian exile, emerged as an authority on the colonial
question in 1920 at the Second Congress of the Communist International, when he
criticised Lenin's draft thesis on the National and Colonial Question.50 Lenin attached
great importance to the revolutionary movement of the colonies and charged the
"workers of the country the backward nation is financially dependent on" with the
primary responsibility for aiding and guiding its liberation. He thought that because
of the economic and social backwardness of the colonies, the current task was to
"enter into a temporary alliance with the bourgeois democracy in the colonial and
backward countries"51 Roy contested Lenin's thesis in two particular respects. He
claimed that because "super-profit obtained from the colonies is the mainstay of
modern capitalism", therefore "the fate of the revolutionary movement in Europe
depends entirely on the course of the revolution in the East". 52 Here Roy pressed
the Leninist theory of imperialism to more extreme conclusions than Lenin himself
was prepared to accept, and Lenin remarked that "Roy goes too far when he asserts
that the fate of the West depends exclusively on the degree of development and
strength of the revolutionary movement in the Eastern countries"53 Roy's second
objection was to Lenin's proposed alliance with "Bourgeois democratic" groups. Roy
believed that the colonial bourgeoisie played a reactionary role, that their aim was
merely "to replace the foreign exploiters in order to be able to do the exploiting
themselves", and that the revolutionary movement must be based on the peasantry
and proletariat. 54There was an additional difference between Lenin and Roy over
the nature of colonial development, and Indian development in particular. While
Lenin thought the colonies were held back in a pre-capitalist stage, and that this
determined the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, Roy thought there was already
a degree of capitalist development which gave the colonial bourgeoisie a stake in the
colonial order. This issue was muted at the Second Congress and emerged more clearly
later in the decade.
Roy had only limited success in changing the thesis on the National and Colonial
question, although Lenin did encourage delegates to take Roy's points seriously.
Lenin invited him to prepare supplementary theses and these were included in the
final resolution, in an amended form, to emphasise the need to support revolution¬
ary workers and peasants rather than "the narrow circle of bourgeois democratic
nationalists". Similarly, Lenin's draft was amended so that it recommended alliance
with the "revolutionary movement in the colonies" rather than the "bourgeois-demo¬
cratic movements" as originally proposed.55 Nevertheless, Lenin's insistence on the
need for tactical alliances outside the workers and peasants remained. From 1920
until 1928 the Communist International worked within the more cautious frame¬
work Lenin had counterposed to Roy. The relative importance attached to the
colonial question and the estimates of revolutionary potentialities varied during the
period, but the general policy was always to build revolutionary movements in the
colonies in alliance with the colonial bourgeoisie. Roy's perspective was increasingly
ignored and after 1924 explicitly rejected.
We can now turn to British views on the colonial question. At the Second Congress of
the International they were pitched headlong into a discussion which revealed their
backwardness to an embarrassing degree. The British members of the Commission on
the National and Colonial question, in which the argument between Lenin and Roy
chiefly took place, were clearly alarmed by the suggestion that they should organise
revolutionary movements in the British colonies. "The average English worker" said
Tom Quelch, a leading member of the BSP, "would consider it treason to render
assistance to the dependent countries against the English authorities."56 This atti¬
tude shocked the rest of the Commission and the British Party was taken to task for
its laxness both on this and subsequent occasions.57 While the British did not estab¬
lish a Colonial Committee and begin to pay systematic attention to their tasks until
1925, the magnitude of their early achievement is considerable. They had to overcome
a general feeling throughout the labour movement that the colonial question was un¬
important, and to combat the racialism that frequently underlay such lack of interest.
During the war Quelch had expressed alarm at the use of black labourers, or "jolly
coons" as he preferred to call them, as strikebreakers. Beside their blacklegging, he
thought they were a danger to English women, whose "sex appetites" had been
"starved" during the war, and who might be "delivered into the arms of the vigorous
Othellos of Africa". When Chicherin challenged these attitudes, Quelch protested
that he did not believe blacks to be racially inferior—he simply thought they could
best work for socialism in their own countries.58
It was a common habit of the British labour movement to justify racialism by pseudosocialism
in this manner, and Communists were not completely immune. In 1922,
the Communist printed a German protest against the presence of French colonial
troops on German territory, appealing for assistance against "the awful disgrace
which is being done to our white women on the Rhine by the eager lust of African
savages".59 The pressing task for Marxists was to unravel this tangled skein of
conscious and unconscious racialism and promote an awareness of the importance of
the colonial question. To do this the CPGB published both descriptions of conditions
in particular areas such as India, Burma, Kenya and Egypt and general explanations
of the function of Britain's colonies. By the middle of the decade this preliminary task
had been accomplished at least to the extent that racialist sentiments disappeared
and all Communists acknowledged the importance of liberating the colonies.
The next task was to work out and then implement a strategy for liberating them.
India was the chief responsibility of British Communists, and while they were en¬
trusted with promoting revolutionary movements throughout their country's colonial
possessions, India absorbed most of their energies. Here the CPGB had to strike a
balance between Roy's preference for independent revolutionary leadership and the
more cautious Comintern programme of building an alliance with bourgeois national¬
ists. The balance was partly determined by the degree of development in the particu¬
lar colony under consideration, but because India bulked so large in discussion and
because Roy and his supporters played the leading role in the initial stages of the dis¬
cussion, the general tendency was to favour Roy's bolder strategy. Roy himself, his
American wife Evelyn, and his collaborator Abani Mukherji all publicised this
approach, emphasising the importance of the colonial upsurge for breaking the
stranglehold of capitalism on Europe, the extent of capitalist industry in India, the
untrustworthy character of the Indian National Congress, and the need to base the
movement on workers and peasants. 60 It is well nigh impossible to gauge the extent
to which their views were accepted by the British audience since at this time few
members of the CPGB wrote on the question and their colonial work was supervised
from Moscow. Shapurji Saklatvala, the Communist MP, and Rajani Palme Dutt's
elder brother, Clemens-both leading members of the British Party-seem to have
been sympathetic to Roy's emphases,61 but no native Communist appears to have
committed himself. Right up to 1927 the resolutions of the CPGB endorsed the
The forces of the movement for emancipation in the colonies are not limited
to a sentiment amongst the toilers or to small circles or parties of the Com¬
intern .... Revolutionary nationalist democratic movements exist side by side
with the revolutionary proletarian organisations .... We must at all times look
for a united front with those who are oppressed and are honestly fighting
Using this conveniently flexible formula (in which so much depended on whether
the bourgeois nationalists were in fact "honestly fighting oppresseon"), the Commu¬
nists worked within the All-India Trade Union Congress and pursued periodic alliance
with the left wing of the National Congress.63
The British Party's conformity on the colonial question came to an end after 1926
when, for the first time, they took an unequivocally independent position within the
Communist International. In view of the animated and informed discussion which
occurred, and its similarities with the position taken by Roy's circle at the beginning
of the decade, it seems likely that his ideas had been percolating through the CPGB
during the intervening period. This is not to suggest that the British simply followed
Roy's leadership: relations between the two parties had never been close and Roy
had in any case fallen into general disfavour by 1928.64
The common basis of Roy and the British was a theory of capitalist development,
the theory of'decolonisation'. Roy had argued at length in India in Transition and
various other books and articles, and at successive International Congresses, that
modern imperialism had transformed the economies of colonies such as India. From
the export of consumption goods British capitalism had turned to the export of pro¬
duction goods and capital, and thereby stimulated the industrialisation of the
colonies. This process had two political consequences: it satisfied the ambitions of
the colonial bourgeoisie and cemented its alliance with imperialism; and it created
colonial proletariat which, in alliance with the landless peasantry, constituted the
revolutionary force in the colonies. From 1926 on Roy's theory of decolonisation
was echoed increasingly clearly in British writings on India. Thus in Modern India,
Palme Dutt drew attention to the recent consequences of the growth of Indian indus¬
try. British imperialism had taken the Indian bourgeoisie into "junior partnership"
in a "counter-revolutionary front". Because they received a share in the spoils of
imperialism the colonial bourgeoisie were coming to play an increasingly "treacherous
role", and the future movement must be based on the peasantry and working-class. 65
Dutt's brother Clemens supplemented the analysis with an argument that capitalism
was also replacing feudalism in the agricultural sphere, creating a class of "landless
agricultural proletarians" and accentuating class differentiation.66 T h e general per¬
spective which by 1928 was common to Roy and the British can be found in the
report drawn up by the Indian Commission for the Communist International in
preparation for the Sixth World Congress. This stated that the policy of British im¬
perialism was "the industrialisation of India under the control of British finance capi¬
tal, and with the co-operation of the Indian bourgeoisie".67
The economic theory of decolonisation came under attack at the Sixth Congress of
the International in 1928. At this Congress the general strategy of the last eight years
of developing tactical alliances with the colonial bourgeoisie was abandoned: in an
analogous fashion to the policy of class against class within capitalist countries, it
was now declared that the colonial bourgeoisie were enemies of national liberation
who must be exposed and attacked by the workers and peasants. Yet while the new
political strategy was not essentially different to that of the CPGB-who merely
wished to continue their activities in the Workers' and Peasants' parties which they
had been instrumental in establishing—its underlying analysis was. On behalf of the
leadership, Otto Kuusinen declared that capitalism was primarily interested in main¬
taining the colonies in a backward condition as a market for industrial goods and a
source of raw materials. It only developed such sectors as served its own interests and
kept the colonies in a state of economic disequilibrium and dependence; while some
capitalist development had occurred in India, it was emphatically not the policy of
British imperialism to industrialise India. Kuusinen poured scorn on Roy's theory of
decolonisation and condemned Dutt's Modern India.
Kuusinen's characterisation of the theory of decolonisation obfuscated the real issues
for he wrongly alleged that its proponents thought that economic development of the
colonies would lead to a relaxation of British rule and eventual self-government. De¬
colonisation became a perjorative term and for this reason British Communists re¬
peatedly repudiated it. Nevertheless, all but four of the British delegation of eighteen
opposed Kuusinen's economic analysis and Page Arnot introduced an amendment which
laid down the "general law of capitalist development" that in solving its inner con¬
tradictions by the export of capital, capitalism "involuntarily stimulates in the colonies
the creation of its future rival". Arnot's amendment received just twelve British and
two Indian votes and Kuusinen's draft thesis was adopted. The final thesis insisted
that British capitalism was "hindering the industrial development of India" and that
"all the chatter of the imperialists and their lackeys about the policy of decolonisation
being carried through by the imperialists.... reveals itself as nothing but an imperialist
Whereas the economic view of the British constituteda solid foundation for the new
strategy of an independent revolutionary movement in the colonies, what now be¬
came the orthodox view seems fraught with difficulties. If imperialism was retarding
capitalist development in the colonies, why should the colonial bourgeoisie cling to
their imperial masters' coat-tails ? And if the development of capitalist industry and
agriculture was as weak as the Sixth Congress suggested, whence derived the strength
of the colonial working masses ? As Petrovsky, the Comintern representative in
Britain who sided with the CPGB in this matter, ironically enquired: "The industry
does not develop but the proletariat grows?"6 9 The answer to all these questions
lies in the special place now assigned to the Soviet Union. The conflict between the
USSR and the capitalist countries became the paramount factor in the international
situation, and the alliance between the socialist state and the colonial working
masses was to provide the basis for their success.
A subsequent Congress of the CPGB formally endorsed the decisions of the Sixth
Congress on the colonial question but neither discussion nor debate was allowed.70
Moreover, in presenting the Colonial Report, Arnot smuggled in a number of the
ideas he had unsuccessfully put before the World Congress: while a colony "developed
along the lines that imperialism wanted it to", "at the same time there is a contradic¬
tory process going on, whereby the import of machinery and means of production,
industry is developed, producing thus a bourgeoisie and the proletariat". 71 He
repeated this view in a pamphlet published shortly after, and cited Marx in support
of his claim that "The British implanted the beginnings of large-scale capitalism in
India".72 And while Clemens Dutt conceded that he had been wrong in suggesting
a theory of decolonisation at the Sixth Congress, he reported also that Kuusinen had
placed an "over-emphasis in the other direction, not taking into sufficient account
the effect of capital export". "This was corrected in the course of the discussion,"
But for all its special pleading, the CPGB ultimately abandoned its independent stand.
"To preach decolonisation is anti-Marxism and anti-Leninism, and direct support to
the imperialist interest." 74 After 1929 British Communists concentrated on criticis¬
ing the shortcomings of all colonial movements which were not based exclusively
on the working masses and led by the proletariat.75 Insofar as they touched on the
economic question, they repeated the orthodox description of "the retarded nature
of the industrial development" due to the fact that British imperialism "hinders the
development of its productive forces".
5. IMPERIALISM AND THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
We can now turn to consideration of the impact of the Marxist theory of imperialism
on the labour movement. After the First World War, as before, there was a division of
opinion within the labour movement on the question of the Empire. The opponents
were strengthened by the post-war influx of some leading critics of imperialism who
all came from the middle-class and mostly from Liberal backgrounds. Besides Hobson
himself there were Brailsford and Leonard Woolf, his chief popularisers; and the socalled
'Foreign Legion', Charles Roden Buxton, Seymour Cocks, F.W. Pethick Lawrence,
H.B. Lees-Smith, E.D. Morel, Arthur Ponsonby, Charles Trevelyan and even Bertrand
Russel, who all came to Labour via the Union of Democratic Control. While these
recruits stiffened anti-imperialist sentiment within the Labour Party, there continued
to be a substantial number of trade unionists and Labour Party members who saw no¬
thing wrong with Britain's treatment of her possessions. J.H. Thomas may be taken as
the best-known representative of this view. It is said that he introduced himself to his
staff at the Colonial Office with the remark: 'I'm here to see that there is no mucking
about with the British Empire.'76 This story may be apocryphal but it would not
have been out of character.
Yet the explicit pro-imperialists and the thoroughgoing anti-imperialists were both
minorities, with the great majority of the Labour movement lying somewhere in be¬
tween. From the conflicting mass of resolutions passed by the Labour Party and the
TUC, and the policy of the Labour Party in opposition and office, it is extremely
difficult to discern a coherent majority view. When dealing with colonial policy the
Labour Party seemed especially prone to the habit of producing pious statements of
intent which its leaders had no intention of over implementing. Perhaps the most
graphic illustration of this inconsistency was the advanced programme for de-colonisa¬
tion which the Labour Party published as a pamphlet with an enthusiastic preface by,
of all people, J.H. Thomas.77 The Party pledged itself in its Memorandum on War
Aims to the "frank abandonment of every form of 'Imperialism'", and in the same
year demanded that India be given Dominion status. 78Until these broad commitments
were tested in office, however, there was little further discussion. We have already seen
how in the early 1920s British Marxists drew freely on Hobson in their treatments of
imperialism. The lack of theoretical clarity extended throughout the Labour movement
and until 1924 the difference between the Radical and Marxist critiques of imperialism
remained purely theoretical, so that there is little way of testing their respective influ¬
The situation was transformed by the performance of the Labour Government in 1924.
Its failure to fulfil Left expectations in both general foreign policy and in colonial ad¬
ministration precipitated a thorough revision of anti-imperialist doctrine. During the
next two years there occurred a fierce controversy about the meaning of Empire which
was conducted in the journals and newspapers where the left of the Labour Party met
with the Communist Party—the Plebs, Lansbury's Labour Weekly and the Sunday
Worker. Examination of this controversy will enable us to clarify the division between
the Marxist and non-Marxist viewpoints, and assess the influence of the Marxist theory
6. EMPIRE SOCIALISM
The policy of Empire Socialism arose out of the dissatisfactions of two sections of the
Labour Party. One group was satisfied with the policy of the 1924 MacDonald Govern¬
ment but critical of the Party's anti-imperialist principles: the second was extremely
critical of the Government's performance but also wished to revise principles.
The initial exponent of the first view was Thomas Johnston, the editor of the Glasgow
Forward. His underlying motive was to defend the Government against its Left critics,
and his method of doing this was to challenge their theoretical basis. He attacked the
"fixed belief that this Empire is an engine of grab and oppression and that it is and
can be nothing more". Himself betraying the confusion between Marxism and Radical¬
ism he said this was one of those "Whig superstitions which our Communists had
apparently adopted under the belief that they were 'advanced'". The correct Socialist
policy was to develop the Empire "under a Socialist inspiration" for the mutual bene¬
fit of all its members.79 Johnston's criticisms of the Radical view of Empire and his
proposal for an Empire Socialism were soon taken up by others, but there was some¬
thing half-hearted about these early justifications. They commonly fell back on the
argument that a benevolent British imperialism was at least preferable to unrestrained
native capitalism or a "Mongolian Empire".80 A more thoroughgoing defence of em¬
pire soon came from Leslie Haden-Guest, the Right-Wing Labour MP. He considered
that empires were "natural phenomena" and that it made no sense to advocate their
dismemberment since most of Britain's possessions were "quite unfit for political
independence". The correct policy was to develop the Empire as an integrated
economic unit on a new "socialist basis", and to remember at all times that "the
Empire is our country".81 To this end Haden-Guest encouraged the formation in
1922 of a Labour Commonwealth Group of Labour MPs, of which he was the found¬
ing secretary and for which he claimed a hundred members.82 In 1925, furthermore,
he led a score of Labour Members to support of a motion for Imperial Preferences.83
Commenting on this vote, a weekly journal friendly to the Empire noted that "it is
not surprising that Mr Thomas and his fellows now support Imperial Preference.
What is much more significant is that the Left Wing has been won over.". 84 It was
indeed remarkable that a significant number of Left MPs should have been attracted
to Empire Socialism. True, one section of the Left, the Clydesiders, had displayed
little concern for the question of the colonies and had always been suspicious of
Hobsonian internationalism. "I know that all this interest in foreign affairs is a
heritage from Liberalism," averred the bombastic Davie Kirkwood. 85 However,
other Left Empire Socialists, such as George Lansbury, who became chairman of
the Labour Commonwealth group in 1924, had been leading critics of imperialism.
And the 'socialism' of men like Haden-Guest served as a poor disguise for racist,
white-supremacist sentiment which both Lansbury and the Clydesiders always op¬
posed. Haden-Guest's underlying fear was "the possibility of the formation of a vast
black and coloured proletariat, uneducated and very excitable, ready to listen to
Communist propaganda", and he advocated immigration controls and apartheid to
circumvent the danger.86 And in 1927 Haden-Guest's differences the Empire led
him to resign from the Labour Party. In spite of these differences, in 1925 the
Lansbury's Labour Weekly group announced their conversion to Empire Socialism.87
The emphasis of these Left Empire Socialists was always on the socialist potential of
the empire, and the equality of all races within it. Their's was a more apologetic de¬
fence of empire:
We may deplore the fact that the British Empire is not what we would like it
to be. But there it is, and there it remains whatever you think of it. Our duty
as members of the Labour movement is to see how we can utilise it to serve
our purposes, and to help at the same time the world position of the workers.88
Lansbury, Wheatley and others on the Left of the Labour Party were obviously
neither comfortable with the implications of their new position, nor did they com¬
pletely understand them. "While they day-dreamed of transforming the empire into
a true federation, in reality the empire was transforming them."89 One of them ex¬
plained that "because Thomas or Haden-Guest take the opportunity to bang the
Imperialist drum during the debate" on Imperial Preference, it did not follow that
he and his colleagues who voted in the same lobby were "responsible for and in
agreement with all their arguments".90 Perhaps their new stance can most usefully
be seen as a response to Labour's failure in 1924. When Lansbury first began to veer
towards Empire Socialism within the lifetime of the Labour Government, he wrote
illuminatingly that the fundamental problem for the Left was "how to apply the
theories of life and conduct we have all learned", and that "among the many ques¬
tions which, now it is in office, baffle and perplex the Labour Party, none is more
difficult of solution than those which concern relations between Great Britain" and
her Empire.91 No less than nine members of the Cabinet had been members of the
UDC,92 and those Hobsonian principles with which the Party had entered Whitehall
had come to naught. The Left was now searching for a new approach to the problem
free of the tutelage of the middle-class ex-Liberals.
The Communist Party seized on Empire Socialism as a chink in the armour of its
Left Empire rivals. The Communists were only now clarifying their own understand¬
ing of the theory of imperialism and found that Empire Socialism was an excellent
issue for doing so. They were quick to point out that the question of empire could
not be considered apart from its economic basis:
The essential fallacy of patriotic reformism lies in dividing politics and econ¬
omics into two sharply distinguished categories, with only an incidental con¬
nection between them .... They do not say 'the Empire exists as an expression
of capitalism in its final finance-monopoly form'. They say (as Johnston is
learning to say) how nice the Empire would be if only we could keep the
capitalists from being quite so all-pervasive.
"One might as well talk about Socialising chattel slavery or wage slavery", wrote an¬
other Communist. "One cannot Socialise a state of class domination".93 At the heart
of the dispute between Marxism and Empire Socialism lay radically different under¬
standings of the economic process and the economic function of empire. The Empire
Socialists wanted to preserve existing trade relations between Britain and her undevel¬
oped possessions, whereby Britain exchanged her manufactures for their raw materials.
Colonial exploitation was to be abolished by the elimination of sweated industries
and the protection of native living standards under 'fair trading' agreements. The
Communists, on the other hand, perceived that the preservation of Britain's industrial
monopoly must of necessity be coercive and result in "wholesale cheating-a process
sometimes called the extraction of super-profit".94
Empire Socialism was directed against the Radical theory of imperialism just as much
as against the Marxist. It is probably true also that the Empire Socialists could see
"no difference between the criticism of colonial Empire put forward by the Whig (or
rather Cobdenite) section of the British bourgeois, and the attack on modern Imperial¬
ism put forward by working-class parties".95 Yet its effect was to clarify these differ¬
ences, weaken the Radical influence on the Labour Party, and leave Marxism as the
most influential body of anti-imperialist doctrine. 96 The decline of the Radicals be¬
gan with Labour's failure in 1924 and can be seen in their response to the Empire
Socialist arguments. For while they insisted that Empire Socialism was "an abandon¬
ment alike of the ethics and the economics of the Socialist movement",97 they
found increasing difficulty in distinguishing the proposals they derived from Hobson
for dealing with the colonies from those of the Empire Socialists. "Imperialism is
doubtless the enemy;" wrote G.D.H. Cole, "but it is not to be fought by the simple
method of Empire-smashing, but rather by a change of policy on the part of the
States which are the present controllers of Empires". Or, as Buxton put it to the
1925 Labour Party Conference, "they had to accept the fact of Empire in one form
or another" and concentrate on finding a "responsible" future policy.98
What should this policy be ? Here the follower of Hobson experienced great difficulty.
One answer was that Britain's surplus should be invested domestically to raise living
standards: this implied that there would no longer be any need for the empire and
that the independent ex-colonies would no longer be developed by British capitalism.
But if this policy were adopted the ex-colonies would surely revert to the status of
suppliers of raw materials.99 This outcome of an industrial Britain served by nonindustrial
dependents was hard to distinguish from the proposals of the Empire Social¬
ists. The alternative was to continue investing in the colonies and settle for "proper
rates" of profit. 100 Hence in 1926 the Empire policy committee of the ILP, com¬
posed largely of middle-class Radicals, "welcom[ed] the possibility of closer economic
relationships between the British nation and the various parts of the Commonwealth".
101 This again seems quite consistent with the Empire Socialist criterion of acceptable
conduct, and as soon as it was admitted that "much of this tribute is payment for
honest and valuable services: much of it is the reward of enterprise, knowledge and
skill", 102the force of the Radical attack on imperialism was lost. Radicals in the
1920s seemed unaware of the viability of an alternative form of imperialism to that
which they contested, an imperialism of free trade based on their own principle of
The loss of confidence among the Labour followers of Hobson was brought about by
the 1924 Labour Government. Until then they had been in the forefront of the move¬
ment, popularising their ideas about the futility of international rivalry and colonial
exploitation. When Labour proved itself to be more a continual. of imperialism
than its destroyer, the basis of discussion within the Labour movement changed. An
articulate, well-organised group arose to defend the Empire and was henceforth answered
chiefly by the Marxists. This alignment solidified during the remainder of the decade as
the Labour Party became increasingly estranged from the aspirations of colonial groups,
especially in India. Even the UDC voiced only mild criticism of Labour's participa¬
tion on the Simon Commission.103The remaining anti-imperialists in the Party, who
were chiefly in the ILP, found themselves working for a time with the Communists in
the League Against Imperialism.104 Even after they left the League they drew more
and more on Marxist concepts to provide a theoretical foundation for their activities.
105 Thus the Marxist theory of imperialism achieved an influence within the rest of
the movement out of all proportion to the size of the Communist Party.
Imperialism became an issue on which Marxists could exert considerable leverage on
the organised labour movement, and both the Communist Party and the Labour
Colleges devoted considerable energy to anti-imperialist agitation within the unions.
The 1925 Congress of the TUC passed by more than three million votes to less than
a hundred thousand the following resolution:
This TUC believes that the domination of non-British peoples by the British
Government is a form of capitalist exploitation .... It declares its complete
opposition to Imperialism ....106
The 1925 Congress was exceptionally left-wing but all the same this resolution invites
comparison with a resolution in favour of Empire Socialism passed by the Labour
Party Conference a month later.107 The whole tone of discussion in the TUC was
distinctly different to that of the Radical-dominated discussion in the Labour Party.
There was a militant class content among the unions which contrasted with the
"Victorian paternalistic humanitarianism" of the middle-class ex-Liberals.108 This
is not to suggest that the TUC delegates in 1925 all subscribed to a Marxist view of
imperialism, even though the motion was put forward under Communist initiative.
Rather, because of the Labour leaders' abandonment of opposition to imperialism, its
explicit support among sections of the Party, and the faltering of the Radicals, the
Marxists were left as the clearest and most coherent opponents. Harry Pollitt was
therefore able to give the lead to delegates at the TUC Congress in 1925 and attract
general support when he "hoped Congress would give an answer to the Empire propa¬
ganda which had been put forward by the right-wing of their movement during the
last twelve months". In this way working-class internationalism took on a distinctly
1. Hobson, Imperialism. A Study, London, 1902, pp. 76 et seq.
2. This doctrine of under-consumptionism was first stated by Hobson in its mature form
in The Problem of Unemployment, London, 1896.
3. Brailsford, The War of Steel and Gold, London, 1914, p.64.
4. Ibid., p.81.
5. Ibid.; Brailsford, 'The Principles of Empire', Olives of Endless Age, New York, 1928,
6. Hobson, The Psychology of Jingoism, London, 1910, p.131.
7. Ibid., p.3; quoted in Richard Price, An Imperial War and the British Work ing-Class,
London, 1972, p.176. I have attempted an analysis of this type of contempt for the
working-class on the part of progressives and Labour leaders in a forthcoming article,
'Labour, Marxism and Working-Class Apathy in the 1920s', to be published in The
8. See for example Keir Hardie, From Serfdom to Socialism, London, 1907; MacDonald,
Labour and the Empire, London, 1907. This longstanding Radical tradition has been
discussed by A.J.P. Taylor, The Trouble Makers. Dissent Over Foreign Policy, London,
9 Though Richard Price, in An Imperial War and the British Working-Class, has examined
the domestic impact of the Boer War and argues forcefully that historians have unduly
emphasised the extent of working-class jingoism. See also Tingfu F. Tsiang, Labour and
Empire, New York, 1923.
10. Bill Baker, The Social Democratic Federation and the Boer War, London, 1974; the
cautionary note is struck by Norman Etherington, "Hyndman, the Social-Democratic
Federation and Imperialism", Historical Studies (Melbourne), 16 (1974), pp.89-103.
11. For some examples see Baker, op.cite., p.4; and Bernard Porter, Critics of Empire.
British Radical Attitudes to Imperialism in Africa 1895-1914, London, 1968, pp.97-101.
12. See E.M. Winslow, The Pattern of Imperialism. A Study in the Theories of Power, New
13. Imperialism and the World Economy, London, 1929, p.121; and in Luxemburg and
Bukharin, Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital, London, 1972, P.256.
14. Leonard Woolf, Economic Imperialism, London, 1920, p.100.
15. The chief writings of Bauer and Hilferding are still not translated. For discussion see
Paul M. Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development. Principles of Marxian Political
Economy, New York, 1942; and Winslow, op. cit., esp. pp.158-69.
16. Translated in 1951 as The Accumulation of Capital. See also her "The Accumulation of
Capital—an Anti-Critique", in Luxemburg and Bukharin, op. cit.
17. A distinction can be drawn between Luxemburg's views on the genesis and the impact of
imperialism; on the latter see George Lee, "Rosa Luxemburg and the Impact of
Imperialism", Economic Journal, LXXXI (1971), pp.847-62.
18. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) was translated in 1926; Buk¬
harin, Imperialism and World Economy (1915) in 1929; see also Bukharin, "Imperialism
and the Accumulation of Capital", (1924), translated in 1972.
19. With regard to Hobson, see AJ.P. Taylor, Englishmen and Others, London, 1956, p.76.
The differences between Lenin and Hobson are explained by Eric Stokes, "Late Nine¬
teenth Century Expansion and the Attack on the Theory of Economic Imperialism: A
Case of Mistaken Identity", Historical Journal, XII (1969), pp. 285-301.
20. Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, p.84.
21. "Capitalism and Imperialism", Call, 22 February 1917. The Call was the weekly news¬
paper of the BSP.
22. New York, 1916, p.64. Newbold defended Boudin in a subsequent article, "Metallur¬
gical Capitalism", Call, 29 March 1917.
23. Call, 11, 25 January 1917.
24. G. Tchitcherine (sic), "Russian Socialists and the International", Call, 4 January 1917;
John Bryan (pseudonym for Theodore Rothstein), Cotton, Iron and Imperialism', Call,
8 March 1917.
25. Paul, Labour and Empire: A Study in Imperialism, Glasgow, n.d. (1917?); see also his
The State: Its Origins and Function, Glasgow, 1917, pp. 190-2. Starr, A Worker Looks
•t Economics, London, 1925, p.53. Outline of Modern Imperialism, London, 1923, pp.
26. Imperialism: The Final Stage of Capitalism (trans Andre Tridon), Boston, n.d.
27. The Foundations of Imperialist Policy, London, 1922.
28. Jackson, London, 1922. See also Palme Dutt's summary of "The Theory of the
Communists", in The Two Internationals, London, 1920; Eden and Cedar Paul,
Creative Revolution, London, 1920; William Paul, Communism and Society, London,
1922; and Raymond Postgate, The Bolshevik Theory, London, 1920. Maurice Dobb
was far more critical of under-consumptionism; "Imperial Expansion; a Marxist Analysis",
Plebi, XIII (1921), pp. 261-5, 293-6, 331-3, 368-71.
29. "More British Marxism", Labour Monthly, IV (1923), pp. 124-8.
30. 'Empire' Socialism, London, 1925; Modern India, Bombay, 1926, and London, 1927;
Free the Colonies, London, 1931.
31. My Three Revolutions, London, 1969, p.180. Price's first summary appeared in "The
Communist Party Conference at Jena", Communist Review, 1 (October 1921), pp.34-6.
See also his Germany in Transition, London, 1923, pp. 218-26; and Socialism as a
Science, Gloucester, n.d. 1924, pp. 25-6.
32. Max Beer provided a fresh summary in "The Lenin-Luxemburg Controversy", Plebs,
XIX (1927), pp. 199-203.
33. "Theory and Practice", Plebs, XIII (1921), pp. 357-9; A Worker Looks at Economics,
pp. 42, 53, 84-5; A Worker Looks at History, London, 1923 edition, pp. 155-8.
34. "Self Study Syllabus", Communist, III (1928), pp.45-7.
36. "Some Questions Regarding the History of Bolshevism", Communist International,
VIII (1931), pp.664-9; reprinted in Leninism, vol. 2, London, 1933, pp.446-58.
37. "Comrade Stalin's Letter and the CPGB", Communist Review, n.s. IV (1932), pp. 199,
204. He was replying to T.A. Jackson's well-intentioned but uninformed defence of
Luxemburg in Daily Worker, 12 February 1932; retracted 4 May.
38. Price, "The New Machiavelli", Labour Monthly, VII (1925), p.33; "The Experts'
Report", Pleb*, XVI (1924), p.297. For Newbold see especially "Diddling Them with
Dawes", Labour Monthly, VII (1925), pp.118-20. On this Report to the Reparations
Commission of the Committee chaired by General Dawes, see C.L. Mowat, Britain
Between the Wars 1918-1940, London, 1955, pp.178-9.
40. The Economic Problems of Europe, Pre-War and After, London, 1928, pp. 149, et
41. It was noticed by Maurice Dobb in his Review of The Economic Problems of Europe,
Labour Monthly, XI. pp.1 25-8.
42. Printed in Communist Papers, Documents Selected from Those Obtained on the
Arrest of the Communist Leaders on the 14 and 21 October 1925, Cmd.2682, London,
1926, pp. 33,35.
43. Shapurji Saklatvala , "Communism", in Encyclopaedia of the Labour Movement,
London, 1928, vol. I, p.151. Emile Burns, Imperialism. An Outline Course, London,
1927, p.6. Maurice Dobb , "Capitalism and Surplus", Labour Monthly, X (1928),
44. Collected Works, XXII. p.266.
45. pp. 118-9.
46. See the report of his address to the Six Congress in Labour Monthly, X (1928), p.538,
610-1, His retraction appeared in the Daily Worker, 26 November 1930.
47. R. Page Arnot, "The World Economic Crisis", Communist Review, n.s. II (1930), pp.
94-5; H.P. Rathbone, "Imperialism: The Decay of Capitalism", Daily Worker,
28 March 1930.
48. Helene Carrere d'Encausse and Stuart R. Schram, Marxism and Asia. An Introduction
with Readings, London, 1969, p.16.
49. "The Irish Rebellion of 1916", Collected Works, XXII, p.357.
50. On the colonial question at the Second Congress see Demetrio Boarsner, The Bolsheviks
and the National and Colonial Question (1917-1928), Geneva, 1957, pp. 72-97; E.H. Carr,
The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, vol. I l l , pp. 251-9; Carrere d'Encausse and Schram,
op. cit., pp. 26-31, 149-67; M.N. Roy's Memoirs, Bombay, 1964, pp. 354-382.
51. "Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Question", Communist Inter¬
national, 11-12 (1920), pp. 2158-9; Collected Works, XXXI, pp. 149, 150.
52; Roy's "Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question", in Eenia
Joukoff Eudin and Robert C. North, Soviet Russia and the East 1920-1927. A Docu¬
mentary Survey, Stanford, 1957, p.66. The Second quotation is taken from the discus¬
sion within the Congress Commission and is taken from Carrere d'Encausse and
Schram, op. cit., p.151.
53. Ibid, p.152.
54. The Second Congress of the Communist International. Proceedings .... American Pub¬
lishing Office of the Communist International (no further details given), 1921, p.122.
55. Additional Theses on National and Colonial Questions. (Theses Adopted by the Second
Congress of the Communist International), London, n.d. (1921), pp. 7-14. Lenin
explained the changes in Proceedings, pp. 113-4; Collected Works, XXXI, pp. 240-5.
56. Reported by Lenin, Proceedings, pp. 115-6.
57. A typical example can be found in the proceedings of the Enlarged Plenum of the
ECCI, Inprecorr, III (22 January 1922), pp. 439-52.
58. Quelch, "Black Labour", Call, 25 January 1917; Chicherin, letter to Call, 8 February,
1917;Quelch's reply, Call, 15 February 1917.
59. "Outcry Against the Black Horror", Communist, 8 April 1911. For a discussion of
racialism within the British left during the period see Robert C. Reinders, "Racialism
on the Left' E.D. Morel and the 'Black Horror on the Rhine'," International Review
of Social History, XIII (1968), pp. 1 -28.
60. See especially Roy, "Proletarian Revolution in India", Workers' Dreadnought, 11 Sep¬
tember 1920; "The Empire and the Revolution", Labour Monthly, III (1922), pp.219-25.
Evelyn Roy, "The Crisis in Indian Nationalism", ibid., pp. 146-53; "The Forces Beneath
the Present Lull in India", Inprecorr, II (1922). Mukherji, "Indian Labour Movement",
Communist Review, III (1922), pp. 239-45.
61. Saklatvala, "India in the Labour World", Labour Monthly, I (1921), pp. 440-51; Dutt;
review of Roy's India in Transition, ibid.. Ill (1922), pp. 187-90.
62. Resolution on imperialism, passed at the Seventh Congress, 1925, and reaffirmed at
the Eighth Congress of the CPGB ..., London, 1927, p.81.
63. See David N. Druha, Soviet Russia and Indian Communism, New York, 1959, pp.46-141 ;
M.R, Masani, The Communist Party of India. A Short History, London, 1954, pp. 19-40;
Gene D. Overstreet and Marshall Windmiller, Communism in India, Berkeley, 1959, pp.
64. For difficulties in relations see Druha, op. cit., pp. 89-93. Roy was condemned at the
Sixth World Congress and expelled at the Tenth Plenum in 1929: see G. Safarov, "The
End of Mr Roy (The Ideological Metamorphosis of a Renegade)", Communist Inter¬
national, VI (1930), pp. 1108-16.
65. pp. 28, 16, 145-6. These quotations are taken from the London edition of 1927 which
moved closer to Roy than the earlier Bombay edition of 1926.
66. "Capitalist Reconstruction in Indian Agriculture", Labour Monthly, IX (1927), pp,
67. The Communist International Between the Fifth and Sixth World Congresses 1924-28,
London, 1928, pp. 464-77. See also Agitprop, Class War or Imperialist War. Informa¬
tion Bulletin for the Use of Propagandists and Party Training Groups, London, n.d.,
which refers on p.11 to the "rapid industrialisation of India".
68. The Revolutionary Movement in the Colonies, pp. 3, 20. See Inprecorr, VIII (1928),
pp. 1225-1542 for the Congress debates and MacFarlane, The British Communist
Party, pp. 204-9, and Enrica Collotti Pischal and Chiana Robertazzi, L'lnternationale
Communists et les Problemes coloniaux 1919-1935, Paris, 1968 pp. 316-32 for
69. Quoted in Overstreet and Windmiller, op. cit., p. 115. The Inprecorr version differs:
70. The Times, 23 January 1929.
71. "Report of the Communist Party Congress", Workers' Life, 25 January 1929.
72. How Britain Rules India, London, 1929, p.6.
73. "The Colonial Question and the Sixth Congress", Communist Review, I (March 1929),
p.168. Campbell argued similarly in his foreword to The Revolutionary Movement in
the Colonies, pp. vii-viii.
74. Mukherji, "British Imperialist Policy in India", Communist Review, I (1929), p.322.
75. Clemens Dutt, "The Role and Leadership of the Indian Working-Class", Labour
Monthly, XI (December 1929), pp. 741-52; Arnot, "Classes and Parties in India",
Daily Worker, 26 May 1930.
76. Reported by Sir Frederick Maurice, Haldane, vol. 2, London, 1939, p.152.
77. Labour and the Empire, London, 1926. See Leonard Woolf's description of the frustra¬
tion felt by members of the Advisory Committee in Downhill All The Way, London,
78. Henderson, The Aims of Labour, p.84; Labour Party Conference Report 1918, p.138.
79. "A Socialist Commentary", Forward, 26 July, 9 August 1924.
80. John S. Clarke, "Shall We Smash It ?", Forward, 3 October 1925. See also Newbold,
"The Workers and the Empire", ibid., 9 August 1924.
81. The Labour Party and the Empire, London, 1926, pp.7, 17; "The Empire is our
Country", Lansbury's Labour Weekly, 4 December 1926.
82. The Labour Party and the Empire, p.24, Johnston, Memories, London, 1952, p.50
suggests there were only "twenty or thirty of us at the most"; Lord Snell, Men, Move¬
ments and Myself, London, 1936, p.211 says there were fifty members in 1931.
83. 184 H.C. Deb, cols. 2387-2466 (12 June 1925).
84. "Labour and the Empire", Outlook, 20 June 1925.
85. New Leader, 30 March 1923; quoted in Dowse, Left in the Centre, p.96. The Liberal
tradition was also attacked by the seven members of the Labour Party, The Labour
Party's Aim, pp. 22-4.
86. Is Labour Leaving Socialism ? London, 1929, p.82; see also The Labour Party and the
Empire, pp. 83-4.
87. Lansbury, "Empire Day", Lansbury's Labour Weekly, 23 May 1925. Lansbury had a
prior association with Haden-Guest: Fischer, op.cit., p.112.
88. Interview with John Wheatley, Sunday Worker, 21 June 1925.
89. V.G. Kiernan, "India and the Labour Party", New Left Review, 42 (1967), p.45.
90. John Beckett, New Leader, 10 July 1925; quoted in Gupta, op.cit., p.66.
91. "A New Way of Empire", Daily Herald, 5 July 1924.
92. Swartz, The Union of Democratic Control, p.221.
93. "The Sudan Scandal", Communist Review, V (1924), p.237. The Reds and the Labour
Party, London, 1926 edn., p.15. See also J.R. Campbell, "Must the Empire Be Broken
Up ?", Communist Review, V, pp. 216-24; R.P. Dutt, Empire 'Socialism', London,
94. H.P. Rathbone, "Should the Empire Be Broken Up ?", Communist Review, VI (1925),
95. R. Page Arnot, "Support of the Empire is Support of War", Workers' Weekly,
1 August 1924.
96. Taylor, The Trouble Makers, pp. 135 et seq., has noticed the decline of Radicalism
after 1924 and suggested the death of Morel was particularly important.
97. Brailsford, "Socialism and the Empire", New Leader, 19 June 1925.
98. Cole, The Next Ten Years in British Social and Economic Policy, London, 1929,
p.311, Buxton, Labour Party Conference Report 1925, p.230. See also Cole, "The
Empire", Lansbury's Labour Weekly, 26 February 1927.
99. Fenner Brockway, India's Challenge, London, 1930, p.10. Georges Fischer comments
in Le Parti Travailliste et la Decolonisation de I'lnde, Paris, 1966, p.267. See also
Maxton's speech on these lines in 192 H.C. Deb. cols. 1319-25 (2 March 1926).
100. Brockway, How to End War, the ILP View on Imperialism and Internationalism,
London, 1925, p.10; see also Hobson in Foreign Affairs, VIII (1927) pp.238-9.
101. Socialism and the Empire, London, 1926, p.9, ILP Conference Report 1926, pp.90-94.
102. Brailsford, Rebel India, London, 1931, pp.145-6.
103. H.M. Swanwick, "The Statutory Commission on India", Foreign Affairs, IX (1927),
104. See Brockway, Inside the Left, pp. 167-9; Gupta, "British Labour and the Indian Left,
1919-1939", in B.R. Nanda (ed.). Socialism in India, Delhi, 1971, pp.95-6.
105. Thus Brailsford, Property or Peace, London, 1934; Brockway, Which Way for the
106. TUC Report 1925, pp.553-5.
107. Labour Party Conference Report 1925, pp. 228-36.
108. The Phrase is Gupta's, Imperialism and the British Labour Movement, London, 1974,
p.57. The contrast is noted by Henry R. Winkler, "The Emergence of a Labour Foreign
Policy in Britain, 1918-1929", Journal of Modern History, XXVIII (1956), pp.252-3.
See also A.A. Purcell's noticeably Marxist speech to the International Federation of
Trade Unions, Workers of the World-Unite, London, 1927.
109. TUC Report 1925, p.535.