The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 19th century

Not so many years ago every schoolboy used to be taught Kipling’s poem of “Big Steamers”. To the question “Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers?” the answer came:

‘“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter, Your beef, pork and mutton, eggs, apples and cheese …

We fetch it fromMelbourne,Quebecand Vancouver — Address us atHobart, Hong Kong andBombay.”

To the grateful schoolboy’s further query what he could do in return, the answer taught the lesson of sea power and empire as the basis ofBritain’s existence:

“‘Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers, Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?’

‘Send out your big warships to watch your big waters, That no one may stop us from bringing you food.”

All this echoes a past era.Britain’s warships no longer rule the seas. And the “beef, pork and mutton, eggs, apples and cheese” are in less abundant and less cheap supply.

Every inhabitant ofBritainis today uncomfortably aware that times have changed, thatBritain’s position in the world is no longer what it was, that the former world monopoly has vanished and the day of empire domination is passing, and that new problems are arising for the existence of the people of these islands.

But the questions of empire; the maintenance and pro­tection of the vast overseas interests and spheres of domina­tion of British finance-capital; the complex manoeuvres and myriad political forms in ceaselessly changing condi­tions to counter the challenging tide of insurgent national sentiment; the precarious balance of relations, economic, political and strategic with the stronger advancing American imperialism; the deep-set hostility to the new triumphant world of socialist and anti-imperialist popular advance extending over one-third of humanity; the conflict be­tween the strategic requirements of super-rearmament for the maintenance of these interests and the limitations arising from inner economic decay—all these constitute the inner essence of modern British ruling class politics on the world arena, and the guiding red thread which alone gives consisten­cy and singleness of purpose to the various shifts and turns of Government policy, whether of Conservative Governments or Labour Governments.

Britain’s colonial system is older than British capitalism. But the Empire of today is mainly a modern growth, and the cult of Empire dates from the later years of the nineteenth century.

The colonial system ofBritaindeveloped mainly in close association with the development of capitalism at each stage. The three principal stages of capitalist development — Mer­chant Capital, Industrial Capital and Finance-Capital — have seen corresponding stages of development of the colo­nial system.

Merchant Capital initiated and dominated the first pe­riod of large-scale overseas colonial expansion. This was the pe­riod of the “Merchant Adventurers”, of freebooting and plun­dering expeditions, of the slave trade, of the establishment of trading stations, of priviledged monopoly trading com­panies, of the conquest of newly discovered overseas terri­tories, extermination of the original inhabitants and estab­lishment of colonial settlements by migration. The colonial system of capitalism before the Industrial Revolution, first under the Tudor and Stuart monarchies, then under Cromwell, the Restoration and the eighteenth century oli­garchy of the earlier phase, sought to keep a tight hold on the colonies, regarding them as a direct source of wealth for the home country, through the importation of precious metals and colonial products, while sending the minimum of goods in exchange. The “old colonial system” provided the main basis for the primary accumulation of capital which made possible the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution of the second half of the eigh­teenth century and the early nineteenth century was thus prepared and stimulated on the basis of colonial spoliation, and especially the spoliation ofIndia.Britainbecame the workshop of the world. Raw materials were drawn from all over the world. The products of British machine industry dominated the markets of every country. British shipping, under the protection of the British Navy, dominated the world trade. The old colonial monopoly developed to world industrial monopoly.

Britain’s nineteenth century world industrial monopoly brought a new phase of the colonial system. On the one hand, in those territories, such as Canada and Australia, where settlers from Britain had established themselves on the basis of extermination of the original inhabitants, these now de­veloped as offshoots of the British bourgeoisie, subsidiary to the British manufacturing centre, supplying raw materials and receiving British manufactured goods, but entering on the path of their own bourgeois economic development, even­tually to become the virtually independent Dominions. On the other hand, in the conquered and enslaved colonial countries, such as India, the West Indies and the African colonies, where the British appeared as alien rulers and trad­ers, the old basis of tribute and exploitation continued, but became subordinate to the new basis of relations, whereby the colonies served as sources of cheap raw materials, fur­nished either through the plantation system or by peasant  labour under semi-starvation conditions, and as markets for British goods. The influx of British manufactured goods spread ruin among the native handicraft industries. The bones of the weavers, wrote the Governor-General of In­dia in 1834, are bleaching the plains ofIndia.

In this era of Britain’s nineteenth century industrial supremacy the unchallenged domination of British machine industry appeared able to break down every obstacle in all countries, not only in countries directly ruled by Britain, but also in foreign countries independent of Britain. This superior economic power, which found its expression in the doctrines of laissez-faire and free trade, seemed so invin­cible to the new ruling class representatives of the British manufacturers that conceptions began to gain currency dur­ing the middle nineteenth century which dismissed the whole colonial system as a superfluous extravagance and an obsolete relic.

This short phase of fashionable anti-colonial theories did not prevent in practice the continuance of colonial ag­gression and conquest also through the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Warships and guns were still found useful to batter a way into markets.Adenwas annexed in 1839;New Zealandin 1840;Natalin 1843; Sind in 1843; the Punjab by the campaigns of 1845 and 1848;Burmain 1852.

But it was the Great Depression6 of the eighteen-pev- enties, when for the first timeBritain’s export supremacy began to weaken before the advance of new industrial rivals, which ushered in the new phase of the extending of export of capital and scramble for new colonial acquisitions, pre­paring the way for the twentieth century era of imperialism.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century Brit­ain lost industrial supremacy, first to the United States, and then to Germany.Britainstill maintained the first po­sition in the export of manufactured goods, but with a les­sening proportion.

But in the sphere of the export of capital and colonial expansionBritainled the way.

Between 1884 and 1900Britainacquired 3,700,000 square miles of new colonial territories. By 1914 the British Empire covered 12.7 million square miles, of which theUnited King­domrepresented 121,000 or less than one-hundredth part, the self-governing Dominions 7 million, and the colonial or dependent empire 5.6 million, or forty-six times the area of theUnited Kingdom. Thus the greater part of the depend­ent empire was acquired after 1884. The population totalled 431 millions, of which the white self-governing population ofBritainand the Dominions totalled 60 millions, or under one-seventh. The imperialist World War of 1914—1918 brought the further acquisition of one and a half million square miles. By the eve of the Second World War theBritish Empire, protectorates and dependencies covered one-quarter of the earth’s surface and one quarter of the world’s population.

The era of industrial capital had given place to the era of finance-capital.Britainhad lost industrial supremacy to become the great usurer and colonial exploiter, sucking tribute from all over the world.

The new imperialist expansion was acclaimed by its sponsors as the solution to the dilemmas of British capital­ism, after the breakdown of the mid-nineteenth century free-trade illusions of continuously advancing industrial and commercial supremacy and infinite unchecked progress.

With the loss ofBritain’s industrial world monopoly the possibilities of progressive capitalist development inBritainhad reached exhaustion. The objective conditions had ripened for the advance to the socialist organisation of society as the only progressive path forward. Socialist agi­tation arose anew inBritainfrom the eighteen-eighties, with the formation of the Social Democratic Federation, which has now become the Communist Party. The modern labour movement derives from the work of the early socialist pio­neers of the eighteen-eighties.

The champions of the new imperialism, Disraeli, Cham­berlain and Rhodes, were consciously directing their efforts to meet and defeat the rising challenge of the working class and socialism.

Let’s quoted the words of Cecil Rhodes in 1895:

“I was in the East End of London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread’, ‘bread’, ‘bread’, and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism… My cher­ished idea is a solution for the social problem, i. e. in or­der to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United King­dom from a bloody civil war, we, colonial statesmen, must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to pro­vide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.”

Thus the millionaire exploiters cynically present the Empire as the indispensable economic basis for saving the British working class from starvation (actually, from socialism).

It is on this basis that the boasted modern imperialist “democracy” has been built, like the old Athenian slave-owning democracy, as a “democracy” of slave-owners of empire, ruling a majority of subject colonial peoples, and in practice holding subject also the masses in the metropol­itan country.

For the colonial peoples it has meant a regime of plunder of their resources and labour, extraction of gigantic monop­oly profits without return, degradation of their living con­ditions, and intensive exploitation and oppression, against which they are today in revolt.

But for the masses of the British people has the Empire brought the benefit which is claimed? On the contrary. The crumbs of a share in the spoils with which the imperialist exploiters seek to bribe the working class into acquiescence, and thus to hold off the advance of socialism, have been far outweighed by the consequent burdens, disorganisation of economy, arrest of progressive development, ruinous military exactions, colonial wars and imperialist wars, and deepen­ing crisis and decay at home.

The imperialist economy ofBritainis a parasitic econo­my. It is increasingly dependent on world tribute for its maintenance. By the eve of the First World War close on one-fifth of British imports were no longer paid for by export of goods. By the eve of the Second World War close on two-fifths of British imports were no longer paid for by export of goods. The imports surplus was covered in the first phase of imperialist development by the overseas income from foreign investments, financial commissions and ship­ping. But in the later phase, as the home decay consequent on this parasitism developed further, even the overseas income could no longer cover the unpaid imports. A net deficit in the balance of payments began to appear in the later thir­ties on the eve of the Second World War. This meant that, in place of the previous continuous accumulation of over­seas capital, a process of disaccumulation had begun. The Second World War, with its expenditure of one-quarter of overseas capital assets, enormously accelerated this process. The deficit on the balance of payments reached £ 630 mil­lion in 1947, and, after all the emergency measures since taken, remains a chronic unsolved dilemma of British capitalism today.

Thus the imperialist basis of economy, to which the fortunes and existence of the British people have been committed in the modern era, is an unsound, unstable, mortally sick basis, leading to chronic crisis.

The direction of capital investment and accumulation more and more overseas, and consequent increasing parasitic dependence on overseas tribute, has led to the neglect and decay of home industry and agriculture. When dividends of one hundred per cent could be obtained from the exploi­tation of cheap colonial labour, there was no incentive to carry through technical re-equipment or modernisation of British industry or programmes of social development at home.

While the basic industries and agriculture thus passed in­to decay in the imperialist era, the secondary and luxury industries and services, appropriate to a parasitic rentier economy, swelled and boomed.

This growth of parasitism and relative weakening of the productive working class in industry had its harmful conse­quences also on the development of the labour movement. The corruption of the upper section of the working class stifled the original revolutionary impulse of Chartism and led to the retarded and distorted development of the labour movement, tying the workers to alliance with capitalist policies and delaying the advance to socialism.

The ruinous cost of imperialist policy was shown in the growing burden of armaments and war. Britain’s ceaseless colonial wars throughout the imperialist era, including the South African War at the opening of the century, culminat­ed in the heavy destruction and price in blood of two world wars, with the consequent crippling of Britain’s economy. Yet, frantic preparations are now pressed forward for a Third World War, for which the impoverished British economy is being driven to pile up armaments to new record heights.

Thus the balance sheet of imperialism, however profitable for the big monopolists, has been disastrous for the mass of the people.

The modern imperialist system of British economy has now entered into deepening crisis and is approaching collapse.

The freedom struggle and revolt of the colonial peoples against their oppression has developed continuously with the colonial empire. The pages of colonial history are littered with colonial wars and the barbarous repression of popular revolt. But it is only in the modern era, as the conditions have ripened, first with the development of the colonial bourgeoisie, and then with the development of the colonial working class, that this spontaneous popular revolt has been able to advance to the stage of powerful national liberation movements, capable of uniting and organising the entire people, in association with the working class in the imperial­ist countries and with the victories of the socialist revo­lution, to challenge the foundations of their oppressors’ rule, and march forward to victory over imperialism.

This is the advance which has gone enormously forward since the Second World War.

Imperialism has adopted counter-measures to endeav­our to meet the new situation, to crush the colonial revolt and restore or maintain the colonial system, often through new forms or manoeuvres of pseudo-independence.

There is a tacit convention of a kind of double book­keeping of the Empire; and the two sides of the ledger are never brought into contact. On the one side, the concrete realities of the giant colonial trusts and combines, planta- tion-owners, and 100 per cent profits; the mass poverty and exploitation, starvation wages, pestilential slums and peasant ruin, the colonial penal laws and repression; the concentration camps, terror and shooting, the troops, guns and bombing planes. On the other side, the sentiments of universal philanthropy and benevolence, of liberal enlight­enment and the march to freedom “within the mystic circle of the Crown”, and of development and welfare, substan­tiated by the few niggardly crumbs thrown out from the vast profits of the monopolies.

In deference to changed outlooks and the spread of democ­ratic anti-imperialist sentiments, an apologetic and dep­recatory tone has become de rigueur in current official ut­terance for all references to empire and imperialism. The old full-blooded advocacy of imperialism is now frowned upon in official circles as in bad taste in the present period of crit­ical tensions and delicate balances. Instead, the conven­tional diplomatic fiction is well on the way to becoming es­tablished that the traditional conceptions of empire and im­perialism belong to the bad old past, and have long been washed away in the universal tide of enlightenment, mutual improvement, and general emancipation.

It is a characteristic symptom of institutions in extreme decay that plain language, which once was used habitually without question in the days of robust self-confidence, becomes diplomatically undesirable and tabu in the final stages of nervous palsy and apologetics. The brutal frankness of designation of “master” and “hand” is covered over with a sickly mantle of “equality” and “co-partnership” and “the new spirit in industry” and “industrial psychology”, not because the reality of wage-slavery has yet been abol­ished, but because it is under extreme menace and due to be replaced by a new relationship, and the representatives of the old order hope to stave off the evil day by substituting a change of words for a change of realities.

In the same way the terms “empire” and “imperialism”, which once were proclaimed with pride, have fallen into disfavour. In current official utterances it is fashionable to claim that “empire” and “imperialism” belong to the ob­solete past, and have long since been replaced by a “Com­monwealth” based on freedom.

The conception of a Commonwealth of free nations vol­untarily associating for progressive aims could be a very fine conception. But the substitution of the word “Commonwealth” for the word “Empire” does not diminish by one whit the colonial plunder and exploitation.

This sophistry of language also confuses “the decay” of Empire with the “end” of Empire. Undoubtedly these conventional modern disclaimers of “imperialism” are a tribute to the strength of anti-imperialist feeling — just as hypocrisy is proverbially the tribute vice pays to virtue. They are a recognition that the concept of empire and im­perialism is no longer popular and can no longer be jus­tified. They represent an attempt to juggle with the new techniques of imperialism in decay and present them as equivalent to the end of imperialism. But they are a very misleading guide to the real situation.

British imperialism is gravely weakened today, both by the pressure of American imperialism and by the advance of the revolt of the colonial peoples, as well as through its own internal economic disorganisation and contradictions. But this does not mean that it has already given up the ghost or retired from the arena.

Over large areas the British imperialists have had to execute retreating movements, or to make concessions. In many regions they have had to give way before a strength of popular revolt too great to be quelled, and to concede in­dependence and withdraw their armed forces. They have sought the best possible alternative through a compromise settlement with upper-class elements in order to salvage at any rate their old economic assets and some measure of continuing influence and penetration. In other regions they have had to surrender old monopoly strongholds and make concessions to the extending penetration ofUnited Statesmonopolists and strategists.

But over other areas the British imperialists seek to main­tain full domination and direct rule by all methods, includ­ing the unrestrained use of violence, police state methods and armed force — often alongside limited constitutional con­cessions.

For purposes of propaganda all the limelight is turned on the areas where the strength of the national movement has compelled a retreat or on the limited constitutional conces­sions. Under cover of this propaganda the violent aggressive character of imperialism is concealed from view, and the British people are called on to make sacrifices and support colossal armaments for “defence”.

In constitutional parlance the sole unifying factor which is valid for all the varied parts of the Empire is “the Crown”. This is, however, a constitutional symbol, not an executive organ of government. It can be regarded as the formal expres­sion of executive authority in theUnited Kingdomand the colonies directly administered by theUnited Kingdom. But it is in no sense, not even formally, the executive authority in any of the Dominions, old or new, in relation to which “the Crown” represents “the Head of the Commonwealth”, not an organ of government or sovereignty. The real basis of unity cannot be the symbol, which is only the symptom or expression of the unity that gives rise to the symbol. The existence of the symbol only leads to the previous question: what gives rise to the symbol? What is the economic-polit­ical reality which finds necessary the symbol of “the Crown”, and to the interests of which this symbol corresponds?

Is the Empire, then, a species of loose alliance, federation or association with mutual obligations and responsibilities? To this suggestion the answer must be negative. The Empire is in no sense a federation: all the endeavours of the imperial lederationists have invariably met with a shipwreck. Nor is the Empire an alliance. And if refuge is sought in the at­tempt to describe the Empire as an “association”, without any formal agreement or concrete obligations or responsi­bilities, this is once again to beg the question. Since there is no formal agreement, written or unwritten, what is the basis of association?

The despair of the constitutional jurists and political pundits to find an answer to this question leads to the attempt to create a mystique of Empire. But there is no common character of nationality, race, religion or political forms over the Empire as a whole. Between the peoples of Britain and the “White” Dominions — primarily,Australia,New Zealand and Canada— there are common ties of kinship, language and tradition. But these represent numerically only a very small minority of the Empire. This natural basis of affinity has no application for the Empire as a whole. It is also possible to speak of a genuine basis of unity of interests of all the peoples of the Empire, but this unity is in the struggle against imperialism to establish a new basis of re­lations. It has nothing in common with the unity based on imperialist domination and exploitation.

The attempt, however, to substitute a mystique of Empire for a definable bond does in fact provide a clue to the real solution, provided that clue is followed through. For the final refuge in an undefinable mystique, a supposed “spiritual” essence which cannot be expressed in words, is always the last resort of a ruling class to describe a class reality whose true character it is desired to conceal.

When all the mythical factors of unity of the existing system of the Empire have been examined and exposed for the figments which they are, there remains one hard, concrete reality which is the sole common factor underlying the pre­sent economic-political structure of the Empire. That sole common factor is British finance-capital. It is British finance-capital whose ramifications reach through all the variety of political forms of the existing Empire, and which seeks with its customary coy anonymity toconceal itself beneath the symbol of “the Crown”.

Hence, to see the reality of the Empire as it is today, behind all the kaleidoscope of changing outer forms, it is necessary to see above all, and first and foremost, the great imperialist monopolies and combines, i. e. the monopolies and financial trusts which represent primarily British capi­tal, and normally have their headquarters in London, but operate on a world scale, and especially in the countries of the Empire. These imperialist monopolies seldom appear in the fantasies of the constitutional jurists and historians of the Empire. But in practice their operations, through a varie­ty of forms, and often through subsidiary companies, extend through all the countries of the Empire. Not only do they continue to operate, but they continue, even in these days of the “liquidation” of Empire and the “renunciation” of imperialism, to extract gigantic super-profits.

British imperialism is not yet finished. It is striving to adopt many new forms and techniques to meet new condi­tions, not in order to commit suicide or liquidate itself, but in order to continue to promote its age-old aims of extracting the super-profits of colonial exploitation. It has to retreat in places at the same time as it seeks to advance in others. The dying wild beast of imperialism has not become a lamb. On the contrary, the dying animal is often more desperate, ferocious, reckless, aggressive and bellicose. Witness of it is written from super-rearmament to the worship of the atom bomb as the supreme weapon of “civilisation”.

From Britain’s Crisis of Empire and The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire by R. Palme Dutt

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