The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

British Colonial Imperialism

Category: 20th century

The transition from pre-monopolistic capitalism to imperialism took place at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. This new stage of capitalist development was described by V. I. Lenin in his work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. The five essential features of imperialism pointed out by V. I. Lenin are as follows:

1. The concentration of production and capital, developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life.

2. The merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation, on the basis of this finance capital of a financial oligarchy.

3. The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities, becomes of particularly great importance.

4. International monopoly combines of capitalists are formed which divide up the world.

5. The territorial division of the world by the greatest capitalist powers is completed.*

V. I. Lenin dated the arrival of imperialism as a world wide phenomenon at about 1900.

Britain which was one of the first countries of capitalist development revealed the most marked features of this decaying stage of capitalism.’TBy the end of the 19th century Britain was gradually losing her position of the world’s leading industrial power. At the beginning of the 20th century the USA became the most developed country in the world, while Germany surpassed Britain in the development of certain important branches of industry.

The key feature of imperialism is the emergence of monopolies, and in Britain monopolies developed strongly from the closing years of the nineteenth century. \This was especially the case in the iron and steel industries, in shipping and ship building, in some new industries like the manufacture of chemicals, soap and in the case of the railways and banks. In 1902 there were 57 trusts and monopolies of other types in Britain.

In the same way, private banks were being absorbed into vast joint stock concerns with hundreds of branches all over the country. There was a further integration of banking with commercial and industrial capital. In Britain the Big Five banks held one-quarter of all bank deposits at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The export of capital and capital goods became the typical activity, in place of the export of consumer goods. British capital investments abroad, mainly in the colonies and other undeveloped countries increased four times in 1914 as compared with 1880-reaching 4,000 million pounds.

Economic and political rivalry became fierce by the beginning of the 20th century. Among economic effects was a declining share of the world n\arket for Britain. Harder competition came at the same time as British capital was being transferred to the more profitable field of investment, the colonies. Britain was being converted into a parasitic state, living more and more on income from foreign investments] Jlome industries were neglected and became relatively less important in the Britisn economy. Between 1851 and 1901 the proportion of the population employed in the basic industries tell from 25 to 15 per cent, while a higher proportion was employed in commerce, distribution, domestic service and the luxury trades. Large-scale unemployment became a permanent feature; there were rarely less than a million unemployed up to the First World War..

As monopolies grew some of them joined up in international groups. The export of capital was linked with territorial expansion both as cause and effect. British investments provided excuses for annexation, and when a territory had been annexed British state power was used as a means of furthering the monopoly interests of the London tycoons.

The next important feature of imperialism was the division of the world among the imperialist powers. The race to colonize the world was intensified by the close of the 19th century. Between 1875 and 1900 the area taken over by imperialist states increased from 11 per cent to 90 per cent in Africa alone.

However, British imperialism according to V. I. Lenin’s opinion Was predominantly of colonial character. The exploitation of the colonies made up the bulk of the profits of the British monopolistic bourgeoisie. In 1876 the population of the British coloniea numbered 250,000,000. By 1914 it had grown to about 400,000,000, whereas the population of Great Britain itself was 46,500,000. The ‘empire on which the sun never sets’ produced immense wealth for the ruling class of Britain.

During the period the monopolistic bourgeoisie played the leading role in the economic and political life of the state. It acted in alliance with the landed aristocracy which had lost its previous dominant role in politics.

The supremacy of big capital was reflected in the policies of two political parties, the / Conservatives and the Liberals taking alternate turns in the government. When one of these parties came to power. The other would criticize the new government allegedly in the interests of the nation. But both of them were true servants of big capital/*Both were noted for a reactionary riome and an aggressive foreign policy. The Conservatives, however, and their leader Disraeli pursued an aggressive colonial policy more openly than the Liberals. {The Conservatives favoured protectionism for British goods while the Liberals were for free trade^ The Conservatives staunchly supported stronger central power and opposed limited concessions and reforms! Marx said that such two parties are the two arms of one and the same ruling class of capitalists which oppresses the working masses.

In 1884 the Liberal government headed by Gladstone extended the suffrage, this time in the countryside, and the Act of 1885 made modest progress towards equal electoral districts. However, the reform of 1884 gave only four and a half million people out of a population of 36 million the right to vote. These figures prove clearly the nature of bourgeois democracy.

At the same time the party machine became stronger and more centralized. This tendency was noticeable too in parliament, where power was more and more concentrated in the hands of the prime minister and .cabinet. The further development of the state machine was also reflected in thehAct of Parliament of 1911 which established the dominant role of the House of Commons in politics and restricted the right of the House of Lords to veto a bill to a delaying period of two years.

In 1906 a Liberal government was formed headed by a clever and unscrupulous Welsh demagogue, David Lloyd George, whom Lenin assessed as a ‘masterhand at fooling the masses’. He gained support with a new series of limited social reforms, However, attractive as they were concerning old age pensions, health and unemployment insurance they did not satisfy the pressing needs of workers when prices were rising faster than wages. Labour unrest continued to grow.

British foreign policy of this period was extremely aggressive and this was especially apparent in the colonial wars fought by Britain to make new territorial gains. Both the Conservatives and the Liberals exerted every effort to extend the vast BritislP’BnTpire. On the basis of its gains in India Britain expanded its possessions in Asia. In 1879 Disraeli established a Protectorate in Afghanistan. In South East Asia Britain occupied Upper Burma. In the same period British colonial power was established on the Malacca peninsula.

However, Africa was in the focus of British colonial politics. Egypt was the first to fall. It was occupied in 1882. Sudan became the next target. Though the British colonial expedition suffered a serious setback in 1885 at the hands of the national resistance movement known as the Mahdi the British colonizers eventually established their rule in the country in 1898 when they routed the Sudanese forces in a bloody battle at Omdurman.

British colonial gains were extended further south: Bechuanaland was seized in 1885, then Kenya in 189O.

The Republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State founded in the 17th century by Dutch settlers known as Boers attracted the attention of the British colonizers. Their greed was enhanced by the discovery of vast deposits of diamonds and gold, far greater than any others in the world. In 1899 the Conservative government began a new war against the Boers with the aim of seizing their states. A merry picnic for the British troops turned out to be a harsh military campaign. Despite their military inferiority the Boers fought heroically. They waged a successful guerilla war. The British resorted to savage repressions. Only by the wholesale destruction of the Boer farmhouses and the herding of the women and children into concentration camps where thousands died of disease was the resistance worn down. In 1902 the Boers were forced to sign a peace treaty under which the Transvaal and the Orange Free State became British possessions. In 1909 the Boer territories together with Cape Colony and Natal formed the Union of South Africa with a Dominion status. The great bulk of the white minority population was united on the fundamental point of preserving their position as a ruling race exploiting a subject coloured population. So far as the treatment of the Africans was concerned there was little to choose between Boers and the British and the natives remained over-taxed, underpaid, herded into reserves and compounds and kept in a state of actual stavery. These were the origins which were later consolidated in the hateful regime of apartheid.

The British navy, then the strongest in the world, zealously protected the empire from other colonial rivals. Thus a system of bases was established on the long route from Europe to India and Asia. The most important strongholds were Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, the Suez Canal zone, Aden, Singapore, Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Ireland, the first English white colony, remained a dominant issue in British politics. The Irish bourgeois and liberal circles scared by the Fenian movement and possible agrarian outrages caused by the destitute position of the starving Irish peasantry launched a peaceful constitutional movement aimed at achieving limited autonomy for Ireland known as home rule. The Irish League formed in 1870 hoped to win home rule by exploiting the contradictions between the Conservatives and Liberals. The 1874 elections were successful for the League supporters: 60 of them were elected to Parliament. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846 — 91), a prominent figure of the bourgeois and liberal circles became the unquestionable leader of the Irish home rule movement. He proved himself an astute and resolute leader with a powerful personality which impressed itself on the political life of the day. Parnell soon made himself master of a new parliamentary tactic — obstruction. By keeping the House of Commons up all night with their speeches, the Irish could hold up the progress of all business. This was a new and sensational method of forcing the Irish party and its problems on the attention of the British parliament.

In Ireland itself, the agrarian problem became acute with the agricultural slump which set in after 1875. In 1879 the Irish Land League was formed — a mass organization of Irish tenants, the town poor and of radical intellectuals. Direct action began. Evictions which were widespread in the country were challenged by agrarian outrages. In the course of struggle the Irish invented a new method of attack — if a new tenant took over a farm from one who had been evicted, he should be ‘isolated from his kind as if he were a leper of old’. From the first person to be treated in this way, a landlord’s agent called Captain Boycott who was completely isolated by the local Irish population, came the name which has ever since been given to this kind of treatment. The policy was successful; it gave the authorities great trouble. In 1881 the British government passed the Coercion Bill in parliament which gave the authorities in Ireland special powers of arrest. The Irish launched a fury of protest. Under such circumstances trying to pacify the country Gladstone passed in 1881 the Irish Land Act which made some modest concessions to the tenant holder. However, the Act did not remove the basic wrongs and the Irish issue remained a major challenge to British statesmanship.

The independence movement continued to gain momentum. In 1896 the Irish Socialist party was formed. It was headed by such outstanding leaders of the working class like James Connolly and James Larkin. The party was very popular among the unskilled workers and strikes became a most serious threat to the Establishment. Most outstanding was the general strike of Irish workers in Dublin in 1913. ..”■■

Meanwhile the growing unrest in Ireland compelled the Liberal party to promise a limited amount of independence in the Bill of 1912. However, it was vetoed by the House of Lords which delayed its becoming law for two years. Moreover, the Tories prepared to use force to keep the northern province of Ulster, the industrialized north-eastern corner of Ireland, largely occupied by descendants of Anglo-Scotch protestants, out of a free Ireland. They raised a force of volunteers in Ulster and then organized the British officers in Ireland to threaten to resign rather than fight the rebel volunteers who were ‘their own kith and kin’. The government gave in to the mutinous officers and promised not to use them against Ulster. This was the crisis of which Lenin wrote, ‘March 21, 1914, will be an epoch-making turning point, the day when the noble landowners of Britain, tore the British Constitution and British law to shreds and gave an excellent lesson of the class struggle’. The Irish independence movement grew to its dramatic pitch in 1916 when an armed revolt against British rule broke out in the country. It is known as the Easter-Week Rising for it took place on Easter week in April 1916. The British government drowned the revolt in blood and executed James Connolly and other leaders of the rebellion,; Despite the failure of the uprising it had far reaching consequences. The fact that an Irish republic had been proclaimed in arms changed completely the whole subsequent history of Ireland. Inevitably the British colonizers had to grant independence to Ireland and this took place in 1921 when as a result of the Anglo-Irish treaty southern Ireland received independence under the name of the Irish Free State. True the long struggle for independence was not over: the country was partitioned and six of the nine counties of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom under the name of Northern Ireland.

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