Thursday, February 27, 2014

Imperialism and The British Labour Movement in the 1920's by Stuart Macintyre


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



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.



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

imperialist interests.

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.


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.



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

were transformed...17

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



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

then prevailing.

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


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

lie". 68

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,"

he claimed.73

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".




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

of imperialism.


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

'Open Door'.

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

Marxist character.

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

Historical Journal.

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,

1957. 19

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

York, 1948.

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.

2-3. 123.

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.

35. p.454.

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

seq., 211.

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),

pp. 245-50.

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,

669-78, 744,53.

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,

1967, pp.232-8.

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),

P.I 65.

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

Workers?, 1932.

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.