Another featured article from the latest issue of The Spokesman comes from the 2011 edition of J. A. Hobson's Imperialism. Jeremy Corbyn penned the book's foreword, which we reprint here under the title 'Internationalist at Work'.
As a separate point of interest, we also include this comparative image of the logo of publication The Week, circa 1960s, and Corbyn's recent campaign logo. Cut from the same cloth?
Internationalist at Work
J. A. Hobson wrote his great
tome at a different age. His thoughts were dominated by the zenith of the
British Empire and the Boer War. The outcome of the war demonstrated Britain’s
then ability in sustaining global reach, since Elizabethan times, but also its
extreme vulnerability. At home the poor physique of working class soldiers led
to Haldane’s investigation into working class health and living conditions. The
difficulty in containing the rebellious Boers, and the huge opposition to the
war, encouraged further doubts about the whole Empire project.
What was remarkable was that
Hobson wrote Imperialism at the end of the scramble for Africa in which Britain
had gained enormous tracts of land, and Rhodes was busying himself with the
Cape to Cairo railway project. The most cynical of western manoeuvres, the
Congress of Berlin in 1884, had agreed on the lines on the map, which largely
still exist and have been the cause of endless wars and the loss of many lives.
What is interesting is the
way in which Hobson contrasts the ‘new’ African Empire and global reach that
Britain had finally gained for itself with the two earlier editions of
Britain’s empire. The American Empire had collapsed in the eighteenth century,
when the thirteen colonies rebelled and finally gained their independence;
British efforts to re-take them were unsuccessful. Even despite the US Civil
War, the new power over the water was now almost as great as the old imperial powers
of France, Britain and Spain.
In effect, Hobson accepts
that America had gone, and that the analysis should be looking at the dilemma
between the ‘real’ British Empire in India and the new one in Africa and
scattered islands across the oceans.
For someone who was revered
by Marxists, and quoted by Lenin, for his analysis of the pressures to extend
empire, his analysis of the then current empire, and its future, was not very
revolutionary. What is brilliant, and very controversial at the time, is his analysis
of the pressures that were hard at work in pushing for a vast national effort
in grabbing new outposts of Empire on distant islands and shores. His
painstaking analysis of the costs, and the alleged benefits, of Empire is very
Pages of trade statistics
show how the vast military spending on naval escorts, army postings and the
human costs of wars had made little difference to Britain’s trade in comparison
to those countries who had little or no overseas places but successfully
traded. The characterisation of the political and commercial interests that fed
the cause of new empire is almost a parallel for our times. Then, as now, the
popular press presented a general view of British superiority over the rest of
the world, which effectively opened a space for the unholy alliance of an
ambitious military high command and huge commercial interests. This created
opportunities for arms manufacturers, business for shipping companies, and
protected closed markets for British companies. It was also the mainstay of
what had become traditional British industries such as cotton. Thousands of
people were working in mills all across Lancashire and Yorkshire making
products from raw materials which were imported over thousands of miles, and
exported in reverse over the same routes.
What is attractive is
Hobson’s ability to separate and disassemble the interests of the commercial
and imperial aims. He makes the valid point that other European countries,
without the benefit of empires, manage to be successful trading and industrial
powers in their own right.
Hobson’s railing against the
commercial interests that fuel the role of the popular press with tales of
imperial might, that then lead on to racist caricatures of African and Asian
peoples, was both correct and prescient. The way in which the British press
portrayed Ghandi in the 1930s, or Kenyatta in the 1950s or, indeed, Argentina’s
soldiers and sailors in the 1980s shows the tricks have not changed
The other relationship that
has not changed at all is the link of these interests to the supposed national
interest and the parroting of prejudices in Parliament. From John Bull and
Cecil Rhodes in the nineteenth century, the khaki politicians who encouraged
thousands to their deaths in 1914, and then the later colonial and imperial
wars, the cynical manipulation has continued. Indeed, as with previous wars,
there were deliberate media and political attempts to denigrate whole peoples
in the run up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hobson’s comments in Chapter
V when he says that ‘the increased hostility of foreign nations towards us in
the last thirty years of the nineteenth century may be regarded as entirely due
to the aggressive imperialism of those years …’ are a clear assertion of the
real process that was taking place. This is followed by a table of costs that
demonstrates how colonial trade rose from £184 millions in 1884 to £232
millions in 1903, but that arms costs went from £27 millions to £123 millions
in 1902. This vast expenditure, a four-fold rise in eighteen years, (partly
occasioned by the Boer War) encouraged the intensity of the growing arms race
and colonial competition between Britain and Germany.
Hobson describes the way
that the conglomeration of Army and Naval Officers, serving and retired, media
opinion formers and the whole retinue of manufacturers and arms dealers created
a juggernaut that cost the nation, and ultimately, the world, dear.
In Chapter VII of his book
Hobson develops a thesis that, to me, is strange, and at variance with the
general analysis he presents against empire. He discusses the issues of
organisation and activity of an empire and seems to be heading, in part, in the
direction of some kind of Anglo Saxon Empire. This was long before the French
idea of Overseas Departments and a global empire based on the cultural norms of
the mother country. In this section Hobson makes some very prescient comments
on the cultural identity and power of both India and China. Now emerging as the
two most populous nations in the world and of ever increasing importance. In
1902, neither was united as a nation, both were wholly or partly occupied and
controlled by European powers. His analysis was based on the obvious issues of
population and resources, but also on the understanding of the colonial and
technical traditions of both countries. China was clearly the most pre-eminent
power for most of the past millennium and is now, in reality, returning to the
technical pre-eminence it enjoyed before the European industrial revolutions.
What Hobson also observed
was the growing industrial and imperial power of China; expansion and casting
an eye towards the Pacific. In very prescient observations he saw military
rivalry with the United States. Forty years later, a vicious conflict was in
full swing between the USA and Japan in World War Two.
Reading Hobson’s works now,
at the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, and acknowledging
all that has happened in the huge sweep of imperial and post colonial history,
he deserves enormous credit and recognition. At his time of writing the British
Empire was at its zenith, as were the French and German empires. The European
powers were feeling very pleased with themselves, having divided Africa amongst
themselves at the Congress of Berlin in 1884. They also accepted the Monroe
Doctrine, which gave the United States the whip hand over the former Spanish
colonies of Latin America. US power, already huge, and its armed forces, soon
to become more than a match for the Europeans, were honed from their domestic
arms race in the civil war. Active in aggression and occupation in Mexico,
Cuba, the Philippines, their forces were ideally equipped for their initially
reluctant participation in the Great War.
The Europeans’ meanwhile,
were concerning themselves with the challenge of the declining Ottoman Empire.
National competition, huge leaps in arms technology, and nationalist rhetoric
encouraged the descent into the abyss of the First World War. The millions who
died in the trenches and mud of the Western Front laid down their lives for
each other’s empires. The whole allied edifice came crashing down when Russia
withdrew, following the revolution, the Germans surrendered, and faced the
arrogance of the victorious allies in Versailles.
The complexities of
Versailles are often presented as the end of Empire but were, in fact, a change
of gear and approach whilst preserving the colonial sensitivities of Britain
and France. The German colonies were divided up between the victorious powers,
while the Ottoman Empire was divided into the now notorious ‘mandates’. Woodrow
Wilson and his ‘fourteen points’ were the high point of articulation of then
American liberal thinking, but tinged with more than a nod towards rapidly
developing industrial and military US power.
Even as the great powers
were humiliating Germany at Versailles and sharing out the spoils of war, they
were united in detestation of the nascent Soviet Union. An alliance of all the
victorious powers was equipping the Tsarist forces and fighting the Red Army.
The Soviet Union survived, and expelled those forces as huge workers’ risings
were taking place in Europe, particularly Germany.
The era of traditional
empire was over, but was Imperial thinking? Britain and France clung on to
their colonial possessions with increasing difficulty and inability to pay for
the rising military cost of subjecting people in revolt against the notion of
distant European control of their lives. Both countries indulged in grand self
delusions of huge buildings such as Lutyens’ palaces in New Delhi and attempts
at uniting the empire with new shipping and airlines. Astonishingly, at a time
of depression and rapid economic decline at home, Imperial Airways was
presented as a step forward; there were massive Empire Day festivities and
grand Royal tours of the Empire.
The costs of World War Two
and the loss of prestige of the European colonialists did not prevent Britain,
France and The Netherlands attempting to re-take their ‘possessions’ in Asia
from the Japanese and return to the 1930s. In the case of Vietnam and
Indonesia, this was done with the enlisted support of surrendered and then
conscripted Japanese soldiers.
Suspicion of Britain and
France’s role in their colonies temporarily fuelled American suspicions of a war
to re-create empires. Britain was forced into independence of the Indian
Subcontinent in 1947 and the catastrophic partition into India and Pakistan.
France lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and was thus forced out of
Indochina. Colonial wars followed but, by the end of the 1960s, European
empires in the sense of colonial possessions were over.
Empires collapse from a
combination of factors, principally the difficulty of governing and sustaining
a regime at a distance, but also from opposition to the whole notion of empire
at home. The two pre-eminent European colonial powers of the twentieth century,
Britain and France, both had enormous confusions on the left about empire. Both
countries had been through political revolution, which was immediately followed
by racial and political acts of contradiction to the supposed ethics of the new
forces. Cromwell, having defeated the monarchist forces in the Civil War in
1648, invaded and occupied Ireland in unparalleled brutality and savagery. The
uprising of black slaves in Haiti, in 1798, was brutally repressed by French
forces sent by Napoleon in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
In a sense, that confusion
and contradiction remained with the British left who supported Empire Free
Trade and dominion status in the 1920s. Elements of the French left initially
supported the war against independence for Algeria in the 1950s.
In many ways the military
disaster of the Suez adventure in 1956, when Britain and France tried to
prevent Egypt from nationalising the Suez Canal, was the end of their empires.
The United States and the Soviet Union became the big poles in the globe and in
their own ways developed empires of ideology and economy.
Since World War Two, the big
imperial force has been the United States on behalf of global capitalism and
the biggest, mostly US-based corporations. The propaganda for this has
presented itself as a voice for ‘freedom’ and carefully and consciously
conflated it with market economics.
The 1949 Congress for
Cultural Freedom in Amsterdam was the European opening to accompany the
military re-occupation under the guise of NATO. Thus, the Cold War was followed
by American media and cultural values, in an attempt to create an empire of the
mind. The hard power of their weaponry, the malign influence of the CIA, and
its creation of pliant and friendly governments actively suppressed and
subjugated peoples in the poorest counties of the world.
The influence of the Soviet
Union around the world was huge, but tempered by an inadequate industrial base
in comparison to the United States and the ruinously expensive arms race that
hastened its decline, and eventual collapse in 1990. But the Soviet influence
was always different, and its allies often acted quite independently. Cuba,
desperately dependent on Soviet support for its survival in 1960s through to
the 1980s, developed a quite independent foreign policy and enormous respect
and stature amongst the poorest people, particularly in Latin America.
What the Cubans and, in
particular, Che Guevara were preaching in the 1960s has an even greater
resonance today in the left of Latin America. The popular socialist movements
of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela owe much to his vision. The Bolivarian
alliance, with its economic and social justice requirements, represents a
challenge and appeal that the traditional Monroe Doctrine of military power
accompanied by global capital cannot match at all.
If the US has problems in
Latin America, it has far greater problems in relation to Islam and its behaviour
around the world. Like all empires, the excessive use of natural resources and
huge costs of its military create the paradigms of decline and collapse. The US
has, since the end of World War Two, sought access to markets and materials.
Challenged by OPEC in the 1970s, it has desperately tried to control and hang
on to influence in the Middle East. Some of this thinking led to the wars in
Iraq in 1990 and 2003.
Bush and Blair’s assertion
of the War on Terror in 2001 had as much to do with economic interests as any
notion of ‘security’. Afghanistan, the longest lasting US military involvement
apart from Vietnam, is fuelled by notions of security and assertion of military
power, but also of the huge unexploited mineral reserves. The irony of
Afghanistan is that the unsuccessful attempts by the western counties to occupy
and control will probably lead to Chinese mineral extraction to fuel their
industries. It would bring a wry smile to Hobson, who long predicted the rise
of China at the expense of the western powers.
The huge issues facing the
world are of unprecedented shortages of raw materials, food and land coupled
with enormous military expenditure and a huge gulf between the richest and
poorest. A sixth of the world’s population are permanently hungry, the same
number again are politely described as ‘food insecure’, whilst the ominous
issues of over development, water shortages and loss of ecology, and thus
sustainability, mount up.
Free market capitalism
cannot provide for everyone, or sustain the natural world. Its very imperative
is of ever hastening exploitation of all resources including people, and it
needs armies and weapons to secure those supplies. The political appeal,
unchallenged in the 1990s, of this concept is fast fading by a combination of
Islamic opposition and the radical popular movements of landless and poor
peoples in many poor countries. Increasingly, these movements also have a
resonance in the cities of the industrial countries as well.
All empires asserted
themselves by technology. The Greek and Persian Empires by language and
communications, the Romans by settlement, efficient armies and technology of
agriculture and craft. The huge empires of China were technologically well in
advance of any other for several centuries. Despite not having the use of the
wheel, horses or steam power, the American empires of Aztec, Inca and Maya
could dominate and control through advanced technology of building and
communications, and, of course, disciplined forces.
The brutality of European
expansion from the sixteenth century was based on superior weaponry and
industry, and the waging of a permanent cultural war both at home and in the
occupied lands. The racist stereotyping of peoples by the Europeans allowed the
slave trade to develop and prosper. It enabled the most appalling degradation
of subjected peoples to take place and pour untold wealth into pockets of the
merchant classes in the cities of Britain and Europe.
Culture is an important part
of empire, as is source of knowledge and understanding of history. All
countries encourage a very nationalist form of history teaching, and from that
stems racism and perverted feelings of superiority.
Technology cannot be
monopolised any longer nor communication really be brought under control. The
whole world has realised the lack of emperors’ clothes through Wikileaks; the
honesty of the imperial masters in the global market place is now forever under
However, the wars and
conflict are about poverty and hunger and the competition of the powerful for
resources. Thus, big corporations, with the support of national governments,
grab land in the poorest counties to supply food and fuel for the future.
Desperately poor people in Kenya and Guatemala watch as land is fenced in and
luscious genetically modified crops are produced and flown out to feed the
well-fed on overnight flights.
Migrant flows of people in
desperate search of work and life occur all over the world; at any one time
there are probably 200 million people on the move in search of a sustainable
life. These people, the most exploited, are the Fourth World who travel and
hope and try and survive, but often die on roads and railway lines, in seas and
Western countries in Europe
and the United States are finding they do not really control their own
economies, that the contradictions of global capital are bigger than they are.
They also realise that none of the world’s institutions can really control
anything. The United Nations, long seen as a hope for peace and order, has such
limited power and resources it can only proclaim, not control any situation.
The wars that are now being
fought are of ideas and economic power. The free market model cannot sustain or
succeed; the more collectivist approach of the Non-Aligned Movement, and assertion
of the needs of the poorer countries of the world, does provide hope.
However, the denial of
individual and collective rights, opportunities for women, and the increasing
polarisation between rich and poor contain the seeds of conflicts to come. The
writings of Arundhati Roy, as a voice for the voiceless and oppressed, are as
prescient for the future as any.
Hobson proclaimed against
the absurdity and inadequacy of empire. In this era we need sustainability and
justice. Neither is possible in an ideology committed to aggrandizement of
wealth. A century ago, Hobson analysed the motive force of Empire in an era of
uniforms, deference and unnecessary respect for power and authority. That
ideology has been replaced by an obsession with money and exploitation, and it
is just as pernicious and equally dangerous for the future.
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Labels: Imperialism, J. A. Hobson, Jeremy Corbyn, Spokesman Books, The Spokesman, The Week