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After Imperialism—What?

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

America’s changing role in world affairs is placing a new responsibility on the American public. Yesterday we were isolated; our views upon the problems of Europe, Asia, and Africa were of necessity academic; and we could afford the irresponsibility of the theoretician. At best, we could exert but little influence on the policies of the overseas powers. But tomorrow we may be in a position to determine the shape of the world. This means that we must adopt a new attitude towards the world’s problems. We can no longer afford the luxury of pursuing the Lilith of perfectionism. We must become practical and constructive.

Under this changed focus the bundle of enigmas known as the colonial problem assumes a vastly different appearance. Our former attitude towards imperialism as a solution for it can be summarized in a few words: we were against it on general principles. Not on our shoulders fell the onerous task of deciding the questions raised by that complex institution. Being at a secure and safe distance from reality, we could afford to find fault, to criticize, and in general to adopt a negative position. But this will no longer do. We must recognize that imperialism cannot be abolished with good intentions and a stroke of the pen. It is not an excrescence on the world’s body politic which can be removed by the sharp knife of a surgeon. Nor is it merely a cancer whose roots go deeply into the organism. Far truer is it to say that imperialism has in itself been something of a cure. It has been, at least during the past century, the answer to a deep-felt need; or, if you prefer, it assumed functions the need for which it took care to create.

It is unquestionably true, first of all, that imperialism was born in original sin, that it grew in avarice and reached maturity in the midst of pillage and murder. The history of the system does not make edifying reading. During the first three centuries or more of its modern existence it made but few attempts to conceal its predatory origins under a barrage of verbal humanitarianism, altruism, and missionary other-worldliness. Both in theory and in practice imperialism was synonymous with robbery, exploitation, slavery, and rule by whip or gun. Imperial administrators did not attempt to justify their existence by claiming that they introduced Western culture among black and yellow barbarians; they did not claim to teach those “black apes” how to exercise self-government or how to save their eternal souls.

These early traits have clung to the system to this day. Grandiose speeches of colonial ministers notwithstanding, the sad fact is that social, economic, and cultural conditions in almost all colonial lands present an extremely sorry spectacle. I do not know of a single British or French colony where more than thirty per cent of the population is literate; in the vast majority of colonial possessions a literacy of ten per cent is considered a glorious attainment. Infant mortality, the result of undernourishment, of shocking sanitary conditions, and of uncontrolled diseases and pestilences, is far higher in the colonies than in even the poorest Western country; the average life expectancy is certainly not above thirty years—compared with about fifty-nine years in the United States. Every investigation into colonial labor affairs has revealed conditions which could hardly be worse under outright and open slavery. Colonial wages are the lowest in the world; hours are long and arbitrary; in many colonies Master and Servant Ordinances give the employer almost unlimited rights over his slave-employee. White settlers and great plantation companies (whose stocks are favorites on the London Exchange) have displaced millions of native landowners, who have been herded into native reservations where, in the complete absence of modern means of cultivation, they suffer from a serious lack of land and often from famines. Even in the field of self-government native progress has been far less than is often imagined. Imperialism has not tried to teach the natives to manage their own affairs; indeed, it has often worked against such a policy, and far from improving native society, it has in reality erected new barriers to native unity and acted as a solvent of indigenous cultural ties.

All this, and much more besides, is true. The bill of accusations against the system, drawn up by numerous careful students, is an extremely long one. Even the progressive services which imperialism has performed have been rendered at a cost out of all reasonable proportion to the honest price that would have been levied under any rational and less selfish system of government. Yet these facts should not blind us to the truth that imperialism, while concerned primarily with selfish gain, has also performed basic and urgently needed services, and that the world is not yet ready to dispense with these services. Like all other human institutions, imperialism has changed with the passage of time; during the past century or so it has assumed, if only to justify its existence in an increasingly liberal world, new functions and new responsibilities which are of real value to both Western and Eastern peoples. To continue harping on its predatory origins is now somewhat irrelevant.

Failure to give due weight to the constructive and, in the deepest sense, necessary role of imperialism has been responsible for the vast amount of nonsense written on the subject in this country. It has led profound and discriminating students of world affairs to foretell, years and even decades ago, the inevitable death of the system; and volumes have been published under such illuminating titles as “The Crumbling of Empire” and “The Twilight of Empire.” Yet reality has made a mockery of these prophecies; somehow the wicked and doomed system seems to have been able to carry on. Moreover, the commonly accepted analysis has led to social paralysis. Since imperialism was apparently nothing more than robber economics giving no service for the tribute it exacted, there was every justification for the conclusion that it simply needed to be wiped off the face of the earth. There was no recognition of the problem of finding a substitute political system. The inevitable result of this failure to provide a constructive alternative was that far from disappearing, the system persisted—to the surprise and confusion of the liberal doctors.

Reality demands a new approach and a new analysis. Instead of dwelling continuously on the negative and antisocial aspects of imperialism, to the total disregard of any other aspect it may possess, it is high time that we began to examine what positive, socially beneficial and necessary functions it may have attempted to perform. If we can admit, as I believe we can, that imperialism has created for itself a definite function in the modern world, we will be in a position to outline the form and character of an organization which should be capable of delivering the same services more economically, more humanely, and less selfishly. A more efficient and more healthy social system can be and needs to be produced. Imperialism is wasteful, cruel, and as unsuited to the modern tempo as is the horse-and-buggy. But the fact is that until now we have not devised any institutions which can assume the services hitherto performed, however badly, by imperialism.


Imperialism has had two functional aspects. First, since the dawn of modern industrialism, it has performed a whole series of highly important services for the various colored peoples, the overwhelming majority of whom came under white domination during the last century. Second, and this aspect is at least as important, imperialism has helped solve a great number of European problems. It has been beneficial not only to the inhabitants of the leading imperialist nations of Europe, but to some extent to those of the entire continent.

The nineteenth century, it must be recalled, was, among other things, the greatest century of exploration and development of communications in human history. History textbooks speak of the fifteenth century as the “century of discovery”; but it was left for the last century to consolidate the gains of its famous predecessor. In 1800 no less than two-thirds of the globe was as isolated and as closed to human intercourse as it had been a thousand years before; by 1900 there was hardly a square mile which had not been explored and opened up. It was not until the last century that world history was born; until then, Europe, China, the Islamic countries, Africa, and other regions had led separate existences and possessed only local histories. To realize graphically the vast revolution effected during the last century one needs only to compare the personnel of the peace congress which gathered in Vienna in 1814-15 with the personnel of another peace congress about a century later.

This opening up of the world created a series of highly complicated problems, for all nations could not and did not meet on a plane of equality. There were races and peoples of very different stages of development, and the great problem was to stimulate the development of the backward ones as quickly as possible. A common denominator was essential if all were to meet as equals, and it was inevitable that the West should elevate its own peculiar civilization and culture to the position of a world standard. The West had the might to enforce its standards upon others; more important, unprecedented material success gave it the moral conviction of righteousness in doing so.

The problem of the last century, in brief, was to Westernize the globe, and modern imperialism was basically the answer. It is true, of course, that the non-European peoples had cultures of their own; it is true also that in most cases those peoples did not want the strange European conception of human bliss, which all too often came accompanied by guns. The Chinese, Arabs, and Indians had cultures which in many ways were more complex and more refined than the European; and careful anthropological studies showed before long that even the most primitive tribes of the interior of Asia and Africa had evolved intricate indigenous cultures. But all this was irrelevant; those cultures did not count. Whether the non-European peoples liked it or not, the West made it abundantly clear that all non-Western cultures were basically merely forms of barbarism, and that only those peoples which had modeled themselves upon the Western pattern could have a place of respect and security in the modern world.

How did imperialism perform its civilizing mission? First, by sending to backward countries white administrators, white engineers and doctors, teachers and traders, agricultural and irrigation experts. For an average of rather less than four thousand dollars a year, Nigeria, India, Java, Morocco, and all the other colonial territories obtained the services of, on the whole, able and highly skilled men who brought new ideas and techniques to those territories. They organized stable governments which maintained law and order; they replaced internecine warfare by law courts; they built roads, telephones, and railroads; they introduced schools which taught the rudiments of Western knowledge; hospitals, clinics, and agricultural services were organized.

It is nonsense to suppose, given the ideal of Westernization, that Asia and Africa could have managed without the services of the white officials, that they could have lifted themselves by their bootstraps. The experience of the most highly developed non-Western peoples completely explodes such a supposition. Turkey, Iran, Japan, and even countries to the south and north of Europe have all found it necessary to import officials and technicians from the most highly industrialized European states; and generally they have paid far higher salaries for lower grades of men than have the colonial territories. And it was only those backward peoples who had already been partially Westernized that of their own accord sought the services of white men. Turkey, for example, had had centuries of continuous contact with Europe before it perceived the importance of fundamental Westernization; Japan benefited from the existence of a unique combination of social, economic, political, cultural, and geographic factors. Certainly the chaotic India of the beginning of the nineteenth century, cannibal Fiji, or the primitive tribes of Africa would not of their own volition have sought the services of white experts.

I have said that the non-colonial lands which imported Western officials have had to pay far higher salaries for lower grades of men than did the colonies; this is a more important factor than might be thought. An Englishman who is delighted to serve his king and country in Nigeria or the Sudan would think twice before accepting service with a local potentate who could not guarantee him continuity of service, a retirement pension, and prestige during the period of employment. A few illustrious names apart, it is undeniable that the standards of the free-lance European services in Turkey, Persia, and China have been distinctly lower than those prevailing in most of the great colonial civil services, while salaries have been three or four times as high. Even the slight element of uncertainty inherent in the mandates system has been sufficient to prevent those regimes from obtaining the highest types of men, as the Permanent Mandates Commission learned more than once.

Another vital prerequisite for Westernization was capital. Asia and Africa needed capital if railroads were to be built, public utilities established, and Western officials paid. But not one of the colonial lands had sufficient reserves of capital for financing even the most modest project. How, then, were they to obtain this capital? Would Western investors have been so foolish as to place their savings at the disposal of capricious and untrained native potentates, even if offered ten per cent interest or more? The answer is that a few speculators did gamble in a few instances—and before long began shrieking for their governments to intervene to save their rapidly evaporating investments.

Nor have Western industrialists shown great anxiety to develop the natural resources of territories not under the control or influence of white governments, It is high time to explode the myth that private capital is adventurous. In reality, the record of Western finance proves that greater timidity and conservatism than that shown by capital can hardly be imagined. Small capital has often been a trail blazer—when assured that the flag or guns would follow; big capital has almost invariably preferred to follow the gunboat.

Imperialism, however, made it possible for Asia and Africa to obtain capital at very low rates of interest. A bankrupt Egypt to whom no one would lend a cent was able, after Britain assumed control, to obtain unlimited funds at a fraction of the interest rate she had had to pay under the native Khedive. India has been able to obtain capital at about a two per cent lower rate than Japan, which intrinsically is a far better risk and which has had an excellent financial record; in this way alone India has saved about $1,500,000,000 since the beginning of the century. Cheap capital enabled India to build great irrigation projects and to charge extremely low rates for the water, to construct one of the cheapest railway systems in the world, and to carry through other vital schemes. Nigeria, Malaya, and other colonies floated loans in 1935 at three per cent interest. And during the early ‘thirties, when the depression nearly froze all streams of international finance, colonies were able to obtain capital urgently needed for development purposes.

These services imperialism has performed for non-European peoples, and there have been many others. Imperialism has given security; it has provided small and backward countries with the means for negotiating commercial and other treaties; it has lifted forsaken and unknown groups from their immemorial obscurity and, so to speak, placed them on the map. And one needs only to compare existing conditions in India with those in Afghanistan, Nigeria or the Gold Coast; compare conditions in Labrador, Egypt, and the Sudan with those in Abyssinia, to realize that the services of imperialism have been fundamentally valuable and probably indispensable. There was nothing in the material or cultural conditions of India to explain its progress during the past century, while Afghanistan, Tibet, Baluchistan, and other northern territories retained their primitive character. On the contrary, judged from the point of view of human material, natural resources, and climatic conditions, Afghanistan was far better adapted for progressive development than India.

Compare India with China. There is a vast amount of sentimental stuff written in this country about China, which has made it a mortal sin for anyone who values his reputation as a liberal to utter a skeptical thought. But what are the hard facts? The facts are that the Chinese nationalist movement has remained an extremely superficial affair; that the various governments have shown their inability to unite the Chinese; that corruption, nepotism, and maladministration have remained entrenched in public affairs; that social services, except those financed and administered by missionary ladies, are hardly known; that practically nothing has been done to improve agriculture, to establish an irrigation system, and to check floods; that famine sufferers are still left to the mercy and care of God; that almost nothing has been done to control the epidemics which rage periodically; that native industry has remained primitive and the country’s natural resources still await exploitation; that the standard of living of the masses is actually not much higher than it is in India, where social conditions have been improving, where a native intelligentsia has demonstrated growing abilities to manage the affairs of state, where a vigorous and highly developed nationalist movement has been at work, which can look forward in the normal course of events to an early assumption of the reins of government, without civil wars, without military juntos, and without petty dictators. Yet I must emphasize that anyone attempting to prophesy the future development of the two countries in 1800 would have had every reason for foretelling an infinitely brighter future for China than for chaotic, degenerate, poverty-stricken, fossilized India with its warring religious communities, castes, multitude of princes, petty tyrants, and with frontiers constantly exposed to the tender mercies of vigorous, brutal, and fanatical invaders.

All this does not mean that the honest record of accomplishments justifies the existence of the system. On the contrary, a dispassionate analysis of the history of imperialism will show that few social patterns in the long history of man’s domination over, and exploitation of, men are more wasteful, more inefficient, and more extravagant in terms of human happiness and cultural fertility. But the thing to be considered is that until now we have not evolved an organization capable of performing those functions more cheaply and with more regard for unselfish human values. True, the rate of progress under imperialism has been out of proportion to the need; again, however, it must be kept clearly in mind that but for imperialism even the few improvements in colonial conditions which it has brought about would not have taken place. Imperialism has survived not because it has proven its value in competition with other social systems, but because it has had no real competition at all.

Yet this is not the whole story. Historically, at least as important as the services which imperialism has rendered to non-European peoples have been its services to the white races. Since the middle of the last century European imperial powers have justified their occupation of foreign territory on the ground that they were performing a service to the Occident as a whole. Gladstone, for example, did not justify Britain’s occupation of Egypt on the ground that the Suez Canal had become a vital strategic point in imperial communications, or even on the ground of Manchester’s tremendous interest in Egyptian cotton. The liberal statesman felt it necessary to proclaim responsibility “not only to the people of Egypt . . . but likewise to the subjects of other Powers for the maintenance of law and order.”

Again, as in its services to the native peoples, no one can say that imperialism has discharged well its duties to the West. It is undeniable that selfishness, greed, and national exclusiveness have been its inseparable shadows. France, Spain, Belgium, and even Britain have followed a narrow national policy in their colonial empires, and have usually tried to keep out settlers, businessmen, and industrialists who were not from the home country. National capital was usually given a monopoly over the most profitable investments.

Nothing illustrates so well the failure of imperial powers to discharge their trusts as their attitude towards the immigration of non-nationals. There is no escaping from the fact that Italy, Japan, and other countries are too poor to support their dense populations. Those countries have been seeking outlets for their half-starved citizens; but instead of opening for them the doors of greatly underpopulated African and Asiatic territories under the control of the great empires, the practice has been to create the greatest obstacles to free immigration. It has been estimated that the British colonies in Africa alone could, if properly developed, absorb some three to four million settlers while vastly raising the standard of living of the natives. But Britain has followed a policy of exclusion, and four-fifths of her African empire remains seriously undeveloped.

Other charges could well be made. The oft-proclaimed “Open Door” policy, to cite one example, has remained nothing but a pious hope. Yet these facts should not distort our perspective. If imperialism has not lived up in practice to its noble promises to the Western world, the fact still remains that without imperialism, Africa and most of Asia would today be totally outside the sphere of Occidental influence. But for British, French, and other imperial administrators, white men would find Africa and Asia no more hospitable than Tibet or Yemen. The imperial powers did open four continents to world commerce; they tapped the natural resources of those continents and made the produce available for world industry; they opened new fields of capital investment, and new areas for settlement. Whether or not the procedure of Occidental powers in taking possession of alien lands to satisfy their needs can be ethically justified is beside the point. It is important only that the world needed the tea of Ceylon, the rubber and tin of Malaya, the gold of South Africa, the palm oils of West Africa. In the past, imperialism made it possible to obtain those and a host of other colonial products; and unless better and more economical methods are found to satisfy the legitimate interests of the Occident in Asia and Africa, imperialism will not only continue but will be greatly intensified, no matter which side emerges victorious in the present war.

How the imperialist powers did these things is not difficult to see. They sent military expeditions to put down native raiders and marauders; they established police organizations; their officials made it possible for white men to survive in the occupied lands. They brought security; they established a dependable process of law; they assured sound finance. Western manufacturers were enabled to open factories and trading stations in Nigeria, the Congo, Sarawak, without having to worry about the whimsies of arbitrary native potentates. Western immigrants were enabled to secure land for cultivation and to establish great plantations using native and European labor. In addition to the whites in the Union of South Africa, more than a million European settlers and probably four to six million Asiatics in Africa are dependent for their security on white rule. Can anyone imagine that the Rhodesian copper mines could continue in operation under the rule of the native chiefs, or that Ceylon would continue to produce its tea and other products, and maintain present standards of quality, if the British were to withdraw?


It is not my concern here to strike a balance between the positive and negative aspects of imperialism and to determine that the benefits have been greater or smaller than the liabilities. Such an analysis is far beyond the possibilities of an article. No doubt imperialism has been an extremely cruel system, very wasteful, often anti-social. It has certainly not been nearly as much of a blessing, either to the natives or to the world as a whole, as it has claimed to be. But it is important to remember that it has been the positive, not the negative, aspects that made it possible for the system to survive. Imperialism has not withered away because, until now, it has performed a double function, even if it has performed it badly and at an exorbitant price. No amount of criticism has been able to shake its foundations because, overlooking as it did the fundamentally necessary services of the system, the criticism has been irrelevant even if completely justified.

Asia and Africa—or the West, for that matter—are not ready to give up the services which imperialism has rendered. It is utter nonsense to suppose that Fiji or Ceylon or Borneo is ready for political independence. Very few colonial peoples can as yet dismiss their European officials without retrogressing. Conceptions such as the supremacy of the law, equal justice, individual human dignity regardless of class or station, freedom of speech, press, and conscience—all these are Western, entirely alien to most other cultures. These ideals are so revolutionary that they can be taught only by the daily example of Western officials. The colonies will also need many more technicians, engineers, physicians, and social workers than they have had in the past if they are to take their rightful place in the comity of nations within any measurable length of time. They will need far more capital than they did in the past, and at cheaper terms; they will continue to require many of the other services imperialism has rendered hitherto.

Indeed, if the democratic powers emerge victorious from the war, the demand for more rapid Westernization of colonial lands will become more urgent than ever. An increasingly progressive Western democracy will not look with favor upon the continuance of imperialist exploitation; nor will the colonial peoples themselves continue to submit to the inefficient, wasteful, and exploiting pre-war regimes. The problem of settling people from the overpopulated countries will also become greater than ever. It is a dangerous illusion to imagine that all we have to do to secure world peace is to assure a democratic victory in this war. There will be no peace—there cannot be peace—until the population problem of some countries is satisfactorily settled. Italy, Japan, and other states will not meekly submit to a continued falling of their national standard of living.

But what agency would undertake the civilizing work that remains to be done among backward peoples if imperialism were to be abolished? What agency would supervise and finance the colonization projects? That, it seems to me, is the fundamental question. Would Western administrators be more ready than hitherto to take service with native governments? Would physicians waste years in the tropics instead of building up clienteles at home? Would investors purchase bonds guaranteed by the Nigerian National Assembly or the Fiji House of Representatives? Has Iraq been able to obtain loans on the world’s money markets? Would American industrialists be so foolhardy as to establish factories or plantations in a Ceylon ruled by native potentates? Perhaps they would; but anybody with knowledge of local conditions would most certainly not invest his money in them. Why did almost all the European and American business men and industrialists who at one time expected to establish factories and trading concerns in Iraq withdraw as soon as it became obvious that Britain would relinquish her mandate?

What is to be done? The dilemma is real. On the one hand, it is perfectly obvious that imperialism has outlived its usefulness. The administrative machinery of imperialism has proved increasingly inadequate to meet the growing needs of a progressively more complex civilization and its wheels have been clogged far too much by selfishness and conservatism. It is significant that the economic develop^ ment of one colony after another has been retarded in recent years because the money market of the ruling country could not supply what was needed. Nor have England, France, and the other leading imperial states been able to supply their wards with sufficient trained personnel. On the other hand, it is no less obvious that, while the need for the services hitherto performed by imperialism is becoming greater than ever, we have failed to produce an institution capable of replacing it. Indeed, except for the mandates experiment we have not even tried—primarily because we have failed to recognize the fact that imperialism was performing a necessary service.

It is up to us to evolve a workable plan for managing backward peoples in the new democratic world order which we hope to establish at the end of the war. The problem does not defy solution. But we must approach it realistically. I say that it is up to us to produce a solution not only because we have usually taken a more idealistic and more humanitarian attitude towards social problems than most European powers; more significant still, we have vital interests at stake, To put it bluntly, neither a democratic world order nor a durable peace will be possible as long as imperialism persists. Not only will the problems connected with raw materials, trade, and surplus population in some parts of the world remain insoluble and make for bigger wars in the future; ambitious, vigorous nations will not be content to take a secondary position while a few states enhance their power and prestige by exercising control over tens of millions of foreign peoples. Two world wars in less than a quarter of a century should teach us that peace for us lies not in an impossible isolation but in removing the causes of war in other continents. If we want peace and decency we must seek it and pursue it—even unto Africa, central Asia, and the South Seas.

And the time is the present. We are now in a better position to impose our will on the Allies than we will probably be at any time in the future—if only we knew what our will is.


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