Colonialism, indigenous peoples and the split in European socialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Nov 26 14:27:18 MST 1999

The other day--without much prior reflection--I posted a passage from Rosa
Luxemburg's "Junius Pamphlet" to support the proposition that capitalism
has no progressive aspects today, as compared to 1848 when Marx wrote the
Communist Manifesto. I had never noticed before that Luxemburg had singled
out the mass murder of Putumayo Indians in Colombia in order to counter the
claim that capitalism has a "civilizing" influence. This came as a complete
surprise since I was not aware that such brutality had been a concern of
European socialism in the age of colonialism. But then I remembered that
one of the main points in the debate between the revolutionary and
reformist wings of European socialism at the turn of the century was the
role of capitalism in precapitalist societies. I decided to take a first
look at Rosa Luxemburg's "Accumulation of Capital", which views the
assimilation of precapitalist societies as not only necessary for the
system, but one that "corrodes" and feeds upon them parasitically. There is
substantial motion in her writings away from the breathless panegyrics to
the bourgeoisie found in the Communist Manifesto.

Taking this one step further, I got my hands on "Marxism and Social
Democracy: The Revisionist Debate 1896-1898," edited by H. and J.M. Tudor.
This is a collection of articles from the British and German socialist
press that deal with a number of important theoretical questions that are
actually still with us today--including the role of capitalism in
precapitalist society. While there are far fewer such societies today,
their political importance is enormous since more often than not, they pit
powerful multinational energy corporations against groups like the U'Wa in
Colombia or the Ogoni in Nigeria. The revolutionary wing of the socialist
movement a century ago argued that precapitalist societies should be
defended from colonial incursions, while Eduard Bernstein and others
declared in Social Darwinist fashion that capitalism would lift the
"savage" to a higher stage. Here are snippets from a debate between Belfort
Bax, a revolutionary, and Bernstein. Note that while Bernstein would
eventually declare that Marxism had to be "revised", he was not above
citing the Communist Manifesto in defense of colonialism.

Belfort Bax: "Colonial Policy and Chauvinism," Neue Zeit, Dec. 21, 1897:
Inevitably, Bernstein, like other adulators of modern civilisation, would
see it as undoubtedly a great step forward if Morocco were to be
appropriated by some European power, and if its primitive customs and
economic structures, with which the people are in their way generally
content, were to be flung into the maelstrom of big industry and the world
market, in which the happiness of the mass of the people is impossible! The
Moroccan people would indeed be freed from certain conspicuous abuses, but
at what price? They would have exchanged the occasional brutalities and
oppressions of the pashas for their general degradation as a proletariat. A
wasteland of boilers and chimney-smoke is created and is then called
progress and popular well-being. If progress in the capitalist sense, i.e.
the introduction of big industry, a money economy, and involvement in  the
world market is a matter of detrimental "improvements" and thus a
misfortune for a country like Morocco, which already possesses a degree of
civilisation, how much more is this true for savage and barbaric races who
know nothing at all of civilisation and who live entirely in primitive
gentile and tribal communities? It certainly cannot be progress in the
sense of an increase in the happiness of the population if the majority of
them are reduced to proletarians and if all are condemned to consume the
vile and poisonous products of European big industry. Or would Mr Bernstein
and those of his opinion (among whom I think it is fair to number the
editor of Neue Zeit) venture to maintain that it can? If not, then, insofar
as they are to be counted as Socialists, other reasons must be decisive.

Eduard Bernstein, "The Struggle of Social Democracy and the Social
Revolution," Jan. 5, 1898:
There is nothing, absolutely nothing admirable about Morocco. Simple
customs and relative prosperity for certain classes of people do not in any
way involve slavery, travel restrictions, and pasha despotism, for they
exist also where this charming trio is absent. Mr Bax pretends that where
there is no capitalism there is no deprivation and exploitation, and that
commerce necessarily impoverishes people. Such delusions defy serious
discussion. On the other hand, Bax seems unaware that capitalism has its
own history of development and takes on different aspects at different
times, that under the pressure of modern democratic institutions, and the
concepts of social obligation which they entail, it must assume a face
other than the one in evidence when political power was monopolised by
private property.

There is a great deal of sound evidence to support the view that, in the
present state of public opinion in Europe, the subjection of natives to the
authority of European administration does not always entail a worsening of
their condition, but often means the opposite. However much violence,
fraud, and other unworthy actions accompanied the spread of European rule
in earlier centuries, as they often still do today, the other side of the
picture is that, under direct European rule, savages are without exception
better off than they were before. Even before the arrival of Europeans in
Africa, brutal wars, robbery, and slavery were not unknown. Indeed, they
were the regular order of the day. What was unknown was the degree of peace
and legal protection made possible by European institutions and the
consequent sharp rise in food resources. I have previously, in this
journal, quoted a bitterly anti-English article from Grenzbote in which it
was, half-reproachfully, established that, under the protection of British
rule, the Negro population of Shira province (between Lake Nyasa and the
Zambesi) increased tenfold in the space of a few years (see Neue Zeit, xiv,
1, p. 485, and Grenzbote, 14 July 1895). Of course, the Negroes have not
yet read Bax’s work and, in their Philistinism, would rather live under
English protection than in that African paradise where slave-raiding adds
zest to life. The same is true elsewhere. In the United States today, where
previously a few hundred thousand Indians fought endless internecine
battles over hunting grounds, sixty million people, most of them perfectly
respectable, live and export food for further millions of people. Romantics
may find this deplorable, but, despite the dark side of contemporary
American life, we find nothing in it that is "intrinsically evil." Whatever
wrongs were previously perpetrated on the Indians, nowadays their rights
are protected, and it is a known fact that their numbers are no longer
declining but are, once again, on the increase.

Am I, because I acknowledge all this, an "adulator" of the present? If so,
let me refer Bax to The Communist Manifesto, which opens with an
"adulation" of the bourgeoisie which no hired hack of the latter could have
written more impressively. However, in the fifty years since the Manifesto
was written the world has advanced rather than regressed; and the
revolutions which have been accomplished in public life since then,
especially the rise of modern democracy, have not been without influence on
the doctrine of social obligation.

An example of how the standard for judging issues of native rights is
steadily rising is provided by the current protests against the decision of
the Cape government to hire out captured Bechuana rebels for five-year
periods of bondage to farmers, under specified conditions. One can question
whether the Bechuanas concerned ought to be called rebels at all, i.e.
whether they deserved to be punished in the first place; and one can also
take serious exception to the details of the conditions in question. But
five years of forced labour is certainly not as bad as being shot, and it
is also better than slavery for life, to which, according to Bax, the
natives "are accustomed" — rather like the proverbial eels who, as the
famous cook said, have always been accustomed to being skinned alive. In
sixteenth-century England, a system of temporary forced labour could strike
a Thomas More as an ideal penal reform. Today it seems a retrograde anomaly.

Louis Proyect
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