13 June 2023

Socialism and Colonialism

Socialism and Colonialism

By Gilbert Achcar.

[This article is translated from the entry “Colonialism / Imperialism / Orientalism” in Histoire globale des socialismes XIX-XXIe siècle, edited by Jean-Numa Ducange, Razmig Keucheyan and Stéphanie Roza, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2021, pp. 109–122.]

The ideas of the social sharing of wealth, as well as its historical practice on various scales, long predate the appearance of the term “socialism” at the beginning of the 19th century. The Global East, particularly, experienced them several centuries earlier, notably in the religious guise that was the globally dominant form of social utopias until the 18th century. Jesus of Galilee, Mazdak of Persia, or the Qarmatians of Arabia are important moments in the global history of socialisms since the dawn of humanity. Born in the Orient, Christianity has moreover played a decisive role in the history of European socialism, whether in the form of religious collectivist experiences prior to the Enlightenment, like that of Thomas Müntzer, or directly or indirectly in the genesis of the various socialisms of the 19th century.

Though, the main figure under which the East showed through in 19th century European socialist doctrines was that of its phantasmic representatives within the West, the Jews, whose stereotypical image linked them to the world of finance, which socialists abhor by definition. From Fourier to Blanqui and then to Bakunin, we know to what extent 19th century socialists – especially the French among them – participated in anti-Jewish prejudices inherited from a medieval Christian tradition. The Jews – about whom Proudhon, in a moment of abjection, wrote in his Notebooks in 1847 that it was necessary “to send this race back to Asia, or to exterminate it” – were often designated by the appellations of Hebrews and Israelites which referred them back to the Orient from which they were reputed to have originated. The notion of anti-Semitism, which began to spread towards the end of the 19th century inspired by the rantings of Ernest Renan, ratified their assimilation to the Oriental domain of Semitic dialects from which the three main Abrahamic religions originated.

The deplorable record on the “Jewish question” of most 19th century socialist doctrines is proof, if any were needed, that opposition to “plutocracy” in no way implies a break with the whole of the dominant épistémè. This is especially true when it comes to commonplaces about differences that do not coincide with the distribution of wealth, such as racial and gender prejudices – or Orientalism, as a manifestation of Western ethnocentrism in the contemporary meaning of the term popularised by Edward Said and adopted in what follows. The hatred manifested towards the Jews was generally part of a contempt for the Orient, the “other” of the West par excellence.

However, one can find a more generous approach to the Muslim Orient in Henri de Saint-Simon, the “utopian socialist” whose posterity was the most important. Against the typical Orientalist Volney, he argued in 1808 that the Arabs had been in “the vanguard of humanity” regarding politics and science from the 7th to the 12th century. Since then, of course, the Muslim Orient had fallen into decadence and had been replaced by Europe in the vanguard role, but Saint-Simon remained convinced that non-European societies could progress on the path traced by Europe provided that the latter guided them in their transition from the “theological stage” to the “positive stage”. His Catéchisme des industriels (1824) reiterates the view that “all the peoples of the earth, under the protection of France and England united, will rise successively in the industrial regime, as quickly as the state of their civilization will allow”.

Saint-Simon’s main disciple, Prosper Enfantin, known as “the Father”, fell in love with the Orient where he hoped to find “the Mother” (who would belong to “the Jewish race”, he believed), thus subscribing to an eroticisation of the Occident/Orient relationship that was widespread in the 19th century. The favourite terrain of the Saint-Simonians’ grand design was Egypt: after having tried in vain to win over its Ottoman Wali Mehmet Ali to their cause, they ended up recommending direct Franco-British seizure of the country. Their pet project was the drilling of a canal in the Isthmus of Suez, a project whose paternity Ferdinand de Lesseps would later claim for himself exclusively, to their great displeasure. The failure of the Egyptian ambition pushed the Saint-Simonians to turn to Algeria: a fervent supporter of the country’s colonisation by France, Enfantin nevertheless condemned the massacres perpetrated there by French troops. Faithful to Saint-Simon’s belief in the possibility of changing the world through persuasion, he had dreamed in 1840 of winning over the whole of the Ottoman-dominated Muslim Orient to the virtues of the French “positive” spirit. Notwithstanding its eccentricities though, the Saint-Simonian philosophy of history is paradigmatic of left-wing colonial thought: a paternalistic and self-righteous advocate of Europe’s “civilising mission” towards the “barbarian” populations of the Global South.

Elevated to the rank of philosophical reflection, Orientalism – this essentialist interpretation of the Orient as being determined by cultures purported to be perennial, nay immutable – is basically but an avatar of the idealist interpretation of history. We thus find a textbook expression of it in the pinnacle of the idealist philosophy of history embodied by Hegel: his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1821-1831) are a compendium of culturalist stereotypes, about the Orient and the Occident alike for that matter. Consequently, the first condition to overcome Orientalism, like all essentialisms, is to break epistemologically with the interpretation of history through the prism of culture. Before completing his intellectual dissociation from left Hegelianism, the young Marx himself, despite his Jewish ancestry, had flirted with the essentialist anti-Jewish clichés of Bruno Bauer in his critique of the latter.

Since his discovery, along with Engels, of the heuristic effectiveness of the materialist interpretation of history, which they both deepened in writing The German Ideology in 1846, it is to material factors, and primarily to economic factors, that the two friends would attribute the differences in development between countries. They nonetheless remained prisoners of the Eurocentricépistémè of their time, assigning a progressive historical role to the European colonial enterprise. It remained a “civilising mission” in their minds, but no longer in the sense of educating the barbarians, rather in the sense of the universal expansion of the capitalist mode of production. Seen from this angle,The Communist Manifesto (1848) is a hymn to the civilising wonders deemed to have been accomplished by the bourgeoisie, which “draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation [and] compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst” – this bourgeoisie which, just as it had subordinated “the country to the rule of the towns”, was making “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West”.

Civilization and barbarism are no longer cultural attributes here: what distinguishes the West from the East in Marx’s and Engels’s understanding is not a superior intellectual aptitude, but a difference of position on the historical scale of bourgeois development. Just as for Saint-Simon, Europe had only succeeded the Arabs by placing itself in “the vanguard of humanity” regarding the scientific spirit, it had placed itself, in the eyes of Marx and Engels, at the forefront of economic development as the area within which the modern capitalist mode of production had taken off. This assigned to the European bourgeoisie the task of spreading industrial civilisation to the rest of the world.

Like the subordination of the countryside to the cities in Europe itself, the subordination of the barbarian nations to the civilised nations and of the East to the West could not be done without brutality. Good materialists as they were, Marx and Engels knew that violence is the “midwife” of the potential for progress that any society contains, as Marx would later describe it in his Das Kapital (1867). They therefore thought that in the eyes of history, the brutality of Europe’s imperial expansion in the Orient and in Africa, like that of its offspring on the other side of the Atlantic, was the price to pay for the accomplishment of its mission of progress. In short, the civilising end of European expansion justified the barbaric means to which it had recourse.

This eschatological perspective was expressed about the Orient by Marx and Engels in a very characteristic way at the beginning of their common intellectual journey. The article on Algeria that Engels published in The Northern Star in 1848 is a striking illustration of this. “[T]hough the manner in which brutal soldiers, like Bugeaud, have carried on the war is highly blameable, the conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation”, believed the young Engels. The same perspective is found in Marx in his famous 1853 article on India. While feeling sorry for the fate of the indigenous victims of British colonial domination, he warned the readers against any romantic temptation to idealise precolonial India, calling on them to “not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism”. His conclusion was in keeping with that of Engels on Algeria: “whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history” in revolutionising Indian society.

Having broken epistemologically with Hegelian idealism, Marx and Engels had also broken with Orientalism as a culturalist explanation of history. But this break could not suffice to rid them of the Orientalist stereotypes that were dominant in the European gnoseological and media field in which they partook. Such stereotypes abound in the commentaries that the two friends made during their first decade of collaboration, in particular about Ottoman Turkey and India. In order to get rid of these stereotypes, it is not enough indeed to attribute their genesis to material factors. After all, “Oriental despotism” was determined by climatic and geographical conditions in the reckoning of Montesquieu himself. As long as Marx and Engels remained dependent on the European épistémè of their time, limited by their access exclusively to sources that belonged to it, they continued to adhere in part to the Orientalist perspective. Although their Eurocentrism took the form of an acknowledgment of the progressive historical role of capitalism, they nonetheless subscribed to the myth of the “civilising mission” of European domination.

That was because they still had to complete their epistemological break with historical idealism with a break with the épistémè of European domination. Having espoused the point of view of the proletariat in its relation to capital, they still had to depart from the ethnocentric prejudices that were dominant in their geopolitical environment in order to adopt the point of view of the oppressed of non-European humankind in their relation to Europe and its offspring. In this respect, Ireland would play a central role in the evolution of the ideas of Marx and Engels, beginning with the latter. His change of perspective on the Irish is striking: whereas, inThe Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had echoed the ethnic prejudices aroused among English workers by the miserable condition of Irish migrants, Engels would become, a few years later, a passionate supporter of the Irish cause, and would remain so until his last breath.

The worker Mary Burns, Engels’s first Irish companion, played a key role in his education. The visit to Ireland that they made together in 1856 fundamentally changed his interpretation of the Irish question. Recounting his journey in a letter to Marx, dated 23 May 1856, in which he described Ireland as England’s first colony, Engels told his friend how centuries of wars of conquest had “utterly ruined the country”. Years later, in a letter dated 19 January 1870 in which he informed Marx of the progress of his research on Irish history, Engels would confirm: “The more I study the subject, the clearer it becomes to me that, as a result of the English invasion, Ireland was cheated of its whole development, and thrown back centuries.”

Away then with the idea of colonialism as a factor of economic progress! This reversal of perspective was to place Marx and Engels resolutely in the camp of the staunch opponents of colonialism. As early as 1857, Engels changed radically his judgment about Algeria in the article he wrote on this country for The New American Cyclopaedia. The Algerians were no longer “a nation of robbers whose principal means of living consisted of making excursions … upon each other” and to which French colonialism, despite its brutality, had brought “civilisation” and industry, as he had written in his 1848 article. On the contrary, it was the French who had devastated the country in the manner of the barbarian invasions: “The Arab and Kabyle tribes […] have been crushed and broken by the terrible razzias in which dwellings and property are burnt and destroyed, standing crops cut down, and the miserable wretches who remain massacred, or subjected to all the horrors of lust and brutality.”

Similarly, in the articles he wrote in 1857–58 for the New York Daily Tribune on the Sepoy Mutiny, India’s first great anticolonial outburst, Marx was to advocate the insurgents’ cause against the British Empire, denouncing the cruelty of its troops and its exploitation of the natives. Likewise, Engels defended the Chinese against the Europeans in his 1857 commentary on the Second Opium War. A thousand miles away from Marx’s yesteryear’s illusions about the civilising role of colonialism, the chapter that deals with the “Genesis of the industrial capitalist”, in the first volume of hisDas Kapital (1867), describes the role played by colonial expansion in the “primitive accumulation” of capital in the metropolises at the expense of the colonised lands and their natural resources.

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. … The colonial system ripened, like a hothouse, trade and navigation. [Monopolies] were powerful levers for concentration of capital. The colonies secured a market for the budding manufactures, and, through the monopoly of the market, an increased accumulation. The treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder, floated back to the mother-country and were there turned into capital.

For all that, despite their new hypercritical take on colonialism, one cannot expect to find in Marx and Engels, a fully developed theory of the emancipation of colonised peoples. Their epistemological turn in understanding the role of colonial domination in the creation and perpetuation of a hierarchical configuration of the world could not suffice on its own to rid them entirely of the Eurocentric prejudices pregnant in their cultural environment. Traces of such prejudices can be found in their writings to the end. However, rather than being key elements of their worldview, these were no more than cultural residues.

Engels defined the position that the European labour movement should adopt on the colonial question in the event of victory in 1882. In a letter to Karl Kautsky dated 12 September, he formulated, with particular reference to Algeria, Egypt and India, the following principles: the metropolitan proletariat must lead the colonial countries to independence as quickly as possible; it must refuse any colonial war, even if the national revolutions in the colonial countries were to take a violent turn; the independence of the colonised countries is the best solution for the European proletariat; it is by example and economic attraction only that the European proletariat must convince the colonial countries to advance towards socialism; it cannot impose its social policy on another people.

As I see it, … countries that are merely ruled and are inhabited by natives, such as India, Algeria and the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, will have to be temporarily taken over by the proletariat and guided as rapidly as possible towards independence. How this process will develop is difficult to say. India may, indeed very probably will, start a revolution and, since a proletariat that is effecting its own emancipation cannot wage a colonial war, it would have to be given its head, which would obviously entail a great deal of destruction, but after all that sort of thing is inseparable from any revolution. The same thing could also happen elsewhere, say in Algeria or Egypt, and would certainly suit us best. We shall have enough on our hands at home. Once Europe has been reorganised, and North America, the resulting power will be so colossal and the example set will be such that the semi-civilised countries will follow suit quite of their own accord; their economic needs alone will see to that. What social and political phases those countries will then have to traverse before they likewise acquire a socialist organisation is something about which I do not believe we can profitably speculate at present. Only one thing is certain, namely that a victorious proletariat cannot forcibly confer any boon whatever on another country without undermining its own victory in the process.

Kautsky is known to have later set himself up as the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy within German Social Democracy and the Second International, notably against Eduard Bernstein’s reformist revisionism. What is less known is that his defence of orthodoxy also encompassed the colonial question: Kautsky remained faithful to the line defined by Engels, whose letter he published as an appendix to his 1907 pamphlet Socialism and Colonial Policy. It was a response to Bernstein who, in an article published the same year, had defended “the historical necessity of colonisation” and the idea that a moderate colonial policy would be in the interest of the proletariat of the metropolises.

This “socialist colonialism” had been expressed for the first time within the Second International three years earlier, at the Amsterdam Congress (1904). The Dutch Social Democrat Henri van Kol had submitted to the congress a draft resolution justifying the maintenance of colonisation under a workers’ government by invoking a “socialist” version of the civilising mission. This generated a heated debate within the International at a time when colonial expansion was at its peak on a world scale and when growing European socialist parties, having gained access to their national parliaments, found themselves increasingly confronted with the question of “imperialism”.

The debate was continued and settled at the Stuttgart Congress (1907). Van Kol reiterated his push with the support of the majority of the German delegation that included Bernstein. In the heat of the debate, he made vulgarly racist remarks which clearly revealed the hypocrisy of the Saint-Simonian-like paternalistic attitude which he affected. These particularly shocking remarks deserve to be quoted as they are revealing – along with the reaction of part of the audience – of the colonial mentality of a large part of Social Democracy in its heyday. They put into perspective the alignment of most sections of the Second International behind their respective governments in the war of colonial redistribution of the world that the First World War has been to a large extent. Kautsky advocated development aid instead of colonialism: “We have every interest in seeing primitive peoples achieve a higher culture, but what I dispute is that this requires practising colonial politics. … If we want to act as civilisers on primitive peoples, the first necessity for us is to win their confidence, and this confidence we will only win when we grant them freedom.”

Van Kol retorted, “If we send a machine to the Negroes in Central Africa, do you know what they will do? It is very likely that they will perform a war dance around our European product (laughs) and it is also likely that the number of their innumerable gods will be increased by one (more laughs). … If we Europeans went to Africa with our European machines, we would be the victims of our expedition [Van Kol had explained that “they (the natives) might even skin us, or else they might eat us…”]. We must, on the contrary, bear arms in hand to defend ourselves if need be, even if Kautsky calls it imperialism. (‘Very good’ on a few benches.)”

The Left prevailed, but by a small margin despite Kautsky’s prestige. This debate had opposed right-wing majorities from the colonising countries (with the exception of the Russians, who were left-wing in majority), and left-wing minorities from these same countries, supported by delegations from non-colonising countries. Among the latter, the Polish delegation that included Rosa Luxemburg, whose The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1913, was to be the first major Marxist theoretical work to grant a large place to the colonial universe, even if it lacked a political theory of anticolonialism. Having noted the nature of the divisions at the Stuttgart Congress, Lenin was led to elaborate his theory of a “labour aristocracy” sustained by imperialist exploitation, by which he explained the “social-chauvinist” turn of the majority in most of the Social-Democratic parties of belligerent countries.

The abortive revolution of 1905 in Russia, like the victory of Japan, an Oriental power, in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, catalysed revolutionary upheavals in Persia, Turkey and China, three countries in cultural osmosis with the colonial domain of the tsarist empire. The First World War galvanised political radicalisation in all three countries, as well as in India and other countries of Asia and North Africa. Having come to power in Russia through the October 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks would bet more and more on the national and revolutionary movements of the East to break their isolation, especially after the failure of the German revolution of 1918–19 and in the face of the war waged against them by the Entente Powers from 1918.

Bringing together the radical Left of pre-war Social Democracy, the Third International, founded in 1919, put national and colonial questions on the agenda of its second congress in 1920. The tenor of the debates there was very different from that of Stuttgart: they no longer dealt with the attitude in the metropolises towards colonialism, a question on which the position of the Communist International was in conformity with orthodoxy, but with the attitude to be adopted towards the nationalist movements of the colonial and semi-colonial countries – both by the communists of the metropolises and by the communists of these countries themselves, whose representation within the new International was from the outset more important than it was in the preceding one.

Added to this latter question was the attitude of the Bolsheviks in power towards the peoples and nations of the Russian colonial empire. Since 1913 particularly, Lenin had projected himself as an ardent upholder of the right of nations to self-determination in various controversies, the most famous of which opposed him to Rosa Luxemburg. He pleaded for the strict respect of this right by the new government against the convergence of an ultraleft attitude, strongly represented in the ranks of the Bolsheviks, with the persistence of contempt for the “backward” populations in the name of the interest of the new state, equated with “the interest of the proletariat”.

“What, then, can we do in relation to such peoples as the Kirghiz, the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, the Turkmen, who to this day are under the influence of their mullahs? … Can we approach these peoples and tell them that we shall overthrow their exploiters? We cannot do this, because they are entirely subordinated to their mullahs. In such cases we have to wait until the given nation develops, until the differentiation of the proletariat from the bourgeois elements, which is inevitable, has taken place”, exclaimed Lenin at the Bolshevik Party Congress in 1919, calling on the Bolsheviks to refrain from imposing their will on the peoples formerly oppressed by Tsarism. It was in vain: in his very last notes of December 1923 on the question of nationalities, the founder of Bolshevism will confess guilt for not having fought with enough vigour for the principle of self-determination, going so far as to describe the new Russian state as an apparatus which “we took over from tsarism and slightly anointed with Soviet oil”.

The difference, of course, was not limited to ointment: the new state even tried to instrumentalise indigenous movements in the East by championing them, sometimes indiscriminately, provided they opposed Western powers. The main moment of this attempt was the Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku in 1920 and chaired by Grigory Zinoviev, whose participants (1,891, of whom only 55 women) belonged overwhelmingly to the former tsarist colonial domain. The Indian communist M.N. Roy, who had played an important role in the Third International’s debates on the colonial question, refused to take part in this enterprise which he described as the “Zinoviev circus”, according to what he recounts in his memoirs posthumously published in 1960. Read today, his remarks are reminiscent of the criticism of Orientalism inverted into “Orientalism in reverse”: indeed, Roy reproaches the Russian leaders for painting anticolonial nationalism and pan-Islamism in red, and for not applying to the peoples of the East the same class analysis grid that they applied to the peoples of the West.

That was a well-known source of tension between the new Bolshevik state and the communists of colonial countries, as state diplomatic interests do not necessarily coincide with revolutionary internationalism. An early illustration of this tension was Moscow’s persistence in portraying Turkey’s new leader Mustafa Kemal as a revolutionary, despite his government’s persecution of the fledgling Communist Party of Turkey. The Chinese question was another occasion of tension between Moscow’s inclination to flirt with the nationalist leaders of the countries of the East, outside the Soviet Union, and the local Communists confronted with these same nationalist leaders. Conversely, when the Comintern under Stalin, at its 7th congress in 1935, confirmed its turn to the right in favour of the broadest anti-fascist front, the Communist parties of countries of the Orient under British or French domination were invited to dissociate themselves from the anticolonial struggle. The French Communist Party, led by Maurice Thorez, was a particularly zealous follower of this new Comintern policy, which reinforced the already strong tendency among its ranks towards “socialist colonialism”, particularly in relation to Algeria.

It was not until the Chinese Communists came to power in Beijing in 1949 that European domination of the international Communist movement, with its natural tendency to reproduce an “Orientalist” outlook, was to be seriously undermined. The Sino-Soviet schism was the culmination of this great divergence. However, from the question of Tibet to that of Xinjiang today, the Chinese state has itself in turn reproduced a colonial attitude, even “Islamophobic” in the latter case. Neither Marx nor Engels, however, would identify with any of the governments that claimed their heritage in the 20th century. The combination of socialism and radical democracy in power, as well as the implementation of a policy based on a true internationalism repudiating all ethnocentrisms and refusing to subordinate the revolutionary struggle to state interests, have yet to be invented.


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