All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: Imperialism


Imperialism—or “neo-colonialism” as they prefer to call it—is, with most modern liberals, a dirty word. To them it connotes military or economic subjugation, cultural repression, and all the economic woes connected with capitalism. To the Communists, capitalism must die a violent death once it can find no new overseas opportunities to invest the “surplus capital” generated by capitalist expropriation of the “surplus value” created by the labor of subsistence-level workers in the home territory,

To Lewis Feuer, author of Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 265 pp., $22.95), both the liberals and the Communists have made the mistake of substituting an “axiom of indictment” for a careful reading of history. The fact is that imperialism’s economic consequences were, from the viewpoint of colonized nations, mixed. There can be “regressive” imperialisms in which predatory conquerors work their captive populations to death. There can, however, be “progressive” imperialisms which, while admittedly resting upon suspect moral beliefs suggesting that cultural and economic superiority justifies coercive interference in the affairs of other peoples, confer real economic and social benefits upon colonized nations.

The Mongols, in the early phase of their eruption from inner Asia, were regressive in their attitudes. The Spaniards, who used an enslaved Indian manpower to work the gold and silver mines of Mexico and Peru, were not only regressive in their New World Colonies but, in failing to develop the skills of their citizens at home, they could find no successors to Cortez and Pizarro capable of running an empire. Hitler, at a much later date, was entirely regressive: He drove Jewish scientists who might have given him the A-bomb to other countries, and he quickly lost the allegiance of the Ukrai-nians who were initially disposed to welcome him as a savior.

By contrast, the Romans were progressive imperialists. In granting Roman citizenship to minorities the Romans, in Feuer’s words, liberated “energies for the advancement of civilization and creative activity.” The British, French, and Dutch, in their phases of imperial expansion, were careful to provide opportunity for the development of talents. When it came to benefiting from the export of capital, the British, French, and Dutch were quite willing to take their dividends, but they were not hoggish about it. They left something over for local expansion, and they even welcomed the competition of local capitalists.

Feuer lets figures speak for themselves. In Dutch Java, for example, the population rose from 3.5 million in 1800 to some 9.5 million in 1850. Fifteen years later the population had jumped astonishingly to 14,168,000. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Darwin of the theory of natural selection, found the Javanese to be “well-fed and decently clothed” and “on the whole contented and happy.” The leftist ecologist Barry Commoner writes that “the Dutch apparently fostered the increase in the Indonesian population in order to increase the labor forces that they needed to exploit the natural resources.” But whatever the motive involved in building up the country, the Dutch left Indonesia in good shape.

A Different View

The story of the British in India and Africa, as recounted by Feuer, is quite different from the popular stereotyped version. “Dependency theory” might explain the early-day importation of Lancashire textiles to India. The Sas-soons, a Jewish family that had migrated to Bombay from Baghdad in 1833, were following an approved course. But the Sassoons showed little respect for Lancashire when, with the help of machinery imported from England, they started the Jacob Sassoon Mill, with its 100,000 spindles and 2,000 looms. In another plant in Bombay the Sassoons combined all operations from the processing of raw cotton to the decoration of the textiles. The family capped its independence by founding a bank to serve its needs, thus completing an evolution from trading capitalism to “finance capitalism.”

In Africa other Jews served with one eye on the establishment of British hegemony and the other on making a good life possible for the black populations. There was Eduard Schnitzer, a Prussian Jew from Silesia, who, under the adopted name of Emin Pasha, commended himself to “Chinese” Gordon as a likely man to role the vast primitive province of Equatoria as a benevolently scientific governor. Emin Bey, as he became known, banished the slave traders from his domain. When, after the Mahdist victory at Khartoum over Gordon had cut “Equatoria” off from the British in Egypt, the legendary Henry Stanley was sent to bring Emin home. But the obdurate man refused to budge. He not only had his grateful Negroes to care for, he had his ornithological collections to complete.

It was Sir Frederick Gordon Guggisberg, the descendant of a Polish Jew who had escaped across the Russian frontier to avoid conscription in the czar’s army, who became famous for his humane work in governing the British African colony of Nigeria. Guggisberg’s grandfather was the local butcher of Preston, Ontario; his father was the town’s drygoods merchant. Disdaining the shopkeeping vocations of his forebears, Guggisberg went to the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned in the Royal Engineers. He found his way to the Gold Coast in Africa as a surveyor-general. As a director of surveys Guggisberg compiled a handbook of model instructions for the governing of a colony. His rules precluded unpaid labor, and they stipulated that all goods bought from local farmers and workers must be paid for at the market price.

As a governor Guggisberg was, as Feuer describes him, “a builder akin to the old Roman imperialists.” He “constructed a new system of roads, a new harbor, and the first college in the Gold Coast. He also brought to completion the magnificent African hospital at Korle Bu. He could truthfully claim that ‘thanks to the new roads, I have been the first Governor to enter many important towns in the Colony . . .’” But more important because of the new transport, “the prices for cocoa paid to the farmer rose between 50 and 100 percent.”

By some terrible irony Nkrumah, the Marxist dictator who was to undo much of Guggis-berg’s good work, was a student at Guggis-berg’s college. Guggisberg might have become cynical by the turn in events, but he never did. He revealed his inmost emotions to his friend and co-worker Colonel J. H. Levey. “Remember,” he said to Levey, “that the blood of an oppressed people runs in my veins. I never forgot it. I understood the people of the Gold Coast.”

Feuer’s complaint about the “good imperialists” is that they decided to get out of the business. In turning over various colonies to socialists of one stripe or another they have left the gates open to the ascendant imperialism of the moment, the one that is directed from Moscow. It is to be regretted that Feuer does not raise or discuss the question as to whether one can morally justify the primary assumption of those defending imperialism, from Pericles to Marx—namely, the assumption that cultural or economic superiority justifies or even demands coercive intervention in the affairs of other nations and peoples. Many defenders of the freedom philosophy thus will find themselves concerned by Feuer’s hope that “cumulative crises [might] finally compel the United States to assume the power and responsibility” which could reverse “the regressive impact of . . . consecutive Soviet reactions. . . .” Yet at the same time, Feuer provides defenders of the freedom philosophy with an arsenal of weapons to do battle against the economically and historically simplistic arguments about imperialism mounted by thinkers such as Hilferding, Lenin, Bukharin, and contemporary defenders of so-called “dependency theory,” and dramatically raises the question as to how, without emulating the coercive interventionism of contemporary imperialists, free people might counter the regressive imperialism centered in Moscow,


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.