From For A Lasting Peace, For A People’s Democracy
#20 (23), October 15, 1948

Struggle of Colonial Peoples Against Imperialism


By R. Palme Dutt
Member of Political Bureau of Executive Committee
British Communist Party

In his report on the International situation to the Conference of Communist Parties in September, 1947, Comrade Zhdanov declared:

“The sharpening of the crisis of the colonial system as the result of the Second World War is seen in the mighty upsurge of the national liberation movement in the colonies and dependent countries, which threatens the rear of the capitalist system.

“The colonial peoples refuse to live any longer in the old way, and the ruling classes of the metropolitan countries cannot any longer rule them in the old way. Attempts to suppress the national liberation movement by military force now encounter ever increasing armed resistance from the colonial peoples, and lead to prolonged colonial wars, such as that of Holland in Indonesia and of France in Viet Nam.”

The truth of this has been powerfully further shown in the twelve months since the delivery of this report: in the new colonial wars in Malaya and Burma, now developing alongside those in Viet Nam and Indonesia, in the advance of the mass movement in the African colonies, especially the Gold Coast and Nigeria, in the increasingly critical situation of the old declining imperialist economies of Britain and the Western European colonial Powers and in the desperate attempts of imperialism to out maneuver and suppress the rising colonial revolt and seek a solution of its political and economic difficulties on the basis of intensified exploitation of the colonial peoples.

At the same time, important new features have arisen in the struggle of the colonial peoples, in the strategy and tactics of imperialism and in the consequent tasks of the liberation movement which require further examination.

Crisis of Colonial System of Imperialism

The upsurge of the national liberation movement of the colonial peoples since the Second World War has enormously exceeded that which followed the First World War. This higher level is not only quantitative, but also qualitative. It has shown itself in the emergence of new features which were not paralleled after the First World War. These new features include:

First, the establishment of Independent National Republics in former colonial territories, in Viet Nam and Indonesia, maintaining themselves in armed struggle over a period of years against the assault of imperialism.

Second, the increased political maturity and higher level of struggle in a series of colonial territories: notably, the advance to armed struggle of the national liberation movements in Malaya and Burma, and the local peasants uprisings and States peoples revolts in India, reaching to occupation of the land and armed self-defence in such a considerable region as Telengana in Hyderabad.

Third, the geographically wider extension of colonial revolt and organized movements of mass struggle as in the tropical African colonies.

Fourth, the advance in the role and leadership of the working class in the colonial countries, the development and strengthening of the trade union movement and of the alliance of the working class with the peasant movement, and above all, the existence of Communist Parties, exercising mass influence and political leadership in a number of colonial countries, and in certain countries at a highly developed stage of struggle, as in Viet Nam, Malaya and Burma, directly leading the national liberation movement. These mark the qualitative difference of the colonial upsurge after the Second World War.

Japan’s sweeping offensive in Eastern Asia, and the rapid collapse of the rotten Anglo-French-Dutch colonial system before the Japanese assault, exposed before the eyes of all the Asiatic peoples the bankruptcy and smashed the myth of the military invincibility of the Western imperialist Powers. In the struggle against the Japanese occupation the liberation movements and partisan armies of the colonial peoples of South East Asia grew in strength and political consciousness and extorted partial recognition as allies in the war of the United Nations. After the expulsion of the Japanese, these national liberation movements were thus already strongly based in mass support, political consciousness and experience of armed struggle, to resist the attempts of Western imperialism to reimpose the old colonial system. Hence it is that the highest advance of the national liberation movement of the colonial peoples after the Second World War has been demonstrated in the countries of South East Asia, and it is in these countries that the political mass leadership of the Communist Parties is in most cases most powerfully established.

This sweeping advance of the liberation movement in the colonial territories of the Western European imperialist Powers, especially in the rich treasure house of South East Asia, has weakened and undermined the colonial base of Western Imperialism. It has dealt a blow to the traditional structure of imperialist economy in Britain and the Western European countries, and has thus constituted one of the main factors in the crisis of the economic situation in Britain and other Western European countries after the war. This has been further intensified and complicated by the increasing penetration of the more powerful American imperialism into the colonial preserves of the European imperialist Powers.

The Marshall Plan Conference Economic Report in 1947, signed by Bevin and others, published the following revealing table on the pre-war economy of the “Marshall” European countries:

  Pre-War Population Imports Exports
  millions (% of World Total 1938)
United States 131.7 8.1 13.2
16 Marshall Plan Countries 205.9 40.8 30.4

Thus, before the war the “Marshall” countries of Western Europe, representing less than one-tenth of the world’s population, received two-fifths of the world’s imports, and obtained no less than one quarter of their imports as unpaid imports representing overseas tribute from their colonial possessions and foreign capital investments. Such was the parasitic economy of the Western European imperialist countries. The crisis of the colonial system after the war, striking a blow at this basis of colonial tribute, has resulted in the protracted crisis of the economies of the Western European countries.

This crisis of a bankrupt imperialist economy is revealed in its most extreme form in Britain, whose entire economy before the war was built up on extreme dependence on overseas imports. Hence the deep-seated character of Britain’s economic difficulties since the war, revealed in the colossal deficit in the balance of payments, and the complete inability of the Marshall panacea and the Labour Government’s programme, based on the assumption of maintaining the imperialist structure, to promote recovery.

Faced with this crisis, the imperialist governments of Britain and Western Europe direct all their efforts to endeavour to restore and maintain the basis of colonial exploitation, devise new political methods of adaptation, as in India, conduct savage colonial wars of suppression, as in Viet Nam, Indonesia and Malaya, or plan new methods to extend and intensify colonial exploitation, as in Africa. These policies in turn, with the heavy costs they throw on the home budget, deepen the crisis of the already weakened economies of the metropolitan imperialist countries in Europe.

New Tactical Methods of Imperialism

The armed forces and machinery of repression of imperialism are incapable of overcoming the present-day extent and volume of colonial revolt. Imperialism can no longer govern in the old way. The movement of revolt in India extended also to the Indian armed forces, as shown in the naval rising. The dispatch of Guards and Hussars for the colonial war in Malaya has used up the major part of Britain’s mobile military reserves.

Hence imperialism is compelled to seek out new tactical methods of manoeuvre, to endeavour to divide and split the national movement, to win over its leadership by concessions, to win new allies among upper class strata against the masses of the colonial peoples. This is seen in the Middle East in the creation and fostering, under the guidance of the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office, of the Arab League based on Arab Princes and feudal potentates against the Arab peoples, with the conferment of formal “independence” on Transjordan under King Abdullah, or on Iraq, as previously on Egypt. Similarly it is illustrated in India and Southern Asia in the creation of the Dominions of India and Pakistan and Ceylon and the establishment of the “independence” of Burma.

Previously imperialism built its support mainly on the old feudal elements, and on some trading sections, against the national movement led by the new industrial bourgeoisie in the more developed colonial countries. Now imperialism seeks to build up its alliance directly with the colonial big bourgeoisie in the capitalistically developed colonial countries, as demonstrated most clearly in the example of India.

Similarly imperialism has always pursued the method of “divide and rule” to play on racial and religious divisions among a colonial people, as in the fostering of Hindu-Moslem antagonism in India, or Jewish-Arab antagonism in Palestine, or playing off the Burmese against the Karens and Shons in Burma, or the Malays against the Chinese in Malaya. But now imperialism has pursued this method to the point of actual partition and splitting up of State forms, even at the cost of considerable administrative and practical economic inconvenience, as in the partition of India.

This new technique of formal “independence” is the most characteristic technique of imperialism in the modern period.

It is on the basis of this technique of sham illusory “independence” that the claptrap is spread about on all sides today, by the imperialist spokesmen and press, and by their hangers-on in the Labour and right-wing Social Democratic camp, by the Atlees, Bevins and Blums, about the “end of imperialism,” talk of imperialism being “obsolete,” and the “dawn of a new era of colonial freedom” through the “voluntary renunciation of imperialism.”

The reality, however, in every case shows a different picture. Imperialism has no in sense withdrawn from the colonial countries on which “independence” has been conferred. The essence of the imperial colonial system lies in the economic exploitation of the colonial country, its resources and manpower; second, in the strategic domination of the country and its absorption in the imperialist bloc on the world scale; and third, in the maintenance of a political system capable of fulfilling these aims in the interests of the imperialist Power. The vested interests of the great imperialist monopolies, dominating and strangling the life of the country, are maintained and protected and guaranteed by special treaty arrangements. Joint military arrangements are maintained with varying degrees of direct occupation, control by military missions and upkeep of bases. Joint warfare or repression by imperialism and the puppet governments is carried out against the liberation struggle of the masses of the colonial peoples and against the working-class movement.

Further, the methods of constitutional concessions or conferment of formal “independence” are not the only methods pursued. In other cases, especially where the stage of social and political development is less favourable for these methods, where there is no stable upper class or big bourgeoisie to whom to transfer administrative responsibility, and where the special economic or strategic importance makes imperative the maintenance of direct imperialist rule, the policy is ruthlessly pursued of seeking to restore or maintain the old colonial system by methods of violent repression and full-scale military operations against the popular revolt. The outstanding example of this is Malaya, where the new constitution imposed after the war makes no pretence of veiling the open imperialist dictatorship, suppresses civil rights. The barbarous colonial war in Malaya is openly justified on the grounds that Malaya represents Britain’s “chief dollar-earning source” (Walter Fletcher M.P., former Chairman of the Rubber Trade Association in the “Times” of September 1, 1948).

Thus it would be erroneous to regard the new constitutional manoeuvres as the tactics of imperialism in retreat or preparing withdrawal. On the contrary, imperialism, although weakened, continues to pursue an aggressive colonial policy, and even seeks to extend the area of colonial exploitation as a means of solving its own crisis.

Attempts to Solve Crisis of Imperialism by Intensified Colonial Exploitation

The outstanding example of the endeavours of imperialism today to solve its own crisis by intensified colonial exploitation is in the sphere of Africa.

As already stated, one of the main factors in the economic difficulties of the Western European imperialist countries lay in the bankruptcy of the old economic structure based on unpaid imports drawn directly or indirectly from colonial exploitation. From this the imperialists draw the conclusion that the solution must lie in the intensified exploitation of the colonial countries, and especially as the basis in the Middle East and Asia grows more precarious in the face of rising colonial revolt, in the intensified exploitation of the rich and undeveloped territories of Africa.

The dream of solving the problems of Western European imperialism on the basis of grandiose schemes for the intensified exploitation of Africa is common to all the present-day spokesmen, economists and politicians of Western imperialism, and unites Mosley-fascism, Conservatism, the Labour Party and Social Democracy in a single chorus.

Mosley, speaking in London on November 15, 1947, declared:

“If we link the Union of Europe with the development of Africa in a new system of two continents, we will build a civilisation which surpasses and a force which equals any power in the world.”

These visions are not confined to the fascists and ultra-Tories. They are fully shared and no less ardently expressed by the Labour Government and the Labour Party leadership.

And at the Scarborough Labour Party Conference in May, 1948, Bevin further elaborated this theme of intensified colonial exploitation as the essence of British foreign policy:

“If we limited ourselves to the Commonwealth alone, it would not be sufficient. If we harnessed the Commonwealth and those overseas territories for which we were responsible to the skill ability and productive capacity of the West, we could solve our balance of payments and have a continually rising standard of living, for generations to come. That was British foreign policy.”

United States imperialism, while having its own designs for the penetration of Africa and for utilising and dominating European colonial administration and expansion in Africa, simultaneously presses forward the schemes for African development with American financial backing as an integral part of the scheme of the Western Bloc. Foster Dulles, the Republican adviser on foreign policy, who was the first to press forward the scheme of the Western European Bloc, has been no less active in pressing forward the conception of African exploitation as its indispensable base:

Africa, he has said, could make Western Europe completely independent of Eastern European resources, and that should be the aim.

“Britain has built and lost two great empires – in America and in India,” says Professor Lowell Ragatz of George Washington University, who recently spent a year in Britain. “But the prospects are that her third – in Africa – will be her greatest.” (“News Chronicle”, August 25, 1948).

These pipe-dreams of a declining imperialist Power are remote from reality. In pursuance of these aims the Government has announced a series of colonial development projects, and launched in 1947 the Colonial Development Corporation with borrowing powers of up to £100 million, and the Overseas Food Corporation with borrowing powers up to £50 million. Colonial Development Regional Directors have been appointed. Of the various projects the largest and most publicized has been the Ground Nuts scheme, designed by Unilevers for the establishment of over 100 giant plantations of thirty thousand acres each worked by cheap African labour in Tanganyika, Northern Rhodesia and Kenya, and involving initial Government expenditure, according to the original estimate, of £24 million. Already the first experiences of this project have proved disillusioning: the estimates of the capital expenditure required have been doubled, and the results have been meagre.

These dreams are unrealistic, because they fail to take into account the real factors of the situation. The colonial system of exploitation in Africa has produced the progressive impoverishment, starvation conditions and physical deterioration of the African peoples. The new projects carry forward this process to a more extreme point. So far from being in a position to provide surplus food for export to Europe, the African peoples would in reality need food imports at present, until such time as they can, under free conditions, build up balanced economies in their own countries.

Second, the projects require enormous capital expenditure, which, under the most favourable conditions, could not bring in any rapid return. But the essential character of the problem of the British and West European imperialist countries today is that they find themselves short of resources even for necessary capital expenditure at home, which has had to be heavily cut down, and facing a deficit in the balance of payments which leaves them with no surplus for capital investment overseas.

Third, the projects are based on the assumption of the passive servitude of the African people, who have no say in them. But the illusion that the colonial revolt which has reached such heights in Asia will never reach Africa is already being powerfully shattered by present events, as in the recent struggles in the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Uganda. The first forms of organization and political consciousness are rapidly advancing at varying stages in all the African colonies. The dream of a new revival of imperialism on the basis of intensified African servitude and exploitation are built on sand.

(to be continued)

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