1920s >> 1925 >> no-254-october-1925

Socialism and Empire

Patriotism and the problems of Empire have always proved stumbling blocks to the workers and to their immature organisations, and nothing has more clearly shown the danger of half-knowledge than the ease with which the ruling class have been able to muddle their minds and inflame their passions by raising such issues. The world war and late developments of capitalist imperialism have given the question prominence by making more numerous and more bitter the struggles for independence of colonies and subject races, and in the verbal dispute between Communists, the I.L.P., the Labour Party and others the air is thick with charge and counter-charge of treachery to the Empire and treachery to the working-class. The dispute, however, leads to no simple conclusion because, as so often happens, the disputants have neglected first to decide whether they can agree on a few elementary Socialist principles. Before we examine the various proposals we must have a clear idea of the economic position and class interests of the workers, because it is from this foundation that they ought always to approach the issues presented to them.


Wealth (excluding the air and other things abundantly supplied by nature) is produced by work. The work is performed by the great propertyless mass, the working class, but the means of wealth production, the machines, the land and so on, are owned by a class of non-workers, the capitalists. From this arises a great cleavage of interests, for it makes the workers dependent upon the owning-class since they cannot live except by entering the service of the owners. Out of the total wealth produced by their labour the workers receive but a part as wages, the remainder being retained by those who employ them. The one class lives by selling its services and the other by owning property. The everyday struggle over the division of the product sets these classes in perpetual antagonism, but the Socialist urges the workers to aim consciously not merely at increasing their share but at destroying the system of society which compels them to maintain a propertied class at their expense.

For the Socialist all forms of “living by owning,” rent, interest and profit are in effect nothing more than forms of exploitation, or robbery, of the wealth producers.

If this is correct, then it follows naturally that it is to the interest of the workers all over the world to act jointly in resisting any attempt to heighten the degree of that exploitation, and in overthrowing the system which is based upon exploitation. The enemy of the working class is the capitalist class.

But certain complications exist which prevent many workers from seeing where their interests lie. Lack of knowledge and race prejudices prevent those in one country from realising how essentially similar is their condition to that of workers in foreign countries. There are too real differences between the present circumstances of the workers in the more advanced and the more backward countries. Standards of living, of education, of political and personal freedom, and of political knowledge vary from, say, England or America to the hardly developed Asiatic dependencies of Great Britain; this in spite of the quite marked tendency towards a general equalising of conditions as industrial developments become more uniform all over the world under the pressure of competition.

Again, this very competition leads many workers astray. Exceptional prosperity in the British coal industry at a given time is gained at the expense of some foreign competitors. Viewing the matter from an individual and local standpoint, the miners are only too liable to agree with their employers who argue that the interests of British workers and owners are as one against those of their German or American rivals. Extending our view from one section of a capitalist industry to the whole of the industries of a country or group of countries, national rivalry often presents itself in such a form—war, for instance—as to induce great numbers of workers to join their own section of the ruling class against other sections which are likewise supported by their workers.


Capitalist countries—all of them—must organise their forces and direct their policy to ends which are vital to capitalist society, they must seek markets for surplus products, endeavour to monopolise sources of supply of raw materials where these are geographically limited, and protect ocean and overland communications to these areas. Britain holds tenaciously to her practical monopoly of tropical rubber producing areas, sits tight in Egypt in order to guard the routes to India, and keeps firm hold on the latter because it is a market of first importance and an area for the profitable investment of surplus profit gained by the exploitation of workers at home. The necessities of such imperialist policy bring our ruling class into inevitable conflict with other imperialist powers who also seek markets and monopolies, and into conflict with the colonial and native capitalists who resent having to share with foreign investors the profits of the exploitation of their own working class ; hence the war of 1914, and the independence movements in Ireland, India, Egypt, Canada and elsewhere.

Now let us examine the various parties in this country which claim to represent the working class.


The Labour Party openly and unashamedly supported the war in 1914 and associates now with its German patriot prototypes, the Social Democrats. It interests itself in the political and economic difficulties of the British capitalists, offers remedies to solve their industrial problems, assists in maintaining armed forces to defend capitalist property, loyally supports the Empire and opposes the grant of unconditional independence to any part of it. It is unnecessary to labour this point or answer the assertion that the Labour Party has changed for the better since the war because Mr. H. N. Brailsford, Editor of the New Leader, has recently written of the position now occupied by his party.

“We must face our own record as frankly. (I speak, of course, only for myself.) From the date of Mr. MacDonald’s first letter to the Indians on the eve of taking office, down to the recent debates on China, India, and our rubber monopoly, he and his closest associate, Mr. Thomas, have been leading the Party, openly and plainly, towards a reconciliation with Imperialism. His Indian record in office was worse than negative. Not only did he do nothing to advance Home Rule or to help the sweated Indian worker : he sanctioned the shameful Coercion Act in Bengal. His most recent speech gave reasons for doing nothing in India of which an old-fashioned Liberal would have been ashamed. There were other symptoms—the attitude to Mexico, the curt refusal of the Cypriote petition for union with Greece. But the gravest matter was his plain rejection of the League of Nations as the arbiter in our dispute with Egypt over the Canal and the Soudan. . . . We stand, as the French Party stands, a buttress of capitalist Imperialism.” (New Leader, August 21st, 1925.)

Leaving aside the influence of Liberal tradition and the habitual unthinking acceptance of capitalist ways of regarding politics, the ultimate explanation of this Labour Party attitude is that they have no basic quarrel with the capitalists or capitalism. They regard “profiteering” (or excessive profits) as “unjust,” but they do not hold all profit-making to be robbery of the workers. When they speak of “exploitation” what they mean is the payment of exceptionally low wages, they do not recognise that there can be no wage-earning, no wages system without exploitation. Thus Mr. Thomas, in “When Labour Rules,” Mr. MacDonald in “Socialism— Critical and Constructive,” Mr. Sydney Webb in “A Constitution for a Socialist Commonwealth,” all justify private property and the payment of profits, or interest to property owners. As Mr. Clynes says, “It is no part of Labour’s policy to establish revolutionary Socialism or to confiscate private property” (Glasgow Evening News, Oct. 4, 1923). Thus again in 1914 the workers of this country were urged by the Labour Party to fight lest they should, through a German victory, become slaves; and when the French occupied the Ruhr the same Party protested on the ground that it would make the German workers slaves. We, on the contrary, recognise that all the workers in a capitalist world are already wage-slaves to the propertied class, and that no fortune of war, whether victory or defeat, can alter the essentials of that situation. As we propose to deprive the capitalists of their property and do not admit that they have any rights whatever, it matters nothing to us that capitalist groups strive to plunder each other. The Labour Party recognise those property rights and therefore quite consistently seek to defend those whom they consider to be the rightful owners. It is consistent with their views of property but it is decidedly not consistent with working class interests and with Socialism.


This attitude does not meet with the approval of the Communists who oppose to the patriotism of the Labour Party an inverted patriotism of their own. They can see clearly enough that the interests of British workers clash with those of British capitalists but they cannot rest content with urging the workers everywhere to concentrate on resisting exploitation and on fighting their exploiters. They accept the false reasoning used by Mr. Francis Meynell when he edited the Communist. He urged support of the Indian native capitalists in their struggle against the British Government, on the ground that all enemies of the latter are the friends of the Communist Party. They proclaim the necessity and practicability of disrupting the British Empire, and ally themselves accordingly with every independence movement. What they forget or intentionally gloss over, is that national independence for Irish, Indians or Egyptians is no more a concern of the workers in those countries and should no more be fought for by them than national defence should concern workers here. To exchange Irish exploiters for English ones does not better the condition of Irish workers in the slightest degree; in actual fact, by stressing racial differences it adds to the obstacles preventing international co-operation in the trade union and political world. The enemies of the British ruling class are not necessarily friends of the British workers. We want to increase, not to obscure, the antagonism between one class and the other, and this cannot be done by urging Indian wage-slaves to waste precious years chasing the will o’ the wisp of nationality. Their masters alone will gain from such a course.

The Communist mind is also perverted by the determination not to read the signs of the times in Russia. British governmental hostility to the Russian Government leads the Communists to completely uncritical praise of the latter’s actions, oblivious of the extent to which those actions are driven by pressure of circumstance against working class interests. The Communists know quite well that there is no solution for the unemployment problem to be found in developing foreign trade, yet they have for years lent themselves to the anti-working class propaganda which promises untold benefits for British workers if only full trading relations with Russia are opened up. At present much of the hostility to the Bolshevik Government arises from the wish of foreign capitalists to have free access to this relatively undeveloped field for investment and exploitation. But whether that field is developed with or without the direct control of foreign capital, the entry of this new competitor into the world’s markets can only result in a worsening of the industrial conditions of workers generally, and an aggravation of the clashing of interests between capitalist groups. The Communists, too, like the Labour Party, refuse to recognise that exploitation is the necessary accompaniment of wage-labour. When the Labour Government proposed a £40,000,000 loan to Russia, the Communists were overjoyed, and Russian trade papers in their anxiety to attract foreign capital are full of reports of high profits earned by foreign traders and concessionaires. They decline to face the plain fact that interest on loans and profits on investments can come only from the exploitation of the Russian workers.

T. Johnston, I.L.P. member of Parliament and Editor of the Forward, takes the Communists to task for what he calls their “Whiggery in a Red Cravat.” He rightly condemns the obscured vision which can draw distinctions between sections of the capitalist class and see a friend of the workers in every exploiter who happens to have a quarrel with the British Empire. But Johnston himself is open to equal condemnation. He also is prepared to support schemes for the improvement of Empire trade, schemes, that is, to assist Empire capital in driving competitors from the world’s markets. Neither he nor anyone else has ever yet explained how this will benefit the world’s workers. The poverty in work, and greater poverty out of work, of the wage-earner is not dependent on the temporary ups and downs in particular industries or of all industries together. However, the total product of industry may vary with foreign trade fluctuations, there always has been, and is now, an enormous residue over and above wages, doles and relief, which is retained and consumed by the propertied class. What idiocy it is to tell the workers they must revive trade in order to get work and increase their wages, while an idle class is living on the product of the workers’ labour. When the workers wish they have the power on their hands to cut into that existing surplus whether trade is good or bad, or getting better or worse. While there is a single able-bodied property-owner living without working, only ignorance or treachery could ask the workers to devote thought to the increase of production, or to the quickening of foreign trade.

Johnston, again, owes his confusion to his inability to grasp what is meant by exploitation. Thus in Forward (Sept. 19) he writes in favour of the Labour movement here giving more attention to and entering into more cordial relations with Queensland which has a Labour Government. On the strength of this latter feature, Johnston, while repeating parrot-like the necessity of fighting exploitation, dubs Queensland a proletarian State. Actually, Queensland Government publications and the speeches of Labour Ministers and Members of Parliament demonstrate the incontrovertible fact that capitalist profits and the degree of exploitation of the workers in Queensland are greater, and the proportion of total production received by them as wages is less, than in any other Australian State now, and than was the case in Queensland when the Labour Government first took office ! (See Socialist Standard, Dec., 1923, and Feb., 1924.)


The only safe rule of conduct for the workers is to stand firmly on the basis of their class economic interests. From this standpoint there can be no circumstances requiring them to participate in capitalist wars or trade rivalries. Even the supposed hardships resulting from military defeat do not outweigh the arguments in favour of the Socialist course of action outlined above. We have always urged that Reparations like rates and taxes are and must be a burden only on the propertied class. We are therefore not surprised to learn from the Ministry of Labour Gazette (June, 1925, Page 217) that an enquiry by the International Labour Office shows that real wages in Germany are approximately what they were in 1914 as are also wages in London. In victory and defeat the workers are still wage slaves, their poverty and insecurity are their only lifelong possession. They should not fight for “country and empire,” because they have nothing to fight for. They should refuse to help solve the economic problems of capitalist industry, or the political problems of capitalist empires and concentrate all their energies on the fight for Socialism.


(Socialist Standard, October 1925)

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