Read THE ROOT OF IMPERIALISM: CHAPTER X of American World Policies, free online book, by Walter E. Weyl, on


What determines whether a backward country is to be exploited by its own people or by some beneficent imperialistic power is not any consideration of its own welfare, but the chance of profits held out to certain adventurous financiers in the capitals of Europe. These modern pioneers are a ruthless, dangerous group, with the bold, speculative imagination that has marked adventurers since the world began. They have a domestic and a foreign morality, an ethics for home consumption and a fine contempt for “greasers” and “niggers.” They know the difference between five per cent. and twenty per cent., and their business consists in investing their money at high rates of profit (because the enterprise is hazardous) and then in taking out the hazard by making their home government compel the fulfilment of their impossible contracts.

The methods of these men are monotonously similar. They lend, they invest, they support revolutions, they invoke “the protection of the flag.” They need not pay attention to the public opinion of the backward countries; they do not believe such countries have a public opinion. All that these speculators need is the support of their home government, and that they may secure through bribery, newspaper influence and patriotism. The first two cost money and are worth all they cost; the third can be had for nothing. As for the excuse for intervention, it is that used by the wolf when he took a fancy to the lamb. Money is loaned at usurious rates to some rogue who poses in history as the President of the lamb republic or to some spendthrift imbecile of a Khedive. Concessions are secured. By a concession in this instance is meant a solemn contract, by which, for and in consideration of nothing, duly paid in hand, the whole nation, its territory and population, are turned over in perpetuity. The negotiations are ratified by a battle cruiser; a few marines are landed, a few barelegged natives are buried in a tropical back-yard, a treaty of peace and amity is concluded between the Imperial Power and its latest morsel, and the real business of imperialism begins. It is good business and pays big dividends.

But to whom do the dividends go? What profit has the French artisan or peasant in all these grand concessions from the illustrious Sultan of Morocco? How does the English workman prosper when English capital employs cheap Indian labour to undersell British factories? Obviously the immediate profits accrue to large capitalists rather than to the mass of the people. If a French peasant can invest his savings in Morocco, he may earn a few extra dollars per year on his holdings of a thousand francs, but his whole interest payment forms a small proportion of his annual income. To the financier, on the other hand, who directs the investment of hundreds of millions, a concession in Morocco is of value.

The case of French foreign investments is pertinent. As a result of the activity of great bankers, who rule both finance and politics, some forty billion francs have been invested in foreign countries. The individual investor has little choice and no intelligent direction in these large affairs. It is even possible that the whole course of French investments has been disadvantageous; that too much French capital has been sent abroad to cultivate foreign fields (or pay for war preparations) and too little has been absorbed at home. The profit to bankers does not prove that the loans are equally profitable to the nation. In any definite imperialistic policy, as that in Morocco, this difference in interest between the directors and small owners of capital becomes even clearer. The promoters can afford even to risk war, while for the small investor, who, after all, can invest elsewhere, the net gain is less apparent, especially as the war, if it comes, must be fought by him and be paid for by him.

From the beginning, therefore, a revolt or opposition has been manifested (in certain sections of the industrial nations) to the whole principle and policy of imperialism. This revolt relies for support upon those elements in the population who believe either that they are not benefited by imperialism or only slightly benefited. Liberal and socialistic sentiment forms the core and centre of this opposition. For the most part the socialists are theoretically opposed to imperialism on the ground that it is immoral, brutal, anti-democratic and uneconomic. It does not, they believe, pay the people who in the end pay for it.

This anti-imperialistic philosophy of the Socialists is chiefly derived from the anti-colonial attitude of the liberals of the early nineteenth century. That attitude was founded on opposition to special trade privileges, which was the basis of the old colonial policy, and also on the belief that colonies did not benefit the mother country. In the middle of the eighteenth century Turgot had declared that “colonies are like fruits which cling to the tree only till they ripen,” and he predicted that “as soon as America can take care of herself, she will do what Carthage did.” When the American colonies later fulfilled this prediction by securing their independence, and when it was perceived that this separation did not lessen England’s commerce with America, the opponents of colonialism, who were also advocates of free trade, were reinforced in their convictions. The only true extension was trade, and to secure trade political domination was unnecessary.

It was by no means contended even by the most doctrinaire free trader that an increase in the population and wealth of new countries, such as the United States and Canada, was undesirable. All they opposed was political dominion by the home country and the adoption of a restrictive trade policy. Similarly the orthodox Socialists of to-day make a sharp distinction between colonisation and imperialism, between the acquisition, by conquest or otherwise, of lands suitable for settlement and the seizure of populous countries to which emigration is impossible. In this distinction it is not the intention but the fact that counts; whatever the motives of the explorers, the new country becomes a colony if it furnishes homes. Such colonising is a direct national gain, benefiting all classes. The redemptioner, who was carried off to the British settlements in America, did in the end improve his economic condition, and his descendants, like those of the free immigrants, now form the population of the country. On the other hand tropical dominions, like Porto Rico or Egypt, can provide profits for investors but no homes for settlers.

This distinction negates by definition the claim that imperialism is an outlet for a redundant population. Of the emigrants from the United Kingdom during the last thirty years only a microscopic percentage went to Britain’s tropical colonies. In British India in 1911 only one in every two thousand was British born. Similarly, most French, German, Belgian and Dutch colonies furnish no outlet to the surplus populations of these nations. Even in Algeria the Europeans constitute only one-seventh of the population, and in Tunis only about one-tenth. The entire European population in all German, French and British possessions (exclusive of the five self-governing colonies), is less than the net immigration to the United States every two or three years.

The opponents of imperialism moreover claim that all the regions fit for colonisation are already pre-empted. There is room for many millions in the five self-governing colonies of Great Britain, as there is in Siberia and South America, but where can place be found in regions newly acquired by imperialism? Where can homes be had to-day for some twenty million Germans (the excess of German population in a single generation), to say nothing of tens of millions of Italians, British, Austrians and Poles? It is frequently claimed that the new medical science, which conquers tropical diseases, will make these regions habitable by the whites. But though the sanitary improvement in the Canal Zone permitted thousands of Americans to help build the canal, it did not result in the actual physical work of construction being performed by white men. Despite sanitary improvements, the Jamaica negro could endure a hard day’s work under the tropical sun far better than a man from Illinois. The economic advantage of the lower-priced coloured labour is still more decisive. While in the highly organised industries of England, Germany or the United States, high wages frequently mean small labour cost, in the lower-geared industries of the tropics the coloured man, black or yellow, easily holds his own. Since the European excess of births over deaths is about forty millions per decade, the impossibility of finding a place for this excess population in tropical and subtropical countries is manifest.

If the countries still to be overrun are not adapted for colonisation, the benefits accruing from imperialism, according to these anti-imperialists, will go to merchants, manufacturers and investors and not to wage-earners. It is often claimed that this trade which arises from an imperialistic policy is not great enough to exercise a beneficent influence upon the fortunes of the masses. Prof. Hobson, writing in 1902, states that during the period since 1870, when Great Britain launched into its latest imperialistic policy, British foreign commerce did not grow as rapidly as population, and actually declined in proportion to wealth. The British colonies increased their trade with other nations more rapidly than with the home country. The newly acquired colonies, the last fruits of imperialism, were the least profitable. Their commerce was small, fluctuating and of low quality. Mr. Hobson therefore comes to the conclusion that our modern imperialistic policy has had no appreciable influence whatever upon the determination of our external trade."

When we consider individual countries which have been the cause of much rivalry and dissension, we discover that their commerce is often extremely small. France has almost monopolised the trade of Martinique, but in 1913 her total trade with that country was less than a sixtieth of her trade with the United Kingdom and less than a fiftieth of her trade with Germany. The specifically tropical countries, for which the nations are fighting, do not have a commerce worth a fraction of the cost of their acquisition. Nor are the investments in the imperialistic domain nearly so large as those in countries over which the European nations exercise no political control. France has invested largely in Russia and the Balkans; Germany has put capital into the United States, South America and Asia Minor; England has gigantic sums in countries over which she exercises no dominion. The profits from imperialistic investments are merely a bonus. Though they loom large in the popular imagination, they are only a small part of the national income, and even at the best these profits go to capitalists and not to the people.

Moreover, what advantage is it to the wage-earner to have his country’s wealth exported beyond his reach? Concerning this movement towards absentee ownership of capital, the widest divergence of opinion prevails. The optimists among the investing classes find it all good and sanctified by its results. The exportation of capital, they hold, not only fructifies the waste places of the world but does not decrease the capital in the exporting country, since it raises the rate of interest and thus stimulates saving. But such a rise in the interest rate means an increase in the cost of living and a reduction in the real wages of labour. In so far as it goes into competitive industrial enterprises abroad, it lessens the opportunity of labour at home. Thus if British capital, exported to India, is used to erect cotton mills in Calcutta, India will import fewer cotton goods from England, and British capital will be employing Indian labour and throwing British labour out of employment. This situation is analogous to that which was created when Northern textile manufacturers, instead of increasing their New England plants, built mills in Georgia, thus transferring the demand for employment from the North to the South.

It is further contended by these opponents of imperialism that the export of capital is profoundly demoralising to the exporting nation, which ceases, in a real sense, to be industrial, and becomes financial. Gradually the nation, with a large fixed income derived from foreign labour, ceases to care for its export industry, loses its intensity and keen application to business, becomes conservative in the technique of production, and, being no longer interested in the development of home industries (since its gains come from abroad), converts hundreds of thousands of industrial wage-earners into liveried house-servants, who minister to the cultivated wants of a sport-loving and decoratively idle upper class.

The effect of this development upon England, the classic land of capital export, is portrayed in an acute study by Dr. Schulze-Gaevernitz. The author shows how the steadily mounting income derived by Great Britain from foreign investments has led to a relative restriction of the field of employment in home manufacturing industries. In 1851 23 per cent. of the population of England and Wales were workers in the chief industries as compared with only 15 per cent. a half century later. Imports increase; exports do not increase proportionately. An ever larger proportion of the population becomes rentiers, “living on the sweat of coloured labour, whom it is their first interest to hold in political subjection.” Some of these rentiers, large and small, are wholly unoccupied or only half occupied. They are sleeping partners, briefless barristers, professors of professions which do not exist. To these income-receivers or rentiers, whom Schulze-Gaevernitz estimates at a million, must be added enormous numbers of servants and lackeys, who are paid, though indirectly, from the Kimberley mines and investments in the Argentine. Upon the industry of the backward countries these idle and semi-idle people make increasing demands, and industry becomes a production of luxuries. In the meantime the nation falls behind in its competition with more purely industrial countries like Germany and the United States. In the machine industry, in ship-building, in applied chemistry England does not hold her own. Her technique of production, her methods in commerce and banking become old-fashioned and ineffective; her invention (as measured by the issuance of patents) does not keep pace with that of her chief competitors. And all this conservatism does not inhere in the British character (for formerly the Briton revolutionised the world) but is attributable to the fact that Great Britain is pre-eminently a Rentnerstaat, a country of pensioners and creditors, increasingly independent and careless of its foreign export, and of the industries which formerly kept that export going.

There is some exaggeration but also much truth in this description of a Rentnerstaat. Psychologically the account fits the Englishman less exactly than the Frenchman, who is industrially less venturesome. Moreover from the individual’s view-point it makes little difference whether his fixed income is derived from abroad or at home. Economically, however, the influence of a large class of individuals living by foreign industry is difficult to exaggerate. Their interests are abroad; at home they are concerned chiefly with the maintenance of low prices. The nation becomes in a sense parasitic, living without effort upon the “lesser breeds” in all parts of the world.

Whatever its evil results, however, there is little reason to believe that any nation will willingly surrender the income on its foreign investments or cease to export new capital if conditions are favourable. The interest-receiving nations are the world’s aristocrats, happy in their favoured position, and if they can thus live partly on their past labour they see no reason for receiving less or working more. The social evils resulting at home from such a condition can be cured by changes in taxation and the distribution of wealth, by legislation which gives a greater part of the income from foreign investments to the nation as a whole, and thus forces the rentiers back into industrial life. So long, however, as foreign investment is essential to the widening of the agricultural base of industrial nations, it will not be stopped by its beneficiaries.

Those who advocate a complete cessation of the export of capital, therefore, might as well argue against its accumulation. You could not stop it if you wished, and would be none the wiser for wishing it. The export of capital is merely an export of goods, paid for in credit instead of in goods, and the only way to prevent credit from coming into the country is the suicidal method of expelling the creditor. It is unlikely, therefore, that this movement will cease until the demand for capital is fairly equalised throughout the world, until the backward nations of to-day are sated with capital or have themselves become industrial countries.

The danger lies in exactly the opposite direction, not in an abstention by wealthy nations from investing abroad, but in so keen, unscrupulous and rough-handed a competition for the right to invest as to result in war.

This danger of war is the final argument of anti-imperialists. They argue that the sacrifices which result in increased profits to investors and merchants are made by the masses who profit least from such investment. Not only do the people pay for the armaments to secure political domination, but also for the wars, which in these days of clashing imperialistic ambitions are an ever-present possibility. So long as the imperialistic scramble continues war will be inevitable. For no new dominion can be secured without threatening the interests or pretensions of rival imperial nations. The vastly extended empires are cheek by jowl. An extension of one power anywhere menaces the colonies of another nation; rival colonial ambitions merge with strategical questions. Just as the United States will not endure Japan on the West Coast of Mexico, nor England Germany on the West Coast of Morocco or on the Persian Gulf, so each nation fears the approach of other nations to its most distant possessions. Immediately even visions arise of coaling stations, from which great fleets may later issue, to be followed by transports of disciplined troops. In the seventeenth century England, France, Spain and Holland could hold colonies in North America and be reasonably out of each other’s way. In the twentieth century, this is no longer possible.

The increased cost of war adds to the opposition of these democratic groups. No longer is war a mere isolated venture of a single nation, but a conflict between alliances on a scale utterly unthought-of in former generations. No conceivable gain derived from any colonial venture of the last fifty years could compensate for the mere economic losses involved in the present war, to say nothing of the loss of life, the maiming and crippling of young men and the disruption of international bonds. And if war costs much so also does the preparation for war. Until some mutual accommodation can be secured, even the most pacific nation must bear the burden of increasing armaments.

There is a still deeper antagonism to these imperialistic ventures. From the beginning, the dominant classes in societies which are developing towards democracy have used foreign adventure to allay domestic discontent and to oppose democratic progress. When war is begun or even threatened it is too late to speak of uninteresting and seemingly petty internal reforms. Between industrial and political democracy on the one hand and a policy of foreign adventures on the other, there is an inevitable opposition.

It is not that the political and industrial interests of the dominant classes favour war, but rather a policy involving the constant fear of war. This fear itself is worth millions. It means a huge vested interest in the creation of munitions and armaments. It means political quiescence and domination by a financial-military group. But for the fear of war and the imperialistic policies which kept this fear alive, the militaristic Junker class of Germany could not have maintained its domination. To disband the German army would cost these landed proprietors more than would a Russian invasion. And a similar if lesser conflict in class interest is found in France, England, Austria and to a certain extent in the United States. In all countries, the imperialistic policy, even when it redounds ultimately to the nation’s advantage, is a class policy used to further class purposes.

In Europe, however, it is difficult for democratic leaders to make headway against imperialism. For the tragedy of the situation lies in the fact that where nations are constantly on the watch against each other, the imperialistic motive is interwoven with other motives of self-defence and nearer territorial aggression. If Germany is intent upon war, and if her road leads over France, then France must arm. To be effective in defence, she must have universal service, professional officers, a true military spirit, a certain degree of autocracy in military arrangements, as well as offensive and defensive alliances, not based on a true community of interest or similarity of ideals, but upon the need of beating back the foe. If England fears German aggression she cannot afford to maintain an isolation however magnificent, but is obliged to enter into alliances, ententes and secret engagements. For if you play the game you must play it according to the rules. Moreover, if you have the armament and alliances necessary for defence, you are tempted to use them for an aggressive and imperialistic policy. Indeed, such an imperialistic policy may actually form the cement of your alliances.

All these considerations lame and thwart the movement against imperialism. Moreover, the problem of governing the backward countries remains. For their own sake you cannot leave them alone, and the abstention of one nation merely makes the imperialistic ventures of other nations easier. If governments refrain from organising backward countries, the private capitalistic exploitation of these regions will be more ruthless than ever. The anti-imperialists are thus faced with a difficult situation which they cannot meet with a priori argument and pious formula. With them or without them, some form of co-operation must be effected between industrial and agricultural nations as well as some form of control over countries incapable of self-government. There is need for a definite, concrete democratic policy for the government of such backward countries.