Workers Hammer No. 230
The rise of British imperialism
The Protestant Reformation to the English Revolution
One hundred years ago, World War I, which brought unprecedented suffering and mass slaughter to working people, demonstrated that capitalism had reached its final, barbarous epoch, the epoch of imperialism. As Bolshevik leader VI Lenin noted in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established” and “in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed”. A small club of wealthy imperialist powers, currently dominated by the US, subordinates and oppresses the vast majority of the world’s population. Today, most of Asia, Africa and Latin America, “politically, are formally independent, but in fact, are enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence”.
As a world economic system, imperialism took shape in the late 1800s. However, to understand how and why imperialism emerged out of the political and economic logic of capitalism requires going back to the origins of the world capitalist system in the 16th century, some three centuries earlier. This subject was addressed in a presentation by comrade Russell Stoker at the Trotskyist League of Canada/Ligue Trotskyste du Canada Thirteenth National Conference in summer 2013, an edited version of which was printed as a two-part article in Spartacist Canada nos 182 and 183 (Fall 2014 and Winter 2014/2015). Below is an adaptation of the first part of the article.
This class is about the rise of British imperialism, the first of that economic order to arise. Arguably it was also the first to decline. Because Britain was the first, it represents the “classical” rise of imperialism, which developed quite differently elsewhere. For instance, in America, which had capitalism in its bones, there was no previous epoch of feudalism to overcome; a relatively small indigenous population was easily overwhelmed and militarily crushed by the settlers’ regime. Capitalism developed quite differently too in Germany, France and Japan especially, but that is well beyond the scope of this talk.
Originally I had considered presenting the elements of the structure, the relentless and bloody march of British capital across the globe, etc. But in the end, comrades asked why Britain was first and not Spain or India — and that was a brilliant question.
To attempt to answer that, I have to take us on a bit of a selective romp through the ages, well before the onset of British imperialism. Now I will not be discussing the Scramble for Africa, the Opium Wars, the Near East, China, the French Revolution or even the Napoleonic Wars, which are not at all unrelated to the rise of imperialism and more specifically the rise of British imperialism. In particular I regret giving France such short shrift, but there you go. This is a one-hour climb and I am sure to shift my ladder on many sets of PhD toes — apologies in advance.
The feudal order
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
So begins the Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1847.
What did this class struggle look like in feudal Europe? The early medieval Catholic church, in the absence of printing presses and a literate populace, possessed a virtual monopoly of technical and literary knowledge. The church became the ideological and political power which transcended the local authority of the lords and chieftains, great and small.
As the church vigorously expanded and consolidated its empire and wealth, in alliance with the rising nobility, it came to mirror that nobility in aristocratic structure, ostentatious wealth, corruption and a capricious cruelty towards its subjects. Monarchs were given the authority of church and God when they were crowned by some high clergyman or other.
And the church was far and away the largest feudal landlord, owning up to a third of the land. That included the sovereign papal states. Moreover, many of the clergy were feudal lords in their own right. Later, as trade revived and the new town merchants grew rich from that trade, the landed nobility in the countryside allied with the church to rob the peasantry of their common land and find the means to extort the growing wealth of the merchants. In particular they made use of revenue-generating “indulgences” — the forgiveness of sins for cash — essentially as a form of extortion by threat of eternal damnation.
It became increasingly intolerable for the rising new classes — artisans, merchants, peasant smallholders — to bear the weight and insult of this idle and parasitic class. That impelled the revolt known as the Protestant Reformation. You can read about the German Peasant War, the first key confrontation which culminated in 1525, and its outstanding leader, the radical preacher Thomas Müntzer, in The Peasant War in Germany by Friedrich Engels, which I can’t get into here. Suffice it to say that the bloody end result of the first serious attempt at a bourgeois revolution was a victory for the other side — the old ruling class.
The fractious German nobility was then able to retrench itself in a constellation of decentralised and highly autocratic princely states, which retarded the political and industrial development of Germany.
Meanwhile, Charles V used a monstrous pile of cash from a family of German loansharks — the Fuggers — to get himself christened Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Charles was the guy who really set to robbing the Americas and got the fires of the counterreformation cooking. I want to highlight the economic and political degeneration of the Spanish towns and cities under Charles V, as opposed to the situation of the towns in England and Holland which were flourishing. This is relevant to why Britain — not Spain, which was far richer — was first to industrialise.
The Spanish towns had been previously compacted by the Moorish incursions, becoming centres of advanced manufacture and economic activity. That period ended with the completion of the Reconquista, a period spanning some 700 years and ending in 1492 — the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That also marked the year of the Alhambra Decree by which the Spanish Inquisition forced the Sephardic Jews into hiding or exile from Spain and, later, Portugal. Most went to the more tolerant Ottoman Empire, but some made their way to Brazil where they later played a role in the spread of sugar production to the West Indies. Others, like the philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s folks, went north to Protestant Amsterdam.
The Spanish Reconquista, a piecemeal “liberation” from the North Africans, established a sort of realm where Catalonia, Castile, Aragon and such were all semi-independent kingdoms. From there, the kings of Spain dealt with councils, alliances through marriage, negotiations and all of that. Then along comes Emperor Charles V. He was having none of it. He well and truly smashed the independent power of the nobility and laid into the merchants with heavy new taxes to pay back the Fuggers and especially to finance his wars across Europe.
When the nascent bourgeoisie of the Spanish towns, bleeding from the pocketbook, rose up in revolt in the early 1520s, they were crushed. The local town councils were destroyed, and henceforth Spain suffered under an absolute monarch and was thoroughly drained of capital. The urban areas of Spain disintegrated as economic and political entities. The nobility lost its power, but retained privileges totally dependent upon their support to the King. Then, inheriting a Spain which had been bankrupted by his father’s military ventures, Philip II proved to be very much his father’s son. He carried on absolutely, as it were. It’s from him that the Philippines, a Spanish colony for more than three centuries, got its name.
The Reformation in Scotland
Unlike the furious retrenchment of the German nobility or the feudal impoverishment of Spain, the Reformation unravelled feudal relations in England and Scotland, culminating in the English Civil War of 1642-51, which Engels pointedly called the second great bourgeois upheaval. Thomas Müntzer was dead and Martin Luther’s half-hearted measures could not quench the human bonfires set by the Inquisition in Spain or Bloody Mary in England. The Reformers required a harder leader and doctrine, and that they found in John Calvin. In doctrine, the Calvinists loathed all tyranny, all dishonesty, pretty much all moral wrongs of every sort so far as they could determine them. As Engels noted in his 1892 introduction to Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “Calvin’s church constitution was thoroughly democratic and republican; and where the kingdom of God was republicanised, could the kingdoms of this world remain subject to monarchs, bishops and lords?”
The man who more than any other carried forward Calvin’s war on the corrupt feudal church, and who now moves to the centre of this story, is the totally fearsome figure of John Knox. Knox made it his personal holy mission to turn Scotland into the New Jerusalem. He believed political power was ordained by God but that the power was vested in the people, not in kings and especially not in the Catholic clergy. “Punishing idolatry and destroying tyranny” was a sacred duty God had placed on “the whole body of the people...and of every man in his vocation”.
That meant invading Catholic churches, smashing the religious artwork and driving off the papal clergy who rightly feared for their lives. Knox fiercely despised the political authority of the monarchy. He dismissed the divine right of succession and fervently preached that any monarch ruled by the consent of the people — all tyranny must be destroyed. In 1563 he famously brought Mary, Queen of Scots to tears when he told her as much to her face.
The Calvinists’ emphasis on reading the Bible was a great stimulus to literacy in Scotland. Their primary motivation was putting the common man in touch with the word of God, not seeding the ground for future scientific and engineering breakthroughs. Nevertheless, it is a notable fact that by the time of the Act of Union in 1707, most parishes in Scotland had a school paid for by the Reformed Church of Scotland, and those schools were open to both boys and girls regardless of social status. Scotland, with less than one-quarter of the population of England and Wales, boasted five merit-based universities as opposed to England’s two upper-class institutions. Mind you, the Scottish Highlands remained economically more backward, less literate and more Catholic.
The Reformation in England
The ascension in 1485 of a new lineage in the English monarchy — the Tudor kings who were the victors in the Wars of the Roses — had effectively obliterated the old nobility. Henry VIII, the second Tudor king, broke from Rome and went on to expropriate and redistribute much Catholic property and wealth with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Those nobles who profited from his favour became a sort of nouveau riche, much more closely aligned with mercantile enrichment than feudal land wealth.
The new nobles then proceeded to strip the land of people in favour of more profitable usage. Karl Marx put it this way in Volume One of Capital:
“The great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry.”
Engels succinctly captured the process in an 1881 letter to Marx’s daughter, Jenny Longuet:
“The whole Protestant reformation,... apart from its dogmatical squabbles and quibbles, was a vast plan for a confiscation of land. First the land was taken from the Church. Then the Catholics, in countries where Protestantism was in power, were declared rebels and their land confiscated.”
As Protestants like to say, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The whole process had been preconditioned by earlier population losses from the Black Death in the mid-1300s. That produced a high demand for labour. Naturally, the much smaller surviving population of peasants worked only the best and most productive land. Combined with an extended period of excellent weather, this likely resulted in bumper crops followed by a slump in grain prices and a corresponding higher cost of city manufactures. Feudal relations would become less and less remunerative to the lords and nobles.
That “Most Catholic” King Philip II, the absolute monarch of Spain, and his gigantic bureaucracy fought tooth and nail to retain the feudal Catholic political economic order. He waged wars against England, France and the Netherlands, wars which effectively and repeatedly emptied the royal coffers. The ill-fated “Spanish Armada” of 1588 was but one episode.
The armada was mostly savaged by a storm, a defeat celebrated in England with a commemorative medal embossed with the words Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt — Jehovah blew, and they were scattered. The very next year a similar armada was sent by the English Queen Elizabeth against the Spanish. It met a similar fate — being scattered and sunk in a huge gale — but they didn’t sing any songs or strike any medals about that one.
As with the Spanish crown, the wars depleted the wealth of the English queen. She depended financially upon the booty collected by her sea pirates like Francis Drake and also the granting of various monopolies like that of her land pirates of the East India Company.
On the continent, Philip II revived the Inquisition as an ideological terror weapon against the Reformation. If one considers the enormous parasitic bureaucracy of Spain, the vast military expenditures, including the escalating costs of extracting gold and silver from the New World (harried as they were by Drake and company), and the retrograde effort to constrain mercantile trade, etc, it is little wonder the Spanish empire eventually collapsed.
Comrade George Foster of the Spartacist League/US mentioned another interesting factor which worked in both directions, bleeding feudal Spain and enriching the new merchant class. He pointed out that because Spain lacked manufacturing capacity, much of the gold and silver which that empire looted from the New World made its way into the hands of the great manufacturing and banking centres elsewhere. The Spanish people and towns were in fact quite poor. At any rate, whatever successes favoured Rome and Spain in defence of the feudal order were insufficient to stem the tide of history.
The English Civil War
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, there had been a parliament or council of some sort in England ostensibly representing the “people” to the crown. Regardless of how much the parliament of the 1640s considered itself the representative of the people, it was, as Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky noted, “based on the most whimsical franchise” (“Where Is Britain Going?” ). The king dissolved and recalled that body as ever he saw fit. Mostly he saw fit to recall it in order to provide funds for his military ventures. Those were not often, if ever, in the best interests of the city merchants who filled the Lower House, which Trotsky wryly notes was found to be three times as wealthy as the House of Lords.
In Scotland, the Calvinists were pressing for independence after a successful revolt in 1637 against taxation and insufferable religious interference by the government of Charles I. Charles recalled the English Parliament and put the squeeze on it to fund yet another foray against the Scots. Parliament resisted. The Royalist forces, short on cash, went ahead regardless. They got themselves badly spanked, and the Scottish army invaded in defence of Parliament — an intervention which accelerated the outbreak of the bourgeois revolution in England.
The English bourgeoisie then set about creating an army of its own in defence of its representative body, the Parliament. It was a bold and insubordinate act, one which posed a revolutionary insurrection against the monarchy. And there’s the rub: as the bourgeoisie gained greater economic power, it became both necessary and possible to fashion a state apparatus better suited to its needs. The New Model Army, created by Parliament in 1645, concentrated in its ranks the most courageous and resolute elements. Very soon those elements far exceeded the determination of the bourgeois parliamentary representatives themselves. To the head of that army rose the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, a commoner who called to himself like-minded warriors to lead the revolution.
Cromwell’s task was to destroy the tyranny, the tyrant’s court nobility and the tyrant’s natural ally, the High Church, which had maintained a hierarchical form of church governance not much removed from the Catholic Holy See. That task required mobilising the masses and building the New Model Army with professional soldiers representing the interests of the Parliament, as opposed to the personal interests of one or another lord or baron as had been the medieval practice. Those soldiers were “Roundheads”, that is, lacking the curly big hair wigs of the gentry. The revolutionary army pretty much pounded the gentry’s mercenaries wherever they met.
Charles I then hied-thee-hither off to Scotland of all places, where he promised heaven on earth, and somewhat surprisingly the dim leaders of the Scots said, “well, alright then”, shifted sides, marched off with Charles to mix it up with the New Model Army and basically got what they deserved.
In the fall of 1649, when Cromwell invaded Ireland, Royalist forces from outside were also converging there. The thing is, Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was not only carried out to defeat the Royalists. It wasn’t simply an extension of the English Civil War on Irish terrain. From the time of the 1641 uprising in Ireland — before the Civil War — both Royalists and Parliament agreed that Ireland must be subordinated to England. The only question was which side would command the English army that would carry this out. As an added incentive for a military conquest, Parliament had passed an “Adventurers Act” in 1642 inviting English moneymen to “invest” in the army, in return for which they were guaranteed Irish land. Under this scheme Cromwell himself put in over £2000 and had been promised land in Leinster.
Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland was designed to colonise Ireland with settlers by seizing land from Catholic landowners, who were sent to Connaught. Along the way, he expropriated some 2.5 million Irish acres. Tenants were offered the choice of going with the landlord, or remaining to serve the new lord as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Cromwell also instituted severe repression for the earlier uprising; he shipped off a whole mess of the unrepentant Irish rebels to the West Indies as indentured servants.
Marxist historian Christopher Hill describes Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland as “the first big triumph of English imperialism and the first big defeat of English democracy” (The English Revolution of 1640). He’s echoing Karl Marx who wrote in 1869 that “English reaction in England (as in Cromwell’s time) had its roots in the subjugation of Ireland” (Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869). Cromwell’s army conquered Ireland, crushed the resistance and seized two-thirds of the land. In addition, Cromwell encouraged colonial settlement of Ireland, particularly from among the most radical regiments in his army, as a way of dispersing troublemakers.
So, to recap, under Cromwell’s leadership the revolution conquered England, smashed a recalcitrant Scotland and defeated rebellious Ireland. The British Isles were thus unified through force of arms under the newly confident bourgeois class. Trotsky relates:
“The British social crisis of the seventeenth century combined in itself features of the German Reformation of the sixteenth century with features of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century.
“In Cromwell Luther joins hands with Robespierre.”
— “Where is Britain going?”
Parenthetically, it is under Cromwell that the navy becomes a permanent force. Once Charles I famously lost his temper along with his head, Cromwell sagely reasoned that the monarchs of Europe would be right pissed [off]. And so in 1651, directly challenging the Dutch command of maritime trade, Cromwell imposed duties on imported goods. His Navigation Act — essentially a declaration of war — forbade Dutch merchant shipping to English ports or colonies and harried them in “English” waters like the North Sea, the English Channel and so on.
Cromwell rapidly built and manned large naval warships to defend the Commonwealth. They also protected convoys to the English colonies and successfully recaptured Royalist strongholds in the nearby islands, the West Indies and America. The most powerful merchant fleet by far belonged to the Dutch, larger and richer than all the other European merchant fleets combined. During the 17th century Holland had the most advanced capitalist economy in the world. If you wanted in on stock trading or banking or tea, coffee, chocolate, ostentatious spending and high living...well that was Amsterdam all over, not London. And for venal exploitation, corruption and brutal colonialism, you couldn’t top the Dutch East India Company. But the rising British bourgeoisie was a quick study. Eventually the Dutch were beaten, blockaded and otherwise forced to accept Cromwell’s Navigation Act. The English bought up, captured or sank scads of Dutch merchant ships.
And while I am on the subject, that was another advantage the British possessed: they were able to concentrate on building up their navy. Whereas the continental powers had to maintain huge land-based armies, the British could get by with much smaller and less costly strategic forces. And they could be rapidly deployed as fast as the wind — literally — as they were carried by the navy with its big guns and dropped practically anywhere. The British perfected naval military warfare through a century and more of practice against the Dutch, Spanish, Ottoman pirates and privateers, but mostly against the French. That power to project the armed might of the British ruling class anywhere in the world loomed large with the later rise of British imperialism.
The Restoration and after
The landed nobility derisively called the bourgeoisie Whigs, which is thought to come from the Scottish whiggamor or cattle driver, because they had mobilised the plebeian masses during the Civil War. And that became the name associated with bourgeois liberalism — the supporters of a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch shared power with a parliament representing wealthy men of property. As comrade Joseph Seymour noted, “liberalism represented the interests of the bourgeoisie as against the landed nobility on the right and the workers and peasants on the left” (Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism, Spartacist pamphlet, 1998). The landed nobles resented the wealth and power of Parliament and supported a strong monarchy against that.
The English bourgeoisie learned something from gaining political power with Cromwell’s Commonwealth and then losing it after his death when the nobles succeeded in restoring the monarchy and placing Charles II on the throne. Charles inherited Cromwell’s navy, renamed it the Royal Navy and promptly dispatched it to capture New Amsterdam (New York). By the by, Charles II is the guy who signed off on the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly in 1670. The monarchist party of the landed nobility then came to be known derisively as Tories from the Irish word tóraí, which meant a robber. That was not because of the Hudson’s Bay Company — it was because they stole the power from “the people”.
The Royalists exhumed Cromwell’s body, and he and his confederates, both living and dead, were most gruesomely executed. Cromwell’s head was stuck on a spike above Westminster Hall and put on display for a quarter century. But the restoration of the monarchy didn’t end well for the nobility. Their guy proved a little too sympathetic to the Catholic church. The Scots in particular had a rough time. I mean, first they got beaten with a stick by Cromwell, then when their guy finally gets on the throne he decides to force the Presbyterian Scots to kiss his royal arse, as it were. Well, these were John Knox’s people — who were not well known for supplicating any worldly monarch. It is not for nothing that Charles II’s gruesome repression of the 1680s was known as “the Killing Time” in Scotland.
Meanwhile, the English bourgeoisie regroups and enlists the aid of the Dutch Protestant William III of Orange to put down Charles’ successor, the Catholic James II. William is only too happy to oblige, providing Parliament will help with his ongoing war with France. So, William is invited to take the English throne; he comes to town with a gigantic armada, four times the size of the earlier Spanish one. They have a gigantic party; he assumes the throne and signs all sorts of proclamations securing Parliament’s position in governance. James meanwhile is allowed to scurry off across to the continent.
This, the so-called Glorious Revolution, is henceforth lauded as the foundation of the modern constitutional monarchy which enshrined by law a Protestant succession to the crown, and moreover, the constitutional supremacy of Parliament over the king.
This process is mythologised by the ruling class as the “glorious” dawn of true British democracy. However, for black Africans, it represented something else again. By ending the Duke of York’s Royal African Company monopoly on the African slave trade in 1698, the “Glorious Revolution” heralded not the broadening of freedom but the massive expansion of slavery, horrendous servitude in the broiling sun of the British sugar colonies. And that is what truly began to build up the wealth that underwrote the British Empire.
[To be continued]