Workers Hammer No. 231
The rise of British imperialism
Part two: Capitalism and slavery
In a preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), VI Lenin described how imperialism is “a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries”. Lenin emphasised that in this period marked by the dominance of finance capital the imperialist powers are impelled to carve up the rest of the globe in a race for new markets, raw materials and cheap labour. The scramble to leech the greatest profits possible through the exploitation of working people is the root cause of wars of imperialist plunder and of the miserable conditions under which the overwhelming mass of the world’s population lives and dies. The only way out for the exploited and the oppressed is through socialist revolutions that expropriate the bourgeoisie’s productive property and establish an internationally planned socialist economy.
We reprint below part two of a presentation, delivered at the Trotskyist League of Canada/Ligue trotskyste du Canada Thirteenth National Conference in Summer 2013, by comrade Russell Stoker on the developments that made Britain the first modern imperialist power. The edited version of the talk was first printed as a two-part article in Spartacist Canada nos 182 and 183 (Fall 2014 and Winter 2014/15). Part one, which appeared in Workers Hammer no 230 (Spring 2015), covered the Protestant Reformation and 1642-51 English Civil War; the second part addresses the connection between the Industrial Revolution and the slave trade.
In the US, as in Britain, early capital accumulation was made possible by the New World’s slave-based agricultural economy. The competing expansionist appetites of the Northern capitalists and the Southern plantation owners eventually reached a breaking point, culminating in the 1861-65 American Civil War. That war, the last of the great bourgeois revolutions, smashed the slavocracy in the US South but did not end the deep-seated oppression of the black masses, which today remains a central feature of class-divided society in the US. By the turn of the 20th century, US capitalism had entered onto the imperialist stage, and went on to eclipse British imperialism as the dominant world power.
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Eric Williams’ book Capitalism and Slavery was a shocker when he wrote it in 1944 and is still controversial today. He ripped the self-righteous mask from the apologists for the British ruling class who claimed the moral high ground and who tut-tutted American slavery because the British had passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act as early as 1807. Williams’ premise is that the profits of the British slave trade financed the Industrial Revolution. Even today, many respectable British academics damn Williams with faint praise, denying the fundamental role of the British slave trade in the development of British capitalism.
It’s entirely accurate to say that the blood and sweat of African slaves were both fuel and lubricant for the Industrial Revolution. Neither the early spice trade with India nor the lucrative extortion of wealth by the land pirates of the East India Company stimulated manufacture in Britain to any great extent. But for Liverpool and Lancashire in England’s northwest, the slave trade was quite a different story.
Liverpool was a sleepy fishing port at the mouth of the River Mersey for 500 years before it was declared a parish in 1699, the year the first slave ship departed from that village. Well, that was a roaring success. The town merchants could see the writing on the wall and the coins falling into their pockets. A few of the more farsighted pooled their capital and in 1715 they built their first wet dock, where ships could be rapidly loaded and unloaded, tied alongside the dock at a constant water level regardless of tides. Otherwise, rowboats were required to ferry goods back and forth while the ship lay at anchor in the river current. That was nearly 100 years before London had such advantages.
Liverpool dominated the trade because it had geographic advantages, especially during wartime, which was most of the time. The port was much farther north and away from the French and Spanish privateers. The Mersey provided cheap transportation from the Lancashire textile mills just inland. It was a natural fit.
Shortly after the wet docks were completed, four or five slave ships were setting out from Liverpool each year. I should mention that these slave ships and their voyages were financed by shareholders. Everyone got in on the action. Even the sons of carpenters and sailmakers found the means to invest and become slave merchants themselves, as did many slave ship captains.
By the mid 18th century, the port was launching some 24 slave ships per year, and thereafter Liverpool went to the head of the class in the British slave trade. Of the 8000-plus British ships that were purpose-built for the slave trade, over 2100 were made in Liverpool itself and almost all of those were built after 1750. That works out to one complete ship every ten days.
All those ships required skilled workers to build and outfit them. They required vast quantities of Baltic timber, iron, sails, blocks and tackle and miles of hemp rope, not to mention capital to finance them. The canal-building craze was directly stimulated to cut transportation costs and increase production for both the slave trade and exports to the planter colonies. The manufacture of small arms, gunpowder, chains and shackles boomed. And all those workers needed housing and food.
The shipyards alone represented a vigorous economic undertaking, and they produced a large and growing population and a profitable market for regional agriculture as well. And that is just the ships that were built in Liverpool. Britain dispatched about 10,000 voyages to Africa for slaves, half of them out of Liverpool. Six wet docks were constructed at a cost in excess of one million pounds. Then for ship maintenance there were the dry docks, where the water could be completely drained out.
And none of those 5000 ships departed empty. Manchester, like Liverpool, was at the very heart of the slave trade. Most of the woven goods pouring out of Manchester factories filled their holds and went to Africa in trade for slaves or out to the colonies to clothe them. Nor did any ship return empty. They brought back raw sugar for distilleries, molasses, rum, tobacco and later, vast quantities of cotton. All this was part of the slave economy. Lloyds of London, the world’s oldest and largest insurance market, reaped enormous wealth from the Atlantic slave trade.
Sugar colonies and the planter parliament
The Liverpool merchants and Manchester mill owners were just raking in the money and falling over themselves to improve production. But that was chump change to the sugar planters who were already rich as Rockefellers and twice as fat. The sugar plantations were gigantic hellish machines which ground up human lives and sugar cane and squeezed out vast fortunes for the slave owners.
Before they seized upon African slaves, the planters had pressed indentured servants into the fields — mostly poor people, many Irish — and there were kidnappings and corrupt judges who served as press gangs for the planters. But try as they might, the legions of defeated Irish rebels or scrawny souls plucked from the English prisons or off the damp London streets mostly died in their tropical servitude — from beatings, from malaria, or from all manner of ailments and mistreatment.
The planters tried enslaving the native populations as well, but the latter were too few in numbers and failed to perform for their masters. The healthy populations ripped out of Africa proved to be just the forced labour the planters were looking for, and they seized upon them with a vengeance.
It is hard to overstate the wealth the slave sugar generated. Many planters moved their persons back to England at the earliest opportunity and ruled in glorious absentia. Once home, they settled into fine country estates or magnificent town homes. With their great wealth, many bought seats in parliament to protect their interests. The planters’ grip on parliament would have made Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall jealous.
The slave trade and Scotland
Glasgow became a major trading port in the 18th century. Not unlike Liverpool, the city was bursting with industry and wealth generated by the slave economy. Sugar refining was the first industrial boon in Glasgow. Before the 1707 Act of Union, which merged Scotland and England to form the United Kingdom, direct trade with the colonies was prohibited, and Glasgow was forced to import sugar from Bristol and to engage in no small amount of smuggling.
Meanwhile, the Scottish merchants were pickled with envy over the booming English trade and decided: “Man! I have got to get me some of this!” They pooled all their ready cash, something like half of the total Scottish capital. Then they outfitted some ships, and in 1698 sailed across the Atlantic to set up a colony of their own in Panama. This was the “Darien Scheme”, which comes down to us as the “Darien Disaster”.
When the English found out, they were having none of it — right shirty they were — and forbade assistance or trade with the Scottish colonists, who were by now starving and otherwise having a very bad day. Actually, a couple of thousand out of the 2500 colonists perished, for which no tears were shed by the indigenous people I am sure.
Well, things went downhill from there. The English were able to leverage a hostile takeover of Scotland with a big plump bag of cash and the juicy news that Scottish merchants could take part in the lucrative slave trade if Scotland joined in. That was the glorious Act of Union.
The ink was hardly dry before Scottish merchants owned nearly a third of the slaves in the sugar colony of Jamaica, which England had snatched from under Spain’s nose some 50 years previous. Post-1707, Glasgow rapidly came to specialise in the tobacco trade and the wealth associated with that trade washed over the city and along the River Clyde.
As in England, the rapid rise of the wealthy bourgeoisie coincided with the relative decline of the landed gentry and the old society, particularly following the bloody destruction of the Stuart-loyalist Jacobite clans at Culloden Moor in 1746. Amidst the new wealth, scholars and intellectuals began to meet freely to discuss radical new ideas in the taverns and public houses of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. A well-lubricated intelligentsia began to take form, you might say.
The fierce Calvinism of John Knox, which was needed to topple the tyrants, had given way to the enlightened liberals asserting the fundamental importance of human reason and empiricism, which were more useful tenets for capitalist development. The intelligentsia sported a new and optimistic belief that man could improve society and conquer nature with scientific discovery through experimentation. The great advances in Scottish science and engineering in the next century were the fruits of this process.
By the early 18th century, Scotland had become the first literate society in Europe. While Britain was besting the French all over the world during the Seven Years War, in Edinburgh, with a population of 60,000, there were six publishing houses and papermaking was an important part of the economy. An official survey in 1795 showed that out of a population of 1.5 million, 20,000 depended on writing and publishing and another 10,500 on teaching.
American independence and the end of the sugar monopoly
Because of sugar, Jamaica was, bar none, the most valuable British colony anywhere. Yes, even including India and the spice trade. The wee American colonies existed to provide foodstuffs and such for the sugar colonies — primarily Jamaica and Barbados — where every inch of arable land was taken up with sugar cane. But Britain’s sugar monopoly had already been broken on the European continent and in America, where smuggling cheap sugar for the rum distilleries to avoid crown taxes was a significant and growing part of the colonial economy.
America’s War of Independence against Britain was waged from 1775 to 1783 by an alliance with a built-in contradiction. Two different classes, the Northern manufacturers and the Southern slave owners, joined forces because both economies suffered under the strictures imposed by the British mercantile system. This system was a closed monopoly in which British manufactures had command of a protected market and the sugar planters controlled the flow and price of sugar. American independence finally shattered British mercantilism.
Much blood and ink was spilled by the British rulers, who feared both the catastrophic destruction of the regulated trade and the loss of tax revenue from the colonies. The lords and planters ran point on this. The industry-based capitalists were not especially animated by opposition to mercantilism or slavery so long as they were making tons of money manufacturing goods necessary to the slave trade and the colonies. When the industrialists discovered later, to their great surprise, that far higher profits could be made outside of the mercantile system, only then did the tide begin to turn in favour of “free trade”.
In Britain, the landed gentry had been natural allies of the sugar planters. For decades the government was dominated by the fabulously wealthy planters, who planted their seats in parliament whenever the fancy struck them. Parenthetically, that relationship was markedly different in France, where the king didn’t lose his head until nearly 150 years after the English one did. The French monarchy distrusted its planter nobility and instead formed an alliance with what West Indian intellectual CLR James called the “small whites”, the petty bourgeoisie, in his seminal book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1963).
The French planters never acquired anything like the power of their British counterparts, and that was despite the French sugar colony in Haiti being vastly more productive. CLR James also intimates that some of the British forces advocating abolition in the late 18th century were cynically manipulating French revolutionaries to do the same in order to undermine sugar production in the French colonies. There may be some truth in that.
The powerful British planter faction faced an opposition which included both enlightened intellectuals and capitalists promoting free trade. The growing conflict between the interests of the industry-based bourgeoisie and agriculture-based slave owners foreshadowed much of the economic and ideological conflict that would play out decades later across the Atlantic in the American Civil War of 1861-65. That war was begun by the South as a predatory campaign for the expansion of slavery, and the victory of the capitalist North meant slavery’s abolition. At the time, Karl Marx was leading the International Working Men’s Association (First International) and he penned articles and declarations to marshal working-class support for the North. “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is branded”, he went on to note in Volume One of Capital.
Back in Britain, the passage of the Abolition Act had come in 1807, but concessions to the planters meant that slavery actually continued in the British colonies for another 30 years or so. The Abolition Act nevertheless marks the significant point at which the economic and political power of the industrialists overwhelmed that of the planters. Thereafter, as Eric Williams put it, “The center of gravity in the British Empire shifted from the Caribbean Sea to the Indian Ocean, from the West Indies to India.”
Historians generally date the origins of the Industrial Revolution to the latter part of the 18th century. Certainly, the American War of Independence and the collapse of the mercantile system uncorked production. And James Watt’s improvement to the Newcomen steam engine is more or less concurrent with American independence — about 1776, which is to say 30 years before the Abolition Act in Britain and 60 years and more before slavery in the British colonies had mostly ended. Moreover, Watt’s efforts at re-engineering the steam engine were directly underwritten by profits of the slave economy. And in 1860, 53 years after the Abolition Act, 75 per cent of all British cotton was slave cotton from the American South. That is why the rulers of Britain supported the South during the American Civil War, as Marx pointed out at that time.
To recap, the Industrial Revolution grew out of a ready-made industry just humming along on the slave economy. Port facilities were marvellously improved at great expense and supported by factories with a quite modern proletariat. The slave trade wasn’t the whole of the Industrial Revolution — not by a long shot — but it definitely was its firm foundation. For further study I would highly recommend comrade Jacob Zorn’s presentation, “Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism” (Workers Vanguard nos 942, 943 and 944, 11 and 25 September and 9 October 2009).
The Industrial Revolution and India
Earlier we looked into why Germany, Spain or France did not become the first advanced capitalist-imperialist empire. Well, why not India?
In 1600, when Queen Elizabeth founded the East India Company, India had a huge economy and possessed weaving technology at least equal to that of contemporary England. India alone produced about 25 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods, more than all of Europe combined. That continued right up to the 18th century. Compared to Elizabethan England, India had well over 25 times the population and land, which included present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
But Mughal India had begun to disintegrate and the emerging rival princely states were increasingly subordinated in alliances with the various colonial powers. This started with the Portuguese who arrived in the 1500s, followed by the Dutch and then the English in the early 1600s and later the French. The race to dominate the highly lucrative spice trade with India became a huge impetus for all the European powers to develop their naval power and extend their reach economically and militarily.
Britain succeeded in dominating French power in the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763. This was a conflict between all the great powers of the day, and it extended across Europe, North America, the Caribbean, West Africa, the Philippines and, of course, India. The outstanding issue, as with all “great power” conflicts, was over who would rule the world.
The British victory in the 1757 Battle of Plassey is seen as the pivotal point in British supremacy in South Asia. It established the rule of the British East India Company in Bengal, which provided a rich staging ground to drive out the Dutch and French rivals. The British expropriated huge tracts of land, providing revenue through taxes and plunder for further conquest by the Company. This early period of colonial rule extracted enormous revenue through outright pillage, taxation and extortionate “tributes” from the besieged and occupied princely states.
By the end of the 18th century, cotton had already displaced British wool. It’s no wonder, given that the bulk of British cloth went into Africa in trade for slaves or to the colonies. Both destinations were hot and humid climes where cotton clothing is superior to wear.
However, Indian cottons upset the proverbial apple cart. Better and cheaper, they were displacing the English product in Africa and even threatened to dominate the domestic English market. Prohibitive import duties were slapped on Indian products coming into England. Export duties were also imposed in British India, and together those quickly destroyed India’s trade in cotton and soon that of all other Indian manufactures. Although India had long been a producer and exporter of fine cotton goods, it was shortly reduced to exporting raw cotton to Manchester and importing finished English material on a scale that kept Manchester booming for decades.
That marked the first step in the transformation from the earlier, direct piratical extortion of wealth to a more modern and “respectable” bourgeois form of expropriation — which would become a classic impediment to the growth of the productive forces of the captive consumer nation. By the 1850s, the British East India Company in league with the British army and navy had control of most of the Indian subcontinent. This was the nursery of the British foreign policy famously known as “divide and rule”, which exploited regional and religious rivalries. Britain imposed a dumbed-down education system stripped of science in an attempt to create a subordinate and dependant population.
Wherever and whenever the Industrial Revolution took hold, it meant the destruction of the artisan class. Not infrequently this was a brutal process. Nevertheless, the Industrial Revolution transformed society as it unleashed productive capacity: steam power, iron smelting, innovations with chemicals, mining and transportation. There was all that and more. Old, outmoded thinking fell away alongside the outmoded productive forms. In this sense, early capitalism was a powerful economic driver of innovation and technological achievement and science. The Industrial Revolution ramped up production and catapulted Britain into becoming the undisputed dominant world power with a virtual monopoly in manufacturing.
But in colonial India the Industrial Revolution played out quite differently. For centuries, the state exacted taxes and wealth from the villages in the form of goods and produce, but largely maintained the ancient village-based land system which generated that wealth. Public works provided regular irrigation to deliver water and nutrients for agriculture, which consisted of food, cotton and jute production. The village system provided economic sustenance to the village-based artisans including those of the important cotton trade. Now, this was a class-based society — not some kind of primitive idyllic communism — and there were larger urban centres with manufacture as well.
The British East India Company extorted Indian wealth on a massive scale. Economic disruption, both intentional and incidental, and the thorough neglect of public works, led to a collapse of Indian manufacture and agriculture. It produced intense impoverishment of its peoples which continues to this day. It is interesting to note, however, that the falling rate of profit and the declining ability of India to absorb British manufactures forced the British to begin manufacturing in India. That is to say, one could not endlessly extract wealth, impoverish the populace and pour British manufactures into the country without effect.
In 1830, the railway between Liverpool and Manchester opened. It was the beginning of the modern rail era and it sparked a worldwide railway construction boom, marking the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Incidentally, it was in 1836 that the first railway opened in Canada; all the early equipment was British made. Rail construction was the selling point for Confederation. British Columbia joined explicitly on that promise of a transcontinental railway, which was financed through a scandalous land-grant scheme and finally completed, to great fanfare, in 1886. In India, British finance capital had by 1875 poured upwards of 100 million pounds into the railways and by 1880 had laid nearly 15,000 kilometres of rail there. That was initially with British locomotives and rolling stock of British manufacture, which were later manufactured locally in India.
Though British firms owned outright five-sixths of the tea industry from an earlier period, I think that the rail investment demonstrates the importance that the export of capital had assumed. The British rulers were massively extorting dividends for the Indian rail system. Moreover that system was designed not to connect the Indian economy together, but to send its wealth abroad with as little delay as possible.
Concurrent with the spoliation of India, Britain of course applied itself vigorously and imperiously throughout Asia, especially in China, as well as in Africa and the Near East, but that is all well beyond the scope of this talk. The epoch of imperialism started at the very end of the 19th century. But as Lenin noted, “two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century — vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market”.
Marxism and the colonial question
Frequently one encounters the assertion by Third World nationalists that Marx and Engels were somehow tainted with colonialism. There are often two complementary sides to this hind-sighted discourse. On the one hand, there is an associated fantasy image of the idyllic peasant life prior to industrialisation. On the other, there is a false and haughty rendering of Marx and Engels’ positions and sympathies.
Marx and Engels originally had hoped that the positive aspects of industrialisation and free trade would spread to the colonies as a liberating force which would elevate those pre-industrial nations into the modern world. In 1853 Marx wrote an article titled “The Future Results of British Rule in India” where he said:
“England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating — the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”
Remember, at that time, imperialism was not fully developed.
But there was never any confusion about Marx and Engels’ sympathies. They were not blind or indifferent to the monumental crimes committed by Western powers against the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas. They viewed such crimes as the overhead historical cost for the modernisation of these backward regions.
This projection was not borne out by the actual course of development. In fact, even though the capitalists did introduce certain elements of modern industrial technology into their colonies and semicolonies, for example transportation, the overall effect was to arrest the social and economic development of these countries. By the mid 19th century, the European bourgeoisies ceased to be a historically progressive class against the old feudal-derived aristocracies — with the key turning point being the defeat of the 1848 European revolutions.
Marxism is a science. It is based not on received wisdom but on observation and analysis of social reality. Marxists are not infallible and, indeed, Marx and Engels learned from their observations and analyses of capitalist development and expansion. They developed a different attitude towards colonialism, which was expressed, for example, in their defence of the 1857-58 Sepoy rebellion in India and their condemnation of its torturous repression by the British.
In Ireland, too, the British smashed down every industry. Reactionary oppression and continued impoverishment reduced the Irish to being mere providers of cheap, consumable foodstuffs for English tables and cheap, consumable workers for British factories. Marx came to recognise that the liberation of Ireland from under the British boot was a precondition for the liberation of the British proletariat. Writing in a 9 April 1870 letter to Siegfried Meyer and August Vogt, he states:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.... The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.”
The imperialist epoch and Labour reformism
In a 7 October 1858 letter to Marx, Friedrich Engels pointed to the corrupting influence of imperialism on the proletariat of the advanced countries. He wrote:
“ the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie.”
Britain was the first of the modern imperialist powers. But it couldn’t hold onto its place of privilege forever. By the dawn of the 20th century, the entire world had been divided among rival imperialist powers, centrally France, Germany, the United States and Japan. The epoch of imperialism — the final stage of capitalism — had begun. In 1914 came World War I, interimperialist slaughter on a scale never before seen.
As the British rulers came under pressure from other imperialist powers, they could no longer aim at buying off or “bourgeoisifying” the entire British proletariat. Instead, in all the imperialist countries there emerged a thin layer, the labour aristocracy, bribed with some of the superprofits that the bourgeoisie reaped from its colonies. In most cases, this aristocracy of labour became the bulwark of reformist parties of the working class — what Engels and later Lenin called “bourgeois workers parties”. With leaderships and outlooks that were pro-imperialist, these parties used their connections to the workers movement, as well as the occasional dubious pretension to socialism, in order to rally support for their own ruling classes in the First World War.
In sharp contrast to such parties, like the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany and the Mensheviks in Russia, Lenin’s Bolsheviks led a socialist revolution through taking a clear stand against imperialism and reformism. Calling for the defeat of all the great powers in World War I, the Bolsheviks had some success in transforming the interimperialist war into a civil war — a revolutionary war of workers and other oppressed peoples against their exploiters. In contrast to imperialist wars of predation, wars that were waged by colonial countries against their colonisers were considered by the Bolsheviks to be just and progressive. Lenin and his cothinkers fought for the international working class to wield its social power in support of such wars of liberation, while at the same time seeking to break the colonial masses from their existing leaderships, which were rooted in bourgeois and pre-capitalist exploiting classes.
I think that’s a good place to wrap up our class on the rise of imperialism. We started out with the forging of the capitalist system in the Protestant Reformation, from the 1525 Peasant War in Germany through to the English Civil War of 1642-51. As Engels put it:
“In the so-called religious wars of the Sixteenth Century, very positive material class-interests were at play, and those wars were class wars just as were the later collisions in England and France. If the class struggles of that time appear to bear religious earmarks, if the interests, requirements and demands of the various classes hid themselves behind a religious screen, it little changes the actual situation, and is to be explained by conditions of the time.”
— The Peasant War in Germany (1850)
From there, we tackled slavery and colonialism — how they fuelled the Industrial Revolution and paved the way for the imperialist epoch. And that is where we remain today. To put an end to the imperialist system of war and neocolonial domination and replace it with a planned, socialised economy, the proletariat needs to smash the capitalist system. That in turn requires a political struggle against the reformists who are an obstacle to that perspective.