Anti-Colonialism’s Bad History

Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today.

The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one.

Between the time that Marx was born (1818) and the time he died (1883), British wages rose by 83 percent. There is some debate about the magnitude of the rise in working-class wages, but the improvement was visible enough to create a dilemma for Marx’s followers—how to reconcile the theory with what was actually happening in the real world. In 1917, Lenin updated Marx’s theory in his pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he argued that colonial exploitation created super-profits that allowed Western capitalists to “bribe” Western governments, bureaucrats, and even workers. The improving living standards in the West, in other words, were a direct result of Europe’s imperial adventures.

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