[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]
6. Colonial Policy
The considerations and objectives that have guided the colonial policy of the European powers since the age of the great discoveries stand in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism. The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them. Attempts have been made to extenuate and gloss over the true motive of colonial policy with the excuse that its sole object was to make it possible for primitive peoples to share in the blessings of European civilization. Even assuming that this was the real objective of the governments that sent out conquerors to distant parts of the world, the liberal could still not see any adequate basis for regarding this kind of colonization as useful or beneficial. If, as we believe, European civilization really is superior to that of the primitive tribes of Africa or to the civilizations of Asia?estimable though the latter may be in their own way?it should be able to prove its superiority by inspiring these peoples to adopt it of their own accord. Could there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?
No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. The only question is how the elimination of this intolerable condition can be accomplished in the least harmful way possible.
The most simple and radical solution would be for the European governments to withdraw their officials, soldiers, and police from these areas and to leave the inhabitants to themselves. It is of no consequence whether this is done immediately or whether a freely held plebiscite of the natives is made to precede the surrender of the colonies. For there can scarcely be any doubt as to the outcome of a truly free election. European rule in the overseas colonies cannot count on the consent of its subjects.
The immediate consequence of this radical solution would be, if not outright anarchy, then at least continual conflicts in the areas evacuated by the Europeans. It may be safely taken for granted that up to now the natives have learned only evil ways from the Europeans, and not good ones. This is not the fault of the natives, but rather of their European conquerors, who have taught them nothing but evil. They have brought arms and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears evil fruit. In any case, they have no right to complain pharisaically about the low state of public morals among the natives. Nor would they be justified in maintaining that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that they still need at least several years of further education under the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being, left on their own. For this “education” itself is at least partly responsible for the terrible conditions that exist today in the colonies, even though its consequences will not make themselves fully apparent until after the eventual withdrawal of European troops and officials.
But perhaps it will be contended that it is the duty of the Europeans, as members of a superior race, to avoid the anarchy that would presumably break out after the evacuation of the colonies and therefore to maintain their dominion in the interests and for the benefit of the natives themselves. In order to strengthen this argument, a lurid picture may be painted of the conditions that existed in Central Africa and in many parts of Asia before the establishment of European rule. One may recall the hunts for slaves conducted by the Arabs in Central Africa and the wanton outrages that many Indian despots allowed themselves. Of course, there is much that is hypocritical in this mode of argumentation, and one should not forget, for example, that the slave trade in Africa could prosper only because the descendants of Europeans in the American colonies entered the slave market as buyers. But it is not at all necessary for us to go into the pros and cons of this line of reasoning. If all that can be adduced in favor of the maintenance of European rule in the colonies is the supposed interest of the natives, then one must say that it would be better if this rule were brought to an end completely. No one has a right to thrust himself into the affairs of others in order to further their interest, and no one ought, when he has his own interests in view, to pretend that he is acting selflessly only in the interest of others.
There is, however, yet another argument in favor of the continuance of European authority and influence in the colonial areas. If the Europeans had never brought the tropical colonies under their dominion, if they had not made their economic system dependent to a considerable extent on the importation of tropical raw materials and overseas agricultural products that they paid for with industrial goods, it would still be possible to discuss quite calmly the question whether or not it is advisable to draw these areas into the network of the world market. But since colonization has already forced all these territories into the framework of the world-wide economic community, the situation is quite different. The economy of Europe today is based, to a great extent, on the inclusion of Africa and large parts of Asia in the world economy as suppliers of raw materials of all kinds. These raw materials are not taken from the natives of these areas by force. They are not carried away as tribute, but handed over in voluntary exchange for the industrial products of Europe. Thus, relations are not founded on any one-sided advantage; they are, on the contrary, mutually beneficial, and the inhabitants of the colonies derive from them just as many advantages as the inhabitants of England or Switzerland. Any stoppage in these trade relations would involve serious economic losses for Europe as well as for the colonies and would sharply depress the standard of living of great masses of people. If the slow extension of economic relations over the whole earth and the gradual development of the world economy was one of the most important sources of the increasing wealth of the last hundred and fifty years, a reversal of this trend would represent for the world an economic catastrophe of hitherto unprecedented proportions. In its extent and consequences, this catastrophe would exceed by far the crisis connected with the economic consequences of the World War. Ought the well-being of Europe and, at the same time, that of the colonies as well to be allowed to decline further in order to give the natives a chance to determine their own political destinies, when this would lead, in any event, not to their freedom, but merely to a change of masters?
This is the consideration that must be decisive in judging questions of colonial policy. European officials, troops, and police must remain in these areas, as far as their presence is necessary in order to maintain the legal and political conditions required to insure the participation of the colonial territories in international trade. It must be possible to carry on commercial, industrial, and agricultural operations in the colonies, to exploit mines, and to bring the products of the country, by rail and river, to the coast and thence to Europe and America. That all this should continue to be possible is in the interest of everyone, not only of the inhabitants of Europe, America, and Australia, but also of the natives of Asia and Africa themselves. Wherever the colonial powers do not go beyond this in the treatment of their colonies, one can raise no objection to their activities even from the liberal standpoint.
But everyone knows how seriously all the colonial powers have sinned against this principle. It is hardly necessary to recall the horrors that trustworthy English correspondents have reported as having, been perpetrated in the Belgian Congo. Let us assume that these atrocities were not intended by the Belgian government and are only to be attributed to the excesses and evil characters of the functionaries sent out to the Congo. Yet the very fact that almost all the colonial powers have established in their overseas possessions a commercial system that grants a favored position to the goods of the mother country shows that present-day colonial policy is dominated by considerations altogether different from those that ought to prevail in this field.
In order to bring the interests of Europe and of the white race into harmony with those of the colored races in the colonies in regard to all questions of economic policy, the League of Nations must be given supreme authority in the administration of all those overseas territories in which there is no system of parliamentary government. The League would have to see to it that self-government is granted as soon as possible to the lands that today do not yet possess it and that the authority of the mother country is limited to the protection of property, of the civil rights of foreigners, and of trade relations. The natives as well as the nationals of other powers must be granted the right to bring complaints directly to the League if any measures of the mother country exceed what is required to guarantee the security of trade and commerce and of economic activity in general in these territories, and the League of Nations must be granted the right to make an effective settlement of such complaints.
The application of these principles would mean, in effect, that all the overseas territories of the European countries would at first be turned into mandates of the League. But even this would have to be viewed only as a transitional stage. The final goal must continue to be the complete liberation of the colonies from the despotic rule under which they live today.
With this solution to a difficult problem?which is becoming ever more difficult with the passage of time?not only the nations of Europe and America that do not possess colonies, but also the colonial powers and the natives would have to be content. The colonial powers have to realize that in the long, run they will not be able to maintain their dominion over the colonies. As capitalism has penetrated into these territories, the natives have become self-reliant; there is no longer any cultural disparity between their upper classes and the officers and officials who are in charge of the administration on behalf of the mother country. Militarily and politically, the distribution of power today is quite different from what it was even a generation ago. The attempt of the European powers, the United States, and Japan to treat China as a colonial territory has proved a failure. In Egypt, the English are even now in retreat; in India, they are already in a defensive position. That the Netherlands would be unable to hold the East Indies against a really serious attack is well known. The same is true of the French colonies in Africa and Asia. The Americans are not happy with the Philippines and would be prepared to give them up if a suitable occasion presented itself. The transfer of the colonies to the care of the League of Nations would guarantee to the colonial powers the undiminished possession of their capital investments and protect them against having to make sacrifices to quell native uprisings. The natives too could only be grateful for a proposal that would assure them independence by way of a peaceful evolution and with it the guarantee that no neighbor bent on conquest would threaten their political independence in the future.