During the beginning years of the twentieth century, the administration of the German colony of Southwest Africa (now Namibia) decided to construct a concessionary railroad linking a mining area in the east of the colony with the coast, running straight through the pasture lands of the Hereros, a native people. The Hereros bitterly resisted, and large numbers of them, including women and children, were killed by German troops. In late 1906, the German government requested additional credits for its warfare in Southwest Africa from the Reichstag, which the Social Democrats refused to approve; thereupon Emperor William II dissolved the Reichstag, leading to new elections in which the Social Democrats lost nearly one-half of their representatives. This loss, caused chiefly by the nationalist fervor of the electorate, aroused sharp inner-party disputes as to the “realism” of the party’s colonial policy. The major intellectual contest was between Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein. Kautsky opposed colonialism and uncompromisingly demanded the self-determination of people. A socialist colonial policy, he argued, was a contradiction in terms: all colonial policy represented alien rule and thus was a denial of socialism’s basic idea regarding the right to freedom and independence. A socialist colonial regime might be benign but would nonetheless be based on force and oppression.
The Social Democrat congress of 1907 resisted adoption of Kautsky’s unambiguous position. Its own ambiguity was rooted in the thought of Bernstein and others that socialism must strive to place “the forces of production” at the service of all humankind, and so the party should view colonialism as an integral part of the universal goal of cultural advance borne by the socialist movement. The congress accepted the position advocated by Bernstein (as well as by Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader), that it behooved the representatives of social democracy to fight the exploitation of native people and to demand reforms that would improve their condition. The belief that, under humane regimes, colonialism would promote the forces of production had the effect of sustaining the rule of imperial countries and the belief in their cultural mission. (Kautsky’s position was not adopted unreservedly until the party’s congress in 1928.)
Imperialism was first elucidated theoretically as part of evolving world capitalism by the European left (for example, Rudolf Hilferding) early in the twentieth century. That capitalism played a dynamic role in advancing the “forces of production,” and that its achievements were to be the heritage of a socialist society, was not questioned by any of the leading thinkers of the left. Not one of them, however, confused democracy with capitalism and “the market.” In his bitt...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.