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C.L.R. James: Imperialism in Africa

C.L.R. James had an extraordinary talent for focusing on a country — or in this case a continent — and extrapolating an analysis of the world economic system. While World War II raged in June 1941, James did just that with Africa. He demonstrated the hypocrisy of the “competing imperialisms” and showed the need for socialism in Africa. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

C.L.R. James

August 20, 2020
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Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

The great war for democracy (or, from Hitler’s point of view, the great war for fascism) is being fought out in Africa as fiercely as anywhere else. It is not only a question of strategy. The competing imperialisms want Africa, first and foremost for the sake of Africa, a fact which the democratic propagandists disregard with the Olympian sublimity of complete ignorance or complete hypocrisy. Hitler at any rate says plainly that he wants his living space. But let that pass. What we want to do here is to state a few facts about Africa and its role in imperialist economy, and its future in a socialist world. So tightly knit is the world market which capitalism has created that we shall find ourselves dealing with the fundamental problems of modern society and the solution of the permanent crisis not only in Africa but on a world scale.

Up to 1914 the British bourgeoisie had not the faintest idea of the revolutionary violence which capitalism was nursing in its bosom, particularly in the colonies. An obscure Russian revolutionary exile named Lenin wrote confidently about the inevitable emergence of the proletariat in India and China, as the leaders of the coming nationalist revolutions. But which British politician or world publicist worried himself about that? It is almost valuable to re-read what these wise men of thirty years ago used to say about the world and what we used to say. But first the Russian revolution and then the wave of nationalist revolutions which swept through the British and French Empires after the war gave the British bourgeoisie a fright which goes far to explain their insatiable desire for appeasement. All the cunning, all the lies, the violence, the sanctimonious cruelty, which have so distinguished the British ruling class through the centuries, proved powerless to stifle the great Indian revolution, and though Churchill says little in public about India, he thinks about it only less than he thinks about Germany.

India and Africa

The Indian revolution1The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, began a nearly century-long national liberation struggle that ended in the formation of an independent India in 1947. took British imperialism by surprise, but, as the full disintegration of capitalist society and its colonial consequences began to force itself upon the British bourgeoisie, a very distinctly enunciated current of thought took shape: We have been taken by surprise in India; if we do not act in Africa, we shall be taken by surprise there also. The climax was the formation of an African research society under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the disguise the British government assumes when it wants to investigate economic and political questions without official responsibility. A powerful commission was appointed, consisting of the ablest men who could be found in England for the task. An economic adviser to the Bank of England, an Oxford professor of colonial history, the editor of Nature, Julian Huxley, Arthur Salter, Lord Lugard, after Cecil Rhodes the greatest of African pro-consuls, and some others, all under the chairmanship of that well known liberal, admirer of fascism, and defender of the British and American way of life. We refer to the late Lord Lothian. The committee decided to make a complete survey of colonial Africa and appointed Lord Hailey, the governor of the United provinces in India, to carry it out. Special researches were commissioned preparatory to the actual work in Africa, the most important being a study of capitalist investment in Africa, by Professor Frankel of Johannesburg. But the survey (1837 pages), and Frankel’s volume (487 pages) were published in 1938 by the Royal Institute. They constitute an indictment of capitalist civilization impossible to find outside of the pages of Marxist writers.

Frankel writes with the freedom of one without official responsibility. Hailey has the caution of an old civil servant, with the understatement of the Englishman and the evangelical mode of expression which is part of the British imperialist burden. Both, however, come to the identical conclusion. Imperialism in Africa is bankrupt. There is only one way to save the situation, and that is to raise the standard of living, culture and productivity of the native Africans. The full significance of this economic conclusion can only be understood against the political background of Africa, for it is the first law of existence and self-preservation of every European in Africa, that the existence of European civilization in Africa (and by European civilization these people mean, of course, European imperialism) depends upon one fact, the maintenance of the African in the position of inferiority, segregation and backwardness in which he is at present. In this, bourgeois thought, by the process of separating what is dialectically inseparable, has reached the conclusion that, in Africa, to save itself it must destroy itself.

What Is Africa?

Lord Hailey’s survey comprises all of Africa south of the Sahara and was not confined to the British colonies, for the British wanted to find out officially all that there was to be found out about Africa. The African population of this territory is estimated at 100,000,000. Of this, the European population is about 2,250,000. Of these, over 2,000,000 are in the Union of South Africa alone. For the rest, you can find figures like these: French West Africa, population in round figures, 14 million, white population 19,000; Belgian Congo, population 10 million, white population 18,000. In Kenya, which is supposed to have areas particularly suited to white colonization, African population three million, white population 18,000. In Nigeria, African population 19 million, white population, 5,000. North of the Zanibes the white population is barely 100,000. The area of the territories is about 8,260,000 square miles, three times the size of the United States of America. Colonial Africa is for the most part one vast concentration camp, with a few thousand white slave drivers. In India there is an Indian industrial and landowning class, in China the same. In Africa there are just slaves and overseers. The British government three years ago awoke (theoretically) to the fact that this cannot go on, for it does not pay.

The Railway Fiasco

The mercantilist system had exploited Africa as a field of commerce, first, slaves, and secondly, pacotille, the beads, colored cotton and other rubbish for which Negro slaves were exchanged. With the decline of the mercantile system, after the American war of independence, Africa receded out of the picture of European imperialism until the period for capital export. By 1935, the total capital investments from abroad amounted to $6,111,000,000. Of this amount, 77 percent, or $4,705,000,000, is in British territories and British investors have supplied 75 percent of this total. In trade it is the same. In 1935 the total trade of British territories formed 85 percent of the total trade of Africa. In 1907 it was 84 percent and for years it has never fallen below 80 percent.

Britain dominates the whole of native Africa, the French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies being merely satellites of this swollen imperialist monster. Of the total of over six billion dollars invested from abroad in Africa, nearly one-half consists of loans and grants to governments, while a little less than a quarter of the whole, $1,335,000,000, to be exact, has been invested in railways, which hang like a weight of chains on European capitalists and black labor in Africa. Africa did not need them. Railways must serve flourishing industrial areas, or densely populated agricultural regions, or they must open up new land (as in the United States) along which a thriving population develops and provides the railways with traffic. Except in the mining regions of South Africa, all these conditions are absent. Yet railways were needed, for the benefit of European investors and heavy industry, for some vague purpose known as the “opening up” of the continent, and for the all-important strategic purposes. The result is that in nearly every colony today railways have been developed by the governments and, up to today, only governments can afford to operate them. Most of them have been overbuilt. As a result of this expenditure the railways have been burdened with large interest obligations which cause excessively heavy rates on imported or local traffic.

Capital and Slavery

In the attempt to improvise the production for export which is necessary to meet these heavy interest charges, various types of uneconomic production have been embarked upon. Uneconomic in themselves, chiefly of the one-crop type, and subjected to the fluctuations of the world market, some of these have now become burdens upon the territories concerned. As a result, Frankel comes to the following remarkable conclusion:

Governments have been brought up time and again against the fundamental difficulty that capital investment in itself cannot lead to economic development, but requires a concomitant expansion of the other factors of production. Capital alone cannot solve the economic problem.

In other words, capital cannot expect to flourish if the African native remains a slave. In colony after colony the complaints are the same. In 1934 the general manager of the Nigeria Government Railways reported:

The trade of the colony is not yet developed to anything like the transport capacity of its railway route mileage. No private railway company could have constructed so much mileage, and the whole colony has greatly benefited from the transport facilities… Were the annual capital charges of the railway to be set alongside the aggregate income of the population which it serves, it would be clear that, short of a valuable bulk mineral discovery, the main direction in which the annual capital charges could be met year by year from railway earnings must be the carriage by it of a very large volume of agricultural products, and the whole of that volume wherever the railway can reach it. A sufficient volume of export products does not now exist…

Nigeria is one of the most prosperous of the colonies, and this chiefly because it has a large native peasantry. The rail reports from French Congo and Belgian Congo say exactly the same, only they say it in French and with more despair, because the native peasantry is absent from both these huge colonies. Frankel concludes:

In general, African railways have been constructed on the basis of a too optimistic view of the rate of economic development in the territories they serve… Failing the development of new mineral resources, considerable further railway construction in the near that both in industry a future will not be warranted from an economic point of view.

In other words, good-bye to railways.

The Mining Merry Go-Round

In 1935 the export of gold was 47.6 percent of the total export of Africa. Most of this gold has been produced in the Union of South Africa. This fabulously “wealthy” African state, with 90 percent of the white population of colonial Africa, and the envy of all other African colonies, is in reality one of the most unstable economies in the world, and none knows it better than the South Africans themselves. Until the discovery of diamonds in 1857, the economic development of South Africa had been almost exclusively agricultural, and South Africa was of no importance. With the development of the diamond fields and afterwards of gold, the whole economy gradually grew dependent upon the income from these industries. For 25 years the legislature and the electorate have declared that the country must, for its own future salvation, find some ways and means of gaining income other than from mining. They have failed completely. With the exception of wool, today, in that vast country, there is not one important agricultural commodity which does not depend on protection or on the maintenance of an artificial price structure based on direct subsidy.

Exactly the same situation exists in industry, half of which would collapse but for the mining industry. Upon this unhealthy basis is grafted another vicious economic malformation. In 1934 and 1935, 41 percent of the workers employed in private industrial undertakings were Europeans. They took 74 percent of the wages and salaries paid, equivalent to $1,010 per head. The remaining 59 percent of the workers were non-Europeans, who obtained 26 percent of the wages and salaries, equivalent to $245 per head. In government undertakings, Europeans, consisting of 66.3 percent of the employees, took 91 percent of the total wages and salaries paid. The remaining 9 percent of wages was divided among the 33.7 percent of non-Europeans employed.

The organized labor movement, i.e., the aristocracy of labor, shortly after the First World War, forced through the Color Bar Act,2The Colour Bar Act, also called the Mines and Works Act, was implemented in 1911 to define the exclusive rights of white workers to certain jobs. which prohibited skilled labor to Africans. It is joined by the reactionary South African farmers, who keep the majority of natives on their farms in a state of peonage and slavery. Thus, the distinguishing characteristics of South African labor are: 1) a low average productivity, 2) an artificial wage structure based on revenue from gold and diamonds, and 3) the literal pauperization and degradation of six million blacks by less than one-half the white population of two million; less than one-half because there is a huge poor white population. In the mining industry itself the ratio reaches incredible proportions. The average pay of the European employee in the mines is in round figures $155 a month. That of the native is about $20. The official title for this discrimination is the “civilized labor” policy.

A Ruinous Policy

Lord Hailey sees that this is a ruinous business. He knows that both in industry and agriculture, ultimately the equally efficient and less costly producer would be the liberated African. As he states it, “…the accumulating weight of evidence would seem to inspire doubts…” as to whether European agriculture could ever do more than make a very modest living as a return for hard work even in good times and be a constant recurrent charge upon the revenues of governments, even in bad. He admits that “though there may be both political and theoretical justifications for the adoption of a ‘civilized labor’ policy, its necessity must nevertheless be regretted.” Hailey should be given the task of explaining to the labor aristocrats and Boer farmers exactly how beneficial a change would be. No amount of understatement would save him from being lynched.

The significance of South Africa is this: most of the other colonies in Africa are either built on the same model or wish to heaven they could be. That is why they sigh for the discovery of some bulk mineral. They could then pay the interest on the railways and live on the rest, while the native does the work in the mines. Where there are no unions to subsidize him, the European is staring in the face the fact that he cannot compete with the native African. He can prevent the African from cultivating coffee, as in Kenya (“owing to physical and mental incapability”) but the world market, such as it is, refuses to pay both the African for doing the work and the European farmer for living like a gentleman, drinking whiskey and playing polo. “Everywhere, therefore,” says Hailey, “the progress of the European system of economy is likely in the future to be linked up with the exploitation of mines, with commerce and with certain specialized forms of agricultural production generally requiring capital for their development.” Everywhere, in both Rhodesias, French and Belgian Congo, French and British West Africa everywhere except in South Africa (and Southern Rhodesia). We have seen upon what these areas depend. Their “ideal” is the ruthless suppression of the native.

Hailey murmurs deprecatingly that the “possibility of a complete fulfillment of this ideal depends on economic factors (such, for instance, as the continuance of gold production) which may themselves be subject to modification.” It certainly looks today, three years after Hailey wrote, as if South African gold export may soon be “subjected to modification.” For the other non-mining communities, their “future economic prosperity… depends more upon the general development of native economic activity than on the results of European enterprise.” Most important of all for British imperialism, he says flatly that there is no further field for capital export except for mining. After a little over 50 years, and the degradation of a population without parallel in the history of modern capitalism, this is where the imperialists have reached.

Condition of the Workers

Hailey had to be careful. Frankel had no cause to be. In his work, packed with statistical tables, Frankel has one theme. He states it on page seven. The task is “to broaden the ideas and heighten the creative possibilities of the citizen in a wider society. To realize this is the key to colonial statesmanship.” In South Africa, and all over East Africa, the African is bound by a series of pass-laws to particular employers, virtual slavery. Says Frankel,

it is no exaggeration to say that a basic cause of the low average income of the inhabitants of the Union is the lack of “economic mobility” of its workers, both black and white. We are back again at the starting point of this study – progress involves change; inhibit change and inhibit progress.

Unlike Hailey, he calls for capital investment, if even not immediately profit producing; but on one condition:

In the last resort, however, the future of capital investment, like the future of all African economic progress, will depend on freeing the African peoples from the factors which have checked their progress in the past, and the artificial restrictions which in some territories still prevent the unfolding of their abilities…

If twentieth century experience in Africa has proved anything at all, it is that the wealth of Africa has, as yet, hardly been discovered, simply because it lies deep in the soil of Africa itself. Only by the co-operant efforts of Africans and Europeans will it be unearthed… The curtain has only just risen on the African scene…

Indeed the twentieth century opens the era of constructive and creative activity by western powers in Africa.

Frankel has stumbled on a tremendous conclusion here. He does not talk about “raising the standard of living,” and such like primitive panaceas for the contradictions of capitalism. He has left the field of distribution and tackled the problem at its root – at the point of production.

Marxism and the Colonies

What is happening in Africa and what the British imperialists think about it, concerns every American worker, not only Negroes. The contradictions of capitalist production express themselves in a concentration of wealth at one end of society and of misery at the other. Every thinking American worker knows the fact. But these contradictions also express themselves in the concentration of wealth in rich nations like America, Britain, France and Belgium, and the concentration of misery in poor ones like India, China and Africa. There are a hundred million Africans living in destitution; over four hundred million Chinese, nearly four hundred million Indians. Roosevelt talks about a third of a nation. These people constitute half of the world. It is capitalism which is destroying them as it is destroying the world. It has now confessed that in Africa it is bankrupt. They must therefore rid themselves of capitalism – for the same reason that the worker in the western world must rid himself of capitalism, to use “capital” and not be used by it.

Frankel has hit upon a discovery but he has made a profound mistake in calling what Africa needs “capital.” Nearly a hundred years ago, in Wage-Labor and Capital, Marx defined capital. It is accumulated labor. And land, not accumulated labor, was the chief means of material production in all societies previous to capitalist society. Capital, however, is accumulated labor in a definite social relation.

It is only the dominion of past accumulated materialized labor over immediate living labor that stamps the accumulated labor with the character of capital.

Capital does not consist in the fact that accumulated labor serves living labor as a means for new production. It consists in the fact that living labor serves accumulated labor as the means of preserving and multiplying its exchange value.

As Marx expresses it in the Communist Manifesto:

In bourgeois society living labor is but a means to increase accumulated labor. In Communist society accumulated labor is but a means to widen, to enrich, to promote the existence of the laborer.

Frankel wants to promote, widen and enrich the existence of the Africans, not to save his immortal soul but to save African economy. Thus, what Frankel is really calling for is not capital, but communism. Hailey, however, merely observes: for that, no more accumulated labor. As usual, it is the Marxist and the bourgeois who face realities.

The inherent unworkability of the capital relation is seen very starkly in Africa. This is due to the advanced stage of European capital development when capitalism began to penetrate into Africa, the primitive character of African labor, and the added sharpness of race differentiation. What Frankel does not know is that what he sees so clearly in Africa was seen by Marx three generations ago in relation not to Africa, but to all capitalist society. Marx had little to say about socialist society, particularly about its basis, the socialist organization of labor. That new organization of labor would be accomplished by the proletariat and, as Lenin said most emphatically, the proletariat alone could accomplish it. But, for Marx, Africa’s problem was the problem of capitalist society and only socialism could solve it.

The actual wealth of society, and the possibility of continual expansion of its processes of reproduction, do not depend upon the surplus labor, but upon its productivity and upon the more or less fertile conditions of production under which it is performed.3Marx, Capital, Vol. II, 954

But from start to finish he emphasized that this productivity was to be achieved by the development of man as an individual. Under socialism, man’s consumption was to be governed by “the social productivity of his own individual labor in its capacity as a truly social one” and to the extent “required by the full development of his individuality.”4Marx, Capital, Vol. III, p. 1021 He rarely spoke of socialism without coming back to this and perhaps his most emphatic statement to the same effect is found in his chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry:

Modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognizing, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the laborer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of today, crippled by lifelong repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labors, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.”5Marx, Capital, Vol. I, 534

The Only Solution

It is the only solution to the permanent crisis. Marx did not use phrases like life and death lightly. Let living labor use accumulated labor to develop itself. The problem of expansion will be solved. Let accumulated labor use living labor only for the sake of expanding accumulated labor and it automatically ruins its capacity to expand. No need to point out here the monumental research and scientific exactness with which Marx demonstrated the inevitability of his conclusions. It is to Frankel’s credit that he came to the same conclusion after the most thorough examination ever made of capitalist investment in Africa. His mistake is to believe that this accumulated labor can ever be at the disposal of the African unless by means of the socialist revolution in Africa and in Europe.

One more word remains to be said. All the great communists have known that man is the greatest of all productive forces. In the general collapse of revolutionary ideology which has kept pace with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, there has grown up a pseudo-Marxism or “economic” analysis which sees all sorts of possibilities in the technical and institutional reorganization of society, without the slightest consideration for the role of labor. The most recent is Mr. Burnham, who informs us that the managerial society will solve the problems of expansion in colonial countries which “capitalism” could not solve. How? He does not say. Hitler, however, tells us that

The free choice of trades and professions by the Negroes leads to social assimilation, which in turn produces racial assimilation. The occupations of the black colonial peoples and their function in the labor process of the ‘new order’ will therefore be entirely determined by the Germans.

And again,

…[Negroes] will have no active or passive electoral rights in the German colonial empire; [they] are forbidden access to railways, street cars, restaurants, motion pictures and all public establishments.

In other words, Hitler proposes to expand African economy by continuing to degrade African labor, the same old bankrupt policy of British imperialism. It is a contradiction that can be solved by socialism and not by Hitler’s Panzer divisions, the race propaganda of Goebbels, nor the theoretical evasions of Burnham.

Source: New International, Vol. VII No.5, June 1941 / Transcription: Marxists Internet Archive / Written as J.R. Johnson


1 The Indian Rebellion of 1857, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, began a nearly century-long national liberation struggle that ended in the formation of an independent India in 1947.
2 The Colour Bar Act, also called the Mines and Works Act, was implemented in 1911 to define the exclusive rights of white workers to certain jobs.
3 Marx, Capital, Vol. II, 954
4 Marx, Capital, Vol. III, p. 1021
5 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, 534
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C.L.R. James

Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989) was a revolutionary born in Trinidad who was active in the Trotskyist movement on both sides of the Atlantic. He is best known for his Marxist history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.

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