IMPERIALISM: THE BALANCE SHEET
Few periods of history are as controversial among scholars and casual observers as the era of imperialism. To defenders of the colonial enterprise like the poet Rudyard Kipling, imperialism was the ‘‘white man’s burden,’’ a disagreeable but necessary phase in the evolution of human society, lifting up the toiling races from tradition to modernity and bringing an end to poverty, famine, and disease.
Critics took exception to such views, portraying imperialism as a tragedy of major proportions. The insatiable drive of the advanced economic powers for access to raw materials and markets created an exploitative environment that transformed the vast majority of colonial peoples into a permanent underclass, while restricting the benefits of modern technology to a privileged few. Kipling’s ‘‘white man’s burden’’ was dismissed as a hypocritical gesture to hoodwink the naive and salve the guilty feelings of those who recognized imperialism for what it was---a savage act of rape.
Defenders of the colonial experiment sometimes concede that there were gross inequities in the colonial system but point out that there was a positive side to the experience as well. The expansion of markets and the beginnings of a modern transportation and communications network, while bringing few immediate benefits to the colonial peoples, laid the groundwork for future economic growth. At the same time, the introduction of new ways of looking at human freedom, the relationship between the individual and society, and democratic principles set the stage for the adoption of such ideas after the restoration of independence following World War II. Finally, the colonial experience offered a new approach to the traditional relationship between men and women. Although colonial rule was by no means uniformly beneficial to the position of women in African and Asian societies, growing awareness of the struggle for equality by women in the West offered their counterparts in the colonial territories a weapon to fight against the long-standing barriers of custom and legal discrimination.
How, then, are we to draw up a final balance sheet on the era of Western imperialism? Both sides have good points to make, but perhaps the critics have the best of the argument. Although the colonial authorities sometimes did provide the beginnings of an infrastructure that could eventually serve as the foundation of an advanced industrial society, all too often they sought to prevent the rise of industrial and commercial sectors in their colonies that might provide competition to producers in the home country. Sophisticated, age-old societies that could have been left to respond to the technological revolution in their own way were thus squeezed dry of precious national resources under the false guise of a ‘‘civilizing mission.’’ As the sociologist Clifford Geertz remarked in his book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia, the tragedy is not that the colonial peoples suffered through the colonial era but that they suffered for nothing.
By the first quarter of the twentieth century, virtually all of Africa and a good part of South and Southeast Asia were under some form of colonial rule. With the advent of the age of imperialism, a global economy was finally established, and the domination of Western civilization over those of Africa and Asia appeared to be complete.
Defenders of colonialism argue that the system was a necessary if painful stage in the evolution of human societies. Critics, however, charge that the Western colonial powers were driven by an insatiable lust for profits. They dismiss the Western civilizing mission as a fig leaf to cover naked greed and reject the notion that imperialism played a salutary role in hastening the adjustment of traditional societies to the demands of industrial civilization. In the blunt words of two Western critics of imperialism: ‘‘Why is Africa (or for that matter Latin America and much of Asia) so poor? . . . The answer is very brief: we have made it poor.’’
Between these two irreconcilable views, where does the truth lie? This chapter has contended that neither extreme position is justified. Although colonialism did introduce the peoples of Asia and Africa to new technology and the expanding economic marketplace, it was unnecessarily brutal in its application and all too often failed to realize the exalted claims and objectives of its promoters. Existing economic networks---often potentially valuable as a foundation for later economic development---were ruthlessly swept aside in the interests of providing markets for Western manufactured goods. Potential sources of native industrialization were nipped in the bud to avoid competition for factories in Amsterdam, London, Pittsburgh, or Manchester. Training in Western democratic ideals and practices was ignored out of fear that the recipients might use them as weapons against the ruling authorities.
The fundamental weakness of colonialism, then, was that it was ultimately based on the self-interests of the citizens of the colonial powers. Where those interests collided with the needs of the colonial peoples, those of the former always triumphed.