The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

British Socialist Theories of Imperialism in the Interwar Period

  • Ricardo VillanuevaEmail author
Living reference work entry

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There are key concepts used in this chapter. Socialism is understood as a broad intellectual tradition that includes other theoretical approaches such as Fabianism and Marxism. However, while the first two are generally prodemocratic and nonviolent, the latter supports revolution and it may compromise democratic values in order to achieve or maintain socialism. While the beginnings of socialism can be traced back to the 1820s with the writings of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, and Charles Fourier, Marxism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century with the contributions of Karl Marx and Engels. Fabianism, which favored a gradual achievement of socialism through democratic means, started in the late nineteenth century with the writings of Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells, Sidney Webb, among others (Fabian Society 2019).

New imperialism is a period in history during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the industrialized powers of the time, such as Britain, France, Germany, and even the United States, expanded their dominions into Africa and/or Asia. Finally, the chapter embraces Anthony Brewer’s (1990: 20) meaning of the term “classical Marxist theory of imperialism,” which includes the writings of Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin, and Lenin.


As this encyclopedia demonstrates, imperialism has been one of the major themes in world history. Yet, one particular period of importance of this phenomenon is the so-called new imperialism, usually dated from the 1870s until the First World War. This was an epoch when the industrialized powers of the time, such as Britain, France, Germany, and even the United States, expanded their dominions into Africa and/or Asia. Moreover, This was an international episode in which many renowned Marxian writers contributed intellectually during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Rudolf Hilferding (1981 [1910]), Rosa Luxemburg (1913 [1951]), Karl Kautsky (1914), Nikolai Bukharin (2003 [1917]), and Vladimir Lenin (1975 [1917]) are notorious examples.

The analyses of the above thinkers have been taken into consideration by many surveys of imperialism, books, doctoral theses, and articles (see, for instance, Callinicos 2009: 23–66; Marshall 2014: 317–333). However, beyond them and John Hobson’s work, which has also been widely acknowledged as a result of its profound influence on Marxian theorizations, there have been only few studies aiming to recover the contributions of thinkers of the early twentieth-century writing about the so-called new imperialism (for an exception, see Etherington 1984). In fact, it is commonly asserted that after Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), there were no important Marxist-based contributions on the topic in consideration until the 1940s or 1950s. For instance, Anthony Brewer’s seminal Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey (1990) explores Hobson, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Bukharin, and Lenin’s work and then jumps until the 1950s to consider Paul Baran’s Political Economy of Growth (1957). The reason: “the period between the wars produced no notable innovations in the Marxist theory of imperialism” (Brewer 1990: 136. For two other examples disregarding the contributions on the theme during the interwar period, see Noonan 2010: 14–90; Milios and Sotiropoulos 2009: 9–33).

Is it really the case that there were no meaningful Marxist-related theorizations on imperialism from 1917 until the late 1940s? Contra this position, this chapter shows that there was an important cohort of British intellectuals that, around the interwar period, embraced key Marxist tenets to theorize about imperial affairs. Through the cases of Henry Noel Brailsford, Leonard Woolf, and Harold Laski, this writing illustrates the closeness of a loose British tradition to Marxist analyses of imperialism. Nevertheless, the chapter also shows that the British theorizations in consideration were original in their proposed solution to imperialism. In this sense, it is claimed that they represent an alternative to “classical Marxist approaches” on the theme. To sustain the main argument of this manuscript, the chapter studies the three British thinkers previously mentioned by considering their political thought, their main insights on imperialism, and their proposed solutions to it.

Henry Noel Brailsford

Political Thought

Henry Brailsford’s political thought moved increasingly to the left as his career advanced. He (1873–1958) was born in Yorkshire and raised in Scotland. He studied classics and philosophy at Glasgow University obtaining a Masters of Arts degree in 1894 with first class honors and winning the Thomas Logan award for being the most prominent arts graduate of his generation. In 1944, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws by Glasgow University as a result of his distinguished career (Leventhal 1985: 20–21, 284). One of the earliest indications of Brailsford’s move toward the left is evidenced by his involvement with Fabianism. While doing his studies, he was one of the founders of the Fabian Society at Glasgow University in the early 1890s. He nonetheless left the association in 1899 as a result of its lack of determined criticism against British imperialism, particularly in South Africa (Blaazer 1992: 10). Brailsford became a member of the Liberal Party during the 1890s. Nevertheless, by the early 1900s, he had commenced a more serious reading of Marx; and by 1907 he left the Liberal Party and joined the leftist Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was affiliated to the Labour Party (LP). This year, in a letter to Robert Ensor, Brailsford asserted: “I have always been a Socialist- I used to be a Fabian. The ILP does not exactly draw me like a magnet. Still I believe in its possibilities…” (quoted in Leventhal 1985: 95).

The ILP opened important opportunities for Brailsford. He became, for example, a member of the Advisory Committee on International Questions of the LP, which housed other important intellectuals of the time writing about imperialism, such as John Hobson and of course Harold Laski and Leonard Woolf (Sylvest 2004: 412). In addition to this, in 1922 he became an editor of the ILP’s the New Leader. Under his leadership, the weekly newspaper was clearly leftist. At that time, Otto Bauer, one of the intellectual fathers of Austro-Marxism, considered the New Leader to be “the best Socialist publication in the world” (Leventhal 1974: 91).

Although Brailsford strongly rejected violent means (see, for instance, Brailsford 1921), he was sympathetic to the communist revolution in Russia. He was a member of the 1917 Club and also the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, which were groups congenial to the communist movement. In 1904 he helped Lenin, Trotsky, and other Russian revolutionaries to get false passports and fare tickets to travel secretly to Russia, which, as a result of this, Brailsford was found guilty in court and had to pay a fine (Blaazer 1992: 82; Brailsford 1940: 206). After the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, Brailsford asserted: The earth “has become a more habitable planet since the Russian autocracy has been destroyed” (Leventhal 1973: 88).

Thus, Brailsford’s affinities toward socialism are clear. In fact, he (1936: 257) considered Marx to be “a great and seminal teacher.” Moreover, he and other contemporary intellectuals considered that he was a socialist. For example, in a chapter of Fabian Colonial Essays (1944), he affirmed: “Socialists… we should also be the pioneers in showing how the… colonial peoples can be integrated…” (Brailsford 1944: 21). In addition, in a letter sent to the socialist Fabian Herbert Wells, Brailsford said to him: “I’m more of a Marxist than you are…” (Leventhal 1974: 99). Brailsford’s contemporaries also regarded him within the socialist tradition. For instance, Michael Foot, who was member of Parliament, named him “the greatest Socialist journalist of the century” (Ashworth 2007: 40).

Insights on Imperialism and Their Closeness to Marxism

Not only was Brailsford’s political thought closely related to socialism and to some extent to Marxism but also his theory of imperialism. His view on the primacy of economics to understand world affairs, his anti-capitalism, and his instrumentalist view of the state were key components of his understandings of imperial affairs.

Brailsford’s views of imperialism in particular and the world in general were mediated by the Marxist position that argued for the supremacy of economics over other factors, such as politics and culture. For example, when explaining the reasons of the First World War, Brailsford considered that neither armaments nor power was the main cause of that military conflict. During the interwar period, he (1925: 49) argued: “It is true that when the Great War broke out, questions of nationality played their part in it. But its actual origin lay in… the economic motive….”

In The War of Steel and Gold (1918), probably Brailsford’s magnum opus, he explained that the causes of imperial conquests were to be found in issues related to economics. The accumulation of capital, for instance, was key to make sense of imperialism. Capitalists of developed countries produced more than their domestic consumers could buy. As a result, they were impelled to conquest foreign markets (Brailsford 1918: 86). Additionally, “another powerful economic factor upon the growth of Imperialism… [was] the pressure of the armament firms.” Given their interest in selling weapons, Brailsford (1918: 88) claimed that they might drive states into war.

Thus, Brailsford embraced the Marxian economic deterministic view of the world. In fact, he acknowledged that. In a lecture delivered in 1947, Brailsford asserted that he had adopted his view of imperialism from Marx and Engel’s tenet that privileges economics to understand how the world operates. In addition, he disapproved John Hobson for believing this was an inadequate approach (Brailsford 1952: 6, 26).

Another way in which Marxism was key for Brailsford’s theory of imperialism was in its anti-capitalism. Like Marxism, Brailsford thought that capitalism was unfair and produced severe inequalities and exploited workers:

Always, by the injustice and folly of its distribution of the product of industry, it creates for itself a haunting anxiety… It has taken in profits what ought to have gone in wages, and the result is that the home market, which is, in the main, composed of the wage-earning masses of the population, is unable, by reason of their poverty, to absorb the goods which its perfected machines pour out. (Brailsford 1925: 50)

Moreover, Brailsford opposed capitalism because he believed it was closely related to war and imperialism. According to him, the capitalist system was responsible for imperial conquests because they benefited the privileged classes economically. He explicitly joined other socialists, such as Karl Kautsky, to criticize Norman Angell’s belief that there would be no more military conflicts between the great powers. Brailsford thought this was not the case, because imperial states, impelled by their respective capitalist class to acquire foreign markets for their products, were destined to fight for those limited spaces (Brailsford 1918: 163–166).

One more way in which both Marxist and Brailsford’s insights were closely related was in their understanding of the state. According to Marx and Engels (1848), the state is merely “…a device for administering the common affairs of the whole bourgeois class.” Similarly, Brailsford (1938: 39) perceived the state as “…an apparatus of force that serves at home and abroad the economic interests of an owing and ruling minority.” Brailsford often proved this idea with examples of small privileged groups benefited by military imperial interventions of the British state (see, for instance, Brailsford 1925: 46, 1918: 54).

Remedies to Imperialism

As a result of Brailsford’s committed anti-imperialist standpoint, he provided solutions to capitalist imperialism. One of his remedies was influenced by Marxism, but also differentiated his international theory from other Marxian popular approaches of the early twentieth century. Like orthodox Marxists, Brailsford believed that the capitalist system was composed of two antagonistic classes. To finish with the exploitative organization of society, it was necessary to replace the system with a utopian classless socialism. In Brailsford’s (1925: 36) words:

The main purpose of Socialism must be the conquest for the whole community of economic power… we are engaged in the most formidable class-struggle which history has ever witnessed. It is a struggle for economic power between the many who do productive work and the few who exercise the authority which ownership convers. It cannot end until this usurping class has been disposed by the transference of the capital to the community. The struggle cannot be avoided, but victory, will mean, not merely the triumph of one class over another, but the abolition of class itself.

Where Brailsford differed significantly from orthodox Marxists was in the means to reach a socialist society. As already mentioned, Brailsford was critical of the violent means used by Russia. Instead of revolution, he thought that it was possible to achieve the utopia through democracy. Accordingly, Brailsford (1936: 261) believed that “…to advance to socialism by constitutional means involves us in the use of democracy as our instrument.” This was of course a position embraced by other socialists of the time, such as Kautsky (1918: 88). Nevertheless, it is in this that Brailsford’s approach differs significantly from the writings of the Marxist classical theories of imperialism, such as Bukharin, Luxemburg, and Lenin.

The other solution provided by Brailsford to solve imperialism was related to the establishment of a collective security mechanism. In 1917, he wrote a book that shaped his future reputation: A League of Nations. Among other things, Brailsford (1917: 289, 302) proposed that the international organization to be created after the Great War should have a “Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague,” a “Permanent Executive” formed by the great powers, and a “Council of Conciliation for all nonjusticiable disputes” between states. The key for Brailsford was that the League should have to enforce sanctions to ensure that the issues of war and imperialism would be solved (Brailsford 1917: v, 292–3, 299–301). As a result, after the creation of the League of Nations, Brailsford became disappointed of how the organization was designed. According to him, the institution was framed to tackle international issues on a purely political foundation. However, with that framework, Brailsford considered that “the economic motives for imperial expansion would remain as potent as they were in 1914.” The League therefore needed to address the economic impulses of imperial actions. It would need, for example, to make sure that all great powers would have access to unlimited imports of raw materials (Brailsford 1925: 122–123, 126).

Leonard Sidney Woolf

Political Thought

Leonard Woolf (1880–1869) was another intellectual writer about imperialism during the interwar period and whose political thought was considerably socialist. He was born in London and studied at Cambridge University. After his graduation, he joined the British Colonial Civil Service and was sent to modern-day Sri Lanka. There, Woolf observed the abuses of the British Empire, became an anti-imperialist, and returned to Britain in 1912. In 1913, he became a Fabian and joined the socialist Fabian Society, where he published his influential International Government (Woolf, 1916), which proposed a mechanism of international collective security and was influential in the creation of the League of Nations. Two years later, his main political association became the LP. There, he was appointed Secretary of the Advisory Committee on International Questions (1918–1945) and also of the Advisory Committee on Imperial Questions (1924–1945). It was under the auspices of the LP that Woolf wrote his second most influential book, Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920b). In addition to his previous associations, he was one of the founders of the 1917 Club, the same group that embraced Brailsford (Wilson 2003: xii, xiii).

Woolf’s leftist associations informed his thought significantly. He was in fact notably interested in Marxist ideas. This is reflected in several book reviews he elaborated. He, for example, reviewed To the Finland Station (1940) written by Edmund Wilson, which explores the ideas of several Marxists, including Trotsky, Engels, and Marx (Woolf 1941: 234). One more example is his written assessment of Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia (1949). This book provides an examination of important socialists, among which are Marx, Engels, and Lenin (Woolf 1949: 624).

Beyond his interest in Marxism, Woolf and others have labelled his political thinking as socialist. For example, Noel Annan, who has written considerably about Woolf, typifies the English as “a socialist, an anti-imperialist, and a supporter of the League of Nations” (Annan 1990). Similarly, Elleke Boehmer (2000: 25) describes Woolf as an “anti-imperial socialist economist and internationalist.” Woolf, in fact, characterized himself as socialist. In Socialism and Cooperation, for instance, he (1921: 4) asserts: “The author of this book is a socialist….” Elsewhere, he even described his thought as “Marxian socialist” (Woolf 1940: 152). However, it is important to stress that he considered to be a Marxist only to a limited extent. In Barbarians at the Gate, he (1939: 123–124) explains that he regarded himself a “Marxian Socialist – but only up to a point.” The reason was that he was against being dogmatic about any set of beliefs, as many communists of his time were. In addition to this, Woolf, as the two following sections show, differed from orthodox Marxists in other important aspects.

Insights on Imperialism and Their Closeness to Marxism

While there are some deviations, there are substantial similarities between Woolf’s insights on imperialism and Marxist analyses. First, like orthodox Marxism, Woolf believed in the significance of economics to understand world affairs. In Empire and Commerce in Africa, for instance, he (1920a: 7) argued: “It is clear that… the national economic interests are the primary concern of the State, and the whole machinery of government and Government Offices… [are] mainly directed to the promotion of the commercial interests of the nation.” In 1920, he also wrote Economic Imperialism. The main argument of the book is that the primary causes of imperialism are economic. According to the author, imperial conquests were impelled by the desire to obtain new markets, to acquire raw materials, and, more generally, to gain monetary profits (Woolf 1920b: 26–29).

Nevertheless, Woolf often criticized “communists” of his time for blindly ignoring noneconomic aspects, such as political and ideational factors (Woolf 1928: 23, 1939: 194). In spite of this, Woolf considered that his approach was close to classical Marxism. For him, Marx and Engel’s original method included the interaction between ideas and economics, which was something that Woolf applied to his analyses (Woolf 1939: 194, 220–221).

Another key element that was part of Woolf’s theory of imperialism was his critique of capitalism. Like Marxists, Woolf regarded this system as exploitative. According to him (1921: 11), the “capitalist, in the pursuit of his own profits… exploit[s] the worker and consumer.” Clearly in tune with Marxism, Woolf conceived capitalism as a system of competition and struggle between two main classes. In his own words, in a capitalist structure “every individual or class is compelled to take part in a ceaseless struggle against other individuals or classes for the ownership or control of the means of production or the commodities produced” (Woolf 1921: 19). Moreover, in the international level, the privileged classes used imperialism to acquire markets and raw materials from the undeveloped regions (Woolf 1920c: 5). This is of course parallel to the claim of classical Marxism which holds “the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe” (Marx and Engels 1848: 6).

As already seen in the section on Brailsford, in order to seek economic profits around the world, Marxists assert that capitalists utilize the machinery of the state. This is a tenet also embraced by Woolf. In Imperialism and Civilization, for instance, he (1928: 11, 61) asserted that the state “…was invoked by the capitalist to aid him in developing or exploiting the other continents.” In the case of European empires, the state had been used to conquest African and Asian territories in order to give concessions to its own privileged classes and to protect them from capitalists of other empires who also wanted to pursuit profits in subjugated economies.

While Woolf was a firm critic of the capitalist system, his criticism to individual capitalists was often nuanced. This standpoint was in fact taken from Marx, who famously stated (1867):

I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose (i.e., seen through rose-tinted glasses). But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests.

Similarly, but applied to the international level, Woolf stressed (1920a: 321):

The capitalist imperialist is only a human being who has yielded to the tyranny of his own desires and of the social and economic system in which he blindly believes. The social and economic system allows him to regard personal profit-making as in itself a legitimate motive for either personal or political action.

Remedies to Imperialism

Woolf, like many intellectuals who had experienced the Great War and were specialized in world affairs, supported the creation of an international organization to combat international anarchy (i.e., the absence of a supreme authority above states) and other major related problems of the time, such as war and imperialism. His International Government (1916) was, in fact, influential in how the League of Nations was framed (Wilson 2003: 54–55). For example, Woolf’s proposal of a world collective security mechanism included (1) a “Council of all the constituent states” which was a legislative body (called the Assembly when the League was eventually created), (2) a “Council of the eight Great Powers” to solve issues related to the more powerful states of the time (named the “Council” when the League was created), (3) an “International Secretariat” in charge of the official communication of the organization (baptized as the “Secretariat” during the League’s life), and (4) an International High Court to settle legal disputes between states (later known as the “Permanent Court of International Justice” in the created League, which even though it was not one of its main organs, it was an important part of its system) (Woolf 1916: 379–95; Pedersen 2015: 5–7).

While Woolf often defended the League as a possible solution to imperialism (Woolf 1928: 132), he also provided another remedy to this international malady. Since he considered that imperialism was the result of the capitalist system, he consequently believed that socialism could solve imperial maladies (Woolf 1921: 17). After the creation of the League, he argued that it would work ineffectively as a result of its capitalist composition. In his own words (Woolf 1920b: 105):

The League, as it exists to-day…is simply being used to obscure the fact that France and Britain are obtaining large accessions of territory for economic exploitation in Africa and Asia. This is not surprising. The States which are members of the League are capitalist States, organised on a basis of capitalistic imperialism.

Thus, besides internationalism, socialism was a key component in Woolf’s international theory to solve the issue of imperialism. Nevertheless, his socialist society should not be achieved through orthodox Marxist methods. Like Brailsford, Woolf often opposed radical violent means. Instead, influenced by Fabianism, he favored a gradual transition to socialism. Accordingly, Woolf (1921: 111) reasoned with other socialists: “…we shall not attempt, perhaps, by a cataclysmic revolution, to break up the whole framework of our existing society.” Instead, he (1940: 89) considered that socialism should be advanced gradually through democracy. Therefore, Woolf’s most ideal remedy to solve imperialism included the ingredients of collective security and a democratic socialist society. This is why in the middle of the Second World War he warned: “If the international government which our society demands is not established on a democratic and socialist basis by free national communities, it may be established in the form of slave empires by dictators” (Woolf 1940: 231).

Harold Joseph Laski

Political Thought

Of the three thinkers considered in this chapter, it is Harold Laski who was most strongly influenced by Marxist ideas. Yet, his conversion to a type of non-radical Marxism was gradual. He (1893–1950) was born in Manchester, England, and raised in a Jewish family. Before starting his studies at Oxford University, in 1911 he married Frida Kerry, a fervent feminist socialist (Lamb 2004: 5). During his studies, he had two major theoretical influences. His main mentors were the liberal Ernest Barker and the Fabian Herbert Fisher (Hoover 2003: 25). It was also the time when Laski admired F.W. Maitland’s liberal pluralism and G.D.H. Cole’s guild socialism (Lamb 2004: 5–6). In addition to the above, Laski was part of the Fabian Society at Oxford University (Laski 1944:164).

Since Laski’s graduation in 1914 until the mid-1920s, his political thought was predominantly guided by liberal pluralist notions. After that, he was more influenced by socialist and Marxist ideas. Laski explicates this in A Grammar of Politics, which was first published in 1925. There, he explains that during the Great War, he was a pluralist who was critical of the concept of sovereignty. At that time, he conceived the state as one among many institutions in society. Consequently, during those years Laski believed that the state did not have the right to claim the monopoly of violence within a determined territory (Laski 1938: x–xi). While during the mid-1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Laski still valued his previous point of view, he now reasoned:

The weakness, as I now see it, of pluralism is clear enough. It did not sufficiently realise the nature of the state as an expression of class-relations… [my] pluralist attitude to the state and law was a stage on the road to an acceptance of the Marxian attitude to them. (Laski 1938: xi–xii)

The gradualist Fabian socialism that considerably influenced Woolf also informed Laski’s thought during the late 1920s. In fact, he was an executive member of the Fabian Society from 1921 to 1936 (Cole 1961: 198). In 1925, he wrote a booklet called Socialism and Freedom, where he supports this ideology, but he strongly criticized any authoritarian deviations. Nevertheless, by 1927 he still questioned Karl Marx’s legacy. That year he wrote a letter to his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I dislike Marx intensely” (DeWolfe 1953: 998). Thus, during the late 1920s, while Laski supported Fabian socialism, he rejected Marxism. This changed during the next decade.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Laski’s political thought became closer to classical Marxism. In 1932, he joined the Socialist League, a faction of the LP that wanted to move the party more toward the left. Moreover, in 1939 he wrote an article called “Why I am a Marxist” in which he regarded himself as both a socialist and a Marxist (Laski 1939: 76). Nevertheless, he often detached himself from radical Marxists of his time. In a public meeting, a communist once asked Laski if he was really a Marxist, to which he answered: “Yes, my friend, we are both Marxists, you, in your way, I in Marx’s” (Mathur 1988: 458). Thus, during the last two decades of his life, Laski identified his theoretical perspective with Marx but rejected the views of contemporary communists. Yet, while Laski’s main theoretical influence during the 1930s and 1940s was Marxism, he kept close ties with Fabianism. In fact, he held the chair of the Fabian Society from 1946 to 1948 (Fabian Society 2019).

Insights on Imperialism and Their Closeness to Marxism

Laski’s insights on imperialism were significantly informed by Marxist understandings, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1933, for example, he wrote “The Economic Foundations of Peace” as one of the chapters of Woolf’s edited The Intelligent Man’s Way to Prevent War. In it, he claimed that the main causes of imperialism and war were economic. For Laski (1933: 507), “No one now denies that the British occupation of Egypt was undertaken in order to secure the investments of British bondholders; and that the South African War was simply a sordid struggle for the domination of its gold-mines.” Thus, like Marxism, Laski (1935b: 122) considered: “the economic factor, then, is the bedrock upon which the social superstructure is built.”

Despite Laski acknowledged the significance of economics to explain imperial factors, he took a similar approach than Woolf’s in that he also rejected the idea of disregarding other factors. In fact, Laski conceded that his theoretical standpoint was Marxian. According to him (1935b: 158):

That there is an interweaving reciprocity between all the different factors of any culture-pattern was emphasised by Marx and Engels at every stage of their analysis. The claim of historical materialism is simply that the economic factor defines, in Engels’s phrase, the ‘fundamental necessity’ within the framework of which all other ideas will be selected as significant.

Since Laski’s insights on imperialism were mediated by Marxism, he was very critical of the capitalist system. First, he considered that capitalist imperialism enlarged inequalities. According to Laski (1932: 98), “the essence of a capitalist society is its division into a small number of rich men and a great mass of poor men.” Capitalist imperialism perpetrated this because it benefited only the small class of investors who were causing imperialist adventures because they were interested in obtaining new markers for their products (Laski 1933: 524). Second, Laski reasoned that capitalism produced imperialism and that the latter generated war (Laski 1933: 505). Thus, capitalism was an undesirable system because as long as it survived war would not be eradicated. In fact, he believed that war was an indispensable element of capitalism (Laski 1935b: 229). Third, Laski was critical of the capitalist system because he believed it had connections with fascist regimes. He thought that fascism prospered because of the support of industrialists who were afraid that socialism would replace capitalism. For him, fascism was a counterrevolution used to prevent the rise of socialism (Laski 1935a: 41). It is important to mention that Laski acknowledged (1937: 88) the Marxian inspiration of his ideas about the relationship between capitalist imperialism and fascism.

In addition to the above, Laski embraced the Marxist view of the state. As already seen, until the early 1920s, he had understood the state through pluralist eyes. Since the late 1920s, however, his view of this institution was filtered by Marxist lenses. Like Marxism, Laski (1938, x–xi) believed that “the State is the instrument of that class in society which owns the instruments of production.” He (1935a: 27) considered this was dangerous for world peace because different imperialist states would be competing for the exploitation of the undeveloped world. He was of course conscious that he was borrowing his understandings of the state from Marxism (see, for instance, Laski 1944: 71).

Remedies to Imperialism

Of the three intellectuals analyzed, Laski was the most cautious with respect to his support of the League of Nations. He conceded that “despite its weakness and its setbacks, it is difficult to doubt both the value of the League and the necessity for an organisation of this kind.” Yet, he was conscious that this institution needed to be reformed (Laski 1931: 100–101, 1933: 512). Like Brailsford and Woolf, Laski considered that the central problem of the League was that it was composed of capitalist states that had an interest in imperial practices. The main problem of the organization was that it was not “transforming the inherent nature of economic imperialism” because of its capitalist membership. Therefore, Laski’s solution to imperialism required that states would adopt socialism. Because a socialist state would distribute wealth more efficiently in the domestic level, there will be no more incentives to conquest new markets abroad through imperial activities given that the workers would have the economic capacity of buying the products offered by capitalists (Laski 1933: 523–524, 543). This is why Laski (1935b: 258) believed “socialism and economic imperialism are incompatible.”

How did Laski propose socialism should be reached? In the early 1920s, he was clearly against revolutionary means. In 1923, for example, he criticized Marx, Lenin, and communists for believing that socialism could only be attained through violence. Nonetheless, he also clarified: “What is here in dispute is not the end the Russian Revolution seeks to serve… The question is whether the overthrow of institutions by violent means is every likely to serve its intended purpose” (Laski 1923: 46–48).

During his socialist years, Laski became less critical of Marx’s writings on revolution. While he formally denied to support insurgencies, he became more conscious about the difficulty of establishing a socialist society through gradualist means. In Democracy in Crisis, for example, Laski argued (1935a: 255) that the likelihood of socialist revolutions was favored by the unsecure international circumstances of his time, where the workers’ standard of life was precarious. The other alternative, capitalists supporting the socialist cause, would be frankly implausible (Laski 1935a: 233). Because of this, he claimed that a socialist insurgency was almost inevitable. However, despite Laski advanced the socialist cause and believed that a revolution was unescapable, he did not favor violent means. Instead, he believed that revolution, like war, caused dead and suffering. While unrealistic, he considered that the democratic path toward socialism was ideal (Laski 1935a: 105, 266). In fact, during the 1940s he urged British capitalists to agree on a “revolution by consent,” where they would willingly favor a nonviolent movement toward the socialization of the means of production (Laski 1946: 16). Thus, Laski’s utopian society “must not only be socialist, but also democratic” (Laski 1949: 14).


Although it has been frequently neglected by mainstream surveys on theories about imperialism, there was an influential British socialist cohort of intellectuals writing about this topic during the interwar period and the 1940s. This chapter has employed Brailsford, Woolf, and Laski as examples of this group of theorists. Other thinkers, such as G.D.H. Cole and G.B. Shaw, might as well fit adequately within this loose tradition. Further research, however, would be needed to rescue their contributions on imperial affairs.

The cohort of theorists covered in this chapter recognized a direct influence from Marx and Engels. Specifically, within their contributions on imperialism, they acknowledged the primacy of economics over other factors, they were strong critics of the classist exploitative nature of capitalism, and they embraced an instrumentalist view of the state. Moreover, they believed that socialism was a key remedy to eradicate imperialism. They were, nonetheless, less comfortable with Leninist understandings because they considered them economic determinist and because they favored systematic violence for the sake of socialism. The intellectuals analyzed here, on the other hand, opposed violent means and supported a democratic type of socialism. Because of all these reasons, the British socialist approach covered in this chapter provides an alternative to the Marxist classical theories of imperialism.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Intituto de Estudios InternacionalesUniversidad del MarBahias de HuatulcoMexico