A Textbook issued by the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R




Role of the Colonies in the Period of Imperialism

Colonial conquests, the effort to form large empires by subjugating weaker countries and peoples also existed before the epoch of imperialism, and even before the rise of’ capitalism. But, as Lenin showed, the role and significance of the colonies undergoes an essential change in the epoch of imperialism, not only as compared with pre-capitalist epochs, but also as compared with the period of pre-monopoly capitalism. To the “old" methods of colonial policy there is added the struggle of the monopolists for sources of raw material, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence and territories of economic and military-strategic importance.

As has been shown, the enslavement and systematic robbery by the imperialist States of the peoples of other countries, especially backward ones, the transformation of a succession of independent countries into dependent ones, constitutes one of the main features of the basic economic law of present-day capitalism. In the course of its extension throughout the world, capitalism gave rise to a tendency toward economic rapprochement between separate countries, to the abolition of national isolation and the gradual unification of vast territories into one connected whole. The method by which monopoly capitalism accomplishes the gradual economic unification of vast territories is the enslavement of colonies and dependent countries by imperialist powers. This unification takes place through the formation of colonial empires, which are based on merciless oppression and exploitation of the colonies and dependent countries by the metropolitan countries.

The imperialist period sees completed the formation of the capitalist system of world economy, which is built up on relations of dependence, on relations of domination and subjection. The imperialist countries have subjected the peoples of the colonies and dependent countries to their rule by means of intensified export of capital, extension of “spheres of influence and colonial conquests.

“Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of’advanced’ countries." (Lenin, “Imperialism", Selected Works, 1950, English edition, vol. I, Pt. 2, p. 437.)

Thus the separate national economies have been transformed into links of a single chain called world economy. At the same time, the world’s population has been split into two camps—a small group of imperialist countries which exploit and oppress the colonial and dependent countries, and the vast majority colonial and dependent countries, the peoples of which carry on a struggle to free themselves from the imperialist yoke.

It is in the monopoly stage of capitalism that the colonial system of imperialism has taken shape. The colonial system of imperialism means the entire aggregate of colonies and dependent countries oppressed and enslaved by the imperialist States.

Colonial pillage and conquest, imperialist lawlessness and violence, colonial slavery, national oppression and lack human rights, and, finally, the struggle of the imperialist Powers among themselves for domination over the peoples of the colonial countries—such are the forms in which the process of creating the colonial system of imperialism has taken course.

By conquest and plundering of colonies the imperialist States strive to overcome the mounting contradictions inside their own countries. The high profits extracted from the colonies enable the bourgeoisie to bribe certain sections of the skilled workers with whose aid the bourgeoisie tries to introduce disruption into the workers’ movement. At the same time the exploitation of the colonies leads to the contradictions of the capitalist system as a whole becoming more acute.

Colonies as Agrarian and Raw-material Appendages of the Metropolitan Countries.

In the epoch of imperialism the colonies are above all the most reliable and profitable field for investment of capital. In the colonies the finance oligarchy of the imperialist countries disposes of an undivided monopoly of capital investments and obtains especially high profits.

As it penetrates the backward countries, finance capital breaks up the pre-capitalist forms of economy—small-scale handicraft and semi-natural small-peasant economy—and stimulates the development of capitalist relations. For the purpose of exploiting the colonial and dependent countries the imperialists build railways on their territories and set up industrial enterprises for the production of raw material. But at the same time imperialist domination in the colonies retards the growth of the productive forces and deprives these countries of the conditions which they need in order to develop economically on independent lines. The imperialists have an interest in colonies remaining economically backward, since backwardness helps them to preserve their power over the dependent countries and to intensify the exploitation of these countries.

Even where industry is comparatively further developed than elsewhere— for example, in some of the Latin American countries—this means only the mining industry and a few branches of light industry-cotton, leather, foodstuffs. Heavy industry, which is the basis of a country’s economic independence, is extremely weak; and engineering is hardly present at all. The ruling monopolies take special measures to hinder the creation of industry producing the instruments of production: they refuse credit for such purposes to the colonies and dependent countries and will not sell the necessary equipment and patents. The colonial dependence of backward countries stands in the way of their industrialisation.

In 1920 China’s share of world coal output was 1.7 per cent, of iron output 0.8 per cent, of copper production 0.03 per cent. In India, the production of steel per head of the population on the eve of the second world war (1938) amounted to 2.7 kilogrammes a year as compared with 222 kilogrammes in Great Britain. The whole of Africa was in 1946 responsible for only 1.5 per cent of the fuel and electric power produced in the capitalist world. Even the textile industry is feebly developed and backward in colonial and dependent countries. In India in 1947 there were about 10 million spindles as compared with 34.5 million spindles in Britain, the population of which was only one-eighth that of India; in Latin America in 1945 there were 4.4 million spindles as compared with 23.1 million in the U.S.A.

Being deprived of the conditions needed for independent industrial development, the colonies and semi-colonies remain agrarian countries. The source of livelihood of the overwhelming bulk of the inhabitants of these countries is agriculture, which is bound hand and foot in feudal relationships. The stagnation and decline of agriculture hold back the growth of the internal market.

The monopolies which dominate the colonies permit only those branches of production to develop there which ensure the supply of raw materials and foodstuffs for the metropolis. This means the extraction of minerals and the cultivation of agricultural crops, with the initial stages of the working-up of these. As a result, the economy of the colonies and semi-colonies assumes an extremely one-sided character. Imperialism transforms the enslaved countries into agrarian and raw-material appendages of the metropolis.

The economy of many dependent countries is specialised in the production of one or two products, which go entirely for export. Thus in the period since the second world war petroleum has constituted 97 per cent of Venezuela’s exports, tin ore 70 per cent of Bolivia’s, coffee about 58 per cent of Brazil’s, sugar over 80 per cent of Cuba’s, rubber and tin over 70 per cent of Malaya’s, cotton about 80 per cent of Egypt’s, coffee and cotton 60 percent of Kenya’s and Uganda’s, copper about 85 per cent of Northern Rhodesia’s, cocoa about 50 per cent of the Gold Coast’s. This one-sided development of agriculture (so-called monoculture) places whole countries completely at the mercy of the monopolist purchasers of raw material.

In connection with the transformation of the colonies into agrarian and raw-material appendages of the metropolitan countries, the role of the colonies as sources of cheap raw material for the imperialist States grows enormously. The further capitalism develops, the more acute becomes competition and hunting for sources of raw material throughout the world, and the more desperate the struggle to grab colonies. In the conditions of monopoly capitalism, when industry consumes huge masses of coal, oil, cotton, iron ore, non-ferrous metals, rubber, etc., no monopoly can count itself secure if it does not possess constant sources of raw material. The monopolies obtain from the colonies and dependent countries the enormous amounts of raw material which they need, at low prices. Monopoly possession of sources of raw material confers decisive advantages in the competitive struggle. Seizure of the sources of cheap raw material enables the industrial monopolies to enforce monopoly prices on the world market, and to sell their products at inflated prices.

The imperialist, Powers obtain a number of the most important kinds of raw material exclusively or largely from the colonies and semi-colonies. Thus, in the period since the second world war the colonial and dependent countries have supplied the greater part of the natural rubber consumed in the capitalist world, as also of the tin and the jute, about half the petroleum, and a number of important foodstuffs—cane-sugar, cocoa, coffee and tea.

The sources of various kinds of strategic raw materials necessary for war purposes— coal, oil, non-ferrous and rare metals, rubber, cotton, etc. —are the objects of ferocious conflict. Over a number of decades the imperialist Powers, and the U.S.A. and Britain first and foremost, have been fighting for monopoly possession of rich sources of oil. The distribution of world oil resources affects not only the economic but also the political interests of the imperialist Powers.

In the imperialist epoch the importance of the colonies as selling markets for the metropolitan countries becomes greater. By means of an appropriate customs policy the imperialists fence round the colonial markets so as to exclude outside competition. In this way the monopolies are enabled to sell their products in the colonies at exorbitantly inflated prices—including inferior goods which they cannot sell elsewhere. The unequal terms of trade between the imperialist Powers and the dependent countries grow steadily worse. The monopolies which are engaged in trade with the colonies (buying-up of raw materials and sale of industrial commodities) obtain vast profits. They are the real rulers of entire countries, controlling the lives and fortunes of tens of millions of people. The colonies serve as sources of extremely cheap labour-power. Monstrous exploitation of the working masses guarantees especially high returns on capital invested in colonies and dependent countries. In addition, the metropolitan countries import from these countries hundreds of thousands of workers who do particularly heavy work for extremely low wages. Thus, the U.S. monopolies, especially in the South, subject workers from Mexico and Puerto Rico to inhuman exploitation, the monopolies in France treat North African workers in the same way, and so on.

Some idea of the size of the tribute which is exacted by the monopolies from the colonies and semi-colonies is given by the following calculations, which have been made on the basis of official data. The annual tribute received by British imperialism from India on the eve of the second world war amounted to £150-£180 million, of which £40-£50 million was interest on British capital investments; British State expenditure charged to India’s account was £25-£30 million: incomes and salaries of British officials and military officers in India accounted for another £25-£30 million; commission payments to British banks amounted to £15-£20 million; receipts from trade to £25-£30 million; receipts from shipping to £20-£25 million. The American monopolies in 1948 drew revenue from the dependent countries as follows: from capital investments 1.9 milliard dollars; from freight, insurance and other money-lending operations another. 1.9 milliard dollars; from the sale of goods at inflated prices 2.5 milliard dollars; from the purchase of goods at low prices 1.2 milliard dollars-in all, monopoly tribute to the amount of dollars. Of this tribute not less than 2.5 milliard provided by the countries of Latin America.

In circumstances in which the world has already been divided up and. preparation is going forward for an armed struggle to re-divide it, the imperialist Powers seize all territories which have or could have any value at all as military footholds or as naval or air bases.

The colonies supply cannon fodder to the metropolitan countries. In the first world war nearly one and a half million Negro soldiers from the African colonies fought on France’s side. In wartime the metropolitan countries transfer a substantial part of their financial burdens on to the backs of the colonies. A considerable share of the war loans is realised in the colonies; Britain made extensive use of the currency resources of its colonies during both the first and second world wars.

The rapacious exploitation of the colonial and dependent countries by imperialism accentuates the irreconcilable contradiction between the vital needs of the economies of these countries and the selfish interests of the metropolitan countries.

Methods of Colonial Exploitation of the Working Masses

A characteristic feature of colonial methods of exploitation, which ensures high monopoly profits to the finance capital of the metropolitan countries, is the combination of imperialist robbery with feudal and serf-owning forms of exploitation of the working people. The development of commodity production and extension of money relations, the expropriation of the bulk of the indigenous population from the land and the breaking up of petty handicraft production—all these processes take place alongside an artificial preservation of feudal survivals and the introduction of methods of forced labour. As capitalist relations develop, rent in kind gives place to money-rent and taxes in kind to taxes payable in money, which still further hastens the ruin of the peasant masses.

The ruling classes in the colonies and semi-colonies are the feudal landlords and the capitalists, both urban and rural (kulaks). The capitalist class is divided into the compradore bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. The compradores are native middlemen between the foreign monopolies and the colonial markets, both for selling and for buying raw materials. The feudal landlords and the compradore bourgeoisie are vassals of foreign finance capital, direct mercenary agents of international imperialism, which holds the colonies and semi-colonies in thrall. As the colonies develop their own industries the national bourgeoisie grows in importance. It finds itself in a position facing two ways: on the one hand, oppression by foreign imperialism and feudal survivals bars its path to economic and political power, while on the other hand it shares, together with the foreign monopolies, In the exploitation of the working class and the peasantry. In the largest colonial and semi-colonial countries monopolistic associations of local bourgeois exist, which are dependent on the foreign monopolists. In so far as the national liberation struggle is directed towards the overthrow of imperialist rule, the winning of national independence for the country and the abolition of the feudal survivals which hinder the development of capitalism, the national bourgeoisie at a certain stage takes part in this struggle and plays a progressive role.

The working class grows in colonial and dependent countries as industry develops and capitalist relations spread. Its advanced section is the industrial proletariat. Part of the proletariat is also constituted by the agricultural workers, workers in capitalist manufacture and small enterprises and urban labourers engaged in all kinds of manual work.

The numerical bulk of the population of the colonies and semi-colonies consists of peasants, and in the majority of these countries the overwhelming mass of country-dwellers is made up of peasants who either are landless or possess little land—poor peasants and middle peasants. The numerous urban petty bourgeoisie is composed of small traders and craftsmen.

In addition to the concentration of landed property in the hands of the landlords and usurers, extensive tracts of land are seized by the colonisers. In a number of colonies imperialism has established plantation economy. Plantations are large-scale agricultural enterprises for the production of particular kinds of vegetable raw materials (cotton, rubber, jute, coffee, etc.) they belong predominantly to the colonisers, and are based on a low level of technique and the semi-slave labour of a population without human rights. In the most densely populated of the colonial and dependent countries small-scale peasant production predominates, entangled with survivals of feudalism and relations of bond-slavery. In these countries the concentration of landed property in the hands of the landlords is combined with small-scale land-tenure.

The large landowners let out their land on lease, in small plots and on extortionate terms. Widespread is the parasitic system of many-tiered sub­letting, under which there insert themselves between the owner of the land and the peasant who actually tills it, a number of intermediaries who exact a considerable share of the crop from the cultivator. Share-farming predominates. Usually the peasant is completely in the power of a landlord to whom he stands in the relationship of one who owes an unpayable debt. In a number of countries direct forms of labour-rent and work-payment exist: landless peasants-,I are obliged to work for the landlord several days a week for their lease or to repay a debt. Extreme want forces the peasants i to run into debt, to fall into bondage and sometimes even into slavery to the money­lenders; cases occur when peasants are,’ forced to sell members of their families into slavery.

Before the establishment of British rule in India the State took part of the peasants’ produce in the form of taxation. After the conquest of India the British authorities transformed the collectors of State tribute into large landowners with estates hundreds of thousands of acres in extent. About three-quarters of the rural population of India was left without any land of its own. The peasant paid from half to two-thirds of his crop in rent, and out of what was left he had to pay the money-lender interest in kind on the debts he had incurred. In Pakistan, according to figures for the post-war years, 70 per cent of the entire cultivated area belongs to 50,000 large landlords.

In the countries of the Near East at the present time 75-80 per cent of the inhabitants are engaged in agriculture. In Egypt 770 large landlords possess more land than the two million poor peasant families whose holdings make up 75 per cent of the total number of holdings; out of 14.5 million persons who live by agriculture, 12 million are small tenant farmers and labourers, and rent absorbs up to four-fifths of their crop. In Persia about two-thirds of the land belongs to the landlords and one-sixth to the State and the Moslem clergy; the tenant keeps only a fifth or two-fifths of his crop. In Turkey over two-thirds of the peasants are virtually without any land.

In the countries of Latin America the land is concentrated in the hands of large landowners and foreign monopolies. Thus, for example, in Brazil, according to data from the 1940 census, 51 per cent of the holdings accounted for only 3.8 per cent of the land-area. In the Latin-American countries the impoverished peasants are obliged to accept loans from the landlords which they have to pay back by way of work-payments; under this system (so-called “peonage"), debts are handed down from generation to generation and a peasant’s entire family becomes in effect the property of the landlord. Marx called peonage a concealed form of slavery.

A large share of the meagre product of the exhausting labour of a peasant and his family is appropriated by various exploiters: landlords, money­lenders, merchants, rural bourgeoisie, foreign capital, etc. They take from the cultivator not only the product of his surplus labour but also a substantial part of his necessary labour. The income which is left to the peasant is in many instances insufficient even for an existence at starvation level. Many peasants’ holdings go to rack and ruin and their former owners go to swell the ranks of the rural labourers. The agrarian surplus-population attains vast dimensions.

Crushed by their bondage to landlords and usurers, the peasants are not able to use on their holdings any but the most primitive technique, which has remained essentially unchanged for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. A primitive technique of cultivating the land leads to extreme exhaustion of the soil. In consequence of all this, many colonies which have remained agrarian countries are not in a position to feed their inhabitants and are obliged to import foodstuffs. The agriculture of lands enslaved by imperialism is doomed to decline and degradation.

In these countries where agrarian surplus-population and land-hunger exist on a huge scale, only a part of all the land suitable for cultivation is actually worked. In the countries of the Near East the irrigation systems are neglected or in ruin. The yield from land which formerly was considered amongst the most fertile in the world is exceptionally low, and is continually falling. Partial failures of the harvest bring about the death from starvation of millions of people.

Colonial oppression means for the working class lack, of all political rights and predatory exploitation. The cheapness of labour-power is responsible for the extremely low technical level of industrial enterprises and plantations. With a backward technique of production huge profits are secured by the monopolies through lengthening of the working days, intensification of labour and extremely low wages.

The working day in the colonies attains 14 to 16 hours or even more. As a rule no measures are taken to ensure safety at work in industrial enterprises or on the transport system. The very worn-out state of equipment and the unwillingness of employers to spend anything on repairs and on safety measures}: result in frequent accidents, which kill or cripple hundreds of thousands of people. The absence of any social legislation deprives the worker of any means of existence should he find himself unemployed, injured at work or the victim of an occupational disease.

The wages of colonial workers are inadequate to provide\ them with even the necessities of life. The workers have to pay out a certain proportion of their wretchedly low wages to all sorts of middlemen—contractors, foremen, overseers—who are responsible for hiring the labour force. The labour of women and of children from the age of six or seven is widely used, and is paid at even lower rates than that of the men workers. The majority of the workers are entangled in a network of debt slavery. In many instances the workers live in special barracks or camps, as prisoners, deprived of the right of free movement. Forced labour is openly used on a large scale, both in agriculture and in industry.

Extreme economic backwardness combined with a high level of exploitation dooms the colonial peoples to hunger and poverty. A vast share of the wealth created in the colonies is taken without compensation by the largest monopolies of the imperialist States. As a result of the exploitation of the colonies and the retardation of the development of their productive forces, the national income calculated per head of the population is only one-tenth or one-fifteenth of what it is in the metropolitan countries. The standard of living of the overwhelming mass of the population is very low. The death-rate is extraordinarily high: hunger and epidemics lead to the extinction of the inhabitants of entire districts.

In the African colonies slavery is officially recognised. The authorities carry out round­ups of the Negroes; the police surround villages and despatch the people they capture to build roads or to work in the cotton and other plantations, etc. In colonial countries bond-slavery is a commonplace phenomenon; this existed also in pre-revolutionary China. The selling of children into slavery is also widespread.

Racial discrimination in regard to wages prevails in the colonies. In French West Africa a worker belonging to the indigenous population, though skilled, receives only a quarter or a sixth of the wages paid to a European worker with the same qualifications. In the Belgian Congo African mineworkers are paid a fifth or a tenth of the wages received by European workers. In the Union of South Africa 65 per cent of the children of the native population die before reaching their second year.

The National Liberation Struggle of the Colonial Peoples

Before the epoch of imperialism the national question affected only a few, mainly European, nations (the Irish, Hungarians, Poles, Finns, Serbs, and others) and was confined to the territories of a few multi-national States. In the epoch of imperialism, when the finance capital of the metropolitan countries has enslaved the peoples of the colonial and dependent countries, the scope of the national question has been extended, and in the very course of events it becomes merged with the general question of colonies.

“The national question was thereby transformed from a particular and internal State problem into a general and international problem, into a world problem of emancipating the oppressed people of the dependent countries and colonies from the yoke of imperialism." (Stalin, “Foundations of Leninism", Works, English edition, vol. VI, p. 144.)

The only way by which these peoples can free themselves from the burden of exploitation is their revolutionary struggle against imperialism. Throughout the entire epoch of capitalism the peoples of the colonial countries have fought against foreign enslavement, frequently breaking out in revolts which were cruelly put down by the colonisers. In the period of imperialism the struggle of the peoples of the colonial and dependent countries for liberation assumes unprecedented dimensions.

Already at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially after the first Russian Revolution of 1905, the working masses of the colonial and dependent countries were awakened to political life. Revolutionary movements arose in China Korea, Persia and Turkey.

The countries of the colonial world differ among themselves in their level of economic development and in the degree to which a proletariat has been formed within them. Three categories, at least, of colonial and dependent countries must be distinguished: (1) countries which are completely undeveloped from the industrial standpoint, and possess no proletariat or hardly any; (2) countries which are not much developed industrially and have a comparatively small proletariat; (3) countries which are more or less developed on capitalist lines and which have a more or less numerous proletariat. This distinction determines the special features assumed by the national liberation movement in the various colonial and dependent countries.

In so far as the population in the colonial and dependent countries is composed preponderantly of peasants, the national and colonial question is in essence a peasant question. The common aim of the national liberation movement in the colonies and dependent countries is liberation from the rule of imperialism and abolition of all feudal survivals. For this reason every national liberation movement in the colonies and dependent countries which is directed against imperialism and feudal oppression is progressive in character, even if in the countries concerned the proletariat is only slightly developed.

The national liberation movement in the colonies and dependent countries, in which the proletariat is playing an ever-greater role as acknowledged leader of the broad masses of the peasantry and all the working people, draws into struggle against imperialism the gigantic majority of the world’s population which is oppressed by the finance oligarchies of a few of the biggest capitalist Powers. The interest of the proletarian movement in the developed capitalist countries and those of the national liberation movement in the colonies demand that these two forms of the revolutionary movement be united in a common fighting front against their common enemy, imperialism. Proletarian internationalism proceeds from the fact that no people which oppresses other peoples can itself be free. And, as Leninism teaches, real support by the proletariat of the ruling nations to the liberation movement of the oppressed peoples means support, defence and implementation of the slogan of the right of nations to separation and to independent State existence.

The growth of the national liberation struggle of the oppressed peoples of the colonies and dependent countries saps the foundations of imperialism and prepares its downfall.


(1) Unrestrained exploitation of colonies and semi-colonies is one of the characteristic features of monopoly capitalism. The maximum profits of the monopolies are inseparably connected with the exploitation of colonies and semi-colonies as markets, as sources of raw material, spheres of investment of capital and reservoirs of cheap labour-power. Demolishing pre-capitalist forms of production and evoking the accelerated growth of capitalist relations, imperialism permits, however, only such a development of the economy of the colonies and dependent countries as will deprive them of economic and political independence. The colonies serve as agrarian raw-material appendages to the metropolitan countries.

(2) Characteristic of the colonial system of imperialism is the interweaving of capitalist exploitation and robbery with sundry survivals of feudal and even of slave-owning oppression. Finance-capital artificially maintains survivals of feudalism in the colonies and dependent countries, and introduces forced labour and slavery there. Penal conditions of labour, with an extremely low standard of technique, complete lack of rights, ruin and impoverishment, hunger and mass extinction are the lot of the working class and the peasantry in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

(3) The intensifying of colonial exploitation and oppression inevitably calls forth resistance by the broadest masses of the population in the colonial and dependent countries. The national liberation movement of the enslaved peoples draws into struggle against imperialism the gigantic majority of the world’s population, undermines the foundations of imperialism and prepares its downfall.