Understanding European Colonization Through a Multi-ideological Lens

In 1492, with the discovery of the Americas, European colonisers sketched out a whole new route to dominate the world. The 5 centuries post this landmark event, however, saw the rise and eventual fall of European colonization as countries starting gaining independence. Nevertheless, the impact of this ‘phenomenon’, can still be seen in the politics, economy and society of its colonies even today. On specifically the economic takeaways, which would be the prime focus of this article, there are dichotomous strands of thinking that exist. One line of thinkers has pinned modern economic inequality as a key residue of European colonization (Daron Acemoğlu, 2017), while there is another school of thought that believes the European colonization did, however, bring progress to their colonies and other countries alike.

This very divergence of thought about the same phenomenon, where empirical evidence very visibly exists to display the outcomes, motivates one to look more closely into the perspectives of thinking, rather than the outcomes, to address a very basic question on how ideological differences shape our worldview. In order to do this, the article attempts to explore the works of John Stuart Mill, an imperialist liberal, Adam Smith, an anti-colonial, liberal thinker, and Karl Marx, a proponent of socialism, and dissect their ideas on European colonization. In doing this, it will also attempt to look at the contradictions and commonalities in their multi-ideological ways of thinking while exploring, more narrowly, their standpoints on the notion of economic progress through colonization.

Progress through Colonization: Mill’s Colonial Viewpoint

John Stuart Mill, a paradoxical thinker who advocated both liberalism and imperialism, is one of the thinkers whose thoughts on colonization I aim to dissect through the course of this essay. Mill as a liberal, wrote extensively on his justifications for colonization. His worldview was that of mobility and exchange between nations, and he viewed Britain and its colonies in a similar light. To him, they were tied together by the means of exchange of capital, labour and information (Bell, 2010).

He thus became a strong advocate for the role of imperialism in serving as a solution to problems that were especially economic and political in nature (Sullivan, 1983). Through these arguments, we can visibly see that Mill was in fact a strong advocate for colonization. However, what is important to note here is that Mill did not merely pen his words as a scholar but he also did so on a professional note as an official at the East India Company, lacing him invariably with an imperialist’s bias.

Exploring the Anti-Colonial Line of Thinking

Adam Smith, unlike Mill, was a liberal and an anti-colonial who advocated against colonization and its mercantilist approaches. Smith’s thinking was along the lines of inequality being perpetuated by the mercantilists, i.e., the European colonisers, where the disproportionate share of the trade went into their hands. He was of the belief that there existed an evident monopoly in trade through colonies. However, that being said, this still did not put them at an economic advantage. Moreover, he argued that the invisible force would efficiently balance out the trade gains among the colonies and outside; however, the dominance the colonisers wanted to hold through their colonies did not allow for this. (Sullivan, 1983).

In Smith’s, magnum opus – ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776), he details further through a cost-benefit analysis of British policies that Britain, in fact, bore most cost than the benefits they gained. Therefore, based on the body of literature on Smith and Mill, both explicitly argued for different things, with Mill being a proponent for colonisation and Smith being an anti-colonial. They both, however, advocated for the same view that the British did not bear an economic advantage by colonization, but the colonies did benefit from trade. Hence, both the thinkers, holding opposing viewpoints did converge on certain economic ideas of colonialism. That being said, the economic benefits that both these thinkers argued for have been disputed for the fact that they may come at the expense of certain social costs.

Civilization at a Social Cost: Karl Marx on Colonialism

In their book, the Communist Manifesto (1848) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels detailed further on the fact that European colonization did encourage economic progress via the development of capitalism (Young, 2016). Moreover, capitalism, as socialists propound, brings with it the oppression of the working class. In Karl Marx’s writings on India’s colonisation, by the British particularly, he writes about the extent of exploitation the colonised had to face in the hands of their colonisers. He expounds on how the intensity of suffering inflicted on the colonised was the worst among all their colonies (Marx, 1853, as cited in Chandra, 1998). By colonising India, the British broke down communities dependent on hand spinning, hand weaving and hand tilling, all of which would have ensured them self-sufficiency; an aspect of Indian village communities, that M. K Gandhi later wanted to re-instil.

Marx further accuses the colonisers of imposing economic determinism where, in India, the British brought about the advent of industries and machinery with the railways, which did signal towards economic progress, however, they did this at the cost of the British allowing the ‘Hindus’ to acquaint themselves with skills needed to operate this machinery. Here, there is still a power dynamic of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie at play, which is one of the key problematic elements of colonization. Marx however, only outlines this ambivalence towards the British colonisation but regards European colonization in general, to be a vehicle of progress and modernisation where the industries the colonisers brought with them dismantled feudal systems, a point for which he has been criticised as being too Eurocentric. (Lindner, 2010)

The literature laid out on the views of the selected thinkers on colonization does seem to converge at the point of economic progress and development, where colonization has been viewed to facilitate it. However, as Karl Marx lays out in his work in the context of India, he emphasizes on the high social cost of exploitation and oppression this development comes at, which Smith in his cost-benefit analysis certainly didn’t account for. Through the body of literature on these thinkers, we do find that although all three of them did recognise the same outcomes, their ideologies did to an extent dictate their focus. That being said, both Smith and Mill in their later work did focus on the intensity of violence that colonization brought about.

Picture Credits: Getty Images

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