From Workers' Liberty 63
Imperialism yesterday and today 7
The grey revolution
The capitalist world economy was created not by free trade but by colonialism. The process had very different consequences for the colonised and for the colonisers, for the oppressed peoples and for the oppressors.
Colonial imperialism brought some of the elements of capitalist development to the Third World. But such features of capitalism as mark it out as an advance on previous societies - literacy, education, scientific health care, individual liberty and dignity - did not reach the mass of the people in the colonies. Sometimes they faced the opposite: destruction of their cultures, racism, genocide.
Such was colonialism. In Spanish America, independence (in the early 19th century) brought little advance. The independence struggles in the rest of the Third World, generally between World War Two and 1975, were significantly different.
Take, for example, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, which closed 74 years of British semi-colonial control of Egypt.
"Built by hundreds of thousands of Egyptian peasants driven into forced labour under the foreign whip, serving later as the instrument of the financial penetration and direct occupation of British imperialism [British troops were stationed in the Canal Zone], the Suez Canal was, second to the occupation army, the cruellest symbol of imperialist domination.
"On that evening [when the nationalisation was announced] the Egyptian people could not sleep. Strangers talked to each other in the streets... Every Egyptian was suddenly gripped by joy, pride and the wildest of dreams" (Mahmoud Hussein).
The joy and the pride were at the heart of the revolutions which won independence for almost all the world's colonies (outside the USSR's empire) between 1945 and 1975, when Portugal's grip on Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau was finally broken. Often, the new independent regimes were corrupt dictatorships; they were as intent on exploiting the workers as the old imperialists; sometimes they proved unable to develop modern industry. Despite all that, independence was a great victory. Hundreds of millions of people were drawn into modern politics, and became aware of their own dignity and their own ability to change the world, for the first time. They did not throw off capitalist exploitation; they did throw off alien rule and racist suppression.
If liberation from colonial rule took place quietly in some countries, it was only because huge wars and uprisings in other colonies had shaken the European powers. It was a real revolution, marking the end of a 400-year epoch in world history.
And it was not only a matter of "joy, pride and the wildest of dreams". Independence also led to a new era of capitalist development in the Third World.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, in many countries, under both right-wing and left-wing governments, large sections of industry were nationalised, and protective tariffs were set up. Despite the rise of the multinational corporations in that period, the percentage of local ownership in the economies of the Third World increased markedly. Even after falling in the 1990s, it still remains much higher than in the colonial or semi-colonial era. Industry grew fast - and that included manufacturing industry, not just the traditional Third World industries (mining, plantations, railways to serve the mines and plantations, etc.). "The colour of the revolution which I have seen in one area after another of India in the 1960s is steel-grey," wrote Daniel Thorner. "I call it an industrial revolution." Manufacturing output in the Third World grew by around 6% a year, and output per head by about 3 to 4% a year, between 1950 and the early 1980s. That growth was twice as fast as the growth of British manufacturing industry in the 19th century, and slightly faster (per head) than that of the advanced capitalist countries between 1950 and the early '80s. As late as 1960, the Third World made only 5% of the non-Stalinist world's steel. By 1980 it produced 15%, and today Korea, Brazil, India, Taiwan, Mexico and China are all among the world's top 16 steel-producing countries. Manufactured goods outpaced traditional raw material exports in the Third World's trade.
The resources put into education and health by Third World governments were almost everywhere smaller than those put into the armed forces. Nevertheless, they were far greater than those invested by the colonial regimes. At independence only one child in five in India got any primary education. By the early 1980s, 76% did. More than 70 years of British rule in Nigeria produced 15% adult literacy by independence. Twenty years of independence raised the literacy rate to 34%. These developments were paralleled in Spanish America - especially after the shock of the Cuban Revolution - by a decline in the power of the traditional landowning oligarchies.
Land reforms were proclaimed practically everywhere in the Third World. They were effective more rarely. Nevertheless, several countries -from South Korea through Egypt and Algeria to Mexico - saw dramatic changes in their structure of landholding. Elsewhere, capitalist relations in agriculture developed more gradually but nonetheless inexorably.