Jeremy Corbyn and Hobson’s Imperialism: why it scares me

The latest antisemitism row to engulf Labour concerns Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword to to a modern edition of the writer J A Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, written in 1901. This is dividing Mr Corbyn’s critics and supporters in a familiar way. But its wider significance is what it reveals about the way Mr Corbyn, and many of his allies, view history and politics.

Before launching into this I need to clear the deck. First, this new edition was published in 2011, long before anybody, including himself, could have viewed Mr Corbyn as a potential Labour leader, whose words would be subject to widespread scrutiny. That makes it more revealing, but it doesn’t say how his understanding of antisemitism might have moved on since. Second: I have read neither Hobson’s book, nor Mr Corbyn’s foreword, which doesn’t seem to be available online (and I don’t have a Kindle). I am having to base my views on two sources: the original article from The Times‘s Daniel Finkelstein that kicked the current episode off. Second a short article by academic Mike Taylor on Hobson’s book in the Guardian, which doesn’t add anything to Mr Finkelstein’s article, but helps give me more assurance about its factual accuracy.

Hobson sought to show that 19th Century Imperialism was driven by financial interests, who succeeded in manipulating the politics of the time to support imperialist policies from which they made financial gain. He further went on to say, unusually for time, that imperialism was exploitative and did not represent an advance to human civilisation. The antisemitism arises because he thought that what I have termed “financial interests” was a predominantly Jewish elite with no fixed national reference point. He doesn’t quite say that it is the Jews in this book, but a couple of references, one to a “single and peculiar race” and another to the Rothschilds, are unmistakable, and other Hobson writings are explicit, not just about high-flying financiers, but also the Jewish working classes of London’s East End. This was a widespread view at the time.

It isn’t too hard to mount a defence of Mr Corbyn. It does appear that Hobson’s antisemitism is worn quite lightly in this particular work: the same two quotes are used again and again. The important bit is not this, but there were (and are) powerful commercial and financial interests controlled by international (and national) elites capable of influencing policy. They don’t have to be Jewish, and probably Mr Corbyn doesn’t think that aspect is very important. The rest of the analysis stands, and it is very striking. The interests of big business and finance was doubtless a factor in the development of imperialism, as they found home markets constricted and European or North American markets hostile to foreign competition. In those days big business was dominated by food, textiles, mining, steel, capital goods (ships and railways especially) and armaments. It is not hard to see how that could lead to imperialism. Furthermore Hobson was clearly ahead of his time in understanding just how destructive imperialism was.

So far, so good. But three criticisms are still valid, and show just how bad a choice Labour members made when selecting Mr Corbyn to be their leader. First is that antisemitism. It runs right through this work, and at the time it was written that would have been understood clearly. It is one aspect of left-wing antisemitism which went on to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and then throughout Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Hobson’s work was known to be highly influential to Lenin and it formed part of the narrative that drove this particularly ugly side to the political left. It it clearly hasn’t disappeared; it is rampant and barely challenged outside the developed world, and clearly remains an issue in parts of the modern Labour Party. Mr Corbyn’s foreword to this book was an opportunity to say something about this but instead he said nothing. Through ignorance or bad judgement it clearly wasn’t important to him.

Second, for all its farsightedness, Hobson’s analysis is clearly deeply flawed. Imperialism suited many other people beyond big business leaders. Not least of these were the workers of the imperialist powers, for whom big business generated jobs and income. This was a time (i.e. especially after the 1850s) when living standards for workers advanced steadily and when what people would later call the social democratic consensus started to develop, notably through the work of German socialist politician Eduard Bernstein. This followed the insight that capitalists and workers had a common interest in the health of the industrial economy. How far can workers of the time be allowed to take responsibility for their own political decisions, (i.e. in this case backing imperialism), or are they always being manipulated? This is one of the great divides in the history of socialism, with Lenin and Hobson taking the latter view. If Mr Corbyn is in this camp, which I have suggested before, it means that his commitment to democracy only goes as far as it suits him.

As an aside I can’t help but repeat a couple of quotes from Hobson’s book:

Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?

And in reference to great European finance houses:

There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every new forced expenditure and every sudden disturbance of public credit

Anybody who knows anything of the detail of the causes of the Great War in 1914 will understand just how silly this is. The causes were complex, but the forces of international finance were not part of it: instead an overmighty military in the three great empires of Germany, Russia and Austria played a large role, without the restraint of strong political leadership. If anything the forces of finance were part of the cautious inertia of the establishment which came so close to preventing the war from occurring. With reason. The thirty years of destruction unleashed by that war destroyed most of the accumulated wealth in the developed world, along with many millions of lives. It wasn’t rootless internationalism that caused war, but an excess of its opposite.

The third criticism to make about Mr Corbyn’s foreword is what else he says, beyond praising its insight and prescience. According to Mr Finkelstein:

Since the Second World War, the Labour leader argues, “the big imperial force has been the United States on behalf of global capitalism and the biggest, mostly US-based corporations”. This has been supported by propaganda about “freedom”. This propaganda effort was designed to “accompany the military re-occupation [of Europe] under the guise of Nato. Thus the Cold War was followed by American media and cultural values, in an attempt to create an empire of the mind.”

He contrasts this attempt to subjugate people through the “malign influence of the CIA” and pliant governments with the influence of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet influence was always different and its allies often acted quite independently,” writes Mr Corbyn.

Daniel Finkelstein, 30 April 2019, The Times

This is exceptionally revealing. Of course the history of the Cold War is a lot murkier than the version our politicians fed us, and industrial interests played their role – though I would argue that these were at least as powerful and important in the Soviet bloc. But to argue that NATO amounts to a military occupation of Western Europe by US interests is plain silly. What popular uprisings did US-led fores put down? And how independent really were Soviet allies after their interventions in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? And should we really see European people as helpless victims of the imposition of US culture, dictated by big US corporations (after their subjugation of their own people?). And did the Soviet authorities not try just as hard to manipulate people’s minds? Again we have the idea that ordinary people cannot be trusted because they are so easily manipulated by the rich.

It is no surprise that this leads to support for the Castro regime in Cuba and the Chavez/Maduro one in Venezuela. It is one thing to take a hard-headed view about the influence of US policy in the world, and to recognise its considerable dark side. It is another to indulge in fantasy. Socialists can be divided into roughly two sorts: the romantics who have faith in a bottom up movement of the masses (think Rosa Luxembourg) and the hard-headed sort who ruthlessly focus on control of power by a select elite (think Lenin or Xi Jinping). The former end up in failure, the latter in oppression. Mr Corbyn is trying to romanticise the ruthless strand of socialism, which is the worst of both worlds. It suggests that while he is not a ruthless operator himself, he is liable to be manipulated by those that are.

All of which leads to the question of what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became British Prime Minister. It suggests that a government under his leadership would lack the competence to govern effectively, while turning on any British institutions when things go wrong. I think those British institutions are strong enough to survive, and that the Labour Party will eventually reject the hard-left narrative that Mr Corbyn represents. But what this country does not need after years of stasis arising from Brexit (whichever way it eventually goes), is another few years in a muddled and incompetent experiment with socialism.

4 thoughts on “Jeremy Corbyn and Hobson’s Imperialism: why it scares me”

  1. With the encroachment of China into Italy and how it has treated Africa etc and Trumps America first the last thing we need is a socialist govnt that will attack our institutions. Attacked from both sides more internal disorder could be the end of the nation. Europe also needs to get its act together to prevent implosion.

  2. ..what this country does not need…… is another few years in a muddled and incompetent experiment with socialism.

    This is the sort of sentence that is we’d all expect to be written by those of a more right wing inclination. It’s rather odd, though, that it should be the final sentence of the article. The implication is that all the preceding words are needed to justify it. You’ve got East Germany, Cuba, Venezuela, Chavez, Maduro, Castro in there. What about North Korea, Vietnam and Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un and Ho Chi Minh? Or even Chairman Mao? Why miss them out?

    Why not have the courage of your convictions and put the statement right up there on its own to start with?

    A more intelligent approach, IMO, is to treat all countries as a mixture of Capitalist and Socialist. So, for example, in the UK we have Network Rail which is Government owned and therefore socialist and Virgin Rail which is owned by Richard Branson and others and is therefore capitalist. Is one better than the other? We all have our opinions. But who wants Virgin to own the road network and have automatic deductions from our bank accounts every time their sensors read our number plates as we drive past? Maybe some people would. It’s a valid political position.

    Once we agree that we do actually have a mixture of socialism and capitalism we can perhaps have a more mature discussion about where the balance should lie. Yes, I’m for Royal Mail, the utilities, and maybe even British Rail to be under public ownership. I don’t expect you to necessarily agree, but do we really need to bring Stalin and Lenin into it?

    1. Fair challenge Peter. I think that a dialogue between socialists and liberals could be very fruitful, and, as you suggest, almost everybody is a bit socialist. And I’m not saying that socialism is necessarily muddled and incompetent. The problem I have with Corbyn and many of his acolytes is that they don’t seem to be up for that kind of dialogue and have a rather Leninist outlook on political power – in particular thinking that the party should have a practical monopoly of power – which the reports of his foreword to Imperialism suggests. What I am looking for is some sort of evidence that the Labour leadership is interested in pluralism when it comes to political power. Which suggests a focus on the levers of political power rather than policy and its outcomes.

  3. “But to argue that NATO amounts to a military occupation of Western Europe by US interests is plain silly.”

    To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn there are a couple of post-war cases that support his viewpoint. The most obvious one is the Greek civil war (1946-49). Also the Italian Communist Party was always kept out of coalition governments after 1947 despite significant popular support.

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