Prevailing academic theories of race relations hold that wealth and power differences between groups of people arose from social, economic, and legal systems created to benefit one group of people over another. One of those systems, we are told, was colonialism. Hence the renewed interest in European imperialism and calls to “decolonize” everything from education and beauty to music and health. “Renewed” because this is, of course, not the first time that colonialism has been blamed for the vast wealth and power differences readily observable in the world today.
The story starts with Karl Marx. Marx admired capitalism, which he credited with destroying feudalism and the “idiocy” of rural life. The fly in the capitalist ointment, as Marx saw it, was competition, which he thought would drive down profits. To remain profitable, he averred, capitalists would be compelled to squeeze laborers’ wages, thus “immiserating” the working class. The more rational economic system Marx envisaged would do away with competition and replace it with central planning. That was a big mistake, but not the only one.
Between the time that Marx was born (1818) and the time he died (1883), British wages rose by 83 percent. There is some debate about the magnitude of the rise in working-class wages, but the improvement was visible enough to create a dilemma for Marx’s followers—how to reconcile the theory with what was actually happening in the real world. In 1917, Lenin updated Marx’s theory in his pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in which he argued that colonial exploitation created super-profits that allowed Western capitalists to “bribe” Western governments, bureaucrats, and even workers. The improving living standards in the West, in other words, were a direct result of Europe’s imperial adventures.
Lenin relied heavily on the writings of John Atkinson Hobson, a British economist stationed in South Africa during the Boer War, who wrote newspaper columns for the Manchester Guardian and blamed Jewish capitalists for causing the war between the British Empire and the Boer republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State). Lenin transformed Hobson’s anti-Semitic ravings into an economic theory that would, a century later, still be used to “explain” the economic rise of the West.
Lenin’s theory proved to be a useful tool in the ideological struggle between the West and the communist bloc, because it purported to show that the superior living standards of ordinary Westerners were a result of Third World exploitation and not a result of commercially tested betterments in technology. The legacy of European imperialism also provided a convenient scapegoat for all the political instability and economic mismanagement that had plagued the newly independent countries in Africa and Asia after the Europeans had left.
Lenin’s ideas received little support among economists and historians, and the collapse of the Soviet empire sent them into the intellectual wilderness for close to 30 years. The rise of the West has been scrutinized by thousands of scholars and been the subject of hundreds of books. Many economists agree with the Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North, who argued in The Rise of the Western World that changing institutions, including the evolution of constitutions, laws, and property rights, were instrumental to economic development.
More recently, the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey has argued in her book Bourgeois Dignity that the origins of “the great enrichment,” which increased per capita incomes in advanced economies from $3 a day to $100 or more, were attributable to changes in values and attitudes. In an essay for Discourse magazine last year entitled “The Great Enrichment,” she wrote:
Tentatively, in the 18th century, at first exclusively in northwestern Europe and its offshoots, the new philosophy of liberalism began to speak in earnest of political egalitarianism and adult empowerment. It was a curious result of a long series of liberating accidents, including Luther’s 95 theses in 1517, the Dutch Revolt in 1568, the English Civil War of 1642, and the English, American, and French revolutions of 1688, 1776, and 1789, respectively.
Today, the vast majority of scholars agree that the reasons for the rise of the West were ideas and innovations internal to the continent, rather than external factors such as the European participation in the slave trade or exploitation of the colonies. No matter. Lenin’s theory continues to be useful, because it maps, however superficially, onto the contemporary emphasis on a history of oppression and exploitation as the main determinants of wealth and poverty, as well as power and victimhood today.
But it is because this mapping is only superficial that important questions about slavery and colonial exploitation are under-discussed or not discussed at all. Slavery, for example, made many individual slaveholders rich. Slave-holding societies, however, remained dirt poor—just think of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, Byzantium, China, Senegambia, the Aztec and Inca empires, a number of Native American tribes, the Ottoman and Russian empires, and so on. Conversely, how are we to account for the prosperity of countries, such as Canada, Norway, and Japan, which did not practice slavery?
Colonial exploitation raises similar questions. The steam engines of the Industrial Revolution were powered by English coal, not Congolese rubber or South African gold. To be sure, the Europeans ended up exploiting Africa’s labor and resources, but that came later. As late as the mid-1880s, when the Berlin Conference carved up the continent among European powers, a mere 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africa was under some form of European control. By that time, Europe was already experiencing unprecedented prosperity. African colonies did not make Europe rich—it was European wealth and power that enabled Europeans to colonize the rest of Africa.
At any rate, being a former colony does not equal perpetual impoverishment. At the time of the British handover of Hong Kong to China, the average GDP per capita in the colony was 12 percent higher than that in the United Kingdom. The Chinese population of the territory flourished beyond anything that the mainlanders under Chinese rule could have imagined. Similarly, how does one reconcile the astonishing economic growth in Botswana with the traumatic effects of colonialism? Between 1966, when it became independent, and 2019, Botswana grew five times faster than the global average.
Lenin’s thesis ignores history and destroys all nuance and countervailing evidence. Contemporary racial discourse frequently suffers from similar shortcomings, belittling individual talent and hard work, thus ignoring the successes of millions of men and women of color, from Oprah Winfrey to Thomas Sowell. It cannot explain the flourishing of US-based Indians, Taiwanese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Turks, Koreans, Syrians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Guyanese, Egyptians, Thais, and Laotians. In 2019, all of those minorities had higher median household incomes than white Americans.
This kind of thinking undermines Western society at two levels. On a macro level, the heretofore dominant narrative of Western success—the gradual development of liberal political and economic institutions and changing attitudes to reason, science, commerce, and innovation—is being undermined by the increasingly popular view that the West got rich by making the rest of the world poor. On a micro level, the Westerner’s self-conception as a hard-working individual in control of his destiny is being challenged by a conception of the Westerner as a parasite and an irredeemable node in a vast system of oppression and exploitation.
Alleged instances of police brutality must be rigorously investigated, of course, but much of what has happened in the United States and other parts of the Anglosphere following the death of George Floyd—the public shaming, self-abasing apologies for minor or non-existent infractions of the new ethical code, cancellations, and violence against persons and property—amounts to a moral panic. This public hysteria threatens to deepen divisions among groups of people and undermine capitalism and liberal democracy—the economic and political foundations upon which the very success of the Western societies rest.
Finding a way out of this panic will require an open debate about colonial history (not only its crimes, but also its accomplishments) and a recommitment to the basic precepts of classical liberalism. It is individuals who are responsible for their own actions. Crimes, no matter how heinous, cannot be passed onto the progeny like some modern variant of the original sin, condemning them to unending purgatory. That is why freedom of speech is so vital, and that is why “anti-colonialists” are so determined to snuff it out.
Marian L. Tupy is editor of HumanProgress and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted Indians from the list of minorities with a higher median household income than white Americans. Thanks to the commenter for pointing out the error.