Walt Whitman Rostow






This is an extract from Chapter 8 of The Stages of Economic Growth. The author disposes of the thesis that colonialism-imperialism was based on purely economic motives but came out as a result of a strange mix of power and commerce, where state power was the decisive factor insofar as territorial aggrandizement was the intrinsic push to action of the territorial states. As remarked by the author: "The colonial game had thus become a reflex not of economic imperatives, but of inherently competitive sovereignties."



Colonialism arose, in part, of course, because from the fifteenth century on, a world arena of power existed in which the European nation states competed in various overseas areas for trade; for bases of military advantage; and for what was then military potential: that is, for bullion, naval stores, and the like. As Charles Wilson points out, in his essay on Mercantilism, Josiah Child counselled that 'Profit and Power ought', in such circumstances, 'jointly to be considered'.

The element of power, however, was initially often remote and derivative so far as the day-to-day business of the then major powers was concerned. The proximate goal - for example, in the famous Anglo-Dutch competition of the seventeenth century - was trade; and, especially, it was that form of trade which was highly regarded by the major nations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: that is, trade which permitted the import of bullion and raw materials and a favourable balance of exports - if possible, the export of manufactures. The favourable trade balances such commerce was designed to foster did relate, in contemporary thought, to relative national power; but the operating goal was trade.

Why, then, was not trade conducted without the creation of colonies? The answer to this fundamental question has two elements that need to be sharply distinguished; although they tend to get intermixed in the flow of history.

First, the struggle for trade took place in a framework where the major powers were postured, by the nature of history, as competitors. It is no accident that the major wars of the eighteenth century were wars of succession. The nations were caught up, by historical inheritance, so to speak, in an inherently competitive system of power - not, in the first instance, economic power, but military and political power. And in part the wars in the colonies derived from those larger competitive compulsions: the compulsion not merely to advance a national interest positively, but to advance a national interest negatively by denying a source of power to another nation. The creation of a trade monopoly in a colonial area was one way to do this, once the new areas were discovered or old areas rediscovered.

But there was a second reason, as well, for the application of military power in the colonies; and this second reason relates not to the power structure of Europe, but to the societal condition of the colonial areas themselves. Colonies were often established initially not to execute a major objective of national policy, nor even to exclude a rival economic power, but to fill a vacuum; that is, to organize a traditional society incapable of self-organization (or unwilling to organize itself) for modern import and export activity, including production for export. Normal trade between equals would often have fulfilled the initial motivation of the intruding power, and a large part of its continuing motivation; for the traditional society had nothing but raw materials to export. And normal trade would have been in many cases tidier, more rational, and even, less costly. In the four centuries preceding 1900, however, the native societies of America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were, at various stages, structured and motivated neither to do business with Western Europe nor to protect themselves against Western European arms; and so they were taken over and organized.

Colonies were founded, then, not mainly as a purposeful goal of national policy in pursuit of power, but for two more oblique reasons. First, as a reflex of the power struggle built into the European arena. Second, colonies were founded because of the following sequence: because some economic group wanted to expand its purchases or sales; it encountered difficulty in arranging the conditions for efficient business; it encountered also gross military weakness; and it persuaded a government which looked kindly on its efforts to take responsibility for organizing a suitable political framework to ensure, at little cost, the benefits of expanded trade.

Once colonial responsibility was accepted by the nation concerned, however, the whole affair was transformed. It moved from the essentially peaceful terrain of business to the area of national prestige and power where more primitive and general national interests and motives held sway.

Two specific consequences flowed from this transfer from the world of book-keeping to that of the flag. First, certain non-colonial powers came, as a matter of prestige and style, to desire colonial possessions as a symbol of their coming of age. For example, nothing in the capital markets of the Atlantic world or in their trading patterns justified much ado about colonies, on strictly economic grounds, from, say, 1873 to 1914 [*]. A little more could be said for certain colonial positions on military or strategic grounds in the nineteenth century. But the competition for colonies was conducted for reasons that were unilaterally rational on neither economic nor military grounds: the competition occurred essentially because competitive nationalism was the rule of the world arena and colonies were an accepted symbol of status and power within that arena.

As the United States discovered, for example, when it found itself to its surprise and discomfiture owning the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, there was no way of relinquishing a colony which had not modernized its society, without turning it over to another colonial power. The colonial game had thus become a reflex not of economic imperatives, but of inherently competitive sovereignties. This kind of mixture of profit and power - which Josiah Child probably had in mind - holds for the pre-1914 imperialist competition, as well as for that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But there was a second kind of mix-up of profit and power which Child may not have perceived, because it was only to become fully apparent in later times. The second consequence of shifting colonies from a limited economic to major symbolic status, in an oligopolistic arena of power, was that withdrawal from a colony became a matter of national prestige, and thus extremely difficult. Almost without exception colonial positions were acquired at relatively little cost, at the behest of limited interests which might not have commanded national support if much blood and treasure had been initially required for the enterprise. Even when wars were fought to transfer the control of sovereignty over colonies they were generally limited wars. But the exit from imperial status, with a few exceptions, took the form of bitter, bloody war, or it was accompanied by major political and diplomatic crises at home. The experience of colonial administration created not merely ties of economic advantage but human memories of cumulative effort, and achievement and status - as well as of national power and prestige - extraordinarily difficult to sever: as Britain, France, and the Netherlands have all found since 1945.

So far as colonial wars are concerned, then, the stages-of-growth offer only a partial and limited insight. On the one hand they were partially a reflex of competitive nationalism which led nations to take the plunge into colonies as part of dynastic or other power competition; and this link of colonialism to non-economic dimensions of nationalism helps explain the psychological pain of withdrawal.

In part, however, it was of the nature of the initial relation between a traditional and a more advanced society that the doing of efficient business required a type of administration the traditional society could not supply. But once the commitment to administer was made, a host of non-economic motives became mixed up in the affair which, again, made withdrawal difficult. The ability of the colonial peoples to force withdrawal is, however, more directly related to the stages-of-growth. [A]lthough imperial powers usually set up administrations and pursued policies which did not optimize the creation of the preconditions for take-off, they could not avoid bringing about transformations in thought, knowledge, and institutions - as well as in trade and in the supply of social overhead capital - which moved the colonial society along the path towards take-off; and the colonial powers often included modernization of a sort as one object of colonial policy. By positive and negative demonstration effects a version of the preconditions period was thus set in motion. Above all a concept of nationalism, transcending the old ties to clan or region, inevitably crystallized around an accumulating resentment of colonial rule.

In the end, out of these semi-modernized settings, local coalitions emerged which generated political and, in some cases, military pressure capable of forcing withdrawal. The wars of independence which dot colonial history, from 1776 in America to 1959 in Algeria, are thus, to a degree, related to the stages-of-growth. Specifically, they are related to the dynamics of the preconditions period.


Note by the author

[*] There was, incidentally, a somewhat more rational economic case for colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the industrial revolution took hold in Europe, than in the late nineteenth century. Before the industrial revolution the total supply of food-stuffs and raw materials (or the total supply of colonies) could be regarded, in a sense, as fixed and finite; that is, what one nation had ·was intrinsically a denial to others. Once the flow of modern technology was under way, under nineteenth-century conditions, where supplies could be drawn in trade with sovereign nations (for example, the United States), the possibility existed of using applied technology to substitute for imports (for example, chemical fertilizers), or to generate exports which would permit their economical acquisition from accessible foreign markets.


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