The map of the world looks quite different now at the end of the Twentieth Century than it did at the beginning. In 1900, vast areas of the world were occupied and controlled directly by the administrators and military forces of the European powers and the United States. All of Africa, except for Ethiopia in the East and Liberia in the West, had been divided up by France, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy and Germany. India, a whole subcontinent, was the "crown jewel" of the British Empire, and the merchants and manufacturers who dominated the British parliament with Queen Victoria as their figurehead ruled over Ceylon, Burma and Malaya in Asia, too. The British colonialists liked to brag that their empire was so vast and extensive that the sun never set upon it. In Asia, France had conquered Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; and the Dutch had consolidated their territorial rule over the rich East Indies archipelago. The Portuguese also possessed and exploited the resources of a number of South and Southeast Asian colonial enclaves.
Two years earlier in 1898, under the guise of humanitarian support for the Cuban people in their struggle for independence from Spain, the United States had gone to war with Spain and become a major colonial power itself -- acquiring the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines and, along the way, annexing the Hawaiian islands, despite the embittered opposition and resistance of the peoples in those places. The Philippine people fought on against the U.S. military invaders until 1902 at the cost of some 20,000 lives. The Philippines remained a U.S. "territory" until after the Second World War. Cuba, while soon to acquire its nominal independent statehood, would long remain a virtual U.S. colony, with the "right" of the U.S. to intervene written by the U.S. into the new Cuban constitution.
Now, by contrast with the situation at the century's opening, very few outright colonies remain anywhere in the world as we enter the final countdown to the century's end. As if completing an unfinished business, some of the very last colonies are being returned during this time period. Earlier this year, Hong Kong, which the British had ripped off from China in the 1840s during the notorious Opium Wars, was finally handed back to its rightful owners. Just last week the Portuguese finally returned Macau, after nearly 450 years of their alien rule, the last of all of Portugal's many former colonial outposts -- not long after East Timor, another Portuguese colony, acquired its independence following 25 hard years of guerilla struggle against the U.S.-supported Indonesian military dictatorship. At the end of the year, the U.S. is ceded sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone to Panama.
1900 was the year the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China, a popular movement to reassert Chinese sovereignty against the foreign devils who were busily dividing up China into spheres of influence and investment and who were imposing unequal treaties on the decrepit feudal Chinese government. The Boxers were rather quickly put down by a rare joint effort of the great powers. Imperialism with its fearsome military technologies and its lack of hesitation to use them against "inferior" people, appeared then and for a long time afterwards to be the victor more or less everywhere. But, in ways that could scarcely be foreseen in 1900, it was actually the counter-tide of anti-colonialism and national liberation in China and elsewhere in the colonized world that grew during the rest of the Twentieth Century, especially since World War II, and has proved ultimately irresistable.
Some of the greatest history made during the Twentieth Century was that made by the innummerable men and women who fought back against and eventually triumphed over colonialism in place after place. Arguably, the most heroic of all were the Vietnamese who at incredible sacrifice defeated in turn the Japanese, the French and then, finally, the ugly Americans. To all these millions of Augusto Sandinos, Ho Chi Minhs and Che Guevaras, known and unknown, world humanity owes a tremendous debt of gratitude.
Even so, it is important to realize that the fight against direct colonialism is not yet fully over and may not be over for some time. France still holds onto scattered territories in the Caribbean, South America and the Pacific. Britain maintains a grip on the Falkland Islands, Gibralter and Northern Ireland among others. The United States holds Puerto Rico, Hawaii and other islands in the Caribbean and Pacific. These are colonies by any objective definition (including the UN's), although not named as such by the occupying powers, who perfer such euphemisms as "nonmetropolitan departments" or "associated commonwealths". While it has been forced in the last couple of years by largescale mass movements to evacuate its military bases in the Philippines, the United States continues to occupy a portion of Cuba left from its 1898 intervention, the Guatanamo Naval Base.
Wherever it has touched, Western colonialism has left behind a terrible legacy of poverty, underdevelopment, and internecine conflicts (often falsely labelled "ethnic"). Anyone who might doubt that the impact of Western civilization and the "white man's burden" on the colonized was anything less than horrendous should check out two books published during 1998 and 1999 about the Belgians and the Congo: Adam Hochshild's history, "King Leopold's Ghost" and Barbara Kingsolver's novel, "The Poisonwood Bible."
Recently, some Left commentators have spotted and called attention to what they think may be a reversion to the more naked direct form of colonization under the guise of "humanitarian intervention" by the U.S. and NATO countries on behalf of the so-called "international community". They have termed the military interventions and occupations of Bosnia, of Kosovo and possibly of East Timor examples of this new "recolonization".
While this is a phenomenon worth watching and opposing, colonialism operates mainly today, as it has since the decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s, through less direct and more insidious means - through control over the terms of investment and trade and from the entanglement of debt in an increasingly globalized economic environment. The World Bank, the IMF and the WTO are now among its principle instrumentalities, staffed with bureaucrats reaching their decisions in accordance with supposedly objective economic laws. This characteristic, along with the greater distance and anonymity involved, makes organizing against "neo-colonialism" that much harder than it was when a more in-your-face colonial administration backed up by foreign or mercenary troops governed within the countries themselves and enforced the "mother country's" exploitative interests against the largely peasant populations with their traditional sense of a moral economic order. At the same time, the old-style colonialists, with their haughty and racist attitudes, often demeaned and thwarted the aspirations of local elites which pushed them to the Left.
Anti-colonial struggles have forced colonialism to change its appearance. Lurking more in the background today, international financial bodies, banks and corporations controlled by an elite that is mainly from the developed capitalist world and is mainly under U.S. hegemony call the important shots affecting the lives of all the rest of us. Meanwhile, on the level of individual states, governance appears to be in the hands of various local elites. Such subalterns possess similar class outlooks, often having been schooled ideologically, like the recent presidents of Mexico, at the same international ruling class facilities, and they receive crumbs, sometimes quite substantial, from the same table. Former Marxist leaders of the national liberation movements, having made it themselves into positions of power like the president of South Africa, espouse neo-liberalism. China and Vietnam voluntarily open their doors to foreign-owned sweatshops. Direct subversion and military intervention from the outside is reserved for those cases when local flunkies or compradors begin to show some modicum of independence, like Norriega in Panama and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or when the masses get over-restless and the local elites can no longer control the situation fully -- which is what seems to be in the offing with Colombia.
Thus, the situation at century's end is different in form but similar in essence to the situation at the century's beginning. Like 1900, too -- and as we have just seen most powerfully last month displayed in the streets of Seattle -- radical social movements are gathering to challenge today's colonialism and are beginning to call this menace by its proper name, "capitalism". While populist and nationalist movements in the Third World may not have totally exhausted their liberatory potential, today's struggles are much more directly part and parcel of a war of class against class on an international level.