September-October 1997
Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period

By R. Titta  

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) came to anti-imperialism by way of a prior understanding of race. The author of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Pudd’n’head Wilson (1894) had from an early age begun to understand racism in the United States in a way that few of his Anglo-American contemporaries did. As a young newspaper reporter in San Francisco during the Civil War, Mark Twain wrote often about the brutalities visited upon the Chinese population of that city by the police. In 1865 he startled fashionable San Franciscans, including those of more pronounced Northern and abolitionist sympathies, by strolling arm-in-arm along Montgomery Street with the editor of the Elevator, the city’s newly established African-American newspaper. His early acts of egalitarianism and solidarity with the victims of race hate were unusual enough. In his mature writing life, however, Mark Twain began to lay bare truths about racial oppression with a particular vigor, using a new and democratic literary language that would forever change American prose. 

Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?the “white race”?at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. 

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) typified the view of the British ruling classes in that he not only embraced the racial hierarchy wholeheartedly, but believed the Anglo-Saxon imperialists were at the pinnacle of the white race. Kipling admitted the American ruling class, descended from British settlers, into his racial sanctum sanctorum. He sought an Anglo-American alliance dedicated to world conquest, and penned his infamous bit of doggerel, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), in the service of this alliance. Subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands,” the poem instructed the Filipinos to enslave themselves voluntarily to their new American masters. And in 1899, just after the Spanish-American War, the United States was indeed determined to become conqueror of the Philippines. 

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers. 

The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February. Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines. 

The U.S. now had an empire?almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared: 

    “The Philippines are ours forever.... And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” 
    ?quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992) 
The Philippines were clearly the most important of U.S. imperialism’s new conquests, owing to their strategic location in Asia. But the American forces there had still to reckon with the native Filipino independence movement, which had spread across the islands in several diverse groups during the twilight of Spanish occupation. Just before and during the Spanish-American War, the most prominent Filipino insurgency, the Katipunan organization of Tagalog resistance led by Emilio Aguinaldo, had defeated Spain in several important battles, taken thousands of Spanish prisoners, and effectively controlled large areas of the islands. 

Katipunan made a fatal alliance with the United States, however, taking as good coin American lies about supporting democracy and Filipino independence. Aguinaldo wrote an American-style declaration of independence and a Filipino revolutionary congress proclaimed the islands a free republic. Then in 1899, after Spain’s surrender to the U.S., the Americans, who paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines, opened direct hostilities against the Filipinos, beginning a brutal war of conquest which would last well beyond 1902, the year the U.S. declared it over. 

Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted. 

    “I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem.... And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” 
    ?New York Herald, 15 October 1900 
The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie. The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. 

The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. Furthermore, he had been disgusted with the choice of candidates in the 1900 election?the openly imperialist Republican McKinley-Roosevelt ticket was opposed by Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who occasionally mouthed anti-imperialist rhetoric, but had supported the Treaty of Paris with Spain, under which the U.S. formally annexed the Philippines. The Anti-Imperialist League, after a stormy convention in which the founding of an anti-imperialist third party was seriously considered, narrowly voted to support Bryan (who lost by 800,000 votes out of 13.5 million cast?African-Americans, many foreign-born workers, and all women were barred from voting). 

Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialist Writings 

In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world. The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”?concentration camps?for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.) 

At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion?the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” 

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet?it had the widest circulation of any League publication?League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. 

The reaction among the missionaries, generals and politicians of imperialism was swift and predictable?they charged the author with treason. However, Mark Twain had considerable popular support, and he did not budge from his positions, but forthrightly defended them in speeches and articles over the next several years. In 1902, General Frederick Funston spoke at the Lotos club in New York, charging that the American anti-imperialists were encouraging Filipino resistance. He also leveled a deadly threat: “I would rather see any one of these men hanged?hanged for treason, hanged for giving aid and comfort to the enemy?than see the humblest soldier in the United States army lying dead on the field of battle” (quoted in Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire). 

Mark Twain’s answer to Funston came in the form of another North American Review essay, called “A Defense of General Funston” (May 1902). He exposed Funston’s vain lies about his battlefield exploits, cataloguing some of the most recent brutalities committed by Funston and his cohorts in the Philippines. These included the capture of Filipino leader Aguinaldo by treachery and deceit, the torture and execution of Filipino prisoners, including the beating of wounded men and the use of water torture (pouring salt water down prisoners’ throats), and most chillingly, the wholesale massacres of Filipino men, women and children, of the kind ordered by General Jacob Smith and carried out by his soldiers. Mark Twain quoted Smith’s command: “Kill and burn?this is no time to take prisoners?the more you kill and burn, the better?Kill all above the age of ten?make Samar a howling wilderness!” 

Uncounted thousands of Filipino civilians were butchered by the American imperialists as a result of this order, carried out in retaliation for a Filipino attack on the U.S. garrison at Balangiga, on the large island of Samar in the central Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901, and was now organizer-in-chief of this brutal war of extermination, felt pressured enough by the outcry against the Samar massacre to order an investigation into it. A few years later, in 1906, Mark Twain spoke at Princeton University, thundering his denunciation of the outrageous slaughter by the American Army of nearly a thousand Filipino Moros, Muslims living on the remote southern island of Jolo. 

Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life, raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905?the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg?the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. The article was translated into Russian at once and distributed in pamphlet form by the Russian Social Revolutionary party. 

A few months later Mark Twain wrote “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” expressly to raise money for the Congo Reform Association. The essay exposes the depraved crimes of the Belgian imperialists in Africa; it was published as a pamphlet illustrated with photographs of some of the shackled and mutilated Congolese victims of European racist barbarity. 

Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed?he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States. 

Bankruptcy of Liberal/Reformist “Anti-Imperialism” 

By way of comparison, it is instructive to look at the evolution of the leaders of the socialist and labor movements on the question of imperialism. In 1898, the convention of the American Federation of Labor urged workers to “call upon their representatives with no uncertain voice to save them from the dangers...of imperialism.” It was on the basis of this stand that AFL president Samuel Gompers was invited to become a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League. Earlier in the year, Gompers had declared, “All the socialism and humanizing influences that have been at work for twenty-five years will have been in vain if war is declared.” Yet as happened again later over U.S. military intervention against the Mexican Revolution and in World War I, as soon as the war drums started rolling the reformists quickly dropped their “anti-imperialist” and “antiwar” stands. After McKinley declared war on Spain, Gompers suddenly discovered that the war was “a glorious and righteous one” for the U.S. And by the next year, he was already moving away from active collaboration in the Anti-Imperialist League. 

Gompers’ rapid evolution was a reflection of the pressures of the ruling class, and these pressures determined the fate of the League as a whole. It was founded on the “anti-imperialism” of bourgeois liberal (and some not so liberal) elements who yearned for a non-imperialist democratic capitalism. But this backward-looking perspective was out of step with the rapid growth of American industrial monopolies, symbolized by Carnegie himself, and was quickly swept away. In any case, these bourgeois and reformist “anti-imperialists” were only opposed to direct colonial annexation, often using racist language (Gompers referred to the “semi-savage population” of the Philippines). They were quite content with U.S. imperialism’s conquest of markets through neocolonial mechanisms. Even many left-wing socialists failed to fight imperialism, as they failed to fight racism at home. When Eugene Debs ran as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1904, he argued that “imperialism and anti-imperialism...mean capitalist rule and wage slavery” (quoted in Philip S. Foner, U.S. Labor Movement and Latin America (1988). 

After briefly brandishing some “anti-imperialist” rhetoric at the turn of the century, most American socialists and labor leaders were silent on the bur 
ning issue of imperialism. The Anti-Imperialist League broke apart in 1904, a result of the political subterfuges of the moderates in its leading bodies. These moderates formed a separate organization intent on compromise with imperialism, and many of the more prominent officers in the league defected or joined both organizations. (Mark Twain, however, allowed his name to be used only by the original league, which reconstituted itself in 1905.) The reformist labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie dutifully followed the lead of these bourgeois liberals, their shameful silence on the rape of the Philippines and genocide in the Congo signifying acceptance of the rule of the bourgeoisie. This led either to pacifistic paralysis or, worse yet, to criminal embrace of “their own” capitalist rulers in the wanton slaughter of the first imperialist world war of 1914-1918. 

It was the proletarian internationalism of the Bolsheviks that provided the basis for a consistent opposition to imperialism, through the fight for world socialist revolution. 

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