• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Guide to Imperialism

The Lords of Human Kind. Black Man, Yellow Man and White Man in an Age of Empire

by V.G. Kiernan
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $7.95

Critics of Empire

by Bernard Porter
St. Martin’s Press, 369 pp., $10.50

Britain and the Russian Civil War

by Richard H. Ullman
Princeton, 395 pp., $10.00

The Fall of the British Empire, 1918-1968

by Colin Cross
Coward-McCann, 368 pp., $8.95

Britain in the Century of Total War

by Arthur Marwick
Little, Brown, 514 pp., $8.50

Sitting down to review these books on the morning of October 15, my window overlooking Boston Common and the crowds gathering in the sunshine for the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, I could not help reflecting on their peculiar relevance. Imperialism is a chameleon, a “prehensile-tailed” animal, adept at changing its color. Historians and sociologists have chosen to regard it simply as an offshoot of nationalism, the nationalist hysteria writ large. In reality, it was alive and kicking long before men thought of nations and nationalities, and we shall do better to think of it as the spontaneous offspring of the primordial urge to force other men into subjection and make them work to produce the “surplus” for the lucky few—the conquering, imperial warband—without which (historians assure us) the proud structure of civilization could never have been raised.

Was there ever an age, as we turn the dispiriting ledger of world history, that was not “imperialist”? Hyksos and Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Mongols and Moslems, all were expert in the practice of empire, if not the art. Power for its own sake and profit for its own sake, together with the confidence to believe that one’s own race and values are superior to everyone else’s, are ingrained habits of mankind. What distinguishes modern imperialism from that of the Assyrians who “swept down like a wolf on the fold,” is its greater sophistication, its dazzling array of self-justifying explanations, the skillfully positioned red herrings with which it covers up its scent, the flourishing hedge of half-truths which conceals its prehensile tail.

Though the idiom is slightly different—as different as American English is from English English—the arguments about Vietnam are the stock arguments of imperialism, going back a century and more, just as the situation in Vietnam is a classical imperialist situation, similar in essentials to the “temporary” British involvement in Egypt in 1882. President Kennedy, when he began the build-up of American forces in Vietnam in 1962, was as convinced as Mr. Gladstone in 1882 that it was a short-term measure to restore “order” in an emergency which would soon be over. Both found it easier to get in than get out. The “temporary” British occupation of Egypt lasted until 1954; if the dénouement in Vietnam turns out different, it will be not because the nature of imperialism has changed, but because the world in which we live is different. Power may be transient in the sense that it changes hands; but its nature remains the same though, like the chameleon, it may change its color.

Imperialism today is once again in process of changing its color. The old techniques and rationalizations have become rusty and inefficient, and are being replaced, as Kwame Nkrumah and others have pointed out, by the more modern apparatus of “neo-colonialism.” It used to be said that the Suez war of 1956 was the last of the old-style imperialist wars. Future historians are more likely to reserve that distinction for the war in Vietnam.

There is therefore much sense in taking a hard valedictory look at the old imperialism before we plunge into the new. That is what these books enable us to do, though two of them are only indirectly related to the imperial theme. Arthur Marwick is concerned with a people trying, not very successfully, to escape from its imperial past and discover a new role and new objectives—a subject which may have special relevance for Americans sooner than we think.

Professor Ullman is concerned, in broad essentials, with an imperial temptation that was resisted—the temptation for the British to profit from the Russian revolution of 1917 to grab “the enormous petroleum wealth of Baku”—but he is right in saying that the story is “enormously revealing” for the sidelights it throws on the workings of the imperialist mind. With Victor Kiernan and Colin Cross, on the other hand, we plunge into the middle of the imperialist torrent. These are significant books, refreshingly free from anti-imperialist as well as imperialist cant. It is as though, having emerged from the imperial jungle, they can at last look back and see the wood for the trees. This is something Americans also are going to have to do very shortly.

Meanwhile Professor Gollwitzer and Mr. Porter provide us with essential background. Modern imperialism, the demise of which we are now witnessing in Vietnam, has had a lifespan of around eighty years. It began when imperialists, faced by the need to justify their policies to a mass electorate, suddenly became self-conscious and voluble, formulating theories and doctrines of imperialism with a profusion unparalleled in the past; and it is these theories, and their genesis and impact, that Professor Gollwitzer and Mr. Porter dissect and analyze, the one in a broad European context, the other with specific reference to the great imperialist debate which came to a head in England following the Jameson Raid of 1895 and the Boer War.

I am inhibited in writing about Professor Gollwitzer’s book, because it appears in a series of which I am editor. Suffice it to say that it does something that badly needed doing, and it does it with patience and moderation. There is no lack of books on the “scramble” for Africa, the imperialist drive into Asia, and the impact of Europe overseas. Professor Gollwitzer is concerned not with this familiar story but with the impact of imperialism on Europeans themselves, with what Mr. Cross calls the mixture of “oratory, imperial dreams, truths and half-truths” which eventually added up to “national self-deception.”

Professor Gollwitzer is aware, of course, of the danger of reducing any age to a single common denominator. He is aware that in the so-called “age of imperialism” there were “as many…anti-imperialists” as there were imperialists, if not more, and that imperialism, despite its attempts to enlist democratic support, has always been the creed of a minority. What he does is to probe patiently the way imperialism affected men’s minds; and his conclusion is that imperialism was one—though only one—of the forces which left its signature on the generation between 1880 and 1914. The other was social conflict, the class war, the mass stirrings of the time, which imperialism sought to tame and mobilize (and in Hitler’s case did tame and mobilize): indeed, it can be argued that these were the two poles between which men moved, for, as Victor Kiernan says, “mystique of race” was only “democracy’s vulgarization of an older mystique of class.”

Professor Gollwitzer’s careful reaffirmation of the reality of the “age of imperialism” is important because the tendency among recent historians has been to deny the existence of “new, sustained or compelling” pressures in the 1880s and to dismiss the “new imperialism” as a myth. Professor Gollwitzer will have none of this, and it is significant that Mr. Porter comes independently to much the same conclusion. The point, he insists, is not the “facts”—whether, for example, surplus capital did or did not move into the newly acquired territories. About such things historians can (and doubtless will) argue for ever. What is important is what men thought about the “facts,” and there is no doubt whatever that men in the 1890s thought they were living in a new imperialist age. What convinced them more than anything else was the sudden revelation, in the Jameson Raid, of the economic motivations behind imperial expansion. The war in South Africa, wrote Keir Hardie, was “a Capitalists’ war, begotten by Capitalists’ money, lied into being by a perjured mercenary Capitalist press, and fathered by unscrupulous politicians, themselves the merest tools of the Capitalists.”

More soberly, as Mr. Kiernan puts it, people believed that “the west had become dependent economically on the world and therefore must make the world dependent politically on it.” It was the imperialists themselves—Rhodes and Chamberlain in England, Albert J. Beveridge in the United States—not Lenin or his mentor Hobson, who advanced the economic theory of imperialism and made it common property. We do not need to take it too seriously. When the French minister Ferry sent troops to Hanoi in 1883, thereby setting in motion a chain of events which toppled one American president and could still topple another, his object (as Professor Gollwitzer points out) was to restore French prestige: only afterward did he think up economic arguments to justify his aggression.

The economic theory of imperialism, like most other theories of imperialism, has proved in many ways to be a red herring. It was easier and more congenial for historians to refute the theories of Lenin than to look the facts of imperialism in the face. That does not mean, of course, that there was no economic component, only that imperialism is not definable in such simple terms. When an empire is in existence—even the sort of “indirect empire” which, as Servan-Schreiber has shown, American business exercises in Europe, South America, and throughout the “free world”—all sorts of other motivations and justifications come into play, including the very simple one, which played so prominent a part in Winston Churchill’s thinking, that it is one’s bounden duty to keep what one has got. Nothing could be more misleading than to list these motivations and rationalizations and hope therewith to arrive at a definition of imperialism, for, apart from anything else, some play a large part at the moment, others at another. We can only take imperialism as we see it operating at any one time, sometimes more crude and materialistic, sometimes less.

Basic to imperialism, in Hobson’s formulation, were “two dominant human instincts, self-assertion and acquisitiveness,” and to distinguish sharply between the two is neither necessary nor sensible. Whether financial and economic interest groups were “the central driving-force behind imperialism” or, as Mr. Porter puts it, “merely its hangers-on,” is not very significant in the long run. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the emergence in England around 1900 of the specter of a “capitalist conspiracy” directed by “shady financiers” was a significant turning point in so far as it diverted anti-imperialists from a full-blooded attack on the whole imperial fabric to a tepid reformism. In this sense the economic argument turned out to be a red herring. If only it could be shorn of its sordid, mercenary, “stock-jobbing” overtones, if only “the right to govern men” could be separated from “the desire to make money” (as though it ever could!), then imperialism—that “larger patriotism,” as a Liberal sententiously called it—might be respectable and even beneficial. “The negro race,” the Aborigines Protection Society proclaimed, “nearly always welcome British rule, and cheerfully submit to it when it is just.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mr. Porter’s able book is the way he shows how anti-imperialism was captured by the imperialist ethos of the age, how “Radical criticism of the Empire” was itself “imperialized.” It was, oddly enough, Bernard Shaw who first devised the phrase, so popular among the next generation of imperial apologists, about a “partnership” between the races, and Sidney Webb who coined the term “Commonwealth” which a later age found so much more acceptable than “Empire.” This may have been more “realistic,” as Mr. Porter urges, than the sort of abuse in which Keir Hardie indulged; but it also shows the degree to which even radicals had become captives of the imperial idea. After 1900 emphasis switched from the evils of the system to remedying its abuses.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print