• Email
  • Print

The Old Imperialism

In response to:

Pecking Orders from the September 23, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

For John Keegan [NYR, September 23], imperialism seems to be a product of geographic necessity combined with the activities of those who think that the name of the game is using military power to gain position in the international pecking order. By contrast, my effort in The Pattern of Imperialism is to present an avowedly eclectic, but largely political, comprehensive explanation of the character of British and American expansion since 1815. Geopolitical considerations are assumed to be basic (but not exclusive) concerns of foreign policy elites in Washington and London, while the capacity of peoples in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to act politically is assumed to be the central (but not sole) feature determining the character of their response to the Western challenge. At the same time, the book adopts Marxist insights where they seem fruitful, just as it is able to comprehend as well Mr. Keegan’s emphasis on geography and force where it appears appropriate.

The problem with such an eclectic approach should be obvious: lest it fall into being nothing more than a grab-bag list of factors conditioning imperialism, it needs to be able to assign weights of relative importance to different factors determining policy with respect to different historical periods or issues, and to see chains of causation among unavoidably interrelated forces. If the method can be successfully established, however, it may prove able to combat reductionist analyses that seek a single theoretical framework of explanation. In the case of imperialism, a sophisticated grouping of Marxist schools is today on the rise wherein so-called “world systems analysts” propose to explain the operations of imperialism at the international level, while the “dependency perspective” studies the late-industrializing world in terms of imperialism’s demands. Of these issues, Mr. Keegan appears to be altogether ignorant. His sights, firmly fixed on geography and force, make him sound terribly old-fashioned and render him quite beside the point in this debate.

Tony Smith

Tufts University

Medford, Massachusetts

John Keegan replies:

I was brought up to believe that authors do not complain about the reviews they receive, but, like Kipling’s Brushwood Boy, grin and bear it. Professor Smith’s inability to do so may explain why his understanding of imperialism seems to be defective.

I can see that if he wishes to make the development of the British Empire and the history of American overseas policies since 1815 fit with Marxist theories, old and new he may very well dislike what I had to say about his book. But imperialism is yet older than Marxism, and stubbornly refuses to change its nature as Marxist periodization says it should. It was alive and flourishing in pre-industrial times; it is reviving in many areas from which the industrial powers have withdrawn. Wherever it is found, geography—in the sense of propinquity—and force seem to be its major elements.

More complex explanations of imperialism in any particular area of the world seem to require particular analysis, rather than the application of theory from an aging ideology.

  • Email
  • Print