Imperialism: For or Against?

I suppose my main objection to ‘sloganising’ (see my last post) is that it oversimplifies issues, to the extent sometimes of getting them completely wrong, and always of misleading us. The same applies to the use of certain words without qualification, like – to take only the main political ones – ‘democracy’, ‘socialism’, ‘fascism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘imperialism’. I can present myself as a democrat, a liberal and a socialist, as only a bit of a conservative (see, and emphatically not as a fascist, but without any of those monikers really explaining my political views or the absence of them, and some of them (‘socialist’, for example) being wide open to misinterpretation.

On ‘imperialism’ I can’t say where I stand. These days it has to be on one ‘side’ or the other, apparently, as I’ve learned to my cost from the reception of my books on the British kind. The Lion’s Share was generally welcomed in its first edition (1975) because it was seen as a critical corrective to the generally somewhat celebratory books that were available on the subject of ‘Our Empire Story’ until then, but is now sometimes criticised for not being anti-imperialist enough. In fact it’s neither pro- nor anti-imperial, but rather an attempt to describe why the Empire happened and how it worked, as well as other forms of ‘British imperialism’ that weren’t coloured in red on the maps. Except in relation to certain incidents – notorious colonial ‘atrocities’ for example, of which of course there were many – it avoids moral judgments entirely. In 2015 I published a kind of précis of the book, called British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t – the clue is in the subtitle; and then at the beginning of this year a sixth edition of The Lion’s Share, with a couple of added chapters about how the history – or myth – of the British Empire has been used and misused recently, especially with regard to ‘Brexit’. 

In fact, even after fifty years researching the subject, I still don’t know – or at least cannot bring myself to generalise about – whether I ‘approve’ of the British Empire or not. More importantly, I’ve come to the conclusions that the demand to come out on one ‘side’ of this question or the other is profoundly perverse; and – secondly – that the common use of the word ‘imperialist’ to denote something as condemnable as, say, ‘Fascist’, is a grotesque distortion – at the very least – of real history, and even dangerously stupid. For a start, it can distract us from what was really going on under the cover of ‘imperialism’, and why. The same applies of course to those who glorify it. Imperialism was (and is) a complex phenomenon, is therefore far more interesting than the black or white versions of it, and ‘teaches’ different and deeper ‘lessons’. I imagine – though I don’t know so much about it – that ‘Fascism’ is similar.

All of which explains why, despite always having supported ‘anti-colonial’ movements in the past – South Africa, Rhodesia, Egypt, Cyprus and so on (the full list appears in The Lion’s Share ch. 10), I refuse to lend my allegiance to present-day ‘anti-colonial’ movements that for example seek to pull down the statues of men (always men, I think) who are regarded as ‘imperialists’, Churchill being the most controversial example; or to join in the current Left-wing chorus of condemnation of ‘imperialism’ in all its forms. I certainly reject the common assumption – on the ignorant Left – that imperialism is in any way equivalent to Nazism, for example, or even essentially ‘racist’, or defined by ‘slavery’; so that to dismiss something as ‘imperialism’ without any fine analysis simply condemns it to association with those evils. I also try to undermine the assumption that ‘imperialism’ was generally a ‘policy’, that can be pinned on certain people or nations, therefore, rather than something that to a great extent just ‘happened’, like the weather. (I haven’t decided whether I’m pro- or anti-rain, either.) I’m sorry if readers think that this is because as a successor to those old ‘imperialists’ I wish to avoid the inherited national ‘guilt’ of Amritsar and the Irish potato famine and the Kenya Emergency and the rest of it; but I apply the same analysis to – for example – US imperialism, which similarly appears to me as something ‘natural’. (My Empire and Superempire is about that.) My later books were supposed to be correctives to that kind of lazy thinking. 

But of course no-one who ‘matters’ in this debate reads them. So I’ve now given up hoping. From my ‘ivory tower’ I’m clearly not going to change the minds of those at the base of the tower who simply react to slogans and loaded words. What serious thinker does? (And don’t give me Marx. Or Jesus. Or Steve Bannon. Or any other thinkers or moralisers who were simply riding tides of opinion; and whose words have more often been misused than not.) I suppose it was arrogant of me to think I even could.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to Imperialism: For or Against?

  1. Pingback: Second Comings | Porter’s Pensées

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