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May 24, 2006

Unseasonable Thoughts about Empire: Michael Bentley considers liberalism's ambiguous relationship with empire - and the challenges this throws up for contemporary liberals

Posted by Michael Bentley

What is the relationship between imperialism and liberalism? Some, most notably Uday Singh Mehta, have argued that the defining register of liberalism has been its enthusiasm for empire. Others have strongly denied this. Conservative historian Michael Bentley - Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews - considers liberalism's ambiguous relationship with empire. Prof. Bentley finds that this relationship throws up some challenges unwelcome to contemporary liberals.

If history be the new gardening, then empire must be its most seasonable fruit. Perhaps it all started a few years ago in the United States when academic entry positions went through one of their familiar shifts of fashion and proclaimed the need for race and empire in their candidates' research interests. Bolted on to a well-established commitment to black studies and the history of minorities, empire became a passe partout for professional advancement.

The imperative mood lay in demonstrating what a bad thing empire has always been: exploitative, repressive, inhumane, the product of diseased cultures and mentalities. Come the years of the younger Bush, moreover, and the story acquired contemporary resonance and allowed the sound of Iraq to be heard behind the pulse of academic discourse about the past, whether concerned with the European domination of black Africa or English mismanagement of India.

Luminous historians who also quickly detect the direction of the wind changed course for empire to catch the breeze: Linda Colley's Captives filled its sails from one direction just as Niall Ferguson's Colossus tacked in from another. One could bemoan the tragedy of the oppressed or the iniquity of the oppressors or even, bravely, the desirability of either, but the result was the same in making empire somehow central to liberal discourse.

The only dangerous rocks placed in the path of this imperial trajectory lurked off the coast of India whose so-called "subaltern" school of historians not only wanted to make anti-colonialism their theme but also to express scepticism about the west's integrity and motivation during the period of its most accelerated capitalistic development. The "orientalism" announced by Said had its corollaries for these scholars in the entire sweep of western imperialism that reflected - when it did not announce it - an ideology resting on supremacist assumptions.

The subaltern emphasis did indeed pose a problem in the camp of liberal outrage over Europe's imperial past. For imperial expansion made its first significant moves, not in the era dominated by reactionaries such as Bismarck and Lord Salisbury, but rather half a century before when the metropolitan powers enjoyed liberal or quasi-liberal regimes. It was uncomfortable to discover that many soi-disant liberals of that period turned out to have been more in favour of colonial adventure than against it.

Pain of this kind sharpened when a non-subaltern scholar, Uday Singh Mehta, alleged that imperial enthusiasm should be seen, not as an accompanying characteristic of western liberalism, but instead as its defining register. Liberals became imperialists, on this reckoning, because liberalism itself was a doctrine that encouraged a blindness to cultural difference and a theory of progress that licensed the division of the world into "advanced" and "primitive" cultures. [Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: a study in nineteenth-century British thought (Chicago, 1999)].

In order to find a "liberal" who resisted this tendency, Mehta found himself driven to Edmund Burke who undoubtedly castigated colonialism but got everything else so wrong as to figure as a form of liberal embarrassment. Among the discourse of more palatable liberals of that and the following generation Mehta discovered "strategies of exclusion" that helped his liberals discover a fixed chain of being in the world with civilized Europeans at one end pulling along primitive "barbarians" at the other: peoples who would have to be educated "up" to western standards before they could be permitted self-government.

And at the heart of this vision was something intrinsic to liberalism itself as a constellation of ideas. Its rejection of legitimate difference and its insistence on uniformity and law in human history and experience stood at the heart of the imperial enterprise. Liberals embraced colonialism abroad because their doctrines at home recommended that they should.

Umbrage over colonialism now transformed itself into umbrage over Mehta. The idea that liberals had turned imperial precisely because they were liberals trapped a number of nerves, not only by pressing on a moral revulsion against any such implication but also by chafing against a sense of historical accuracy. Even if some liberals had felt the pull of the imperial idea, by no means all of them had; and it could be charged against Metha that he had ignored a significant strand of anti-colonial liberalism at the end of the eighteenth century.

This is the refrain of Jennifer Pitts who now teaches political science at Princeton. Her study of that early generation of liberals threw up not only Burke but also Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham as explicit critics of the colonialist vision with its justificatory language about European superiority in culture and intellectual development. Agreed, their wisdom did not endure among later liberals: it is right to think about a "turn to empire" in the liberal generations after 1830, the years of James and John Stuart Mill in England and Tocqueville in France who became too excited for a decent man over his government's exploits in Algeria [Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: the rise of imperial liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, 2005)].

What Jennifer Pitts denies with great force is that liberals need to have recourse to these sympathies out of stadial notions of advance. They had in their recent past examples of anti-colonial argument that would have side-stepped any unthinking acceptance of imperial recommendation. The historical problem lies precisely in working out why they didn't use it.

This portfolio of policies designed to ensure the moral integrity of modern liberalism protects current practitioners from feeling implicated in imperial initiatives and leaves them unruffled when President Bush claims, as he does, that Abraham Lincoln would have invaded Iraq if faced with the same problems and (mis)information. It also partly pulls the issue off the hook from which Mehta had suspended it. By suggesting that the growth of empire reflected a sad deviation in liberal thinking, commentaries of this kind sweep liberal collusion in imperial projects over the next century under the carpet.

The second half of the nineteenth century, to take the most obvious case, produces more indigestion for liberals, indeed, than the first. There was little return in the British case to the Little Englandism voiced a century before, at least not during the years of the African scramble and the Boer War.

One of the most persistent connections that students of late-Victorian politics have to confront is that between the adoption of a radical agenda at home and the promotion of a genuine, often high-minded enthusiasm for the extension and consolidation of empire in India, Africa and the West Indies. Many years ago the American historian Bernard Semmell drew attention to that perplexing congruence and asked why it was the British liberals who ought, out of political logic, to have resisted the cry for empire often instead joined their voices to it.

Joseph Chamberlain's extraordinary journey from the reformist liberal left in the 1870s, through a Gladstonian moment in the 1880s towards imperial commitment and covert support for Dr Jameson in his nefarious designs in the 1890s is not readily replicated, it is true. Yet the convictions that Chamberlain claimed to have gleaned from John Robert Seeley's Expansion of England (1883) yields many other illustrations, just as the formation of the Liberal Imperialist group in parliament three years later tells a similar story. Gladstone himself, pious about the evils of metropolitan arrogance at Midlothian, ordered the gunboats to open fire in Alexandria when he returned to office.

None of this implies that the link between liberalism and imperialism is a necessary one but it does suggest that more than fiction or exaggeration lies behind asserting the connection. Making sense of it will take more than the selection of a few "key texts" from the liberal intelligentsia in order to show that they do, or do not, align themselves in a particular way in their discourse about empire. It will demand a very sophisticated cultural history of a kind we do not yet have: one that goes beyond the clichés to think about what attracted sensitive and intelligent people of both sexes and all parties to the imperial ideal. Among the casualties of that enquiry may be some of the more automatic expostulations of the politically-correct among commentators of our own day. Perhaps that is why it is taking so long to emerge.

Michael Bentley is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and the author of Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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