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July 24, 2006

Criticising Empire: Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies - Herman Lebovics

Posted by Jeremy Black

Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies
by Herman Lebovics
Pp. xx+172. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006
Paperback, 13.99

This is a sophisticated set of six essays that together amount to a critique of the impact of empire on metropolitan countries, specifically France. Originally, the essays started work as invited lectures or conference papers, but Lebovics, Professor of History at Stony Brook University, has used the opportunity to rewrite the pieces, to bring the discussions and bibliographies up to date, and to add a preface and afterword.

The book's theme is that colonies are dangerous to the health of democracy, a view long held on the left but not only there, or, more specifically, that imperial strivings harm the chances for an egalitarian social order; although the relationship between that and democracy is less clear than Lebovics assumes. Lebovics cites George Orwell's reflection

When white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys
and probes this theme.

The first essay looks at another colonial administrator Raymond Gauthereau, who also found himself elephant-hunting, in this case in the Ivory Coast. His account is taken by Lebovics to throw light on the inadequacy of force to carry out the colonial project, and indeed its exhaustion, and this becomes a point of departure for the falling apart of the sense of mastery and self-justification of some other French colonial administrators.

The second essay considers Pierre Bourdieu's thinking about how colonialism affected metropolitan French life, and discerns a division between sociology and ethnology which, he argues, was partly based on a desire among intellectuals to think one way about metropolitan populations and another about colonial subjects. To Lebovics, Bourdieu's deconstruction of the scientific and political boundaries between enthology and sociology made a decisive move to address the European crisis of post-coloniality and find his own way, not by putting forward a social science of universal laws but rather by working out a universal method of analysis.

The third essay switches to the arts, in the person of the filmmaker Jean Renoir. A close reading of the political films provides an opportunity to link them to a sharply changing context in France. This also offers Lebovics a view on the struggle over the representation of France. Renoir is seen as proposing in the 1930s a utopian France of friends and neighbours, a community of the people of the republic that corresponded to the Popular Front, but was wrecked by the 1940s. Renoir then turned to Hollywood, but then left it, in response to what Lebovics suggests was an overly mechanical and modern USA, to turn to India.

To Lebovics, this reflects a post-1945 Western longing for a world without tumultuous cities, social conflict and politics and he concludes that the temptations of the romantic Orient have always existed to distract the people in the West from fighting for a better world at home, in other words a new form of the opiate of the masses.

In his fourth essay, Lebovics uses Baudelaire to begin an investigation of the connection of modernity and colonialism, a wideranging piece that comes up to date with the response to the collapse of Yugoslavia and continued controversy in France over the Algerian war. Baudelaire is seen as pointing the way to understanding the rapports of aesthetic modernism and social modernity with the world of the tropics. Modernism is seen as tempting the overwrought artists and intellectuals of the democratic West with the offer of shelter in a purer world of art.

Lebovics then turns to John Locke to offer a different exposition of social imperialism, an interesting, if somewhat ahistorical, piece. Locke is presented as clearly spelling out the relation of property, colonial expansion, and good government.

Lastly, Lebovics asks why American historians are turning to study cultural history. This, like much of the book, is an overly-determined piece that intellectualises academic interests and strategies in a politicised context. It would have been far more rewarding to offer a close reading of relevant publications as well as to consider PhD programs and hiring policies.

More generally, as the afterword confirms, his committed work, throughout interesting and informative, does not stand back sufficiently in order to allow sufficient opportunities for alternative readings, as well as for a degree of disengagement on the part of artists and writers from the context. Instead the role of a dominant context is powerfully affirmed.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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