Feb 052014

There is currently a spike going on in the traffic here, with a lot of people looking for my page on Macaulay. He is regularly accounted an imperialist: it would have been news to him.

So, my main question today is: what is imperialism? Or put another way, what is so distinctive about this thing called imperialism that the British were supposed to be pursuing in India? Or, to be really precise, what is so modern about what the British were supposed to be pursuing in India? This is a naïve question in some ways, but it needs to be asked, because everyone seems to have stopped asking it a long time ago.

It can’t be capitalism, because that existed in Europe for a long time before any Indian soil was ruled by anyone British. Capitalism without imperialism later existed in places like Argentina. Capitalism need not imply imperialism.

It can’t be cultural arrogance either, because that existed, and exists, all over the world to this day. Can anyone tell me that the Chinese did not consider themselves utterly superior to the long-nosed barbarians that came to treat with the Emperor in the late eighteenth century? Or that the Spanish, who were not capitalists, did not feel superior in South America? Or that Brahmins did not look down on the sweaty, red-faced goras that wanted to trade opium and cotton goods? Arrogance is born of victory; history is full of winners.

Or was it racism? Were the British the first to feel themselves superior, different or separate, and chosen to some degree, as a ‘race’? See the last paragraph. And add a very long list of groups who, since antiquity, have believed in their natural superiority. Were the Spartans imperialists because they despised and bullied helots?

Well, if it’s not capitalism, arrogance, or racism – what is distinctive about imperialism? What makes it truly different from Persian, Roman, Aztec, Inca, Ottoman or Mughal attempts to build empires? Is it simply that it was the latest mixture of old familiar qualities, carried round the world in iron ships? If so, then it is an astonishingly weak word, that refers to nothing new except at best a mode of transport, or at worst a narrow window in which exploitation (again, not new) was packaged by a particular band of exploiters.

‘Imperialists’ themselves did not use the word when imperialism was supposed to be at its most vigourous, that is, when it was actually taking India in hand, from 1756 to 1849. Neither Clive nor Dalhousie would have recognised the word, or the idea as fleshed out by Hobson, Lenin et al in the twentieth century. As the British put down the revolt of 1857, what did they replace the EIC with? With a cabinet minister responsible to Parliament. Had the chartered company been an imperialist body? Or was the new Indian administration an imperial creation? No, and no. The EIC was a late medieval corporate body, and the new India Office was no different from the government departments that ran contemporary Britain.

So much for the negatives. But I cannot be allowed to ask this many questions without giving some answers. Positives will soon follow.


 Posted by at 1:12 pm

  6 Responses to “Imperialism: what?”

  1. What I really like about your posts (and articles) is that there are no easy answers. For some reason too many people look upon considering all aspects of a situation as weakness and a lack of clear thinking. The entire history of the British Empire cannot be reduced to easy answers, or clear cut intentions, and it is refreshing to read such an open minded post.
    You also avoid the fashionable version of analysis (whether it’s politics, arts, culture etc.), where a political belief system e.g. ‘critical theory’ becomes the lens through which everything is viewed.

  2. Hello Ian,

    Thank you for that. I’m not expecting everyone to be so sympathetic.

  3. Is this imperialist apologetics?

  4. Well, even if it is or not, it doesn’t really matter. However, I’d like to say something – which I believe is of some merit and may be helpful to your future articles on the subject of the British Raj:

    My great-grandparents and their parents and so on, always relayed the fact that things, especially socio-economically, were much better under the British. I come from a family that were initially poor farmers. The British, seeing and admiring the collective work ethics of my ancestors’ community, raised many of them into high posts for purposes of tax collection and community leadership. They also built railroad tracks for the community and engineered water-transportation routes, financing irrigation systems and sponsoring village development.

    Let’s be real, here. That was very progressive of them, IMHO.

    • Hello Vercetti,

      interesting stuff. I’m not strictly doing imperialist apologetics here – I am well aware of the various levels of damage that imperial domination can inflict on colonised people. But, just to be mischievous, I wonder how many people in Britain today would rail against their Roman heritage, in all its ramified forms.

      For my distinction between colonialism and imperialism you could read the Conclusion to my first book. As a summary, I took it that colonialism was economic domination at a distance, and imperialism was the various cultural and political justifications for doing it – as sold to both the colonised and the colonisers. I’ve moved on a bit from that now.

      What I want to talk about is how the whole idea of imperialism has taken on a life of its own, and is used uncritically by a very wide range of writers and thinkers, and not just those on the left.

      I’m not trying to say it was either all good or all bad; certainly those who were serving ‘it’ didn’t see it as bad. In some ways I think it holds close parallels with the modern idea of aid, in many respects – i.e. both well meaning and patronising, sometimes more than a little self-serving, and often with unitended and damaging consequences.

      I need to find the time to write sensibly about it.

  5. Interesting discussion Vercetti and Roderick. Being a non-historian I would guess old school imperialism was based ultimately on military might. Does this mean the contemporary equivalent is financial might? Hedge funds putting a small country into poverty, oligarchs buying up huge swathes of land, private equity companies destroying any employees’ rights, and companies claiming to make a loss and moving the profits to a tax haven.
    I doubt if anyone would say that if a country does not like foreign domination, then they should have won the fight with the invading armies. Yet today people say – when cultures are destroyed by multinational corporations – that is how business works. Maybe in the future people will be condemning our submission to the handful of multi-billionaires. I suppose the powerful use whatever methods work; and presumably the board of a multi-national company would be about the same size as the government’s cabinet that decided on an imperialist invasion.

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