Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reflections on "Imperialism Reclaimed" by Robert Skidelsky

 “Imperialism” is one of those words which, loaded with meaning and history, may evoke many different things to the Western mind. Etymologically, it can be said to be the practice of sustaining and building an empire using all available means, including military aggression. In this sense, those nations which stand in the way of this endeavour can naturally be expected to suffer. However, there is a tendency now in the West to see past imperialism as something that was mostly beneficial to those who were conquered. In an article called Imperialism Reclaimed, Robert Skidelsky, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, discusses this recent reevaluation of imperialism. The suffering engendered for instance by colonisation has been largely attenuated or even forgotten, and the focus now is on the social, political and technical improvements that Western imperialist conquests brought to the rest of the world.

However, professor Skidelsky starts by stating, implausibly, that previously in the West “schoolchildren were taught about the horrors of colonialism, how it exploited conquered peoples”. It seems highly unlikely that the general public was knowledgeable about the realities of colonialism. General education systems are not, and never can be, fully objective in their interpretations of History; there is a natural tendency for any society to minimise its own crimes, however well-intentioned its efforts to create an objective historical narrative. The reason many atrocities could arguably be committed by Western governments in the first place was that the general public was often unaware of them. Had imperialism really been regarded fifty years ago as “unambiguously bad”, as professor Skidelsky surprisingly claims, the bloody conflicts of independence from colonialism of the 1950s and 60s, such as in Algeria, Indochina and Kenya, could have been unanimously condemned and might even have been prevented.

 If such atrocities are more difficult (though not impossible) to commit today, it is precisely because people in the West are generally more educated and better informed about imperialism than half a century ago. This makes the on-going military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya in a sense even less admissible than past imperialist aggressions, since the indifference or unawarness of the general public cannot now be as easily excused.

Nevertheless, the human casualties in military conflicts today are generally (but not always, if we think of Iraq) of a significantly smaller scale than before. The number of dead and wounded that are needed to stir the general public is lower today than in the past. Previously, few people would have been shocked to read in a newspaper that “only” a few hundred natives had been killed in a revolt somewhere against the colonial authorities. This difference in attitude, this increased sensitivity to death and human suffering, is important because it has of course had a significant influence on policy. The major Western powers, responsible for the vast majority of all military conflicts in the last century, have had to reluctantly restrain their bellicose instincts as scrutiny increased and international law was established, however imperfectly. If the USA, for instance, had been able to use all of the weapons in its arsenal against Afghanistan and Iraq, these countries would have been quickly tamed.

Western imperialism did eventually help spread the “rule of law, science and technology” in the rest of the world; that is, to the East and the South. Yet, this is not a strong argument in favour of imperialism, for three main reasons that are not discussed by professor Skidelsky. Firstly, as historian Carroll Quigley noted in the 1950s, when strong civilisations expand as they inevitably do at some point, sometimes overwhelming and sometimes crushing other civilisations in the process, weapons are usually the first things that spread to the newly conquered lands, and ideas are usually the last. Centuries can pass between the diffusion of the former and the latter, as has been the case for the USA and the source of its civilisation, Europe.

Secondly, the political and technological progress that was introduced by imperialism did not initially benefit the conquered populations, but rather the Western colonisers who controlled them. It often took generations for these cultures to appropriate for themselves these innovations, sometimes because the imperialists actively prevented them from falling into the hands of the subjugated people. An example of this is the introduction of railways in China, which was tightly controlled by Western powers well into the twentieth century, as novelist Han Suyin described in her autobiographical work from 1972, “The Crippled Tree”.

The third reason why the spread of progress is not a strong argument in favour of imperialism, is that war and conquest is not the only, and not even the best way to spread new products and ideas. Peaceful exchange between nations, commercial and academic, is a much better vehicle for that. It is true that trade did not work in the case of the Chinese and Japanese who had no intention of trading with the West. For a long time they were not interested in the progress and innovation that was being “proposed” to them. The Western powers then forced trade with the East using gun-boat diplomacy and military aggression - the Opium Wars come to mind. Ironically, the West has benefited from essential exogenous influences as well. The rise of the West may not have been as spectacular or as successful if it had not first taken advantage, for instance, of the revival of mathematics and philosophy in Europe by the Mores or the introduction of the four major inventions from China; the printing press, the compass, ink, and gunpowder (sic) – incidentally, all of them very useful to Western imperialist ambitions. It is worth noting that these innovations were introduced in Europe not via conquest (with the exception of El Andalus), but via trade.

Finally, does the relative decline of the West and the rise of China really indicate, as professor Skidelsky proposes, that historical evolution is now becoming cyclical again after have long been linear? This is not only a highly doubtful proposition but it is also a far more complex one than the author acknowledges. The change from a cyclical to a linear view of historical evolution happened also at an individual – and thus cultural – level. In the modern world we do not believe any longer that there is, as sociologist C. Wright Mills said,  a “Greek-like, eternal recurrence”, but that “sheer continuity is the only principle of history”. At the heart of this social transformation was the fundamental change in man’s conception of time. There is no possible return, therefore, to the previous cyclical view; obviously the process is not simply reversible. Further, just because China and other countries are slowly getting the upper hand on the West doesn’t necessarily imply that historical evolution will again become cyclical. The world might well continue to evolve in a linear and progressive manner even though the white race may in the future no longer unchallenged dominate the world.


  1. I think you overestimate the influence of the Mores in Europe's development. I'm not neglecting it or saying it didn't exist but many historians have proved today that thir global impact on Europe at the time remains minimal.

    Besides that, it's a good article.

  2. Some very relevant and thoughtful insights here.

  3. Anonymous, thanks for your comments. About the influence of the Mores; yes, you are probably right.

  4. This is a thoughtful article rebutting Prof. Skidelsky's shallow article. Compared to the calamities unleashed by the British, the benefits of their rule pales into insignificance.

    Regarding the Moors in Andalusia, it is incorrect to argue that they were not influential. Without their contribution as bridge between the East and West, Europe could not have grown as fast as they did.

  5. Kvnagarajan, thanks for your comments. Regarding the mores it's clear they had an influence, the question is the extent of that influence, that's all.