London, October.—Among the penalties of having pitched one’s tent within the ruins of a collapsing empire, the agonizing spectacle of injured pride masquerading as stoicism must surely rank foremost for any naturalized inhabitant of the British Isles these days. Whether it be the bewilderment of British troops in Belfast and Derry hemmed in by rancorous Irish factions, or the sight of a Labour government helplessly contemplating the formal secession of Rhodesia’s white-settler population, the nostalgic imperialist in 1969 does not have a great deal to sustain his flagging spirits. If anything gives him comfort, it is the thought of Mr. Nixon unable to concede defeat in Vietnam because it might cost him votes in 1972. But that is poor consolation. The British, having gone through a minor ordeal of this kind at the time of the Boer War (1899-1902), know all about the soul-searching imposed by a squalid colonial war. But they also know that their current troubles are of a different order. America can endure dishonor and defeat in Vietnam, if it must, because in the final analysis Vietnam is merely a discreditable episode. For Britain, the road came to an end years ago, and what is occurring now is a long and solemn post mortem, with the entire nation assembled in the public gallery as more or less silent and orderly spectators.
There comes to hand, to assist me in my labors of composition, an intriguing piece of information from a book review by Mr. John Terraine in the London Spectator of October 11. Referring to a recently published official work on the Japanese surrender in 1945 (by Major General S. Woodburn Kirby and others), the reviewer notes, in the nonchalant manner typical of a now almost vanished breed, that the British briefly managed to win control of Vietnam before the Americans ever dreamed of getting bogged down there:
It is by no means common knowledge that the Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, found himself in control, in August 1945, of an area of one million square miles, containing 128 million people in varying stages of poverty, starvation and chaos—and that this area included not only the British territories of Burma, Malaya and Singapore, but also the independent kingdom of Siam, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and that part of French Indochina which lay south of the 16th parallel (Vietnam).
The independent kingdom of Siam is also known as Thailand, and there are rumors to the effect that its independence is not quite what it seems. The British Commander-in-Chief in 1945 was Admiral Mountbatten, subsequently—in 1947—made Viceroy of India, for the purpose of enabling the British to get out of that sub-continent, after partitioning it, so that the Moslems might have a state of their own. I quote further from Mr. Terraine:
In a previous volume of the Official History (British Military Administration in the Far East by F.S.V. Donnison) it has been stated: “Upon Admiral Mountbatten fell the perplexing task of conducting the early fateful contacts of the West with the upsurge of nationalism in South-East Asia which had been released, first, by the collapse of the European powers before the Japanese, and then by the defeat of the latter at the hands of the Allied Forces.”
The British have always been good at this kind of reticent understatement, but modesty can be carried too far. The “early fateful contacts of the West” with nationalism in Southeast Asia go back a bit further than that. They reach back to the colonization of Indonesia by the Dutch in the 17th century, the establishment of British control over India in the 18th, and the 19th-century French attempt to carve out a rival empire in Laos, Cambodia, Annam, and Tongking. The more recent American presence in the area falls into clearer perspective when it is related to these earlier enterprises. Yet there are important differences too. During those happily distant days “trade followed the flag,” for the simple but sufficient reason that the flag had been planted there for trading purposes in the first place. No one is ever going to claim that the United States got involved in Vietnam because it wanted the area’s markets. The motivation was plainly political and strategic. Yet similar assertions have long been made about the later stages of British rule in India. It is now indeed pretty generally accepted that while the British went there originally for trading purposes and to outwit French and Dutch competition, what kept them in India long after they should have packed up for their own good was fear of Russia (Czarist Russia, that is) gobbling up the place. The fear may have been unfounded, but it was certainly real so far as the motivations of British statesmen went. By the same token it is arguable that what keeps the Americans in Vietnam is fear of China. If this is the case, it simply confirms what historians have long been saying: what counts in international affairs is the balance of power rather than simple profit-or-loss calculation. This does not alter the fact that imperialism also has an economic function. It just helps to place short-range goals within a framework that renders their seeming absurdity more comprehensible.
At the higher level of statesmanship, short-run and long-run considerations come together, which is just what distinguishes political strategy from ordinary tactical maneuvering. This is where “ideology” comes in: not as a mistress (perish the thought) but as a handmaiden. Of course we are all pragmatists now, especially those of us who have never encountered any other philosophy. But this does not alter the fact that even the most pragmatic statesman must have some general notion as to what he is trying to accomplish. The late John Kennedy, that prince of pragmatists, originally went into Vietnam (so it is said) in order to teach “the other side” that guerrilla warfare does not pay off. He may or may not have miscalulated the local balance of forces—there are conflicting views on this topic, notably among his erstwhile advisers—but the purpose of the exercise was clearly politico-military, that is to say strategic. It was an attempt to validate a set of principles which had been outlined, with a great flourish, by Professor W. W. Rostow in his profoundly unoriginal and uninteresting essay The Stages of Economic Growth, subtitled “A Non-Communist Manifesto.”
It was the subtitle that made Professor Rostow a hero to his fellow liberals: chief among them the past, present, and future editors of the Economist, that distinguished periodical which is now almost alone in still championing the pure gospel of liberal imperialism, vintage brand (circa 1897). What the 1960 edition of the gospel told its readers was that economic “take-off” in backward countries could be artificially stimulated by a judicious injection of foreign (mainly American) capital and technology, plus local nationalism, which was there anyhow and only in need of a bit of encouragement. This was the rationale of the Alliance for Progress, a public-relations exercise whose ludicrous failure has by now become so patent that its propagandists have fallen silent about it. But it was also the rationale of American involvement in Vietnam, just as it underpinned the CIA’s prolonged and tender interest in that great “socialist” Colonel Nasser, whose warlike ambitions were tactfully overlooked by his American advisers and paymasters in the interest of global strategy (the fact that he ratted on them, just as he is now trying to rat on his Russian backers, is irrelevant in this context).
In all three cases the underlying assumptions had been spelled out by Rostow & Co. before they were put into practice by the Kennedy brothers and their courtiers. And even now, when doubt has crept in among the Washington policymakers, the really consistent ideologists have not given up hope that their aims can be validated in the long run. Thus the Economist (October 11, 1969):
The most telling argument used by those who oppose the war—if one leaves out the people who would actually welcome a Communist government in Saigon—is that this is just a sweaty tussle between two more or less equally unsatisfactory lots of Vietnamese politicians, and that the difference between them is not worth the bloodshed it has led to. Even if one accepted this argument, it would need to be said that by the test of the amount of personal liberty it allows, and probably by the test of economic efficiency too, the regime in Saigon is one or two notches less unsatisfactory than the one in Hanoi. But the point is that this is not what the war has been fought for. This is not merely a quarrel about which of two presidents, or which of two cabinets, will be running South Vietnam five or ten years from now. ft is a contest between two wholly different systems of government. The outcome will decide South Vietnam’s prospects of developing something like a democratic system of politics, and something like a freely expanding economy, over the next half-century and more; and not only the prospects of South Vietnam, but also those of a lot of the other countries of south-east Asia behind it.
There you have it, black on white. And just so that the point shall not be missed, the argument is elevated to a higher moral level:
Between the two systems that are contending for the future of south-east Asia, the marxist one and the pluralist one, there is on present evidence little doubt which has more to offer.
Were this a seminar in political science, the author of the remark just cited would have his essay marked “C minus” and be required to read a few basic Leninist and Maoist texts before venturing to describe as “marxist” what is plainly old-fashioned populism dressed up in socialist clothing.1 But there is no sense in getting angry with a harried editorialist who is only repeating what he learned from the pioneers of the New Frontier eight or ten years ago. Besides, for every piece of liberal nonsense about “Marxist” political systems (why not “Thomist” or “Calvinist” ones too, so long as we are going to misuse Max Weber’s sociological categories?) there is a populist or Maoist equivalent. There are some distinguished American critics of the Vietnam war—for the sake of their achievements in other fields they shall be nameless—who share Rostow’s preposterous ideas about the nature of the cold war, except that their own political preferences differ from his. The common factor in either case is the belief that the outcome of the Vietnamese struggle will determine the fate of Southeast Asia, and that two radically different “systems” are at grips in the fields and jungles of that tortured country.
It is odd and perhaps significant that no one in France, from de Gaulle to the Communists, seems to share these notions, but then the French have some painfully acquired knowledge of the area. There was a time, around 1946, when they thought they could ride back to power by using the Catholics and the Buddhists to pull their chariot, but ever since the costly failure of that enterprise they have taken a suitably detached view of the region and its problems. So far as they are concerned, it matters not a whit whether Hanoi gets control of the entire country, for as they see it the real issue in Southeast Asia will always be the desire to avoid Chinese overlordship. As for Saigon being “pluralist,” as against the—admittedly very real—totalitarianism of Hanoi, it takes more than a few editorials to make the French, a notoriously skeptical breed, believe in such fairy tales.
Nor, for that matter, does an intellectual Tory like Mr. Enoch Powell take much stock in liberal imperialism. He knows the imperial age is over, for Britain anyway, and has given vent to some disabused reflections on the topic which fit in with his generally pessimistic view of the world. One needs to be a liberal to get really worked up about the beauties of the “freely expanding economy” and the wonders it is going to perform for Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the rest. Conservative pessimism, if it does nothing else, at least safeguards one from the disappointments that lie in wait for the worshiper of “economic growth.” It was the liberals who got America into Vietnam. It is the conservatives—if there are any left—who will have to get her out.
I began by saying that there is something melancholy about the introspective character of so much British writing at the present time. The sadness is not lessened—for the authors and their public—by the reflection that the imperial burden was shed gracefully: at any rate in India, which was the center-piece of the whole global arrangement known in its heyday as the British Empire. Mr. Enoch Powell, in the hearing of the present writer, once remarked that the consciousness of the British ruling class (those were the words he used) had been shaped for two centuries by the Anglo-Indian connection. Mr. Powell was himself involved with Indian affairs, as a staff officer during the 1939-45 war, and if he ever finds time from more pressing engagements he might let the rest of us know what he thinks of the 1947 settlement imposed by Lord Louis Mountbatten in his capacity as Viceroy, acting on behalf of a Labour government which had granted him unprecedented plenipotentiary powers—that is to say, the right to make major decisions on the spot, without referring back to Whitehall.
This elegant aristocrat, who in 1945 made a point of telling everyone he was going to vote Socialist (“it’s the kitchen staff who are Tory—the working classes are altogether a hopeless lot”), was admirably fitted for his Proconsular role. He got on well with those two detribalized intellectuals, Nehru and Jinnah, who wanted to drag their respective communities into the modern age of nationalism, and away from obsession with religion. He did not get on quite so well with Gandhi, the Mahatma of the Indian peasantry who opposed Partition, while Jinnah insisted on it, and Nehru acquiesced. In the end, the Moslems got what they wanted (they usually do, from whatever British government happens to be in office): India and Pakistan were established as separate states, after a ghastly communal slaughter which may have cost a million lives and which drove tens of millions from their homes. Hindus and Moslems butchered each other in the name of religion, as they had been doing for centuries and still do occasionally on a smaller scale. The topic is passed over rather briefly in Mr. H. V. Hodson’s recent work on the subject, The Great Divide: Britain-India-Pakistan, but then Mr. Hodson is an admirer of Mountbatten. Mr. Michael Edwardes, reviewing the book in the London Times of September 13, 1969, struck a caustic note:
The end of an empire almost always takes place in blood—usually that of the imperialists. The distinction of the British was to lose their empire in that of their erstwhile subjects. From the British point of view it was a major achievement. . . . It is easy to accept that Lord Mount-batten’s brief was simple and straightforward—for heaven’s sake, get us out of India with the least harm to ourselves. Lord Mountbatten succeeded in doing what his political masters required, with aplomb and the appearance of dignity. I do not think anyone could have done better, and most would have done worse. . . .
Mr. Edwardes, who was in India at the time and knows the country well, then goes on to quote from the Report of the first Governor-General of the independent Dominion (now Republic) of India, to King George VI, dated November 25, 1948, a year after the great massacres in the Punjab which accompanied the setting up of two independent states on the ruins of the old Indian Empire:
It had been obvious to anybody that there were going to be disturbances in the Punjab on the transfer of power. But I freely confess that I did not anticipate the scale and extent of what was going to happen, nor, so far as I am aware, did anyone in authority in India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom anticipate this.
Who wrote these lines? Why, none other than Mountbatten, transmogrified from Viceroy into Governor-General, and still on excellent terms with Nehru, though by now somewhat less popular with the leaders of newly independent Pakistan, who felt let down because the Labour government was a shade less pro-Moslem than British governments normally tend to be. In 1969 Mr. Hodson, in his quasi-authoritative account of the matter, still takes the Establishment view that Lord Mountbatten did the right thing when he precipitated the partition of India, in the teeth of mounting evidence that the country would explode into communal massacres. His sources are mostly British. Mr. Edwardes’s own book on the the subject, published some years ago, was based upon the testimony of Indian and Pakistani witnesses, “the most important of whom were dead by the time Mr. Hodson took up his task,” as he sourly notes in his review. He does not say how many of them perished in the slaughter.
It is remarkable how stoical Europeans have usually been when confronted with happenings of this sort—in Asia. A single British soldier shot dead in Belfast during communal rioting between Irish Catholics and Protestants gets banner headlines in the papers. The great Indian disaster of 1947 has barely entered the public consciousness. Distance, and a sense of helplessness, presumably account nowadays for this seeming indifference, just as they account for the relative calm that greets the news from Nigeria. What can one do about it, and who cares about dead African babies anyway? Certainly not the New Left: its leaders have not uttered a sound on the subject. But then there is no political mileage to be got out of a conflict which opposes Africans (with some foreign backing) to each other. As for morality, we all know by now what the Realpolitiker of the New Left (not to mention the Old Right) think of such sickly bourgeois sentiments.
But back to our theme. Mr. Edwardes and Mr. Hodson are joined by Mr. David Dilks in a fairly conventional biography of a fairly conventional British Viceroy: Curzon in India deals with a bygone age of imperial splendor. It describes Curzon’s septennial term, the high point of which was a squabble with Whitehall in 1901 over who was to pay for the expense of having India represented at the Coronation of Edward VII in London. Curzon protested that the country had recently suffered a famine, and won his point. His other worries had to do with possible Czarist Russian encroachments, and with the appearance on the political scene of a new kind of animal, the Bengali lawyer, decked out in European clothing and clutching a copy of J. S. Mill. His intervention made things very awkward. Curzon knew how to deal with the wild tribesmen of the Northwest (“brave as lions, wild as cats, docile as children”), but the Bengali politicians bored and irritated him:
I am an Imperialist, and Imperialism is fatal to all their hopes. I hold the scales with exasperatingly even hand, but this is the last thing they desire . . . [it] deprives them of their most fertile source of grumbling.
Curzon was convinced the Empire would last, if not for ever, then at least for centuries. It would do so, he thought, because the stout peasantry would always prefer the fair-minded British official to the wily Bengali. Not to mention the hill tribesmen: “magnificent Samsons, gigantic, bearded, instinct with loyalty, often stained with crime”; mostly Moslems too and thus doubly contemptuous of town-bred Hindu politicians. An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (August 14, 1969) struck a suitably disillusioned note:
This sentimental polarization of noble savage and degenerate townee, subsequently to receive classic expression from T. E. Lawrence, became one of the major weaknesses of what passed for the British ideology of imperialism, and a source of countless political mistakes.
Yes indeed, but the official ideology had two sides to it. In addition to the romantic Toryism of Kipling, Lawrence, and sundry worshipers of mounted and bedaggered tribesmen, there was the bleak utilitarianism of Joseph Chamberlain and the Webbs. Chamberlain, the chief begetter of the Boer War and a charismatic figure to many Tories, in 1903 made a resolute but tactically ill-judged attempt to transmute the Empire into a fiscal Zollverein or customs union, on the Bismarckian model. At the same time, the Webbs turned the London School of Economics, which they controlled, into a nursery of the imperialist faith, preached inter alia by geopoliticians like Mackinder, whose wisdom was later transmitted to Britain’s chief competitors by Mackinder’s German pupils.
Needless to say, the British school was more civilized than the German, as anyone can discover by consulting the recently published first volume of Professor Max Beloff’s definitive study on the subject: Imperial Sunset, subtitled Britain’s Liberal Empire 1897-1921.2 Himself a representative of the once-great liberal tradition, Professor Beloff writes with some nostalgia of an age when statesmen, civil servants, scholars, and journalists saw the self-governing white-settler Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) as constitutional training-schools for the remainder. Unlike the romantic Tories, he has no illusions as to the evanescent nature of an imperial structure held together very largely by make-believe. Unlike the Chamberlainites, he does not believe an imperial customs union could have worked. On this point the Tory-imperialist standpoint has now been restated by Mr. Julian Amery in the concluding two volumes of a gigantic six-volume political biography of Joseph Chamberlain in progress since 1915, when it was first projected by the late J. L. Garvin.3
One may reasonably doubt whether Chamberlain—Beatrice Potter’s idol long before she married the dutiful Colonial Office clerk Sidney Webb—is really worth all this attention, but he did have a coherent view of the world: a rare thing in British politics during a century when “muddling through” was elevated into doctrine. Moreover, the imperial creed had some support from intellectuals—Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Benjamin Jowett, and Karl Pearson among them. Not all its adherents were as repulsive as the loathsome Carlyle, whose racist tract The Nigger Question (1849) terminated his friendship with John Stuart Mill. The episode is not without significance. There were some liberal imperialists in Victorian Britain—Gladstone was merely the most celebrated—but by 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain launched his campaign, the liberal intellectuals had begun to turn away from the Empire. Its defense was left to Carlyle’s spiritual heirs, Kipling among them. Even so, tariff reform gained some working-class support, and the social-imperialist creed already formulated by J. R. Seeley, the historian, had its effect on Fabians such as the Webbs and their circle. When the private discussion club they had founded split apart over the issue of protection versus free trade, Hewins—their nominee as director of the London School of Economics—resigned his post to become Chamberlain’s chief propagandist. Mackinder, who succeeded him (once more thanks to the Webbs), shortly thereafter abandoned free trade, thereby complicating Beatrice Webb’s intrigues with the Liberal leaders. The Liberals were loyal to the Empire, but unwilling to ditch free trade in favor of protection. Their electoral triumph in 1906 sounded the knell of tariff reform. Or rather, it delayed its acceptance until 1932, by which time the 1914-18 war had wrecked the Liberal party of Asquith and Lloyd George beyond repair. The remaining liberal imperialists—including Churchill—had now reluctantly joined the Tories, and in 1932-33 they hesitantly revived Joseph Chamberlain’s old recipes of 1903. But by then it was too late—Japan was on the march, and so was Hitler.
Indian nationalism, too, could no longer be restrained, and its leaders had lost all interest in the preservation of the British Empire. Offered a measure of home rule by the Churchill government in 1942, when the Japanese were at the gates, Gandhi declined what he described as “a postdated cheque on a bank that is obviously failing.” The bank did not actually fail in 1942, but went into liquidation five years later, when the Attlee government sent Mountbatten to India to wind up its affairs. Which is where we came in, for the partition of 1947 was the consequence of a war in which the Indian army, for the second time in a generation, had defended the Empire against Britain’s enemies. That same army was now about to split along national and religious lines, the coming confrontation between India and Pakistan already taking shape in the massacres that spelled the end of Gandhi’s vision of a peaceful and united India.
Is there a moral in all this? It is hard to say. During the 19th century the only alternative to the British Empire in India was a return to primitivism or the Russian Empire, and the Tories were not alone in holding that either would be a disaster: Marx took the same view. However abominable British rule in India might be (he told the readers of the New York Tribune in 1853), it was at least preferable to the continuation of Oriental despotism. The Indian liberal nationalists of the following generation reasoned along similar lines. The trouble was that even the most moderate among them failed to make an impression upon British officialdom until it was too late for anything but the hurried surgical operation of 1947. By then few even among the Tories were willing to join Winston Churchill in a last-ditch stand against liquidating the Indian Empire.
The Attlee government of 1945-51 for its part simply carried on where the Liberals had left off. It did not repudiate imperialism as such. Rather it proclaimed that India had become ripe for self-government. This was the Gladstonian or liberal-imperialist faith in a nutshell. It had nothing whatever to do with socialism, popular notions to the contrary notwithstanding. Like the Fabian tradition in general, it was rooted in Bentham and Mill. But at least Mill was preferable to Carlyle with his savage contempt for colored races. Liberalism in this sense made possible a transition that did not commit the British to a disastrous attempt to hold down Indian nationalism by force: the sort of thing Germany and Japan committed themselves to in the 1930’s. There are different imperialisms, even if they all suffer from the same basic taint.
The historical background is sketched in, with admirable clarity and precision, by that wittiest of contemporary British historians, Mr. V. G. Kiernan. The Lords of Human Kind: European attitudes towards the outside world in the Imperial Age4 is full of shrewd observations on the British Empire and its passing. It also has the merit of being composed in a graceful style and bearing its load of learning with an appearance of effortless ease:
During the first millennium BC three new civilizations were taking shape, which among them came to rule or influence most of Asia, and which through many changes have lived on to our own day—the Persian, Indian and Chinese. They borrowed from the older ones; they differed from them first of all in their far greater size and comparative remoteness from each other, which allowed each to feel itself, like every human being, the hub and center of all things. Greece, the first “Europe,” was also appearing, scattered in small units from Asia Minor to the western Mediterranean—a distance about as great as from India’s north to south tip. It floated on the sea, the others belonged to dry land. The permanence of these four, with least continuity in Europe and most in China, has been as striking as the failure since then of any radically new civilization to grow up, except in Central and South America and, by synthesis of older with new elements, in the Islamic world.
Anyone capable of carrying on in this fashion for over 300 pages deserves public commendation. Mr. Kiernan conceals a mass of solid erudition behind a style modeled on Lytton Strachey. For good measure he is an undoctrinaire socialist. The combination of such rare gifts presumably accounts for his failure to climb the higher rungs of the academic establishment. The British have shed much of their Victorian solemnity, but it is still not considered quite proper for a scholar to display stylistic grace. Consider the following passage:
Schopenhauer refuted pantheism by pointing out the absurdity of any God transforming himself into a world where on an average day six million slaves received sixty million blows. In the history of Negro slavery the extraordinary thing is the ability of the race to survive, though myriads of individuals perished; it lacked the faculty which Chinese exiles owed to a more complex social evolution of mastering a new environment and rising in it. It was the endurance of the African, where other enslaved races sank under the white man’s burden, that made him so profitable; while his weakness in collective organization in his own land made him an easy prey. It warped his masters, Arab or Turk, Spaniard or Englishman, as much as it degraded him; it conditioned Western Europe to think of all “native” peoples as destined bondsmen.
I suspect promotion will be slow to come Mr. Kiernan’s way. He knows too much, he writes too well, and he treads on too many toes. The dullards and the embattled political fanatics (of all colors) will see to it that he is kept out. Meantime the public should read his books. He writes as well as Mr. A. J. P. Taylor, and is more trustworthy as a source of information.
This question of tone is not to be dismissed lightly. In the heyday of British imperialism, between 1870 and 1914, its spokesmen affected a grave and learned manner, to the point of misquoting Hegel and other German philosophers. Their opponents frequently did the same. When in 1915 the first German bombs fell on London (from a Zeppelin—there were as yet no rockets), Professor L. T. Hobhouse judged the time ripe to rend the Hegelians. Bosanquet’s Philosophical Theory of the State (he told his hearers) had helped to spread pernicious Germanic notions, and the bombs now falling on their heads were but “the visible and tangible outcome of a false and wicked doctrine . . . the Hegelian theory of the God-state.” Thirty years later Professor Karl Popper (with less excuse, since he was in New Zealand at the time, and no bombs were dropping on him) revived this piece of nonsense. But where did Hobhouse proclaim his message to the world? Why, at the London School of Economics, the great creation of the Webbs, where Hewins was succeeded by Mackinder, and imperialism (Conservative, Liberal, or Fabian) never lacked defenders. It is true that the Webbs and their circle were Benthamites, not Hegelians. It is no less true that they supplied the Establishment with an authoritarian doctrine suitably adapted to the age of imperialism.
With more old-fashioned Tories, who had mostly been brought up on Anglicanism, the Empire in some cases represented a transference of religious emotions to a secular object of worship. Imperial proconsuls occasionally felt in need of a Higher Power to sustain them in their labors. Lower down the social scale a kind of cynicism crept in after 1919 which foreshadowed the subsequent collapse into fascist nihilism. The classic case of course is T. E. Lawrence: “Lawrence of Arabia” to his admirers, “Lawrence the impostor” to readers of Richard Aldington’s deadly biography, first published in 1955. Impostor or not, Lawrence already possessed some elements of a political outlook which became fairly common in the age of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini. This can be seen from the latest and most longwinded of the many books about him, The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia by Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson. While the reviewers, like the authors, fastened mostly on his sexual aberrations, at least one reader was struck by a passage in Lawrence’s correspondence which casts light on the imperialist mentality in its prefascist, but already distinctly smelly stage. He was outlining his plans in September 1919, at a time when he was busy intriguing simultaneously with the Arab nationalists and the Zionists to push the French out of Syria, and this is what he had to say in a confidential note to a close collaborator:
The French will be on their best behaviour for months, and give Feisal his money unconditionally. Then they will try to turn the screw. He’ll say he doesn’t want their money, because by then the Zionists will have a centre in Jerusalem, and for concessions they will finance him (this is all in writing, and fixed, but don’t put in the Press for God’s sake and the French). Zionists are not a Government, and not British, and their action does not infringe the Sykes-Picot agreement. They are also Semites and Palestinian, and the Arab Government is not afraid of them (can cut all their throats, or better, pull all their teeth out, when it wishes). They will finance the whole East, I hope, Syria and Mesopotamia alike. High Jews are unwilling to put much cash into Palestine only, since that country offers nothing but a sentimental return. They want 6 per cent.
The vulgarity of the style matches the contents of a mind seemingly destined for a career among Mosley’s Blackshirts had Lawrence not been killed in a road accident in 1935. His latest biographers are duly shocked because it turns out that he never had any use for the Arabs either: all he wanted was to turn the Middle East into another British protectorate. But who, except for his foolish admirers, ever doubted this? Of course Lawrence was a fraud. What else could a man be whose professional life was spent in betraying people to each other, intriguing behind the scenes, and posturing as the hero of a “desert rebellion” which never occurred anywhere but in the fevered imagination of some newspaper readers? It may be said with certainty that neither the Arabs nor the Jews were taken in by him: he was too clearly a poseur. But there is a not wholly trivial point to be made about Lawrence’s language. That business about the Jews having “all their teeth pulled out” (even better than having their throats slit)—where did he get it from? The present writer was puzzled for an answer until he came upon a passage in Mr. John Gross’s recently published Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters recording Carlyle’s opinion of the Jews:
One of the less attractive medieval customs recorded, with a grim satisfaction, in Past and Present was the habit of extorting money from Jews by pulling out their teeth; and a vivid passage in Froude’s biography describes Carlyle standing on the edge of Hyde Park, gazing at the Rothschild mansion and miming the same operation with an imaginary pair of pincers.
From Past and Present (1843) to The Nigger Question (1849) was no great jump for Carlyle. It would have been no great jump for Lawrence either. When all is said and done, the rise and fall of the imperialist ideology has a certain consistency about it.
1 Cf. Marxism and Asia by Hélène Carrère d’Encausse and Stuart R. Schram (London: Allan Lane, 1969)—a scholarly and reliable selection of texts on the subject, with a very useful joint introduction by the two learned editors.
2 Knopf, 400 pp., $8.95.
3 Joseph Chamberlain and the Tariff Reform Campaign: The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, Vol. 5, 1901-1903; Vol. 6, 1903-1968. St. Martin’s, 1,008 pp. in all, $27.50 (for both volumes).
4 London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.