Can the involvement of the United States in the political and economic life of other nations, particularly in Latin America and the “Third World,” properly be characterized as imperialist—either in effect or in intention? A good deal of the answer one gives to this question will depend upon one’s definition of imperialism, a word that in recent political rhetoric has at any rate become so charged with moral and emotional overtones as to have lost much of its purely descriptive force. In an effort to establish an intellectually coherent account of the theory and practice of imperialism, George Lichtheim, a contributing editor of COMMENTARY, here explores the genesis and growth of those political structures that have called themselves, or have come to be known as, empires, and offers a critical analysis of the specific ideologies which have provided those structures with a sense of value and purpose. The essay is presented in two parts. The first part, given below, begins with the Roman Empire and traces the course of imperialism up to the eve of World War I; the second part, which will appear in our May number, deals with the phenomenon of imperialism in this century.
The Essay presented here is not intended as an intellectual exercise, but as a contribution to an ongoing political discussion. It starts, however, from the definition of a term and must therefore begin by trying to clarify what we mean when we talk about the phenomenon known as imperialism.
Theorists employ concepts as a kind of intellectual shorthand, though this is not alway apparent to their readers. They use words to designate more or less complex intellectual models which have no precise equivalent in empirical reality. In this sense all theorizing is necessarily abstract and needs to be undertaken with some care, lest the unwary be misled into believing that the model employed in discourse can be encountered in the flesh outside the library or the classroom. This is never the case, for reasons which must be apparent to anyone who has thought seriously about the matter. There have been thinkers who held that to every concept there corresponds an entity properly designated by some name; but they never supposed that such entities walk about on two legs. It is only people unfamiliar with elementary logic who believe that an abstraction like “capitalism” or “imperialism” is a descriptive term to which there corresponds a slice of life which can be seen, or shown, or pointed out to bystanders, as though it were a creature or an organism of some kind.
But while imperialism is not a visible thing—any more than is “the state,” or “the nation,” or “the commonwealth”—neither is it a mere word or an empty sound. It is indeed perfectly possible for writers to deal in verbal counters denoting nothing at all, and in some areas of literature the practice is so common that language itself tends to be devalued. But it so happens that the term “imperialism” describes a particular kind of reality, even though it is not the kind that can be statistically weighed and measured. What it denotes is a relationship: specifically, the relationship of a ruling or controlling power to those under its dominion. Empire is a state of affairs even when the imperial power is not formally constituted as such. For practical purposes, however, we can neglect tribal society, even though there have been primitive slave empires ruled by nomadic tribes. What we mean when we speak of empire or imperialism is the relationship of a hegemonial state to peoples or nations under its control.
The introduction of the terms “people” and “nation” points to another difficulty. When we speak loosely we tend to identify these two concepts, but in strict political logic only a sovereign people can be called a nation. Sovereignty normally rests on armed force sufficient to repel invaders, and armed force commonly takes the form of centralized state power, but it need not always do so. The primitive Swiss peasant communities which repulsed the Hapsburgs were armed and sovereign before they entered into the sort of political confederation that could legally be called a state. Inversely, sovereignty or independence may be internationally recognized where there is no significant military power to speak of. The present-day Swiss Confederation is undoubtedly a sovereign state, although the time is long past when its armed forces were adequate to insure its freedom from invasion.
The purpose of these remarks is to make it clear that terms such as “empire,” “state,” “nation,” or “sovereignty,” are descriptive of something real, although there are no simple entities to which they refer. Whether or not a state is sovereign depends on its relation to other states, and the term “state” itself is applicable only under given historical conditions. There are people who lack statehood, states not founded on nationality, nation-states which either do not possess or have lost their independence, and empires not described as such in their official proclamations. In general, what people think they are doing matters considerably less than what they are in fact doing, but thought enters into the matter inasmuch as it makes possible or impossible the kind of tacit consensus which is the foundation of every durable political arrangement.
People who do not think of themselves as forming a nation, but rather a congeries of tribes, do not become a nation by having legal independence and a flag bestowed on them by a former colonial power, or by the United Nations Secretariat. In this sense, the existence of a nation presupposes that intangible something known as “national consciousness.” But the reverse is likewise true: national awareness may grow out of an armed struggle begun by a simple revolt against occupants or colonizers. Such a revolt may fail. The records of history are littered with examples of unsuccessful attempts to achieve independence, gain sovereignty, or develop a sense of nationhood. This interplay between being and consciousness, reality and ideology, affects the consideration of our topic, for an empire is not complete without an imperial creed held by its governing class, and a corresponding sense of dependence on the part of its subjects. The development of the imperial creed or mystique commonly occurs after the event, and its ultimate perfection may actually coincide with the empire’s decline from its pinnacle of power and glory; but at some stage the tacit assumptions of the ruling stratum must be made explicit. Were it otherwise, the empire would have no compass by which to steer. What the Romans thought of their imperium was not irrelevant. It was, among other things, an unconscious means of cementing the structure they had built.
Theories differ from poetic fabricacations in that they set out to give a rational and logically consistent account of some aspect of reality. But whatever may be the case in the natural sciences, no political theory is ever purely descriptive. It always includes norms and valuations as well as factual analysis. In this respect a theory of imperialism cannot escape the rule governing social and political theorizing generally. However closely it sticks to the facts—or rather to the available empirical evidence about them—it carries a built-in reference to the general philosophy of the theorist. If he adheres to the tenets of Enlightenment rationalism and to the kind of democratic faith commonly associated with the American and French Revolutions, his view of the topic will be colored by assumptions which are by no means universally shared. He will assume, for example, that there is something unnatural or immoral about the mere existence of an empire, since it implies subordination to a hegemonial power, whereas in principle all nations ought to be free and equal, their internal affairs at least not being subject to the veto power of an imperial government.
The very term “imperialism” nowadays carries unflattering connotations, but it did not do so for the ruling classes of the Roman Empire, or for the rulers of the nominally Christian kingdoms which succeeded it. During the lengthy epoch of the European Middle Ages, the term “Holy Roman Empire” was applied inconsistently, and sometimes absurdly, but always in a laudatory sense, to a large and ramshackle political structure which in practice enabled the German Emperor with the connivance of the Pope to lord it over German vassals and Italian city-states. The empires of the Ottoman Turks, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs all gloried in their real or fancied magnificence, and so at a later date did the British Empire. A theory of how these political structures came into being need not, and normally does not, reflect the values incorporated in the ideologies which helped to keep them going. But in subjecting these ideologies to critical analysis, the historian commits himself to a different set of valuations.
This is true even if the theory affirms no more than the inevitability of some sort of power balance among rival empires, for to do so is to ascribe a rational purpose to what in other circumstances might appear irrational—notably the act of going to war. A fortiori, if the historian asserts, for example, that for its time the Hapsburg Empire performed a useful service in keeping the Turks out of Central Europe, he is clearly committed to a value judgment. This is also the case if he affirms the opposite, or if he judges that as between the Turks and the Hapsburgs there was little to choose. A historian who retrospectively approves the despotic unification of India or China, on the grounds that it was preferable to constant warfare, is clearly making an evaluative claim. But suppose he merely describes the process as inevitable? It will then be necessary to inquire into his grounds for holding such a belief, and normally it will turn out that he is able to back his conviction by theoretical arguments only because he already carries in his mind a notion of historical inevitability according to which the unification of a large territory by its rulers is both necessary and “progressive”: that is, beneficial to mankind in general and the inhabitants of one particular area in particular. But what if the writer is an anarchist who on principle dislikes the establishment of states, small or great, although he may concede that it cannot be prevented? In that case, the “progressive” aspect of the phenomenon will not be apparent to him, and the argument will be deprived of its prescriptive nature. It will resume itself into a bare rehearsal of what actually took place.
To grasp what is at stake in political debates having to do with the conflicting claims of nationalism and imperialism one must be clear as to the difference between sovereignty and authority. All sorts of public bodies, from churches and political parties to trade unions and professional organizations, lay claim to some degree of authority, whether legal or moral. But authority is one thing, sovereignty is another. A state is sovereign in the measure in which it disposes of a political center whose decisions override the will of all subordinate authorities; it is sovereign in respect of the outside world to the degree in which it can enforce its legal authority. If it is invaded by armed force and fails to resist, its authority vanishes together with its sovereignty, and this is the case whatever its social structure, legal fabric, constitutional façade, or political regime. It is pointless to inquire whether it is “in the nature” of this or that form of social organization—feudalism, capitalism, socialism, or whatever—to encourage or permit external aggression against weaker states. The only thing that matters to those concerned is the actual possession or loss of their freedom. If a country is invaded by a stronger power and its political institutions are destroyed or remolded, that country is under imperial domination, whatever the political circumstances of the case, and whether or not the whole transaction is classifiable as “progressive” or “reactionary,” according to some canon of historical interpretation. Likewise, sovereignty may be infringed by diplomatic means, by treaty, or by economic pressure. A backward country legally prevented from developing its industries suffers a loss of sovereignty no less real because it may be invisible to the naked eye of the beholder. What counts is the relationship of domination and subjection which is the essence of every imperial regime.
The word “essence” conjures up the dismaying prospect of a scholastic debate of the existence or nonexistence of entities not observable in ordinary experience. But we are not obliged to involve ourselves in such a disputation. To say that it is “of the essence” of imperialism to infringe the sovereignty of lesser political bodies is not to engage in metaphysics, but to define the proper use of a term commonly employed by everyone who thinks about public affairs. We do not thereby commit ourselves to the notion that there is a disembodied entity called “imperialism” which moves mysteriously behind the scenes of history. We simply specify the minimal criteria for the use of language when dealing with a particular reality familiar to historians, and indeed to millions of ordinary people who have the misfortune to be involved in imperialist rivalries. At the same time we avoid the intellectual dishonesty which marks the propagandistic employment of the term by one side or the other in what is vulgarly known as the cold war (itself a propaganda term invented to describe the Soviet-American rivalry consequent upon the Yalta and Potsdam settlements of 1945). We specify criteria for the use of language which cannot be misused because they cut across the quarrel between the nuclear super-powers. Propagandists use words like flags. In what follows we shall abstain from this familiar custom. Instead we shall concentrate upon the actual relationships that give rise to the spectacle of hegemonial power. For a start, let us inquire into the genesis of the term “empire.” It will then become apparent that in so doing we are laying bare some at least of the historical roots of the phenomenon known as imperialism.
This topic inevitably entails a reconsideration of both the liberal and the socialist heritage, since both schools attempted from about 1900 to grapple with the theory and practice of modern imperialism. The inadequacy of liberal theorizing in this field is now pretty generally recognized, not least by the surviving liberals, some of whom have in consequence helped themselves to large slices of socialist theorizing in an effort to buttress their own position. With the socialist theory of imperialism one runs into a different problem. Historically, modern imperialism and modern socialism gained prominence from the 1880’s onward in response to the evident decline of liberalism in general and Anglo-American liberalism in particular. Stemming as they did from opposite poles of the political compass—imperialism from the ruling class, socialism from its enemies—they reached different conclusions but they also overlapped in an area where conservatives and socialists alike came to challenge the liberal consensus originally established during the mid-Victorian era. Hence the peculiar phenomenon of social imperialism, an ideology which sought to combine protectionist defense of the “national interest” with social reformist attempts to improve the conditions of the working class in the imperial metropolis. The eventual fusion of social imperialism with Social Darwinism, in the theory and practice of European fascism during the 1930’s and 1940’s, has discredited this experiment so far as the labor movement and the historic Left are concerned. It has done little to lessen its attraction for non-European aspirants to the imperial succession, and it has even infected the ideology of nationalist movements stemming from the Third World of underdeveloped countries.
A different sort of problem arises in connection with the Marxist tradition properly so described. Down to the Russian Revolution this was primarily a West European and Central European school. Its adherents already possessed a theory of imperialism before 1917, but were unable to relate it to the ongoing practice of the parties affiliated to the Second International founded in 1889. The overriding fact for most socialists during the pre-1914 age was the persistence of the ancient dynastic empires in Central and Eastern Europe: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Czarist Russia, to which Ottoman Turkey might be added. In consequence, anti-imperialism came to be identified with the cause of national liberation from archaic political constraints, whereas the specifically Marxist analysis of capitalist imperialism remained the preoccupation of a few theorists. This situation altered radically with the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik triumph, and the emergence of what is still officially known as Marxism-Leninism. As a result of Lenin’s intervention, imperialism became a major concern for Communist writers, i.e., for Marxists who associated themselves with the Third International and its Trotskyist or Maoist offsprings. The consequences of this realignment will be examined at some length in the later sections of this study. Here let it simply be said that the identification of Marxism with Leninism has become untenable, not least because the Sino-Soviet conflict cannot be explained in Leninist terms. Fifty years after Lenin it is increasingly evident that theoretical explanations put forward around 1920 to account for the genesis of the 1914-18 war do not help anyone to make sense of the contemporary world scene. This is no reason for casting the Marxist apparatus overboard in favor of earlier and simpler conceptualizations, but neither does it permit the unmediated use of notions which possessed some relevance half a century ago but have now been turned into empty slogans. Marxism is too important to be left to the post-Leninist sects—tiny ferocious creatures devouring each other in a drop of water.
What remains of the fragile synthesis known as Marxism-Leninism, now that the USSR has joined the ranks of the nuclear super-powers and seems bent on playing the “imperial” game at the expense of the Third World, is the general perspective of an age of revolutionary convulsions set off by inter-imperialist conflicts. In principle this outlook is not incompatible with parallel notions emanating from the political Right. The earlier convergence of Social Darwinism and social imperialism has found a modern successor in the technocratic vision of a planetary economy controlled by a unified ruling elite of scientifically-trained managers who have left the national state behind and merged their separate identities in the formation of a global cartel linking all the industrially-advanced centers of the world: “ultra-imperialism,” to employ Kautsky’s phrase. This gloomy vision, first formulated in 1914 by the principal theorist of the Second International, looks remarkably modern today, more so than the productions of the rival Leninist school. Whether it is going to be validated by experience, no one can say. What should be emphasized is that we have no theoretical grounds for dismissing this hypothesis as an aberration. More generally, it needs to be said that the train called “history” is never going to deposit its passengers at the destination of their choice unless they themselves take over the controls. Faith in automatic progress ought to have died in 1914. Where it still persists it does so as a carry-over from the genial optimism of the 19th century—an optimism Marx did not share. Those who consider themselves his disciples can do no better, in view of what this generation has experienced and what is still to come, than to arm themselves with the motto of those ancient warriors, the French Huguenots: “Point n’est besoin d’espoir pour entreprendre, ni de succès pour persévérer.”
“Cicero’s comments on the Imperium populi Romani never swerved from the intrinsic meaning of ‘imperium’ to which he paid emphatic tribute in De Legibus—the legal power to enforce the law.”1* This observation by the distinguished historian Richard Koebner illustrates some of the difficulties of our theme. In itself the remark just quoted is enlightening, inasmuch as it bears upon the mentality of the Roman oligarchy and the characteristic features of the ideology it had built up. At the same time it is plain that we are not really being told anything about the actuality of the Empire which Cicero helped to govern while it was still a Republic, and whose control was subsequently inherited by Caesar. From the standpoint of either Caesar or Cicero, the fact that the “Empire of the Roman People” was a slave state whose economy rested upon servile labor did not enter into consideration when they sought to define the political entity known to them and their contemporaries as the Imperium populi Romani. Not that they were unaware of the circumstance: it simply did not occur to them that any other form of social organization was possible, let alone desirable. Similarly, they took it for granted that the Roman people—or to be exact, its governing class—ruled over subject populations which had once been free, but had now come under the political sway of the Roman Senate. Cicero’s writings are indeed full of warnings about the dangers of moral decay threatening the Republic from the uncontrolled extension of imperial dominance Over other peoples; but what concerned him was the political health of the res publica, the public body to which he belonged and of which he was such a distinguished ornament. That it was Rome’s destiny to rule the lesser breeds went without saying. A generation later, in the age of Augustus, there had arisen a group of poets who poured the new imperial faith into the ancient bottle of rhetoric. Horace, Virgil, and Ovid sang the glories of Augustus and the Empire. Horace composed a hymn to “The Age of Caesar,” Ovid described Rome as the seat of immortal gods, and Virgil opened his epic, the Aeneid, with a divine prophecy assuring the refugees fleeing from the ruins of Troy that from them would descend a people destined for boundless expansion and endowed with “unending empire.”
If this sounds remarkably modern, the reason is that in the West we have all been brought up on the Greek and Roman classics, so that our own poets inevitably fall into similar strains when they feel like celebrating the glories of whatever empire happens to be on top at the moment. In studying the historian’s account of our predecessors we cannot fail to be struck by certain similarities, alongside differences attributable to the rise of Christianity and the consequent abandonment of certain mental traits which went unchallenged in antiquity. No modern writer would be so naive as to attribute eternity—in the literal sense of the term—to the empire of which he happened to be a citizen. On the other hand, those Roman historians and poets who worked the theme of moral earnestness have had their modern successors. “Livy, in his Preface, expresses anxieties even more sombre than those of the early Horace concerning the moral adequacy of his contemporaries to meet their imperial duties. The nations of the world still stand in awe of the Romans. They have resigned themselves to the imperium. But the purpose of the historian must be to show the contrast between the Romans of yore and those of the latest generation.”2
The Empire—no longer a republican Imperium populi Romani, but converted by the Augustans into a distinctly monarchical Imperium Romanum—needed conscientious governors, but in the new post-Republican era such citizens were hard to find. The imperium had been created during the heroic age of the Republic, and then had killed its parent. It was now governed by the Princeps and his officials, but these men lacked the austere virtues of their forefathers: or so at least Livy thought, and his gloomy forebodings later found an echo in the writings of Seneca—not accidentally a convert to Stoicism. Tacitus too had his doubts as to the permanence of the Empire, and took no trouble to hide them. The Augustan Principate after all had arisen from an act of usurpation, and Tacitus knew that the constitutional façade concealed the reality of military power. If the army could make an Emperor, it could also unmake him: “evulgato imperii arcano posse principem alibi quam Romae fieri”: the secret was out that an Emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome and constitutionally by the Senate. And what was the imperial Senate anyway? For the most part no longer an assembly of proud and independent aristocrats, but a collection of officeholders whose tenure depended in large part on the grace and favor of the Princeps. Yet the great historian was himself a Roman Senator, Consul and Proconsul of Asia. More important, he formed part of the ruling oligarchy whose deeds he described in language at once stately and eloquent. “Oligarchy is the supreme, central, and enduring theme in Roman history. Across the revolutionary age it links the aristocratic Republic to the monarchy of the Caesars; and the process of change in the governing order has its sequel in the century between Caesar Augustus and Trajan.”3
Oligarchy is the secret, too, of the Imperium Romanum, earlier miscalled the Imperium populi Romani, for the people—as distinct from the governing class—had little to do with its inception. They fought and bled in the wars that transformed the landlocked Roman Republic into an Empire, but to them these were wars against foreign invaders. It was the ruling class of great families who converted it into something else: hegemonial power centered upon control of the Mediterranean. Having created an empire, the oligarchy gave birth to a culture which simultaneously reflected and shaped the norms and values that went into the constitution of the imperium. These values were in the first place military and patriotic, but in due course they were reshaped and redefined so as to make room for the new emotion of imperialism.
The emotive significance of the term “imperium” had originally been derived from Rome’s long struggle against foreign enemies, the Carthaginians above all. In the course of these protracted wars, the Roman peasantry, which bore the chief burden of conscription, was ruined economically, and in consequence weakened politically, to such a degree that the Senatorial nobility became for practical purposes all-powerful. The only constraint upon it arose from the necessity of feeding and flattering an urban mob which was kept quiet with the help of plunder extorted from the conquered provinces. The Imperium populi Romani thus paid off so far as the mob of the capital city was concerned, and it threw open tremendous avenues of prestige and wealth for the ruling aristocracy, both in Republican days and after the advent of Caesarism. The Caesars still had to feed the Roman mob—mainly with foodstuffs collected from North Africa—and they also had to keep the Praetorian Guard happy by constant pay rises. But their chief concern was the permanent state of war on the Empire’s frontiers: in Spain and Africa, on the Danube and in Germany, as well as in Syria and along the border with Persia. Contrary to legend, Rome was not seriously bothered by slave revolts. No slave rising in antiquity was permanently successful, and none shook the power of the governing class. The free-born Roman mob was not a major problem either, since it had been disarmed and deprived of political power. The real threat to stability arose from the army and from the foreign barbarians it was holding down.
The imperium was thus at once the creation and the plaything of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, and the latter—like every ruling class in history—had its great men: Scipio, the victor in the long war against Hannibal which at one point threatened Rome’s very existence; Julius Caesar; Cicero, orator and statesman; Livy and Tacitus among historians; Horace and Virgil among poets; Seneca, more remarkable perhaps for the dignified manner of his death under Nero than for his attempt to acclimatize Greek Stoicism in Rome; and a host of lesser figures. Together they embodied the values of their culture and created the first successful imperial ideology in history. The special mark of this ideology was moral earnestness, allied to a strong distaste for Greek frippery and Oriental self-abasement. The Roman virtues of courage, patriotism, family piety, a certain rustic honesty, and contempt for slaves and tyrants, were real values, and the imperium was sustained by them no less than by the constant exercise of armed force. Indeed, the army retained its superiority only to the extent that it embodied the traditional Roman outlook, originally the outcrop of a rural culture uncorrupted by wealth and sophistication. Even after the old rustic simplicity was gone, Rome continued to be governed by men and women who believed in the ancestral virtues and for whom the imperium signified moral as well as military superiority over cowardly Orientals and uncouth Greeks. The reader of Livy and Tacitus can discover for himself what the Roman oligarchy thought itself to be defending. Livy and Tacitus did not create the imperium, but they enable us, two thousand years later, to perceive what kept it going. Just as Beethoven’s music cannot be understood without taking account of the French Revolution—or for that matter the French Revolution without taking account of Beethoven’s music—the greatness of Tacitus as a historian reflects the greatness of the imperium created by the class to which he belonged and whose virtues he extolled.
These virtues were in their origin the real or idealized traits of a landed gentry which had become the effective ruling class of a rather simply structured commonwealth of patrician nobles and rural or urban plebeians: free-born, but hampered in the exercise of their political rights until in due course they attained formal equality. The Republic thus constituted had only one serious business: war against hostile city-states, and later against rival powers in the Mediterranean. By the time these wars were concluded, the original meaning of “imperium” had been transformed. It no longer signified the authority bestowed by the Roman people upon civilian or military magistrates, but the dominion of Rome over others. This was a development of the highest significance, for it colored the whole subsequent course of Western political history, and more especially the coinage of Western political terminology. That a Roman commander was “cum imperio” originally meant that he had been entrusted by the Senate and the popular assembly with supreme military responsibility. By the time the Republic had become an Empire the term signified something quite different: that the Roman people as a whole—which by then had surrendered effective power to its governing oligarchy—was, as a collective entity, entrusted with the responsibility for ruling other peoples. The transformation was so gradual that it never occurred to anyone to question its legitimacy. Least of all did it occur to those luckless revolutionaries, the Gracchi: liberal aristocrats who appealed to the Roman people against the Senatorial oligarchy and duly paid with their lives for their illusions. “Tiberius Gracchus, trying to make the Roman masses conscious of social injustice, reminded them that they were always called ‘the victorious people possessed of the world.’”4
It was the greatness of Rome that rendered the poverty of so many Roman citizens scandalous: thus ran the litany of the popular party founded by the Gracchi, continued by Marius, and ultimately inherited by Caesar: by which time the party’s populist demagogy had become wholly meaningless and its mass following the willing claque of an ambitious aristocrat aiming at dictatorial power. It is not wholly useless to be reminded that Caesar won power with the aid of the populares, themselves the inheritors of a party founded a century earlier by the Gracchi, whose appeal to the land-hungry Roman peasantry so frightened the Senatorial oligarchy that it had them murdered. The ensuing civil wars and internal convulsions, which destroyed the ancient aristocratic Republic of the nobiles, made the army supreme. But the army was commanded by men who had amassed fame and fortune through their rule over conquered lands. Hence the fraudulent rhetoric of the populares, which paved the way for Caesar and his party, invoked the theme of imperial greatness no less than did the solemn oratory of Cicero, chief apologist of the Senatorial aristocracy. In the end both parties, after shedding torrents of blood in a succession of civil wars lasting a century, were joined in a common ruin, and on the wreckage of the Republic there arose the new imperial structure—sociologically speaking the creation of a unified and irremovable governing class. Aristocracy and democracy having vacated the scene, despotism took over, but it still clothed itself in republican forms. The Caesars needed an ideology to legitimize their rule, and they found it in the imperium. No ruling class can function without a creed. That of the new imperial oligarchy lay ready to hand, inherited from the republican past: it was only necessary to ground the effective power of the Princeps and his officials in the heritage of the Imperium populi Romani, and the Empire could be proclaimed the legitimate successor of the Republic.
So far as the constitutional powers of the Princeps went, they were in large part derived from the older magistracy of the Republic. The term “princeps” in itself did not imply monarchy; it merely stood for a particular combination of magisterial powers: governmental, judicial, military. The essential basis of the principate, the “imperium proconsular,” was likewise derived from republican antiquity. The “imperium,” commonly described as “proconsulare,” had originally denoted the supremacy of the elected Consuls over all authorities at home or abroad. Under Augustus and his successors, it was normally coupled with the assignment of a “Provincia” embracing some portion of the Empire. The formal definition of “imperium” thereafter went beyond the traditional proconsular authority in that it assigned to the “Imperator” an “Imperium maius” over all governors of provinces (including those appointed by the Senate rather than by himself) and the retention of his own “imperium” in Italy even after the “princeps” had laid down the consular powers originally bestowed by popular or Senatorial election. The “Princeps-Imperator has now in point of fact become a military autocrat, although pro forma he is still held accountable to the Senate (the popular assembly having vanished from the scene). He no longer needs the consular power, although the office continues to exist, so as to provide a career for loyal supporters drawn from the new Senatorial bureaucracy. For all practical purposes the Princeps has become the uncontrolled governor of the state. “He has supreme command over all troops where-soever stationed, with him rest all ordinances respecting their levy payment and dismissal, the appointment of officers and regulation of the military hierarchy; Senatorial proconsuls had not power over the life of a soldier; and even in their provinces he has the right to collect fiscal revenue. He levies war, makes peace or treaty and represents the state in relation to all foreign or dependent powers. Again, he is the high admiral of the empire, with fleets near at hand; and, besides the troops attached to these, not only the praetorian guard his proper household brigade, but even the police and night-watch of the city, owned no allegiance to any magistrate of the republic, but only to Caesar and his prefects, and formed no insignificant force at his disposal on the spot . . . and he is so far the ‘imperator’ of the whole Roman world, that the whole senate and people, and even the provinces take the ‘sacramentum’ in his name, binding themselves in the most solemn terms to maintain his authority against all enemies, and not to hold even their own children dearer. Naturally, in time the ‘imperator’ and ‘princeps’ became synonymous.”5
An Empire has to be administered, and the administration must be military and bureaucratic: to collect taxes and defend the frontiers against hostile tribes and rival powers. It must also display a minimum of efficiency. The old oligarchic Republic was too corrupt and faction-ridden to provide the sort of bureaucratic tidiness the constantly expanding Empire required. In the end the burden grew too heavy for the rival factions at Rome and they were obliged to hand over power to a military dictator who in turn became a hereditary ruler. Yet the ancient forms were observed so far as possible. The victorious Caesarian party having killed the Republic, its leaders enlisted traditional verbiage to furnish themselves with a title to legitimacy. The imperium came in handy. It was a link with the past, and the more talk there was of it, the less did the Roman people perceive that effective power had been usurped by a new oligarchy. Nor was it all a matter of calculation and conscious hypocrisy. Augustus doubtless knew what he was doing when he described his assumption of despotic power as the “Restoration of the Republic,” but his court poets who first put the myth of “eternal Rome” into circulation, and the great historians of the next reign, may be supposed to have been sincere when they sought comfort in the notion that the Princeps—successor of the ancient Republican dignitaries, whose empty titles were kept up—stood at the head of something that might be termed the Imperium populi Romani. Men have to believe in something, and most Romans doubtless felt that being the putative rulers of an Empire on which (to cite a later phrase) the sun never set, was some compensation for being no longer citizens of a Republic.6
Yet all this does not quite explain the ease with which the Princeps slipped into the role of Imperator. In the civil wars there had been an issue at stake which went back to the foundation of the Republic itself. When Cicero staked his life on the proposition that control of the highest imperia should be vested in the Senate and People of Rome, he was siding with the Senatorial oligarchy against the Caesarians, but he was also making a gesture toward the past. The Republican party had in its origins been a confederation of great family clans whose power and authority antedated the foundation of the Roman state. Thereafter for centuries they were the state, and the Republic possessed meaning for them only to the extent that they were its rulers, recognized as such by the people. When these traditional assumptions collided with the claims of popular democracy and the realities of Empire, a new coalition was formed by provincial military leaders and urban demagogues, the populares. The coalition eventually triumphed and its leaders thereupon purged the Senate and created a new governing class. Yet in preserving the ancient republican forms—or as many of them as they could fit into the new structure—they paid homage to the ancestral virtues that had cemented the early Republic. These virtues rested upon family and clan loyalty, military discipline, and the defense of Rome against all comers. The Imperium populi Romani could be transmuted into the Imperium orbis terrarum only because its ruler, the Imperator, from time to time rendered account for his services in war and peace to his nominal sovereign, the Roman people. The ancestral traditions had been primarily military, and their preservation was a condition for the very existence of the Empire, if it was not to be overrun by foreigners. In this sense the ancient republican patriotism remained to the end the ideological sanction of what had become an empire over other people. National pride was enlisted in the service of imperialism, as it always must be if the empire is to endure. Not accidentally, the imperium passed from the Romans when they ceased to hold the simple faith of their rustic forefathers.
If the Romans invented the concept of Empire they did not invent its reality. Dominion over other people had been the rule rather than the exception in the age of the despotic Oriental monarchies whose power antedated the rise of the Hellenic thalassocracy and its successor, the Imperium Romanum. The ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Hindu despotisms centered upon the river-valleys of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Indus. Greece and Rome extended their sway around the Mediterranean. Byzantium and Islam, who between them divided the Roman heritage in the East, were as imperial as their respective rulers could make them. In the West, the Catholic Church transmitted the Roman heritage to the point of investing the barbaric Germanic kings with a spurious claim to rule over the ancient Imperium orbis terrarum of the Caesars. The Roman Church thus became the principal link between the Imperium Romanum and the Holy Roman Empire of the European Middle Ages—so called, to cite the well-known jest, because it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The gibe is tediously familiar. It is also misleading. The Empire of Charlemagne and his Germanic successors was certainly not holy, and only doubtfully Roman (some of the early rulers were illiterate), but its imperial claims were tested in warfare against rival powers and survived the exposure. “The original Latin word conveyed the general meanings of command and power. It specifically denoted the legal power of command. Its purport was extended to include the territories and populations subject to a dominant power.”7 We have seen in the previous section how this process was mediated by the real or fancied interests of the ruling class which had originally created the Roman Republic and then transformed it into the Roman Empire. We must now ask ourselves whether there is something in the notion of “empire” that is independent of the conceptualizations undertaken, at different times and for different purposes, by republican orators, court poets, clerical scribes, or other propagandists.
The simplest way of tackling this subject is to ask what sort of “empire” the Pharoahs, or their Hellenistic and Roman successors, could have called their own had they not been able to levy tribute from subject populations. If the matter is approached in this crude but realistic fashion, one immediately sees that at least one answer to our question has to do with the manner in which surplus wealth was pumped out of conquered regions for the benefit of the imperial metropolis. Nor was this circumstance ever concealed or denied until the official adoption of Christianity by the increasingly desperate rulers of the declining Roman Empire imposed a certain degree of hypocrisy upon the last of the Caesars.
On the other hand, it is arguable that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation—to give it its official title—came into existence not because its rulers were intent on exploiting other people, but rather as a defensive reaction on the part of the Catholic Church and the Frankish kingdom with which it had allied itself in the 8th century of the Christian era. The principal enemy then was Islam, at least from the standpoint of the Church, and the issue to that extent was “ideological,” to employ the vocabulary of a later age. But it was also highly practical, for the rise of Islam had disrupted the ancient unity of the Mediterranean civilization, including its economic infrastructure. The Empire founded at Rome, and then in part inherited by Byzantium, depended for its material existence upon naval control of the seas linking its scattered dominions.8 The Arab conquest on the one hand, the Germanic inroads in the West on the other, posed a twofold problem. If these invaders were converted to some species of the Christian faith, they could be integrated into the crumbling fabric of what had once been the Roman Empire. By the same token they would cease to be a standing menace to the Pope at Rome and the Emperor at Byzantium. The experiment succeeded with the Germans, but failed with the Arabs who possessed a rival faith—Islam.
The Romano-Germanic kingdoms in the West were gradually brought under Papal control and thus became the basis of a new European civilization which retained Latin as its official language, but was economically primitive and thus for many years not vitally dependent upon the ancient Mediterranean trade routes. Byzantium and Islam, on the contrary, entered upon a prolonged course of warfare because the Arabs, unlike the Germans, would not give up their faith. Had they done so, they could have been integrated into the Empire, as the Slavic peoples were. Their adherence to Islam made this impossible, and the endless succession of religious wars resulting from this mutual hostility brought about the eventual collapse of Byzantium. They also ruined the Arabs and the Persians by making them dependent upon the Turks, who thereupon started a fresh round of hostilities by engaging in permanent warfare against the Christian Empires of the Hapsburgs and Romanovs.
The compressed recital of these familiar facts is intended to bring out a point often lost from sight in contemporary discussions of imperialism: the interplay of “practical” and “ideological” factors, or to employ less foolish language, the dialectic of being and consciousness. Prima facie there was no reason why the Church should have succeeded with the Slavs and Germans and failed with the Arabs. The difference lay in the fact that the Arabs possessed a national religion which they were unwilling to give up. This circumstance determined the course of ten centuries of history. Specifically, it resulted in the Holy Roman Empire becoming the ally of the Papacy, while Byzantium was thrown on the defensive and finally went down before the Turkish assault. Unless this historical dialectic is taken into account, the whole subsequent course of European history must remain mysterious.9
When we ask what the word “Europe” means, we do not, in the first place, inquire into geography. Greece has, by some historians, been called “the first Europe,” for reasons clearly having nothing to do with its location. Inversely, what is nowadays called Europe did not suggest anything remotely civilized to either the Greeks or the Romans. They associated it not with the beautiful Europa of Greek mythology—the lady carried away by Zeus to Crete, where she bore him children—but with barbarous tribes somewhere north of the Danube. The Roman Empire was never European in the later sense of the word. It was Mediterranean, and its civilized rulers entertained the utmost contempt for the savage tribesmen who battered against its frontiers on the Rhine, the Danube, and in Britain. The Byzantine Emperors, heirs to ancient Hellas, inherited this attitude, and so did their Moslem successors—to their ultimate undoing when “Europe” had become powerful and civilized. For centuries it was neither, even though its medieval rulers eventually taught themselves to read Latin. Nor was there any territorial entity which could at first glance have been perceived as European. Geographically, Europe is simply a peninsula of Asia. Historically, it was a latecomer which arrived on the scene when the Roman Church entered into a symbiosis with the Germanic tribes, especially the Franks. France is the true heart of Europe and always has been. Its conversion to Roman Catholicism in the 6th century made possible the subsequent rise of the Carolingian Empire and thus set the course of what in later ages was called European history. In Roman times there was no such thing. “. . . Europe, in any other sense than an area of land and water, of hills and valleys, plains, mountains, rivers, lakes and forests, did not exist at the beginning of what we usually call European history—that is to say, the history of post-classical times.”10
The relevance of these circumstances to our theme is once again determined by the peculiar inheritance of Rome, as transmitted by the Roman Church to the post-imperial age of European medievalism. In the transition from the Imperium Romanum to the Holy Roman Empire of the European Middle Ages, the crucial fact was the alliance between the Papacy and the kings of France and Germany. The head of the Roman Empire, the Imperator, had in late Roman times become the patron of the Church, and the latter returned the compliment by sanctifying the Empire as “eternal.” When the barbarian invasions put an end to Rome’s eminence, its residual claims to glory were transferred by the Popes to the Carolingian Empire, whose barbarian rulers now came to rival the Byzantines as claimants to the succession of the city from which the Empire had once taken its origin. “It is in this double meaning that the imperium was eulogized as an eternal institution by the Christian Church. And it is in this institutional meaning that the concept was reinterpreted when kings from the North were crowned emperors by the popes in Rome.”11
Having survived the ancient imperium, whose culture and traditions it embodied—albeit in a barbarized form—the Church now gave birth to a new imperial structure, different from the old in its social composition and shifted from the Mediterranean to northern Europe, but no less extensive in its claims. So far from being merely, in Hobbes’s well-known phrase, “the ghost of the Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof,” the Church was the active begetter of an entirely new and highly original construction: the sacrum imperium of the (imperfectly Romanized) Franks, with its political capital strung out along the Rhine, and its spiritual center in Rome. This new Christian Empire validated its claims to legitimacy by fighting heretics and unbelievers—the Scandinavian Vikings and the Moslems above all, but eventually the Byzantines and their Greek Orthodox supporters as well. The Papacy was a European power, and a pioneer of what in later ages was termed “European colonialism.” Having converted the Normans and conquered Sicily with their help, it tried to recover Syria and Palestine from the Moslems, and it sponsored the first phase of the lengthy Reconquista which won back Spain for Catholicism. It also supervised the more or less forcible Christianization of the Slavs in Central Europe, which in turn became a factor in the Germanization of these lands.
All in all, the sacrum imperium deserves a place in any consideration of what is meant by “imperialism,” especially if one employs the German term Kaiserreich to denote the “Roman Empire of the Germans.” Hitler was merely the last in a long succession of German-Austrian rulers whose political ambitions centered upon the Kaiseridee—the idea of reviving the Carolingian Empire: at the expense of Germany’s neighbors, needless to say. But the Russian Czars entertained similar ambitions, although they inherited them from Byzantium. The French and Spanish kings, too, at times toyed with the notion of turning the sacrum imperium into a legitimation of their imperial ambitions: with Papal help if possible, without the Pope’s assistance if necessary. Nor did the Protestant Reformation put an end to these imperial enterprises. On the contrary, one of its indirect but important consequences was a prolonged conflict between Spain and England for predominance in America, and the consequent rise of the British Empire.
At first glance this imperial procession may look rather arbitrary. When some Anglo-Saxon scribes in the earlier Middle Ages first hit upon the idea “that their kings deserved imperial honors, apparently because they had triumphed over the Danes and unified Britain”12 they were surely doing no more than might be expected from patriotic writers with vague notions of what the term imperium had once portended. But the ease with which republics and kingdoms laid claim to the imperial title, upon every suitable and unsuitable occasion, ought to give one a little pause. Clearly there was something in the dignity that appealed to the imagination of men brought up on Latin literature, but there was also a sound political reason for styling oneself emperor: it diminished the claims of rival aspirants. Germany was unified by kings who were crowned emperor by the Pope, and in all probability it could not have been unified in any other manner. The Pope in turn, by offering the imperial crown to a German ruler, struck an alliance with that ruler against the Emperor in Byzantium, whose successors would then turn to the Slavs as a counterweight to the Germans. In this manner, imperial, national, and clerical rivalries all intermingled. Or one may say that the imperial title became the legitimation of what purported to be a Christian Empire. In a later age, after the religious division brought about by the Reformation, the Protestant rulers of England stood out against the Catholic King of Spain who by sheer coincidence also happened to be Emperor of Germany and chief claimant to the riches of America. When Elizabeth confronted Philip and the Armada she was hailed as the defender of the faith by Protestants unaware of her lukewarmness in theological matters, but she also stood forth as a good English patriot and a patron of Francis Drake’s successful raids on the Spanish Empire. Less than a century later, Oliver Cromwell fought the Catholic Irish in the name of religion, and the Spaniards in the interest of Britain’s growing overseas trade. He did not style himself king, let alone emperor, but he inaugurated modern imperialism all the same.
The Elizabethan interlude is of interest for our theme because it represents a link between the older and the newer significations of the term “empire.” The sacrum imperium of the Germanic Middle Ages rested upon political arrangements ultimately designed to provide the Church with a political armature. In the post-medieval age the Holy Roman Empire began to look antiquated just because it was more than a purely political contrivance reducible to nation-state exclusiveness and the championship of commercial interests. It raised theological issues, had the See of Rome for its real center, and laid implicit claim not merely to greatness but to quasi-eternity. When the Pope on a celebrated occasion invoked his right to depose the Emperor, he instructed the German princes that it was their duty to elect a king who would do “what was necessary for the Christian creed and for the salvation of the whole Imperium.”13 After the Renaissance and the Reformation had done their respective work, such claims were no longer admitted even in those parts of Europe that remained Catholic. The kings of France and Spain took good care to make sure that no Pope could depose them as long as they stayed nominally within the faith. In Britain, where the sacrum imperium of the Germans had always been something of a joke, Protestantism rendered Papal claims wholly illusory and even made it treasonable for British subjects to take guidance from Rome.
In this respect, at least, the Renaissance prepared the way for the Reformation.
The Italian humanists had already secularized the meaning of “imperium” to signify no more than the power to rule, which was what it had originally meant to the Romans before the Church lawyers went to work on it. From this it followed that any state with an extended territory might call itself an imperium if its rulers so desired. The Italian city-states, where Renaissance humanism flourished, were in no position to make use of this discovery, but the new European nation-states had fewer inhibitions. Their kings stood ready to call themselves emperors at the merest drop of a crown.
If imperium signified no more than sovereign authority to rule, then why should the king of England not style himself Imperator? This was just what Henry VIII did when in 1532 he entered upon his celebrated quarrel with the Pope. His crown, inherited from no less a dignitary than Constantine, was “imperial.” So at least his lawyers affirmed, on the authority of the noted historian, Polydore Vergil, and his parliaments dutifully agreed. Scholars might differ on the topic, especially if they were Continentals. “The English Imperial Crown won firm recognition, indeed, in England—and later on in Great Britain—but it was by no means ‘accepted in the world.’”14 No matter. Once the English had been won over to the idea, Elizabethan patriotism in the next generation rallied behind the Protestant Queen who inherited Henry’s titles as well as his dominions. For good measure Shakespeare popularized the notion for all time: his England, like his France, was “an Empery.”
Ideological delusion? But what force other than patriotism could keep England going during the long years of war against the mighty Spanish Empire? And if the new nationalism clothed itself in ideological forms, political realism raised its head in the writings of Bacon, whose essay Of Empire implicitly foreshadowed England’s coming “imperial” greatness by its stress on the importance of sea power.15 The term l’empire de la mer was familiar to his French contemporaries, who may have borrowed it from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius laid it down that no state could lay claim to dominion of the seas—there was none “qui mari imperaret.” His French contemporaries were uncertain whether Louis XIV ruled an empire or a mere royaume, but the French Academy eventually laid down the law on this as on most other subjects. Their linguists had originally defined an empire as a state composed of many peoples, a royaume as connoting a political entity expressive of “l’unité de la nation dont il est formé.” But in 1718 pride got the better of them, although by then the Sun King had departed and been replaced by a mere Regent. If a kingdom was sufficiently great, it might be called an empire: there was, they affirmed in the third edition of their dictionary, an Empire François.16
All this may appear trivial by comparison with what was “really” happening: the rise of the nation-state and the concurrent spread of European power overseas, to Africa, Asia, and America. In fact, all these changes were interlinked, for the new absolute monarchy was the principal vehicle of “imperial” conquest. This circumstance was veiled by the internecine conflicts among the European states, which made it difficult to grasp the essential uniformity of what was happening to all of them. Since the sacrum imperium had failed to unify Europe—had in fact never seriously tried—it would have seemed absurd to Europeans to identify the acquisition of colonies abroad with “empire” in the Roman sense. European unity, such as it was, appeared as a precarious balance of rival states.17 Most of them were constantly at war with each other and they also excluded one another from their respective shares in the lucrative African slave trade which they shared with the Moslems. Yet from a different viewpoint European power was flowing into regions hitherto untouched by the traditional struggle between the multi-national Respublica Christiana and the rival “empire” of the Turkish Sultans, successors to the Byzantine Emperors as well as to the earlier Arab rulers of the Islamic community. It all depended on the meaning one gave to imperium. If it simply denoted political sovereignty, then the world was full of kingdoms which might style themselves empires if they had attained a certain magnitude. If the term stood for the more or less forcible unification of different lands, or “crowns,” then some kingdoms were empires, others not. Was Britain an Empire? The Crown lawyers, trying hard to uphold the dignity of their king against Rome, had made such an affirmation even before England acquired colonies outside Europe. In the 17th century the term was to acquire its modern meaning.
The gradual emergence of what in later years was to be known as the British Empire had its roots in domestic affairs, if the subjugation of the native Irish can be included under this head. For Henry VIII, the affirmation that “this realm of England is an Empire” constituted part of his struggle for making himself independent of the Pope. Under Elizabeth, who succeeded him after a brief Catholic interregnum, England’s power was solidly implanted in Ireland—the first English colony—but the union with Scotland had not yet taken place. Its gradual accomplishment through the vicissitudes of the 17th century—dramatized by the Civil War between king and parliament, and the Cromwellian dictatorship that succeeded it—gave rise to the concept of “Britain,” as distinct from “England.” That is to say, the “British Empire” was originally perceived as denoting the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, the last-named by conquest and colonization, since the native Irish obstinately refused to abandon their Catholic faith and took every opportunity to massacre the English and Scottish colonists forcibly implanted on their soil.
The dual signification of “Empire”—as the union of different nations under one sovereign, and as the armed subjugation of conquered peoples—was present from the start, just as it had been in the days of the imperium. Overseas conquest in the newly discovered regions of Asia, Africa, and America was the next step. Pioneered by Elizabeth and continued under Cromwell, this mercantile expansion later became the special province of the Whig aristocracy which gained power in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. But the decisive step had already been taken by Cromwell: another Protestant hero, conqueror of the Irish and mortal foe of Catholic Spain. Thus, at every step, political and ideological motivations intermingled; or rather, religion became the prime vehicle of imperial expansion. It was not a matter of making the natives part with their land in exchange for the Bible: this kind of cynicism belongs to a later age, when religion was no longer taken seriously and had become the province of missionaries.
To the contemporaries of Elizabeth the struggle against Catholic Spain was a life-and-death matter, for defeat would have signaled the extinction of England as an independent entity. Hence the naive patriotism of Anglican divines who sanctioned wars of conquest in the name of religion. Hence, too, the ease with which, from the Reformation to the Civil War and the Whig revolution of 1688, the idea of a distinctive British Empire fused with the claims of nationhood and Protestantism, to the point where the English came to think of themselves as successors to the lost tribes of Israel. The constitutional quarrel between the Stuart kings and their parliaments, which makes up most of the political history of the century after James VI of Scotland had been proclaimed Elizabeth’s heir in 1603, never seriously threatened the fusion of Protestant English nationalism with British imperialism. The folly of the last Stuart, who tried to reverse this process, cost him his throne, for by then the oligarchy was already sufficiently powerful to make and unmake kings. This oligarchy had survived Cromwell, who in 1654 officially established the “Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the dominions thereunto belonging.”
Cromwell did not create the British Empire: he fused an already existing imperial sentiment with the republican principles of the victorious Puritan party. The subsequent defeat of this party and its later revival on American soil form part of the history of Anglo-American politics and religion. The process of imperial expansion went on steadily all along, under Monarchy and Republic alike. The urge for “promoting the Glory of God and the Gospel” was indeed peculiarly Cromwellian, but when Puritanism had faded out, other motivations took its place—patriotism above all. They were no less sincerely felt for being in large measure self-serving.18
Cromwell made the decisive break, for it was during his rule that the popular ferment let loose by the events of 1640-60 was transformed into the ideology of a new ruling stratum. He did for Puritanism and the English Revolution what Stalin three centuries later accomplished for Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution: he nationalized them. It was not merely that he broke with the Levellers and other radicals who took republican democracy seriously. He transformed his military dictatorship into imperialism in the classical sense of the term.19 The sanguinary reconquest of Ireland from its native “Papists” (who had been solidly royalists during the civil war of 1642-49, and hence deserved to be massacred by English Protestants) was still in the traditional manner, comparable perhaps to Russia’s subjugation of Poland. What really made a difference internationally was the Navigation Act of 1651, whereby the new republican government laid the principle down “that the colonies . . . should be subordinated to Parliament, thus making a coherent imperial policy possible; and that trade to the colonies should be monopolized by English shipping. As modified in 1660, the act laid the basis for England’s policy during the next century and a half.”20
The Act led straight to the wars against Protestant Holland, the first of which in 1652 broke out while Cromwell was at the height of his power. That is to say, English Protestant republicans, recently victorious in a civil war against the Stuart king and his Irish Catholic allies, fought Dutch Protestant republicans for the sake of Britain’s overseas trade. Of course, that was not how the matter was put by the men in charge of the regicide Republic who in 1649-51 embarked upon the military conquest of Scotland and Ireland. As they saw it, the Republic needed a navy to protect itself from the royalist fleet commanded by Prince Rupert, and from Spain. Having assembled a fleet, and then discovered in Admiral Blake a naval commander who was a match for the royalists, they next proceeded to settle accounts with England’s Dutch competitors. In private, Cromwell regretted the disagreeable necessity of fighting fellow-Protestants. He would have preferred to fight Spain instead, and did so on the first suitable occasion, to the great delight of the godly. But the Dutch were in the way. The Navigation Act had hit them hard, and war followed in the wake of commercial rivalry. The Anglo-Dutch struggle continued after Charles II had returned from exile in 1660 under the distinguished patronage of Louis XIV. Religion was still an important consideration, but only one among others. Empire counted for at least as much. “The Dutch wars (1652-74) broke the Dutch hold on trade in tobacco, sugar, furs, slaves, and codfish, and laid the foundation for the establishment of English territorial power in India. English trade to China also dates from these years.”21
This was not quite the end of the matter. James, who succeeded Charles, in 1688 forfeited the throne by his religious folly and the Whig oligarchy imported William of Orange from Holland to replace him, thereby incidentally inaugurating a hundred-years-war against France for control of America and India. For the Dutch, who made possible the Glorious Revolution of 1688, this was a notable revenge, but the triumph was symbolic rather than real. “Dutch William” might style himself king of England, but Holland had for all practical purposes become a British protectorate, and the prolonged struggle waged by the Whig oligarchy against Louis XIV and his successors witnessed the steady decline of Dutch power and independence. Yet the Anglo-Dutch alliance held until the French Revolution a century later introduced a totally new line-up and even transformed Dutch republicans into ardent admirers of France. As long as the Versailles of the Bourbons was associated with absolutism and bloody persecution of Protestants, Holland could not well do anything but seek shelter under the protective shield of British sea power—even at the cost of losing much of its former empire to its successful rival. Protestantism had become the faith of the Dutch burghers, and the burgher class looked to the England of Whig parliaments and German-Protestant kings to protect it from the French menace. If New Amsterdam became New York, that was too bad, but bigger interests were at stake: the survival of Holland as an independent country and the physical existence of the Dutch bourgeoisie, a class which had reason to fear the triumph of Catholic absolutism. It took the French Revolution to lay this particular ghost. During the century preceding it the Whig oligarchy had an easy time: England stood for Protestantism, parliamentary government, and progress. Could anyone deny it? Voltaire and Montesquieu could not, and their nagging criticism heralded the demise of the Ancien Régime. But it was the Seven Years War (1756-63) that really turned the scales. In the course of this epic conflict the British swept the French out of India and North America, while Protestant Prussia victoriously stood off the assaults of the mighty Austrian and Russian Empires. Truly, Protestantism and progress marched together.22
Such notions, needless to say, were unwelcome to the Catholic rulers of the great continental European monarchies, but they were not confined to Whig oligarchs and Dutch republicans: Charles XII of Sweden and Frederick of Prussia emphatically concurred. Generally speaking, the fashionable identification of Protestantism with capitalism—especially plausible, for good reason, to Americans—runs up against the stubborn facts of history. Lutheran Sweden and Prussia (the latter admittedly long governed by Calvinist rulers) were military monarchies, not merchant republics, and foreign trade was marginal to their survival as distinctive entities during the wars that marked their existence. Sweden acquired an empire of sorts in the Baltic after it had come to the forefront thanks to the efficiency of its army, and engaged in constant warfare with rival powers, some of them fellow-Protestants. Prussia under Frederick never bothered about maritime claims—he left all such matters to his allies, the British. What he wanted and got was Austrian and Polish territory, not colonies overseas. Yet the rise of these absolute monarchies in northwestern Europe, in an age when Spain and Portugal sank into decadence, does seem to have been correlated to the after-effects of the Reformation. Conversely, the territorial spread of the rival Austrian and Russian Empires in the 18th century was evidently a function of their superior military efficiency when compared with the declining Ottoman Turkish Empire at whose expense Vienna and Petersburg systematically embarked upon conquest.
Thus the imperial mystique once associated with the ancient concept of Christendom continued to furnish a justification for the great continental Empires of the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs, while to the west an “Empire of the Sea” was slowly taking shape: pioneered by the Dutch, later taken over by the British, ultimately inherited by their American colonies. France was somewhere in between, uneasily perched between two stools, being both an absolute military monarchy ruled by Catholic kings and a maritime power with extensive possessions overseas, ultimately lost because the Ancien Régime had fallen into decrepitude, thereby bringing on the Revolution which was to change the face of politics. Speaking generally, absolutism acted as the pacemaker of nationalism at home, imperialism abroad. Although hampered by its feudal origins, it gradually evolved something like a modern consciousness, the centralized state conferring upon its subjects not merely the unsought benefits of taxation and conscription, but also the awareness of forming a separate nationhood. The “forty kings who in a thousand years made France” were no mere figment of royalist imagination. They, and their fellow-rulers, did lay the basis of the nation-state.23
Did they also pioneer the growth of “imperialism” in the modern sense of the term? Since they mostly presided over pre-capitalist economies, they cannot well be supposed to have done so. Yet, as we have seen, the Hapsburg “Empire” and the Russian “Empire” grew steadily at the expense of Turkey, and the rulers of Moscow also began that systematic encroachment upon Chinese territory which was later continued from St. Petersburg (and still later, if we are to believe the literature currently issuing from Peking, by the post-revolutionary successors of the Czars). In the end, the answer to our question depends upon the meaning we are prepared to give to our key term. If empire signifies domination over conquered peoples, then the notable differences between Protestant Europe and Counter-Reformation Europe shrink into insignificance. If one is determined to make imperialism rhyme with capitalism, one will have to ignore all empires save those that were built overseas by the nation-states of Western Europe in the age of their maritime predominance. Empire, then, denotes what was undertaken by the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the French, the Dutch, the British, and finally the Americans. This is the currently fashionable use of the term. It has never made much sense to Germans or East Europeans, and all the evidence suggests that it no longer makes sense to the Chinese either.
No adequate historical or theoretical arguments can be adduced for limiting the terms “empire” and “imperialism” to one particular form of domination over conquered peoples, let alone to overseas colonization prompted by mercantile interests. Nonetheless, the present section will for convenience be concerned with the British Empire and its American successor. We therefore take as our starting point the “Empire of the Sea” built up during the 18th century by the Whig oligarchy which had taken over from the Puritan Commonwealth and the Stuart kings. This approach makes it possible to integrate the principal socioeconomic features of the age—mercantilism and colonialism—within the familiar historical perspective which opens with the Whig Revolution of 1688-89 and terminates with the French Revolution a century later. The American War of Independence, toward the close of this period, exhibits all the features of a national rising, with the obvious proviso that the revolutionaries were not “under-privileged” helots, but the ruling class of a society largely sustained by slave labor, and for the rest free farmers owning their land. The revolution was in this sense a “bourgeois” one, and its aims did not call into question the Whig doctrines elaborated in England a century earlier: an elementary verity adequately attested to by the fact that the official philosopher of Whiggery, John Locke, could be quoted in support of the principles invoked against the imperial British government in 1776.
In adopting this approach we follow the logic of the economic historians, and this circumstance itself constitutes a novelty. The preceding section dealt largely with the tension between medieval and modern forms of political rule, Protestantism being enlisted on the side of modernity, albeit with a few backslidings. The conflicts which determined the rise of England and the decline of Spain were fought out “in ideological forms,” the two parties respectively championing the principles of Reformation and Counter Reformation. During the mercantilist age, which for our purpose begins with Cromwell’s Navigation Act of 1651, the rivalries among the European powers are no longer determined by religious antagonisms, although these do not disappear. Political alignments increasingly cut across religious barriers, a circumstance already noticeable during the later stages of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), when Catholic France and Protestant Sweden allied themselves against the Hapsburg Empire. The “end of ideology” aspect of mercantilism is important for our theme, but one must beware of supposing that what became true then had always been the case. We have already seen that neither the medieval nor the early modern period can be satisfactorily explained on the assumption that all parties were concealing crude material interests behind religious professions. What actually happened in medieval Europe was that the nations constituted themselves with the aid of religious cultures to which they gave their allegiance because religious belief defined national identity. When the nation-state emerged, it became possible to do without religious uniformity, but this was promptly replaced by a newcomer: patritoism, the affirmation of unquestioning faith in one’s country. Ideology never dies, it merely changes its shape. No major society can get on without it.
A related misunderstanding to be avoided is the notion that in passing beyond feudalism and absolutism we simply exchange one form of interest conflict for another: war over colonial spoils for war over territory. It is true that the typical mercantilist conflict had to do with overseas trade and colonies, the latter furnishing raw materials (and slave labor) for the benefit of the former. But the ability to discriminate clearly between economic and non-economic goals was just what made this new age so different from the one it succeeded. Feudalism as a system of government knew no such clear-cut distinction. Its wars—when not fought against religious heretics or unbelievers—were primarily waged for the purpose of bringing territorial barons under the control of the central power. The absolutist state which grew out of this struggle was in the first place an instrument for enabling the king to keep his barons in check, and secondly a means of keeping rival kingdoms at bay. So far as its rulers had economic aims, they were subordinated to the overriding need for instituting the modern state with its claims to sovereignty and popular loyalty. A fairly typical alignment during the medieval epoch enlisted the urban agglomeration, the bourg, on the king’s side against rebellious nobles. Alternatively, the city fought for freedom from feudal and monarchical oppression. These medieval class-conflicts gave rise to the city-state, perhaps Europe’s most distinctive contribution to political history. The Orient never saw anything like it, for the theocratic monarchies of the East strangled civic autonomy along with security of private property. For the same reason the Orient never developed a genuine capitalism.24
On the assumptions common to theorists since the age of absolutism—Hobbes being the classic case—the politics of the mercantilist era offer no particular problem, but this is because we now take it for granted that there is such a thing as a sovereign state acting primarily in the interest of an economically dominant class. To medieval rulers and theologians such a statement would have seemed outrageous nonsense, and as late as the middle of the 17th century Hobbes’s contemporaries were duly shocked by his Leviathan (1651), whose publication date, by an agreeable irony, coincided with the Navigation Act. Hobbes made explicit what both Cromwell and Charles II were busy teaching their contemporaries: religion had been divorced from statecraft. This separation was not the fruit of intellectual enlightenment alone. It had come about because the sovereign state had at long last emerged from the ruins of feudalism. “The states of the Middle Ages had not been sovereign states in the modern sense of the word; indeed sovereignty in its classical conception had almost completely vanished, except insofar as it survived in the Papal claim to plenitudo potestatis. It has been said, with some justice if the term is used in its modern connotation, that the only state in the Middle Ages was the Church. The idea of secular sovereignty only reappeared when the Middle Ages were drawing to their close.”25 The Italian city-states were the first modern political entities to escape from the joint tutelage of the Holy Roman Empire and the Church, but they were too small to bring their sea-power to bear in waters other than those of the Mediterranean. The city-states of Venice and Genoa never evolved into “nations.” Spain, France, Holland, and England did and it was in these new nation-states that absolutism found its intellectual defenders.26
What is the link, though, between absolutism and mercantilism, other than the obvious fact that the sovereign nation-state could and did intervene to protect its traders and incidentally to expand its own “sphere of influence” at the expense of commercial rivals? To call the 1651 Navigation Act a mercantilist measure is after all to say more than that it had something to do with trade and the interest of merchants. It is to specify a structural whole to which the name “mercantilism” can be given, at any rate retrospectively, for the 17th century did not employ the term. The “mercantile system,” as described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations published in 1776—another historic date terminating one era and inaugurating another—differed from the laissez-faire system favored by the early liberals and their successors in that it involved all governments in the ruinous pursuit of an absurd goal: the unending accumulation of gold and silver. The supply of money, like the supply of any other commodity, ought to be regulated by the laws of the market. That at any rate was Smith’s view, and his opinion carried weight. But if it was only a matter of government imbecility, why had the system endured for 125 years in Smith’s own Britain, and why was it now about to become the prime issue in the revolt of Britain’s American colonies? For an answer to this question one must take a look at the “Empire of the Sea” which the Whig oligarchy had built up in the course of its strenuous wars against the France of Louis XIV and Louis XV.
The main question is how far the mercantilist system inaugurated in 1650-60 can be invoked to account for the evolution of the British Empire in the century and a half following this date. English foreign trade almost doubled between 1700 and 1780, and then trebled during the next twenty years. That is to say, it grew relatively slowly until the American colonies had been lost, and a good deal more rapidly thereafter. At first sight this seems to bear out Smith’s contention that mercantilism was not merely immoral but senseless. But one must remember that the Industrial Revolution got into its stride only after 1780. It has also been observed by economic historians that between 1700 and 1780 there occurred a marked shift away from trade with continental Europe to trade with the colonies. Since the essence of mercantilism lay in the systematic preference extended to British merchants and shippers, it would be hazardous to assert that government policy had nothing to do with the growth of exports. It must also be borne in mind that British control of the seas dated from the successful conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713. “Rule Britannia” was composed, not accidentally, in 1740, when England once more had entered upon war against Spain, soon to be aided by France.
Altogether, it seems safe to conclude that the Navigation Act laid the foundation for the very lucrative trade with the West Indies in the next century; while the War of the Spanish Succession, by securing for England the Asiento—that is to say, the monopoly of supplying black slaves to the Spanish American Empire—speeded the accumulation of commercial capital in England and Jamaica. This capital accumulation in turn fed the early Industrial Revolution which had England for its center. In due course, the profits from industrialization made it unnecessary to lean so heavily on trade with the colonies. It also became possible for Britain to abolish the slave trade without ruinous consequences. All told, The Wealth of Nations deserved its success: its publication marked the point when mercanitalism had outlived its usefulness. The system then began to look odious and stupid, but that is the usual fate of socioeconomic formations which have lost their rationale.
Although Smith specifically excepted the original Navigation Act from his strictures, on the grounds that it had been necessary for England’s defense, the general tendency of his argument was to make “the commercial or mercantile system” seem absurd. Its authors, he thought, had confused material wealth with money. The protectionist rejoinder to Smith, inaugurated by Friedrich List and other German economists in the following century, stressed the political aspect of mercantilism: the system, they held, was perfectly rational, even though some of the arguments employed in its defense were fallacious. Its purpose was not to maximize welfare, but to promote the economic and political independence of the nation-state. We shall return to this quarrel when we reach the threshold of the Anglo-German conflict which came to overshadow the first half of the 20th century. In our present context we may agree that mercantilism did help to provoke the revolt of the American colonies, but it did so in the context of a debate among Americans over the advantages to be derived from the existence of a British Empire on American soil. In the course of this debate, leading American spokesmen like Benjamin Franklin at first made the Empire the symbol of their faith in the future of British America.27 Anglo-American relations were disrupted because the imperial government clung to its antiquated behavior, and the parting of the ways became inevitable. The emotional driving forces were imperial arrogance on the British side, national sentiment on the American. There was no insurmountable clash of interest, rather a political quarrel exacerbated by the British government’s failure to take American patriotism seriously. That the economist conflict need not have escalated to the point of national separation is evident from the fact that Britain in the next century avoided a similar confrontation with Canada.
This is not to deny that mercantilism worked to the disadvantage of the North American colonies, once their internal development had reached the point where they could compete with the imperial metropolis. Between 1700 and 1770 their population grew tenfold—from 200,000 to two million. The market they provided for English industries was important, and it was obviously to the interest of English manufacturers not to allow the growth of American competition. Hence the destruction of the American cloth industry in 1719, and the prohibition in 1750 of new iron works on American soil. Even Chatham, otherwise inclined to make concessions to American wishes, declared that he would not allow a nail to be made in the colonies without the express permission of the British Parliament. In practice all this was disregarded, not only by American smugglers and manufacturers, but by the British government, for in 1774 one-third of the British merchant navy was being built in America.
But the assertion of sovereignty rankled, and in the end it was this, rather than plain discrimination, which drove the Americans into rebellion. The Irish had worse grievances, but had to bear them because British rule over Ireland could be enforced. In America it had for all practical purposes been rendered ineffective even before the war started, and the proclamations of the British Parliament were resented for their absurdity as much as for the regulations they were trying to enforce. In this sense the mercantile system had already broken down before it was destroyed in the course of the American Revolution.
In turning the tables on their former British overlords, the Americans made use of an argument Smith had been among the first to expound in 1776. The gravamen of the charge he brought against the ruling class of his day was this: the mercantile system, professedly designed to insure a favorable balance of trade, was in reality advantageous only to a narrow group which carried undue weight in Parliament. Governmental interference did not benefit the nation as a whole: it only benefited the merchant oligarchs at the expense of all the rest, including those industries which were positively damaged by the favors bestowed upon shippers and exporters. Mercantilism in fact was a conspiracy got up for the benefit of monopolists determined to keep foreigners out of the home market, damage Britain’s European competitors, and reserve the benefits of colonial trade for themselves. Smith’s indignation went so far as to denounce the system as contrary to “nature”—the ultimate sanction available to a philosopher of the Enlightenment. His American readers naturally concurred, since it was one of their aims to break the imperial stranglehold upon the lucrative trade with the Dutch, French, and Spanish possessions in the West Indies. Yet, having won their independence, the Americans displayed a marked reluctance to adopt the core of Smith’s program: universal free trade. Industries were necessary for the United States, and these industries had to be built up behind protective tariff walls if they were to survive foreign competition. America’s conversion to economic liberalism occurred only after the United States had become the world’s leading industrial producer and was on the way to becoming its leading exporter as well—in part at least at the expense of the British. History has an odd way of repeating itself.28
Here a parallel strikes the eye of the beholder writing in the year 1970: the comparison between Holland’s place in the scheme of things once the British Empire had been constituted, and Britain’s very similar position vis-à-vis America two or three centuries later. Reference has already been made to the manner in which the Whig oligarchy employed its Dutch allies in the struggle against France. In British historical literature, the hero of this particular episode is William of Orange, thanks to whom the Protestant alliance against Louis XIV got under way in 1688 (with Papal blessing, incidentally, although this fact is seldom mentioned). Dutch historians have on occasion come to different conclusions. The most distinguished of them all in recent times, Geyl, had this to say about the Anglo-Dutch alliance formalized in 1688:
At the end of the day the close ties which bound Orange to England . . . proved fatal to the internal politics of the Republic and placed her in bondage to England. The dynastic element of the alliance and the intensification of party strife increasingly paralyzed the hand of the Dutch state and led to the total collapse of the old Republic.29
Mutatis mutandis, a similar judgment might have been delivered in 1970 by a British historian pondering the results of his country’s growing dependence upon the United States ever since the German menace began to materialize around 1900, and more especially in the desperate years after 1940. The British, like the Dutch before them, had no real option, but to concede this is not to say that the alliance was uniformly beneficial for the weaker party. Alliances rarely are.
But how did this reversal of roles come about? Why was the British Empire at the close of the 18th century unable to accommodate the American colonies? Or, failing an accommodation beyond a certain point in time, why did the separation—instead of being peaceful, as in the later stages of British imperial history—take the form of a ruinous war? The moment one raises this question, the debate shifts to the political plane. There simply is no way of demonstrating that the economic interests of the British government and the North American colonies had become irreconcilable by 1775. What had become intolerable was the state of their political relations. To deduce this circumstance from an underlying clash of material interests is to fall into the crudest kind of economism. Nor does the personal factor explain much. George III notwithstanding, a prolonged war with the American colonies, which gave France an opportunity for revenge after the loss of Canada in 1763, was the last thing the British government wanted. If it drifted into the very situation it was anxious to avoid—another round in the great Anglo-French duel, with the Americans this time enlisted on the French side—the outcome arose from miscalculation. But to concede this is to make nonsense of the argument from necessity. It was hubris that drove the British ministers to the point of overstraining the patience of their American friends, Franklin among them. But hubris, although fairly common, is not measurable or calculable. As a matter of ordinary common-sense, the imperial government—as Burke did not fail to point out—ought to have abstained from the follies that brought about the war and the separation.
So far as the functioning of the British parliamentary system in that age is concerned, few people would dispute the statement that the definitive study of this topic is to be found in the work of L. B. Namier, notably in the volume first published in 1930 under the title England in the Age of the American Revolution.30 However, two qualifications impose themselves. First, Namier’s fondness for the parliamentary oligarchy he described with such loving care led him to underrate the importance of the Whig-Tory cleavage, and to neglect altogether those plebeian undercurrents which were to surface in the course of the long war against the colonies. His bias also accounts for utterances such as the following: “It is to the honor of British statesmen that they did not heed the warnings of those who looked upon the presence of the French in North America as a useful check on the Colonies—although the view was widely canvassed, and ultimately proved correct. For with the removal of the French, the road to independence, and even to a French alliance against Great Britain, was opened for the Colonies.”31 London really had no choice in the matter if it wanted to clear the French out of Canada; and the colonies turned to France only when their leaders discovered that there was no way of obtaining autonomy within the British Empire. In this matter Benjamin Franklin is a better guide than L. B. Namier. In the pamphlet already mentioned he predicted that the population of the colonies would double every quarter century, and admonished the British goverment to secure additional living space for these newcomers, on the grounds that a prince who “acquires new Territory, if he finds it vacant, or removes the Natives to give his own People Room” deserves the gratitude of posterity.32 This expansion was in the interest of the mother country and her daughters alike. “What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as by Land! What Increase of Trade and Navigation. . . . How important an Affair then to Britain . . . and how careful should she be to secure Room enough, since on the Room depends so much the increase of her People.”33
At a conference of governors and colonial representatives held at Albany in 1754, Franklin submitted plans for a federalized Empire and in 1761, toward the close of the Seven Years War, he sided with Pitt in urging that the British acquire control of Canada. For this was the key to the Mississippi valley, which in turn could be used for “raising a strength . . . which, on occasions of a future war, might easily be poured down upon the lower country [presumably Florida] and into the Bay of Mexico, to be used against Cuba, the French islands, or Mexico itself.”34 All told, Franklin had a fairly realistic view of the future. This of course did not prevent the Founding Fathers of the Republic—or the worthy Thomas Paine, who believed all they told him—from affirming after 1776 that the “French and Indian wars” of 1689-1763 had been exclusively the work of the sinful British government, but for whose constant meddling the American settlers would have lived in perfect peace with their neighbors and never coveted an inch of their soil. In the words of the American historian already cited, “they wished to forget the dimly-formed principle of empire solidarity for which both Pitt and Franklin stood in 1761, and to chart a new course of empire unhampered by a distant government.”35
Yet the idea of a federalized British Empire took a long time a-dying. It had influential spokesmen in the Continental Congress of 1774, and was resolutely championed by the leaders of the Whig oligarchy in Britain—Chatham, Fox, and Shelburne among them. But for the imbecility of George III and the Tory squires who backed his Ministers, it would probably have been adopted as a compromise solution before French intervention, and the growing radicalization of the colonies, had rendered all such schemes illusory. For that matter, the immediate effect of the French alliance in 1778 was to stimulate Congress into an unsuccessful attempt to wrest Canada from the British. America had been launched on its imperial path, from which in two centuries it has never swerved.
Nor is there anything surprising about it. The notion that imperial expansion was “natural” formed part of the stock equipment of the Enlightenment. On this point it is unnecessary to go back to Hobbes, let alone Machiavelli, whose primitive schemes for the aggrandizement of his native Florence belong to the city-state era. By the time of the American Revolution the concept of “empire” had been redefined to embrace the notion of “civilization.” When Alexander Hamilton talked of acquiring control of the Caribbean, he did not shock his opponents. “To both of the political parties—Federalists and Republicans—the new federal union was an empire. The two terms were equivalents in the vocabularies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson.”36 It was not until the Civil War that public men learned to talk of the “American nation” instead. And of course by the time this nation had completed its purely territorial expansion, it was no longer politic to speak of “empire,” a concept now associated with the effete British and the European monarchies generally. American democracy would have no truck with the notion of lording it over subject people—until the Spanish-American war of 1898 suddenly precipitated what could no longer be described as anything but “imperialism” in the classical meaning of the term. But it was liberal imperialism—the imperialism of “progress.” The United States did not wish to annex foreign countries; it merely desired to improve them for their own good. The aim was no longer continental expansion and the acquisition of territory, but political penetration in the interest of economic development. But then the British had by 1900 reached a similar stage and adopted the same sort of language. Moreover they were beginning to federalize their empire—or at least the white-settler parts of it—and to project self-government for India. Liberal imperialism—the imperialism of Gladstone, Lloyd George Churchill, and the two Roosevelts—was of course not mercantilist and made no attempt to interfere with economic laissez-faire. On the contrary, it promoted it; that was the whole point about it.
To be effective, though, this sort of penetration needed a secure home base, whence the Monroe Doctrine and other trifling departures from the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of others. Moreover, the nation-building process developed its own momentum, always threatening to spill over into annexation. This was something the British could have told their American pupils, had they been willing to listen. American expansion was national before it became imperial in the classical sense, but the borderline could be crossed even in the age of Jefferson who acquired Louisiana from France in 1803 by purchase, and then dreamed of “liberating” Canada in 1812-14. Was this mere nation-building or something else? The answer depends once more upon the signification one accords to the term “imperialism.”
We have all been conditioned of late to identify it with capitalist expansion, and in the era of the Industrial Revolution that is basically what it was. But the story of Russian expansion into Siberia in the 17th century, and the current dispute between Moscow and Peking, serve as a reminder that an “empire” may be acquired by the simple process of pushing into uninhabited, or sparsely inhabited, territory and replacing the indigenous population by settlers belonging to the dominant people. The notion that an empire must necessarily consist of colonial possessions is a fantasy. This topic will be discussed later on. Here we simply note that there is no need to invoke hidden interests as the force behind continental expansion in the 19th century. The process of nation-building in North America inevitably entailed rivalry with the British and Spanish Empires. In this sense of the term, the Republic was “imperial” from the start.
“Seventeen seventy-six as all know, and it is one of the few things that all know, was the year when America declared her independence (4th July) and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations (9th March). . . . Not so many know, or knowing remember, that on 25th August, 1776, David Hume breathed his last and that in March 1776 Canada repulsed an invasion from America.”37 Mr. C. R. Fay’s irony is understandable. He is after all British, hence inevitably prejudiced against the American Republic. He even compares the American colonists to the Boer settlers who in 1899 made a stand for political independence from the British Empire (ultimately successful, since they scored in the political arena after losing their fight on the battlefields of the South African Veld). But we must attend to the theoretical core of this author’s argument, since he happens to be an economic historian. The topic which concerns us is the survival of imperialism into the 19th century, when by all the standards of free-trade logic it ought to have faded away like the Cheshire cat. Why did imperialism not follow mercantilism into oblivion? Why did it revive and expand at the very peak of the liberal era, in the age of W. E. Gladstone, thus giving rise to the phenomenon known in British literature as “liberal imperialism”? These are nagging questions for liberals. They have become equally nagging for socialists ever since it began to dawn on them that socialism too was not immune to the infection. For the moment, however, we are concerned with the liberal 19th century and the system of economic organization then prevalent in the Western world.
That system, as no one needs to be told, was capitalism, but what kind of capitalism? After all, mercantilism too can be included under this head. At this point, however, we must be clear what we are talking about. If by mercantilism we mean merchant capitalism, i.e., capitalism before the Industrial Revolution, there is no further problem: everyone can see at once in what sense the 19th century inaugurated a watershed. What mattered now was no longer colonial trade in sugar and other tropical products grown by slave labor on West Indian plantations, but the output of the new factories serviced by machines and free labor, although cotton grown by slaves for the benefit of textile manufacturers provided a link with the earlier phase down to the American Civil War. Setting aside the American South as an anomaly which somehow survived into the new age, we can draw a clear dividing line between the earlier and the later period: merchant capitalism and slave labor on the one hand, industrial capitalism and wage labor on the other. This is the standard liberal view of the subject, inaugurated by Smith and brought to perfection by Ricardo, Mill, and their successors. It is also substantially the Marxist view. Marx after all was the heir of Ricardo and the contemporary of Mill. The economic system he describes in Capital is the mature industrial capitalism of the later 19th century.
There exists, however, a somewhat different view of the subject, pioneered by Friedrich List (1789-1846) and brought to perfection by Gustav von Schmoller (1838-1917) and the other writers of the so-called German Historical School. List, an economic nationalist and advocate of industrialization, thought protectionism quite rational and rejected laissez-faire as unsuitable for Germany and for Britain’s competitors in the 19th century generally. It was, he thought, something the British were trying to export, along with cotton, to the detriment of industrially less developed nations. Lists’s arguments were echoed by his American contemporary Henry C. Carey (1793-1879), and by the latter’s German admirer Eugene Dühring, another nationalist and the butt of Friedrich Engels’s celebrated pamphlet (1878). Dühring, a fanatical anti-Semite, was to become a major figure in the pantheon of German National Socialism, but we are not obliged to hold List responsible for all his pupils. Most of them were quite respectable, although it is not without interest that Werner Sombart (1863-1941) ended his days as a supporter of Hitler. The early founders of the Historical School (Bruno Hildebrand, Wilhelm Roscher, and Karl Knies) were moderate liberals, and their successors—principally Schmoller Karl Bücher, and Lujo Brentano—conserved many elements of the liberal outlook, although Schmoller at least was also an enthusiastic imperialist. We shall come to that presently, but let us stay for a moment with the dispute over the meaning of mercantilism. Schmoller’s main theme throughout his writings was that economic life depends on political decision-making. There was no such thing as a self-propelling market system geared to the demands of individuals. Rather, the economic process was guided by state action, and always had been:
. . . mercantilism . . . in its inmost kernel is nothing but state-making—not state-making in a narrow sense, but state-making and national-economy-making at the same time.38
Schmoller did not dispute Smith’s description of how the “mercantile system” actually worked: exports were artificially stimulated by bounties, imports hampered by a ban of foreign manufactures, trade was promoted by commercial treaties, and the colonies were reserved for the imperial metropolis. What was wrong with all that, he asked? It was simply a way of building up the power of one’s nation. The wars of the 17th and 18th centuries had admittedly been trade wars, but then it was perfectly proper and legitimate to advance the cause of one’s country at the expense of rivals:
. . . it was precisely those Governments which understood how to put the might of their fleets and admiralties, the apparatus of customs laws, with rapidity, boldness, and clear purpose at the service of the economic interests of the nation and state, which obtained thereby the lead in the struggle and in riches and industrial prosperity.39
Schmoller, who was a prominent academic in the Bismarck era, inevitably sounded rather “Prussian” to British liberals, but he was not without influence in contemporary England, where economic nationalism was reviving under the spur of German competition. William Cunningham, author of an important work entiteld The Growth of English Industry and Commerce, owed much to Schmoller. Mercantilism, he agreed, could not be dismissed as a conspiracy got up to enrich a few merchants:
Politicians of the 16th, 17th, and the greater part of the 18th century, were agreed in trying to regulate all commerce and industry so that the power of England relative to other nations might be promoted, and in carrying out this aim had no scruples in trampling on private interests.40
This view of the subject received its theoretical summation in Professor Eli Heckscher’s Mercantilism, first published in Sweden in 1931 and translated into English three years later. Heckscher was no admirer of what the Germans called Merkantilismus, not to mention Staatsbildung (state-making). He agreed that Schmoller and the other members of the Historical School had described the system correctly, but he condemned its purpose. It was wrong to aim at the extension of state power: the proper goal of economic policy was the creation of wealth. Mercantilism was an aberration due to the intermingling of political and economic forces. Fay’s work likewise represented a reaction to the school of thought founded by Cunningham; he had no patience with Merkantilismus at all:
I agree, as I have said, with Edwin Cannan that it is a misfortune that the German historical school took hold of the concept of mercantilism and so re-cast it that they provided the fatherland with a place in the mercantile sun. Schmoller’s mercantilism not less than Bucher’s is an economic bastard. The Germany of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries was, quite as much as Italy, outside the mercantile sweep, whether we are thinking of doctrine, policy, or system of trade. If Germany was mercantilist, then mercantilism is just economic nationalism, and a good word wasted.41
Not wasted, however, to the mind of economic nationalists who favored protectionism as against the practice of free trade, officialized with abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 when England was at the peak of its industrial eminence and had no need to fear foreign competition. In this respect List worked out a system of ideas he had picked up in America from the followers of Alexander Hamilton. His pupils may have misused the term Merkantilismus, but they knew what they wanted.
The final turn of the wheel, ironically enough, is associated with the name of Keynes who in an Appendix to his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936) undertook a reassessment of the mercantilists. On balance he found much to praise in their “contribution to statecraft, which is concerned with the economic system as a whole and with securing the optimum employment of the system’s entire resources”: an aim in whose pursuit “the methods of the early pioneers of economic thinking in the 16th and 17th centuries may have attained to fragments of practical wisdom which the unrealistic abstractions of Ricardo first forgot and then obliterated.”42
This heresy brought down upon his head the wrath of Professor Heckscher, but Keynes was unabashed and he had the last word. In November 1946, a century after England’s formal conversion to free trade and laissez-faire, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain’s first postwar Labour Government, Mr. Hugh Dalton, laid it down that “the first principle to be adopted in our export policy [is] to export fully manufactured goods in preference to partly manufactured goods. . . . The more brains and craftsmanship we can export, the better for our balance of payments position and thus the higher our standard of living.” The wheel had come full circle. Keynes’s belated conversion to the view that there was no self-adjusting mechanism of foreign trade, and his statement that “we, the faculty of economists, prove to have been guilty of presumptuous error in treating as a puerile obsession what for centuries has been a prime object of practical statecraft” rang the knell of economic liberalism. It did so, in the words of a later writer, “especially as the suspicion grew that the age of laissez-faire had perhaps been an interlude between the mercantile age and what threatened to be another extended period of regulation according to principles not unlike those of the earlier period.43
Having stressed the parallel between the old and the new protectionism we must now emphasize the difference. Heckscher and others drew attention to the chief weakness of mercantilist theorizing: it was not merely nationalist and attuned to the idea of constant war, but obsessed by the notion that the world’s total wealth formed a given quantity which could not be significantly increased. From this it followed that a nation could enrich itself only at the expense of its rivals. It was this faulty reasoning that induced the classical economists of the liberal age to treat their forerunners as imbeciles. That they were not justified in doing so was the burden of Keynes’s argument in 1936, for he had by then reluctantly come around to the conclusion that the world economic system was not self-regulating, and that state intervention was needed to keep it in balance. This did not make him a nationalist, nor did he have to become an imperialist: for Britain already possessed the world’s greatest empire.
The Germans before 1914 were in a different position. Having no significant overseas possessions—the African colonies acquired by Bismarck were barely beginning to produce a few raw materials—and feeling hemmed in at home, they came to rest their hopes on the idea of Central European hegemony. From there it was only a step to the idea of “colonizing” the Slavs: the Ukraine was to be their Africa. In this respect Hitler was merely the executor of a Pan-German program which began to take shape in the 1890’s. The intellectual justification was provided by the theorists of the Historical School: the earth was about to be divided up among rival empires, and Germany must not be left out. To the classical liberal thesis that the world market was capable of indefinite expansion, there was now a counter-argument: the world’s total economic resources might be unlimited, but unless action was taken in time, the great empires would shut out their rivals.
Back then to the Germans and in particular to Schmoller. We have not yet finished with this distinguished economic historian, for he leads us on to our next subject: imperialism in the age preceding the world wars of the present century. In 1890, when Caprivi—Bismarck’s successor from 1890 to 1894—was trying to work out a system for linking the newly founded German Reich more closely to its European neighbors and satellites, Schmoller came to his aid with an article boldly forecasting a new age of imperialism, and incidentally giving everyone a foretaste of Germany’s war aims in 1914:
He who is perceptive enough to realize that the course of world history in the 20th century will be determined by the competition between the Russian, English, American, and perhaps Chinese world empires, and by their aspirations to reduce all the other smaller states to dependence on them, will also see in a central European customs federation the nucleus of something which may save from destruction not only the political independence of those states, but Europe’s higher, ancient cuture itself.44
German writers have traditionally excelled in making gloomy forecasts, and they have done so because Hegel had taught them to think historically. As early as 1842 Hegel’s pupil Bruno Bauer, writing in the liberal Rheinische Zeitung, then briefly edited by his friend Marx (not yet a Communist), had drawn alarming conclusions from his reading of Toqueville:
Whoever thinks of Europe’s and Germany’s future must not overlook North America, for the struggle among the European states will soon give place to a greater conflict, that between continents (dem Kampf der Welttheile).45
Where then is the economic link between the old mercantilism and the new imperialism? On this topic Mr. Fay is an unimpeachable witness, being in the English liberal tradition:
Note, first what the system was. It was a type of imperial economy, the fruit of that overseas (not overland) expansion whereby Holland and England, followed tardily by the other great powers and by Germany last of all, reached imperial stature and economic power.46
The system was pioneered by the Dutch. The Italian city-states and their German counterparts had missed the boat; France and Spain were too landlocked and too busy with their Counter-Reformation to give their full attention to overseas conquest. Only England was in a position to take up where the Dutch had left off. Holland soon lost its lead and England lost the American colonies but by then the break had been made: the “mercantile system,” with its roots in urban commerce, had superseded the old agrarian economy of feudal Europe and laid the basis for capital accumulation in the Industrial Revolution which burst upon the global scene around 1850.
But why were the Germans first in rehabilitating the old mercantilist doctrine? The answer should by now be obvious. Nineteenth-century Germany was trying to make up for lost time, and in the process it rediscovered some elements of that “practical wisdom” to which Lord Keynes paid reluctant tribute in 1936. The Historical School was not indeed alone in stressing the importance of the state in fostering economic growth: Marx did the same in Capital. But Marx was a heretic, whereas Schmoller and his friends were leaders of opinion in Bismarckian and Wilhelminian Germany. All told, they laid the theoretical basis for German policy in the new age of empire-building. In this they were both helped and hindered by their intellectual heritage: helped because they had no need to inflate laissez-faire into a world-view; hindered because their political conservatism left them with nothing more entrancing to offer their countrymen than self-aggrandizement as a national goal. German imperialism got under way without a universal idea to sustain it. This circumstance in the end proved to be its ruin.
How did the British react to the German challenge? In the first place, by ignoring it. This was easy enough during the mid-Victorian era when industrial competition, such as it was, came chiefly from the United States, and in Europe from France and Belgium, who presented no direct military threat. The German Confederation was a ponderous decentralized affair, until Bismarck came along, and its rulers generally tended to side with England against France, then the most active imperial rival in Africa and Asia. No problem here, but certain troublesome undercurrents were already beginning to make themselves felt in the heyday of Cobdenite liberalism and Palmerstonian imperialism. In the first place, Cobden’s free-trade gospel, while effective enough in the economic sphere, quite failed to restrain either Whigs or Tories when it was a matter of supporting Turkey against Russia by military force (1853-56) or of annexing island territories and colonies abroad. Nor was the bloody suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 exactly in tune with liberal middle-class tenets. If England faced rebellion in Ireland or India, the Army had to be employed, and the Army was officered by the landed gentry, which in turn supported the Tories, as did the Anglican Church, much of the country population, and a sizable proportion of the urban working class. All very awkward, especially when in the 1870’s Disraeli invented the “new Toryism”: a clever mixture of imperialism abroad and inexpensive social reforms at home. The mixture proved popular, and in the 1880’s Gladstone’s Liberal Party felt obliged to adapt itself to the trend. By then the mid-Victorian free-trade boom was over, German and American competition was getting stiffer, and laissez-faire no longer seemed quite as convincing as it had to the generation of Cobden and Bright. Something had gone wrong. What was it?
First, there was the relative narrowness of the Empire’s home base. Britain was an island, and this circumstance afforded obvious strategic advantages, but it also imposed limitations upon the growth of population and the use made of home-based resources. British surplus capital and labor could and did migrate to Canada, Australia-New Zealand, or South Africa, but in the process new and potentially rival nations came into being, even though valuable economic and cultural links were forged at the same time. The financial profit-and-loss account does not tell the whole story. British firms abroad repatriated a proportion of their earnings, and their presence helped to promote the growth of British shipping, banking, and insurance. On the other hand, the metropolis was drained of capital and technical ability for the benfit of what were ultimately foreign countries, albeit English-speaking ones. Who reaped the principal benefit from all this? The British Isles? It was difficult to strike a balance.
In the literal sense Britain was perhaps never the “workshop of the world,” but her industrial dominance was such in the middle of the 19th century that the phrase is legitimate. She produced perhaps two-thirds of the world’s coal, perhaps half its iron, five-sevenths of its small supply of steel, about half of such cotton cloth as was produced on a commercial scale, and forty per cent (in value) of its hardware. On the other hand even in 1840 Britain possessed only about one-third of the world’s steam power and produced probably something less than one-third of the world’s total of manufactures. The chief rival state, even then, was the U.S.A.—or rather the northern states of the U.S.A.—with France, the German Confederation, and Belgium. All these, except in part little Belgium, lagged behind British industrialization, but it was already clear that if they and others continued to industrialize, Britain’s advantage would inevitably shrink. . . . By the end of the 1880’s the relative decline was visible even in the formerly dominant branches of production. By the early 1890’s the U.S.A. and Germany both passed Britain in the production of the crucial commodity of industrialization, steel.47
Let us now step back and consider the long-run sequence of “what really happened,” as distinct from what the participants imagined themselves to be doing. The crucial issue is the relationship between the old and the new imperialism: that which preceded the Industrial Revolution and that which followed it. After what has been said before about the role of mercantilism, it comes as no surprise to find that the latest scholarly exposition of the topic puts forward an interpretation which combines Marxian and Keynesian insights. Hobsbawm’s Industry and Empire, like Hill’s work, centers on the thesis that the earlier British Empire was crucial in promoting the industrial transformation of 1750-1850 which in turn gave rise to the second British Empire: the one that went to war against Germany in 1914 and 1939.
The theoretical core of the argument may be summarized as follows: The Industrial Revolution could not have occurred in Britain but for the possession of a colonial empire which provided outlets far in excess of anything the home market could absorb. Industrialization entailed a sudden expansion of productive capacity only possible in a country which occupied a key position within the evolving world economy. The decisive factor was a global monopoly of export markets during the difficult transition from a self-supporting economy to one dependent on world trade. This position, in its initial stages, was secured by the conquest of overseas territories in North America and India during the 18th century, principally in competition with France. The aggressive wars waged by the British oligarchy between 1702 and 1815, when Napoleon’s defeat sealed the close of this chapter, established a universal trade monopoly notwithstanding the setback caused by the loss of the American colonies. After 1815 Britain ruled the waves and was becoming the world’s workshop. In these circumstances further major annexations were unnecessary, and economic penetration could take the place of military conquest. A country whose industries could undersell those of its competitors was favorably placed to preach the universal adoption of free trade, and did so, to the detriment of those among its rivals who lacked the wit, or the power, to set up protective barriers behind which they could themselves industrialize at a pace that suited them. The major European nations and the U.S. could not be prevented from doing so, but the modernization of India was delayed, and “honorary” dominions such as Argentina entered upon a trade relationship which satisfied their landed oligarchy at the expense of the industrialists.
The net effect was to place Britain at the center of an international web resting upon privileged relations with Europe, North and South America, and smaller industrial enclaves in other continents. The peak was reached between 1850 and 1875, when the national commitment to free trade underwrote the social dominance of the industrial bourgeoisie and the preponderance of liberalism. The subsequent grab for Africa, beginning in 1880, was a sign that liberal imperialism had begun to flag. Britain’s competitors were fast catching up, and it became necessary once more to lean on the “formal” Empire—India above all, but Egypt and Africa too, so far as they could be controlled. India in particular was the key to the imperial structure: politically (because of the size of the Indian Army) and economically (because it financed two-fifths of Britain’s payments deficit). Laissez-faire liberalism was not extended to India, except insofar as its home-grown textile industries were destroyed to benefit British cotton exports. In one way or another—through India’s own export surplus with China, or through direct Indian payments for the privilege of being governed by Britain—this enormous country thus became the keystone of the imperial arch before 1914. But this unbalance pointed to the fact that, in stictly economic terms, British industry was no longer globally competitive. Possession of India provided a payments surplus secured by politico-military power alone.
Too narrow a home base, then, to sustain a world-wide export monopoly, once Britain’s competitors had caught up with or passed her in the all-important domain of modern industry. During the earlier period Britain was able to effect the change-over from mercantilism to free-trade because the Industrial Revolution gave her a temporary monopoly of the new mode of production. Hence an abnormal reliance upon international trade at the expense of the home market. Hence also the illusion—fed by arguments supplied by the classical economists, from Smith to J. S. Mill—that mercantilism had never been anything but an aberration due to faulty reasoning and accidental political entanglements. The mid-Victorian sense of security rested upon a precarious balance of political and economic factors which enabled the British to have their cake and eat it too: possess an overseas empire while practicing free trade.
The British economy being ahead industrially, foreign trade translated itself into an exchange of manufactures and services (shipping, banking, insurance) against primary products, mainly imported food and raw materials. Most of these were not produced by the colonies properly so called, but by independent foreign countries, with the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Australia in the lead. The exchange benefited Britain in the measure in which it sustained the consequences flowing from the historical accident of having been first with the Industrial Revolution, but this state of affairs could not last forever. The 1880’s were a period of stagnation, with the real income of British workers slowly creeping upward only because the price of imported foodstuffs fell.
By the 1890’s the issue was in the open: the Americans and the Germans were moving ahead industrially. Not accidentally, this decade witnessed a deep cleavage within the Liberal party, socialist stirrings among newly unionized workers, and on the other political wing the growth of an avowedly imperialist movement: that is to say, a movement no longer content with the invisible “imperialism of free trade,” but one that called for protective tariff walls to be built around the Empire. Like all such movements, imperialism went in for “protecting the British worker”—at the expense of foreigners, of course. This gave it a populist coloration, badly needed in an age of democracy and parliamentary elections; but it also supplied a rationale for Tory politicians, paternalist employers, imperial proconsuls in retirement at Bath, socially-minded clergymen, and sturdy patriots who resented foreign immigrants. They all agreed on one thing: the British worker was hard done by, and the best way to help him was to keep foreigners and their goods out of the country.48
The ideology of modern imperialism, and its critique by liberal and socialist writers from about 1900 onward, will be considered in our next section. In abstracting for the moment from this topic we do not for this reason treat it as irrelevant, or as a mere epiphenomenon of the “real” process occurring in the socio-economic sphere. Any such distinction is untenable, for it neglects the all-important connections at the level of political decision-making. Major decisions were mediated by beliefs, more or less rational, concerning the role of the government in promoting what was called “the national interest.” The fact that the governing classes everywhere interpreted this interest to suit their own convenience is irrelevant. In a certain fundamental sense the political ideology of every commonwealth is the ideology of its ruling class; but a truth so general as to apply to all recorded history tells us little about the special topic under discussion.
Nor can the ideology of imperialism be treated as a mere subterfuge, artfully contrived to blind democratic electorates to what was being done behind their backs. The quarrel between the mercantilists and the laissez-faire school had been fought out in the open. The debate over imperialism occupied an entire generation between 1880 and 1914, and the way in which it shaped European public opinion was itself a factor in promoting the outbreak of war in 1914. We have already seen what was involved in the political commitments of the German Historical School during the Bismarck era, and the topic will once more engage our attention when we come to the literature of imperialism properly so called. For the moment we simply conclude our brief sketch of economic development during the period under review with some observations on the Industrial Revolution and its varying impact on the competing powers of Western Europe and North America.
A fairly simple division which imposes itself from the historical viewpoint is that between the original “revolution of coal and iron” between 1750 and 1850, and the subsequent age of steel, chemicals, and electricity.49 Technology is not the whole of economics, but it is not irrelevant that those countries which forged ahead industrially during the second half of our period were better equipped than Britain to make use of the power processes. The political unification of Germany in 1871 was made possible by military victories over Austria and France which owed something, though not everything, to the efficiency of the Prussian arms industry, symbolized by the Krupp steel works at Essen in the Ruhr. The subsequent expansion of German steel and chemical production once more reflected an advanced technology which in turn was helped along by an educational system that provided a fairly broad stratum of technically skilled workers and managers and a number of outstanding scientists. Similar considerations hold for the spectacular expansion of industry and railway-building in France during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-70), and inversely for the slowdown of French industrial development after the loss of the Lorraine iron mines in 1871.
For Britain, as noted above, the age of missed opportunities set in between 1880 and 1914, when stagnation at home was veiled by spectacular colonial acquisitions and a vast flow of investment capital to overseas areas, not all of them belonging to the Empire, but for the most part economically linked to Britain by the mechanism of exchange already mentioned earlier. The system was heavily weighted in favor of overseas trade and the “invisible” services provided by the City of London, at the expense of industry and technology, which fell behind their North American and German competitors. No simple explanation of this process is available. One cannot, for example, maintain that the German class structure was intrinsically favorable to technological modernization, although it is certainly the case that Britain’s social atmosphere was no help in competing with the United States. One need only consider the case of Japan—a highly successful newcomer with a socio-political structure even more retrograde than that of Prussia—to realize that all such simple cause-and-effect explanations are invalid. There may have been something in the process of German and Japanese “nation-building” during this period which stimulated industrial enterprise, but once we are launched upon imponderables such as “national morale,” we may as well admit that they represent variables not reducible to causal explanation.
What is undeniable is the retrogressive effect American, German, and Japanese competition had on Britain from the 1880’s onward, when the whole liberal system underwent its first serious crisis. The system rested upon the presupposition that a global economy centered upon Britain, and secured by British control of the seas, offered all countries—developed and undeveloped alike—an optimal chance for exploiting their domestic resources and their foreign trade opportunities. The world economy was policed by British capital exports. In both respects Britain acted as the guarantor of a system from which the industrially-advanced countries profited: the United States above all, since the informal alliance with Britain after the Civil War saved the U.S. the trouble of building up a vast maritime establishment. When the system began to break down because Britain’s competitors were unwilling to play the game according to the rules of free-trade logic, “imperialism” returned. Actually it had never disappeared, but now the veil was cast off. Economic preponderance was gone, and mercantilist modes of thought came back into fashion:
In India, the formal Empire never ceased to be vital to the British economy. Elsewhere it appeared to become increasingly vital after the 1870’s, when foreign competition became acute, and Britain sought to escape from it—and largely did escape from it—by a flight into her dependencies. From the 1880’s “imperialism”—the division of the world into formal colonies and “spheres of influence” of the great powers . . . became universally popular among the large powers. For Britain this was a step back. She exchanged the informal empire over most of the underdeveloped world for the formal empire of a quarter of it, plus the older satellite economies.50
The contrast with Britain’s position at the peak of the earlier era is very marked. To cite another British author: “After the repeal of the Corn Laws, English ports were opened to the products of the whole world. Apparently, not far short of one-third of the exports of the rest of the world found their way into the United Kingdom in the 1850’s and 1860’s. . . . Little of this came from the Empire, less than a quarter in fact. Our largest single trading-partner was the United States, accounting for nearly a quarter of all imports and of all exports. Another quarter was accounted for by the countries of Europe, which were beginning, like the U.S., to industrialize themselves with British equipment and ideas.”51 The Empire other than India did not give much direct advantage to British exports. What it did was to supply cheap food and raw materials, mostly from lands of European settlement which were either independent or in the process of becoming so. The acquisition of African colonies after 1880 was a poor bargain when measured against the advantage of free trade in foodstuffs and industrial goods with Europe, Canada, Argentina, and the U.S. “The advantage of the strategic lines of the empire was the preservation of the world of free trade.”52
That world endured until 1914, and then collapsed in the two global wars unchained by Germany’s challenge to Britain’s world position. The purely continental European factors entering into this particular reckoning were extraneous to the Anglo-German contest. In particular, the triangular conflict among Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Czarist Russia could have been fought out on land without involving Britain, even though it did involve France (because of the Franco-Russian alliance of the 1890’s). What turned these European rivalries into a global conflagration was the Anglo-German antagonism, later supplemented by Japan’s challenge to Britain and the U.S. And this antagonism had its source in the weakening of Britain’s over-all position toward the end of the century. At this point, the notion of “capitalist imperialism” can at last be discriminated from the conventional employment of the term “empire” to denote overland or overseas expansion. This is not to say that such a use of the term is illegitimate: merely that one must decide what one is talking about.
There grew up in the 19th century a British Empire in India, a Russian Empire in Central Asia, and a French Empire in Africa. These Empires were not obliged to clash, and in fact never did. Their owners were satisfied with the status quo and only asked to be left in peace, so that they might digest their conquests. The trouble was started by newcomers who did not possess an empire: Germany and Japan. Once this has been grasped, we can stop arguing over the meaning of “empire.” Imperialist powers are not by definition obliged to own large tracts of land inhabited by conquered peoples. It is quite enough for our purpose if they are animated by a political will to bring about a forcible rearrangement of the global system controlled by their rivals.
The dual meaning of “imperialism” will be discussed in our next section, for one cannot understand the imperialist mentality without taking account of its roots in nationalism. Here we conclude with a few facts and figures culled at random from our sources. Down to the eve of 1914 the British-controlled system endured because “invisible” income from previously invested capital had come to fill the gap in Britain’s payments balance. “As her industry sagged, her finance triumphed, her services as shipper, trader, and intermediary in the world’s system of payments, became more indispensable. Indeed if London ever was the real economic hub of the world, with the pound sterling its foundation, it was between 1870 and 1913.”53
In 1913 Britain owned about £4,000 million worth of capital invested abroad, against a total of some £5,500 million owned by the U.S., Germany, France, Belgium, and Holland put together. In financial terms, Britain was still the leading economic power, nor had her maritime empire been seriously challenged. “In the later 1850’s British ships had carried about 30 per cent of the cargoes entering French or U.S. ports: by 1900 they carried 45 per cent of the French, 55 per cent of the American ones. Paradoxically, the very process which weakened British production—the rise of new industrial powers, the enfeeblement of the British competitive power—reinforced the triumph of finance and trade.”54
The 1914-18 war upset these arrangements, and the war of 1939-45 completed the wreckage. When these two epic contests were over, Britain had ceased to be the world’s leading creditor nation and indeed had run up sizable debts to her former colonies, India above all. Capital invested abroad continued to yield a growing return, but this form of income no longer sufficed to cover the historic deficit resulting from the export balance. The payments gap now had to be filled by stepping up commodity exports to industrially-developed countries, and this in turn imposed drastic rationalization measures at home. All these economic consequences flowed from the catastrophe let loose by the two world wars, and these wars in turn were precipitated by political rivalries not reducible to simple profit-and-loss calculation. The German onslaught, and later the Japanese attack, on the world system of which Britain was the guarantor, had its roots in the transformation which German and Japanese nationalism underwent as these countries completed their industrialization and thus their adaptation to the modern world. On British common-sense assumptions they would have done better to maximize their welfare in other ways, but utilitarianism had no place in their calculations. Or if it had, they did their sums wrong, for in the event none profited, save the United States and Russia, soon to be challenged by China. To treat this outcome as mysterious is to ignore the simple circumstance that the British Empire perished in much the same fashion as those older empires on whose ruins it had come into being.
The imperialist movement in late 19th-century and early 20th-century Europe and America is too complex a phenomenon to lend itself to summary treatment. Yet something needs to be said about its role in promoting the era of global conflagrations after 1914. The collapse of the British-centered world economic system, which was the theme of our preceding section, cannot be treated in isolation from the growth of political currents adverse to political liberalism and free trade. For Britain itself this is obvious, which is why every historian of the period has found it necessary to take account of the liberal-imperialist ideology worked out by British writers between 1870 and 1914. Before turning to this topic—doubly significant because it foreshadowed similar processes at work in the U.S. a century later—something must be said about a more general matter which is frequently neglected: the relationship of imperialism as a popular movement to the theory and practice of nationalism.
The difficulty here is that the historian is swamped by a mass of factual material impossible to summarize. Yet a simple generalization can safely be risked: imperialism as a movement—or, if one prefers it, as an ideology—latched on to nationalism because no other popular base was available. But this statement can also be turned around: nationalism transformed itself into imperialism wherever the opportunity offered. It can be argued that popular patriotism of the French Revolution type was systematically corrupted when it passed into the service of the imperialist movement; but the speed with which the transformation was accomplished suggests that no deep resistance had to be overcome: not even in France, where the Revolution had given birth to a democratic and universalist faith in the essential unity of mankind. Paradoxically, it was this very universalism which became the ideological instrument of expansionist policies—“ideological” in the sense that their sponsors were at first genuinely taken in by their own rhetoric. Cynicism crept in at a later date, when the liberals no longer took their public professions quite seriously.
It was this sort of mentality that radical and socialist critics had in mind when from the 1880’s onward they systematically denounced the colonizing enterprises of the Third Republic in Africa and Asia. Since the Republic had come into being in 1870 on the ruins of the Second Empire, it was natural to affirm that no true republican could have any dealings with “imperialism,” meaning Bonapartism. This shows how easy it is to mistake the shadow for the substance. The Orleanist liberals who took over in 1870, and the bourgeois republicans who succeeded them a decade later, had no need to invoke the spirit of Napoleon I, let alone the lamentable caricature represented by his successor. It was quite enough to maintain that French civilization was being brought to darkest Africa, just as their British contemporaries spoke of bringing Christianity to the heathen. What is more, these writers and orators were sincere, even those they omitted to add that the civilizing process was merely a by-product of something rather less refined.
People who imagine that modern imperialism, like mercantilism before it, was merely a conspiracy got up in secret to enrich a few monopolists, will never understand how a doctrinaire radical like Clemenceau, who in the 1880’s had opposed the conquest of Indo-China, came to preside over the annexation of Morocco two decades later. If imperialism had lacked a popular following, this kind of behavior would be quite incomprehensible. The fact is that democratic politicians like Clemenceau and Lloyd George turned imperialist because that was what the voters expected of them.55
The voters of course were influenced by what they read in the newspapers, and the press was generally the vehicle of middle-class opinion. This is the justification for treating imperialist propaganda as an aspect of late-bourgeois civilization. So far as it goes, the estimate is sound. The trouble is that it fails to explain why liberalism went out of fashion after 1880 among bourgeois politicians and newspaper owners, to be succeeded by a concentrated barrage of propaganda in favor of tariff barriers, colonial annexation, arms expenditure, and war preparation against real or presumptive rivals. These after all were traditional conservative remedies. The question is why they became popular in the 1880’s and were eventually adopted, with some reluctance, by most liberals from about 1900 onward.
There is no problem about Tory attitudes toward India: at least since the great Indian Army mutiny of 1857, everyone knew that this huge country could be held down only by force. Moreover, Indian self-government was generally regarded as impractical even by liberals, on the grounds that several millennia of Oriental despotism had created a culture to which Western standards did not apply. If there was a division of opinion, it related to a fairly distant future. The optimists held that British rule, plus economic development, would eventually create an Indian middle class, thus making a form of parliamentary government possible; the pessimists were convinced that East and West would never meet, and that India would have to be governed imperially forever. This was one major source of British imperialist sentiment during the period under review. It fitted neatly with Tory paternalism and distrust of foreigners. It also provided American democrats with an easy target: the British were unrepentant imperialists—the proof was that they were holding India by force. The fact that from an economic standpoint India represented an anomaly within the global system of liberal imperialism was conveniently overlooked. Had it been faced, these American critics of the British Empire would have had their noses rubbed in evidence that an American Empire was silently coming into existence.
Whether anomalous or not, British rule in India became the paradigm of Western imperialism in Asia. So did the racial animosity it created. Richard Burton, the explorer, had already noted Indian popular hatred of the British before 1857. The mutiny was led by local feudatories and thus had a retrogressive character, a circumstance which helps to account for its failure, the more so since the Hindu-Moslem split enabled the British to rely on the Sikh community for the newly conquered Punjab. These fierce warriors took pleasure in massacring their traditional Moslem enemies, just as they did in 1947, when the Indian Union was divided into the two independent states of India and Pakistan. Atrocities against British civilians—inevitable in a rising led by feudal rulers and religious fanatics—provided an excuse for savage reprisals and silenced liberal protests in England. They also gave rise to a “damned nigger” mentality among British officers and soldiers. Writing from London to an American newspaper, Marx cited a few typical utterances on the part of British officers, e.g., “We hold courtmartials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.”56 He also introduced a line of thought which enabled him to place the atrocities perpetrated by Indians against English civilians in a wider historical context:
Cruelty, like every other thing, has its fashion, changing according to time and place. Caesar, the accomplished scholar, candidly narrates how he ordered many thousand Gallic warriors to have their right hands cut off. Napoleon would have been ashamed to do this. He preferred dispatching his own French regiments, suspected of republicanism, to Santo Domingo, there to die of the blacks and the plague. The infamous mutilations committed by the Sepoys remind one of the practices of the Christian Byzantine Empire, or the prescriptions of Emperor Charles V’s criminal law. . . .57
Sound Hegelian reasoning this. Marx had no use for Oriental despotism and cruelty; he merely wished to deflate British self-righteousness. The Europeans, he implied, were no better than their subjects, and for the rest there was an historical explanation for the more appalling acts committed by the rebellious Sepoys: “With Hindus, whom their religion has made virtuosi in the art of self-torturing these tortures inflicted on the enemies of their race and creed appear quite natural. . . .” Marx rarely missed a chance to vent his Lucretian distaste for religion, but his mode of reasoning was too complex for the simpler minds among his followers. In a later age they were to excuse every kind of bestiality committed against colonizers on the grounds that (a) these stories were not true—they were just imperialist propaganda; and (b) the imperialists had asked for it. But we must not judge either Darwin or Marx by their disciples. It was not Darwin’s fault that the extermination of “lower races” became part of the imperialist creed, the excuse being that on Social-Darwinist principles their disappearance from the face of the earth proved their unfitness to inhabit its fairer portions.
Similarly, the inverted racism of “third world” propaganda against whites—allegedly imperialists by nature—proves nothing against Marx or Mill, who from their different standpoints condemned atrocities perpetrated in the name of “civilization.” The 19th century was a more rational and optimistic age than ours. Its representative thinkers were united by the common bond of an as yet unchallenged faith in the power of reason to improve men’s behavior. The glorification of murder, beginning with the early fascists and culminating in the abominations of Hitler and other despots, belongs to a later epoch.
It is likewise remarkable that the spiritual corruption wreaked by imperialist literature was to have the most disastrous effect upon those who were not lording it over slaves, but were yearning to do so. The actual possession of overland or overseas empires took some of the steam out of Russian, French, or British pretensions to represent the master race. Colonial armies acquired a bad reputation at home, and were generally regarded as the last refuge of scoundrels. At the other end of the scale, the poets of empire had to pay their respects to the enemy if there was to be any glory in the imperial business. At the very least, the ferocious enemies they were fighting must be allowed a few martial virtues, or there would be nothing to celebrate.
This theme runs through the popular literature of the pre-1914 age, along with a suitable stoical admiration for the legions who were defending the outposts of empire. Kipling’s jingles—one can hardly describe his verse-writing as poetry—reflect the spirit in which the British officers of the Indian Army in the 1890’s—the youthful Winston Churchill among them—viewed their role in subduing savage tribesmen along the unsettled northwestern frontier:
When you’re wounded, and left on Afghanistan’s
And the women come out to cut up what
Just roll to your rifle, and blow out your brains.
And go to your God like a soldier.
Hardly a Christian utterance but suited to the mentality of Tory gentlemen in charge of a professional army. Some of these men were later to do their duty in the 1939-45 war, in the same fatalistic spirit in which they had earlier been fighting the “natives.”
From the sociologist’s viewpoint these were pre-liberal attitudes which had survived into the bourgeois age because bourgeois society, for all its pacific talk, stood in need of armed force to defend itself: if not against the proletariat at home—by the later Victorian age this was no longer a serious preoccupation—then against conquered peoples abroad. Militarism—and along with it the more primitive, aggressive, and warlike impulses—had been expelled to the frontiers of European-American civilization, there to mount guard against external foes. The duality of militarism-pacifism reproduced itself in the party game dividing conservatives from liberals: the former appealing to archaic modes of thought traditionally dominant among the landed gentry and the rural population generally; the latter reflecting the relatively peaceful outlook of middle-class burghers and industrial workers alike. These urban citizens could be galvanized into patriotic fervor by politicians and newspapers, but their ferocity was mostly verbal: they preferred to leave the actual fighting to others. Hence the typically Anglo-American compromise whereby down to 1914-18 the dirty work was left to professionals. Conscription was regarded with disfavor. It smacked of Continental European absolutism: those military monarchies—Russia, Prussia, Austria—whose armies carried undue weight politically. But the revival of conscription in the France of the Third Republic—after Napoleon III had suffered shipwreck with his professional army in 1870—ought to have served as a warning against taking the professions of bourgeois pacifism literally. There was no neat division separating the old Empires from the new Republics. Democracy was not merely patriotic in its origins: it could become imperialist too. The French made this discovery after 1870, the Americans somewhat later. Both took pains to hide the truth from themselves.
The case of France is of special interest in our context because after 1870 the French Republic stood almost alone in a monarchical Europe. The military defeat of 1870 was in part due to reliance upon professional soldiers trained in endless colonial fighting. Whereas Prussia had universal military service, the government of Napoleon III relied upon a standing army eked out by what was known as the “blood tax.” To cite a well-known historian: “All Frenchmen might be called upon to serve—if France insisted on using all the healthy men who came of military age each year. But she did not, and so most of the annual ‘contingent’ was exempted. By means of a lottery, the necessary number of recruits, nominally 100,000, was chosen from the total of the annual ‘class,’ and those who drew ‘bad numbers’ had to serve, unless they found someone to take their place. This meant in effect that poor men with bad numbers served; richer men bought substitutes.”58 After 1871 the Republic did away with this iniquitous system—especially when the Radical Republicans got control in the 1880’s. Universal service was introduced, with no exceptions allowed for the propertied classes. This was sound democratic practice. It was also a foretaste of 1914-1918, when millions of men were enrolled to die in the trenches. Meantime a colonial army—part Foreign Legion, part native levies officered by Frenchmen—remained in being alongside the conscript force in the motherland. The officers of course were professionals. Largely drawn from the traditionally royalist landed gentry which despised the Republic, they gave their loyalty to France’s growing Empire in Africa and Asia. Thus was imperialism reborn—on a solid republican-democratic foundation. The only people who thought this odd were the Socialists, and after 1914 they came to terms with the system, much as the Communists did in 1945.
Imperialist thinking transcended nationalism, inasmuch as the more far-sighted theorists and practitioners of the new creed realized that the nation-state was on the way out: it was too small to contain the forces let loose by the Industrial Revolution. To this esoteric wisdom, then still confined to general staffs and German professors brought upon Hegel and Clausewitz, conservative statesmen and thinkers added another subversive notion: democratic government was likewise doomed, for a democracy could not govern an empire. This was sound classical doctrine, certified by the great Roman historians on whom the ruling elites of Europe and America had been brought up. It was not contradicted by Anglo-American experience, for the British parliamentary system was oligarchic, and the American Republic did not (as yet) have an empire to administer.
The seeming exception to the rule was France, for the French colonial empire expanded rapidly after the French Empire of Napoleon III had made way for a Republic. But the Republic was bourgeois, proclaimed by middle-class lawyers in September 1870, and saved from the proletariat in May 1871, when the Army slaughtered the Parisian Communards. From this circumstance most Socialists derived the comforting doctrine that colonial imperialism was inherently class-bound, a minor aspect of capitalist expansion, and not likely to survive the coming of true republican democracy, with Socialists in control. This amiable illusion, like many others, did not outlive the shock of 1914. Meantime most Frenchmen, but especially Frenchmen of the Left, drew moral sustenance from the fact that their country had resurrected the famous symbols of 1792, when the Convention challenged the kings of Europe. So delighted were they with their new Republic that many of them did not mind when in the 1890’s France became the ally of Czarist Russia: a necessary counterweight (it was explained) to the growing might and menace of imperial Germany.
The Germans faced a different problem. Bismarck’s Reich was an empire by definition, but confined to Central Europe, specifically to the territory of the ancient Holy Roman Empire. Pan-Germanism—the strongest emotional force within the middle class from the 1890’s onward—centered upon racial affiliations which pointed obscurely to a coming slowdown with the Slavs in general and Russia in particular. On the other hand, competition with Britain led to the acquisition of colonies in Africa, and ultimately to a naval race which ruined whatever chance there was of coming to terms with the British government over Germany’s claim to hegemony in continental Europe. A more rational policy would have postponed the Anglo-German conflict in the interest of getting the support of Great Britain against the Franco-Russian combination.
But Anglophiles who advocated such a course encountered a formidable argument: without a navy Germany would be dependent on British goodwill, and thus hampered in the pursuit of her ambitions in the Balkans and the Middle East. For the prime goal of German foreign policy during the Wilhelminian era after 1890 was not Africa but Central Europe and more distantly Turkey. The African colonies were merely counters in a diplomatic game. Turkey, on the other hand, represented an enormous prize. The decrepit Ottoman Empire straddled southeastern Europe and the Middle East with its growing oil resources. Control of Turkey, in addition to Austria-Hungary, would give Germany the kind of territorial and economic base to which naval strategists like Tirpitz, and economic historians like Schmoller, looked forward when they envisaged the coming age of intercontinental rivalries. The handful of African colonies could be lost without altering the balance of power. The Ottoman Empire was another matter. If Germany got control of it, there was an end to Pan-Slav hopes of Russia acquiring Constantinople. But there was also an end to British control of the East. Thus Germany’s bid for empire united Russia and Britain against her.59
None of this poses any particular theoretical problem, whatever it may have contributed to the headaches suffered by diplomatists and general staffs. What does at first sight look odd is the ease with which nationalism could be transmuted into imperialism: not as a conspiratorial scheme pursued by governments and their advisors, but as a popular movement. For as to its popularity there is really no doubt at all: it could even draw upon working-class support, thus giving rise to the phenomenon later described as “social-imperialism” by its Marxist critics. The explanation clearly has to do with the familiar time-lag in the assimilation of new concepts. The two most powerful political movements in the 19th century were nationalism and democracy, both descended from the French Revolution and thus associated with the political Left until they were harnessed by the Right. This changeover was rendered possible by the fact that in the last resort both parties appealed to the peasantry and the lower middle class.
These strata could move in either direction. If in France the Left was generally able to drape itself in Jacobin colors, thereby associating the sentiment of patriotism with the course of the Republic, the Right could appeal to “eternal France.” German and Russian conservatives likewise fell back on patriotic slogans, already crystallized in the doctrines of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism before they became political catchwords. In each case, the popular consciousness absorbed national sentiments which were then converted into imperialist aims by the governing classes. The transition from patriotism to nationalism, let alone imperialism, was not perceived by peasants who traditionally thought in terms of defending “the homeland”: a simple mental construct derived from the ordinary man’s loyalty to his village or plot of land. Nationalism, unlike peasant patriotism, was an urban doctrine, the creation of schoolmasters and journalists who preached it to the middle class. Imperialism was the esoteric faith of the governing elite. These doctrines fused among intellectuals and army officers who staffed the various “pan” movements, and subsequently the fascist movements. The masses hardly noticed the transformation until its consequences were brought home to them by the 1914-18 war.60
If modern imperialism was not at first distinguished from ordinary nationalism, neither did anti-imperialism at the outset concern itself with anything in the economic sphere. An unimpeachable witness to the truth of this statement is Friedrich Engels who, from the 1850’s until his death in 1895, devoted much of his energy to the struggle against Pan-Slavism. Any reader of his numerous articles on this topic must be struck by Engels’s indifference to all but strictly national and racial considerations. Take the following typical passage from an article written for a liberal-democratic German journal in 1855, at a time when the Crimean war had inflamed the ancient democratic fear of Czarist Russia and its expansionist tendencies:
The Slavic race, long divided by internal rivalries, driven back towards the East by the Germans, subjugated in part by Germans, Turks, and Hungarians, quietly reassembling its branches after 1815 through the gradual rise of Pan-Slavism, now for the first time affirms its unity and in so doing proclaims war to the death with the Romano-Celtic and Germanic races hitherto preponderant in Europe. Pan-Slavism is not simply a movement for national independence. It is a movement which seeks to undo what has been created by a thousand years of history; which cannot realize itself without wiping Turkey, Hungary, and half of Germany from the map of Europe; a movement which, having attained this aim, cannot assure its permanence otherwise than through the subjugation of Europe. From being a political credo, Pan-Slavism has transmuted itself into a political program, with 800,000 bayonets at its disposal. It leaves Europe with only one alternative: subjugation by the Slavs or permanent destruction of the center of their offensive strength—Russia.61
Substitute “China” for “Russia,” and “Chinese chauvinism” for “Pan-Slavism,” and you have the theme-song of a thousand speeches and newspaper articles in the USSR for the past few years. Engels did not trouble to search for economic causes of Slav aggression; neither do his pupils in Moscow. They know, as he did, that nationalism is a force in its own right.
In the case of Russia and Germany alike, the transition from patriotism to nationalism was effected in the ideological sphere long before governments and general staffs had adopted the new ideology. So far from being state-sponsored, these movements were demagogic and subversive before becoming conservative and respectable. Volkstum and narodnost were radical slogans which terrified the autocratic rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg out of their wits, before and after 1848. In the end, the governments reluctantly came to terms with them, and the more conservative nationalists in turn abandoned their radicalism. The classical case is Dostoevsky, a onetime rebel reconciled to the Orthodox faith and transformed into a conservative upholder of the Czarist autocracy. But Pan-Slavism also retained its revolutionary wing, typified by Bakunin who in 1873 composed an entire book on the theme that only a popular revolution could regenerate Russia and render it capable of confronting the newly created German Reich. Not to mention the Yellow Peril, for Bakunin was convinced that the Chinese would one day drive across the Urals and down to the Volga! Population pressure alone made it inevitable, and unfortunately the Czarist government was quite incompetent to deal with this very grave menace. Thus Bakunin in 1873. One can see why the authorities in Petersburg did not think highly of his advice. One can also see why those West European Socialists who were familiar with his Pan-Slav agitation thought they detected a certain lack of consistency in his anarchist utterances.62
British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman policies in the three decades before 1914 centered upon what was vaguely known as “the Oriental question”: a catch-phrase invented to describe the dissolution of the Turkish Empire and the maneuvering of the powers around this increasingly dangerous piece of territory. There had already been a military contest over Turkey once before (the Crimean war), and another confrontation between Britain and Russia was very narrowly averted in 1878 when the British seemed ready to draw the sword on Turkey’s behalf. Peace was preserved on that occasion, with Bismarck casting himself in the role of honest broker; in actual fact he sided with Britain, a circumstance not overlooked in Petersburg. Had his successors stuck to this line, an Anglo-German alliance might have come into being. Instead they rashly decided to challenge France, Britain, and Russia at once, and for good measure in 1917 they took on the United States as well. This was rather too much for Germany to cope with, and military defeat resulted in 1918, with consequences that worked themselves out in 1939-45.
In essentials both wars were fought to decide whether or not Germany was to become the hegemonial power in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. This was generally recognized and in itself raises no problem: Louis XIV or Napoleon would have understood every move in the game. The new phenomenon was the infusion of popular nationalism in the shape of the various “pan” movements which mediated the transition from one age to another. These movements were populist and at times even managed to give themselves a revolutionary coloration, a circumstance very disturbing to the ruling elites, until they discovered that nationalism could be harnessed to the support of traditional institutions. This is just what makes “imperialism” such a chameleon: the term changed its meaning with the passage from the age of the old absolute monarchies (all officially styled “Empire”) to the new world of the nation-state, and then to the specifically modern era in which nationalism was sacrificed to the real or fancied needs of supra-national entities adapted to global changes in the technological sphere.
Bakunin’s reflections on the topic are worth citing at some length, and this for two reasons: they are intrinsically interesting, and they had an enormous impact upon the nascent populist movement in Russia—a movement that was patriotic as well as socialist, and whose ideologists reserved for the Slav peoples the leading role within the coming world revolution. With the evident exhaustion of Marxism-Leninism in its official form, one may expect populist currents to regain their former prominence in the USSR, especially since the Sino-Soviet conflict renders increasingly questionable the image of a global socialist “camp” organized around the USSR. Populism makes no such demands upon the imagination, being well integrated with the national Russian tradition and acceptable to patriots of all classes. It also carries unflattering implications for the Western labor movement—a movement the USSR can no longer hope to control. For Bakunin had two strings to his bow: a grand vision of the coming racial conflict between the Germans and the Slavs—amply confirmed by the two European wars of our century—and a firm belief that the socialist revolution was unlikely to come first in Germany, or in any developed industrial country: only the truly poor and destitute (the “wretched of the earth” in later parlance) could be trusted to possess the revolutionary faith.
One must read Bakunin if one wants to understand the passion Lenin half a century later put into his indictment of the corrupt labor aristocracy (a doctrine, incidentally, which neither Rosa Luxemburg, nor Trotsky, Bukharin, Gramsci, or any other important Marxist writer of the time thought it worth mentioning, let alone confuting). Lenin did not cite Bakunin, but in some respects he was his heir nonetheless. Consider the following passage from Bakunin’s Gossudarstvennost i Anarkhia (“Statehood and Anarchy”) in 1873:
In Italy as in Russia there are a considerable number of such people [who have left the bourgeois world]. . . . But what is infinitely more important is the existence in Italy of a vast proletariat gifted with extraordinary intelligence but in large part illiterate and profoundly miserable; composed of two or three million workers in the towns and factories, as well as small artisans and some twenty million peasants who own nothing at all. . . . Nowhere perhaps is the social revolution closer than in Italy, not even in Spain. . . . In Italy the entire people awaits the social revolution. . . . There is not in Italy, as in many other European countries, a separate layer of workers in part already privileged thanks to high wages, proud even of a certain literary knowledge, and to such a degree impregnated with bourgeois ideas, aspirations, and vanities that those belonging to this stratum differ from the bourgeois only by their condition, not by their tendency. Such people exist in large number particularly in Germany and Switzerland, whereas in Italy there are only very few of them. . . . What predominates in Italy is that lumpenproletariat of which Marx and Engels, and with them the entire German socialist-democratic school, speak with such profound and unmerited contempt, for it is only within this proletariat, and not within the bourgeoisified layer of the working masses, that there resides in totality the spirit and the force of the future social revolution.63
Bakunin did not require a theory of imperialist super-profits to explain why the German workers, unlike the Italians, were non-revolutionary in temper: by his standards they were already past hope in 1873. Engels for his part told Vera Zasulich in 1885 that in his view “the Russians are approaching their 1789.”64 This was a perfectly sound and reasonable conjecture, grounded in sociological considerations, not on crude nonsense about the rebellious temper of the Lumpenproletariat. Engels based his forecast on the internal strains of a developing society whose internal contradictions and strains were “held in check by an unexampled despotism, a despotism which is becoming more and more unbearable to a youth in whom the dignity and intelligence of the nation are united—there, when 1789 has once been launched, 1793 will not be long in following.” No nonsense about the leading role of the working class: Engels knew perfectly well that in a backward country such as Russia the fight against Czarist absolutism came first, and that the push would come from the radical intelligentsia. On this point at least the more sensible populists and the Marxists were in agreement.
If one now turns to Bakunin’s apocalyptic vision of a coming showdown between Russia and China, one finds that the old Slavophile had simply transferred his attention from Russia’s western frontier to its Siberian possessions. Gossudarstvennost i Anarkhia is largely devoted to the German-Slav antagonism, the German threat to Russia’s preponderance in the Baltic, the historic Russian longing for Constantinople, the follies of Czarist diplomacy, and other topical concerns. By contrast, the Chinese menace is dealt with briefly, but what Bakunin has to say about it is still worth reading after almost a century:
China alone counts 400 million, or according to others 600 million, inhabitants, who are evidently cramped within the frontiers of the Celestial Empire and in ever growing numbers transplant themselves in an irresistible current, some to Australia, others across the Pacific to California; other masses may finally displace themselves towards the north and northeast. And what then? Then, in the twinkling of an eye, Siberia, the entire territory extending from Tartary to the Ural mountains and the Caspian Sea will cease to be Russian. . . . How is one to arrest the irruption of the Chinese masses who will not only invade the whole of Siberia, including our new possessions in Central Asia, but will also expand beyond the Urals down to the Volga!
Such is the danger which menaces us all but fatally from the eastern side. One does wrong to despise the Chinese masses. They are dangerous simply by virtue of their numbers, dangerous because their excessive proliferation renders virtually impossible their future existence within the frontiers of China. . . . Let us also note that of late they have begun to familiarize themselves with modern arms and European discipline, that latest official fruit of our statist civilization. Just ally this discipline, the acquirement of new arms and modern tactics, with the primitive barbarism of the Chinese masses, with their total lack of any idea of human protest, of all instinct of liberty, with their habit of servile obedience . . . consider the monstrous enormity of the Chinese population . . . and you will understand how great is the peril which menaces us from the side of the East. . . .65
The author of these lines was a better prophet than those among his Leninist pupils who after 1917 thought they had exorcized the specter by helping the Chinese revolution to attain its goals. For these goals were national, hence in the last resort incompatible with the hegemony of a rival empire in Asia.
* All notes appear at the end of the article.
1 Richard Koebner, Empire (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965), p. 4.
2 Ibid., p. 9.
3 Ronald Syme, Tacitus (Clarendon Press, 1958, 1963), Preface; see also Syme, The Roman Revolution (Clarendon Press, 1939, 1952, 1956), pp. 11-12: “The political life of the Roman Republic was stamped and swayed, not by parties and programs of a modern and parliamentary character, not by the ostensible opposition between Senate and People, Optimates and Populares, nobiles and novi homines, but by the strife for power, wealth and glory. The contestants were the nobiles among themselves, as individuals or in groups, open in the elections and in the courts of law or masked by secret intrigue. As in its beginning, so in its last generation, the Roman Commonwealth, ‘res publica populi Romani,’ was a name; a feudal order of society still survived in a city-state and governed an empire. Noble families determined the history of the Republic, giving their names to it's epochs.”
4 Koebner, op. cit., p. 2.
5 Henry Furneaux, ed., The Annals of Tacitus (Clarendon Press, 1st edition 1883, reprinted 1896, 1934, 1956, 1962, 1965), pp. 81-83.
6 Syme, The Roman Revolution, pp. 313 ff. The impact of the Punic wars on Roman society is described at great length by Arnold Toynbee, Hannibal's Legacy: The Hannibalic War's Effects on Roman Life (Oxford University Press, 1965), two vols., passim. For an analysis of the earlier Greek maritime empire and its social foundations see M. I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks (Chatto & Windus, 1963), pp. 45 ff.; A. H. M. Jones, Athenian Democracy (Basil Blackwell, 1964), passim.
7 Koebner, op. cit., p. 19.
8 Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (Meridian Books, 1957), pp. 75 ff.
9 Pirenne. op. cit., pp. 147 ff.; Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), pp. 16 ff.
10 Geoffrey Barraclough, European Unity in Thought and Action (Blackwell, 1963), p. 5. For details see Pirenne, op. cit., pp. 45 ff.; Heinz Gollwitzer, Europabild und Europagedanke (C. H. Beck, 1964), passim; Dieter Groth, Russland und das Selbstverständnis Europas (Luchterhand, 1961), passim.
11 Koebner, op. cit., p. 19.
12 Ibid., p. 24.
13 Ibid., p. 28.
14 Ibid., p. 55.
15 Ibid., p. 58. For the general background see Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (Secker & Warburg, 1964; Mercury Books, 1966), passim. Also the same author's Puritanism and Revolution (Secker & Warburg, 1958), pp. 123 ff.; H. R. Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change (Macmillan, 1967), pp. 46 ff.
16 Koebner, op. cit., p. 60.
17 Barraclough, op. cit., p. 28.
18 Koebner, op. cit., pp. 61 ff; Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: A Social and Economic History of Britain 1530-1780 (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1967), pp. 20 ff.
19 Christopher Hill, Oliver Cromwell 1658-1958 (Routledge, 1958), passim.
20 Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, p. 123.
21 Ibid., p. 124.
22 Koebner. op. cit., pp. 65 ff. James Harrington, who during Cromwell's reign stood on the left wing of the republician coalition, was among the prophets of the new age. His “Commonwealth of the Oceans” was the rhetorical counterpart of Cromwell's attempt to found a maritime empire, even though Harrington was no Puritan and his political ideas were derived from Bacon and Machiavelli. See his Oceana and Other Works (1656). It is irrelevant that, to cite Koebner once more, “the name of the British Empire had no place in the Puritan Commonwealth” (op. cit., p. 67). What matters is that the Cromwellians overcame their scruples to the point of fighting Holland for control of the seas, when in the name of religion they ought to have shrunk from such a godless enterprise. Once the break was made, the “Empire of the Sea,” for which Harrington strove, encountered no further ideological resistance, save from those religious radicals who had already broken with Cromwell on the issue of democracy.
23 Alfred Cobban, The Nation State and National Self-Determination (Collins, 1969), pp. 23 ff.; V. G. Kiernan, “State and Nation in Western Europe,” Past ir Present (Oxford), No. 31, July 1965, pp. 20 ff. For a critique of Max Weber's well-known thesis concerning the relationship of Calvinism to capitalism, see Gabriel Kolko, “Max Weber on America: Theory and Evidence,” in Studies in the Philosophy of History, ed. George H. Nadel (Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 180 ff.
24 Kiernan, loc. cit., p. 23. The statement applies to India and the Islamic world with greater exactitude than to China and Japan, the last-mentioned country at least having developed a genuine feudalism and the notion of personal property in land that commonly goes with it. In China, and still more in India and the Middle East, this development was strangled at birth by the system of government usually described as Oriental despotism. The realization that capitalism could sprout from feudalism in Europe (and subsequently in Japan) only because private property was beyond the reach of a despotic central power, forms the connecting link between Marx's and Max Weber's theorizing. See among others Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, tr. Jack Cohen, ed. E. J. Hobsbawm (Lawrence & Wishart, 1964), passim.
25 Cobban, op. cit., p. 29.
26 For Hobbes's contribution to this topic see Richard Peters, Hobbes (Penguin Books, 1956, 1967), pp. 178 ff; Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Chicago University Press, 1952, 1963), passim; C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Clarendon Press, 1962), pp. 87 ff.; K. C. Brown, ed., Hobbes Studies (Basil Blackwell, 1965), passim. It has often been pointed out that Hobbes is “modern”—that is to say, bourgeois—in his approach to politics: he counterposes a mass of atomized individuals to the sovereign state. What is rather more relevant is his failure to make a convincing transition from psychological atomism to political absolutism. On his general assumptions about human nature, if taken seriously, it is by no means apparent why free individuals should contract to establish an absolute power suspended like a sword over their heads. Locke's solution was more closely attuned to the sentiments of the propertied classes in England and America, and he succeeded where Hobbes had failed. But the Leviathan did mark the decisive break with political theology. God was expelled from history and replaced by the individual's fear of death.
27 Koebner, op. cit., pp. 88-9. The reference is to Franklin's Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries etc. (1751).
28 The Wealth of Nations (Random House, 1937), pp. 402-3: “That foreign trade enriched the country, experience demonstrated to the nobles and country gentlemen, as well as to the merchants; but how, or in what manner, none of them well knew. The merchants knew perfectly well in what manner it enriched themselves; it was their business to know it. But in what manner it enriched the country, was no part of their business. This subject never came into their consideration, but when they had occasion to apply to their country for some change in the laws relating to foreign trade. It then became necessary to say something about the beneficial effects of foreign trade, and the manner in which those effects were obstructed by the laws as they then stood.” Smith's virtuous indignation was perfectly genuine, and perfectly adapted to the situation of a country which had outgrown the swaddling-clothes of mercantile protection and become able to trade on equal terms with all the world. His American pupils two centuries later added nothing to his argument, while subtracting something from his style.
29 Pieter Geyl, Orange and Stuart 1641-72 (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1969); translated from the Dutch original, Oranje en Stuart, 1939.
30 Second edition (St. Martin, 1961). See also his earlier The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III.
31 England in the Age of the American Revolution, pp. 281-82.
32 Richard W. Van Alstyne, The American Empire: Its Historical Pattern and Evolution (Routledge, 1960), p. 5.
34 Ibid., pp. 5-6.
35 Ibid., p. 7.
36 Ibid., p. 10.
37 C. R. Fay, English Economic History (Heffer, 1940, 1948), p. 3.
38 Cited in Charles Wilson, Mercantilism (Routledge, 1958), p. 6. For the Historical School, see J. A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 504 ff., 808 ff.
39 Wilson, op. cit., p. 6.
40 Ibid., p. 7.
41 Fay, op. cit., p. 12.
42 General Theory (MacMillan, 1947), p. 340.
43 Wilson, op. cit., p. 9.
44 Gustav Schmoller, Gesammelte Aufsätze, pp. 20 ff.; cited by Fritz Fischer, Germany's Aims in the First World War (Norton, 1967), p. 9. Professor Fischer needs no introduction. His eminence in his chosen field is such that even his German academic colleagues have reluctantly abandoned the attempt to revert to their traditional silence on the topic of German war aims.
45 Cited in Groh, Russland und das Selbstverständnis Europas, p. 264.
46 Fay, op. cit., p. 10.
47 E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 110.
48 Hobsbawm, Labouring Men; Studies in the History of Labour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), pp. 179 ff.; Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party 1880-1900 (Clarendon Press, 1965), passim.
49 W. O. Henderson, The Industrialization of Europe 1780-1914 (Thames & Hudson, 1969), passim.
50 Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, pp. 123-4.
51 Michael Barratt Brown, After Imperialism (Heinemann, 1963), p. 63.
52 Ibid., p. 65.
53 Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 125.
54 Ibid., pp. 125-26.
55 For the general topic see Heinz Gollwitzer, Europe in the Age of Imperialism (Thames and Hudson, 1969), passim; for the literature of the period see V. G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European attitudes towards the outside world in the Imperial Age (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), passim; for the ideology of Social Darwinism and its various offshoots, see Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperialist Thought 1895-1914 (Allen and Unwin, 1960), passim; for the Fabian contribution to this murky stream see A. M. McBriar, “The Fabians, Imperialism, Tariff Reform, and War” in McBriar, Fabian Socialism and English Politics 1884-1918 ([Cambridge] University Press, 1962, 1966), pp. 119 ff.; for an eloquent exposition of British imperialist ideology at the peak of the movement, see A. P. Thornton, The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies: A Study in British Power (St. Martin's Press, 1959), passim; for an attempt to show that the partition of the globe among rival powers after 1880 had no rational economic motivation, see J. Gallagher and R. Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” Economic History Review, vol. VI, no. I, 1953. The theme is discussed at greater length in J. A. Schumpeter's essay collection entitled Imperialism and Social Classes, ed. Paul M. Sweezy (Blackwell, 1951), passim. The standard liberal critique of British imperialism was initiated by J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (first published in 1902; revised edition Allen and Unwin, 1948), passim. Socialist authors will be considered later. The imperialist literature itself is virtually coterminous with conservative and ruling-class thought in the age of Theodore Roosevelt, Joseph Chamberlain, and William II. Amidst this flood, A. T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783 (Sagamore Press, 1957) is a distinctly superior specimen and can also claim to have altered the current of affairs inasmuch as it became the Bible of American, British, Japanese, and German rulers, politicians, and admirals from the day of its publication in 1890 down to the outbreak of war in 1914, and perhaps down to Pearl Harbor and the Japanese-American conflict of 1941-45.
56 Article of September 4, published in the New York Daily Tribune of September 16, 1857; reprinted in K. Marx and F. Engels, The First Indian War of Independence (Moscow, 1959), p. 93; and in S. Avineri, ed., Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization (Doubleday, 1968), p. 213. For the general effect of the 1857 bloodbath on British-Indian relations, see Kiernan, op. cit., pp. 46 ff.
57 Marx, ibid.
58 D. W. Brogan, The Development of Modern France (1870-1939) (Hamish Hamilton, 1940), p. 16.
59 Fischer, Germany's Aims in the First World War, pp. 9 ff., 31 ff., 46 ff., 98 ff. Once war had broken out in 1914, Germany's imperial appetite began to encompass the creation of a Central African colonial empire as well, but domination of Mitteleuropa always remained at the core of it. A customs union with Austria-Hungary, and annexations in Russia, were necessary features of this program which had already been worked out before 1914 by leading industrialists such as Walter Rathenau, subsequently one of the more prominent figures of the short-lived Weimar Republic. Expansion into the Near East followed as a matter of course.
60 Gollwitzer, pp. 42 ff. But it does not follow that imperialism was unpopular. The notion that it never had a mass following is on a par with the belief that fascism was the conscious creation of a few demagogues and never attracted anyone but ruined shopkeepers. Such beliefs, firmly held by the more simple spirits on the Left after 1919, were responsible for major political disasters during the inter-war period.
61 Friedrich Engels, “Deutschland und der Panslawismus,” Neue Oder-Zeitung, no. 185 of April 21, 1855; reprinted in Marx-Engels Werke (East Berlin, 1961, vol. 11, pp. 193-94); see also Engels' article in the same journal of April 24, where Austrian Pan-Slavism is distinguished from its Russian branch, and Metternich is given some credit for having perceived the Russian menace. His repressive measure failed (Engels observes) because his regime could not permit that “free development of the German and Hungarian spirit which was more than sufficient to exorcise the Slav specter.” This line of thought went back to 1848 and eventually came to rank among the treasured possessions of all but a handful of German and Austro-Hungarian Social Democrats. for obvious reasons, Leninist writers have never been eager to emphasize this embarrassing circumstance which makes nonsense of the assertion that the German and Austrian Socialists in 1914 betrayed their spiritual heritage. It would be truer to say that they remained faithful to it after it had ceased to be relevant. For Marx's views on the subject, which did not differ fundamentally from Engels' except that he was friendlier to the Poles, see the two pamphlets respectively entitled Secret Diplomatic History of the Eighteenth Century and The Story of the Life of Lord Palmerston, both originally published in British and American journals between 1853 and 1857, and now available in book form (Lawrence and Wishart, 1969); also Karl Marx, Manuskripte über die polnische Frage (1863-1864) (Mouton & Co., 1961).
62 Marx, Konspekt von Bakunins “Staatlichkeit und Anarchie,” in Werke, vol. 18, pp. 599 ff., especially p. 622. Written in 1874-75, but not published at the time, this critique of Bakunin's curious mixture of anarchism and Pan-Slavism claims a certain topical interest.
63 Translated from the French version, Etatisme et Anarchie, in Archives Bakounine (E.J. Brill, 1967), p. 206. For the Russian original see Gossudarstvennost i Anarkhia (1873), reprinted in the same volume, ed., Arthur Lehning. For the subsequent fortunes of this work and the post-revolutionary reprints of 1919 and 1922, see the Introduction. The pamphlet had a profound impact upon the Russian Populists, a circumstance confirmed in 1876 by the Blanquist writer Peter Tkachev, who differed radically from Bakunin on the issue of “spontaneity” versus centralized organization. It was of course the student youth who took up these ideas and transmitted them to later generations of revolutionaries, Lenin's contemporaries among them. For the rest, one has only to peruse State and Revolution (1917) to realize that Lenin—while carefully citing Marx and Engels in support of his theses-had effected a fusion of the Bakuninist and the Blanquist inheritance.
64 Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956), p. 459.
65 Etatisme et Anarchie, op. cit., pp. 282-83.