Bookbriefs

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A selection of books on the history and continuing reality of US and British imperialism.

There are library shelves groaning with all the thousands of books about US imperialism. In War is a Racket (Turnaround £6.99) Smedley Butler of the Marines describes himself as a gangster for capitalism. This book was written in 1935, and since then many Americans have raged at the barbarity of their government's behaviour abroad. Al Capone only worked in three districts - Butler and his Marines operated on three continents, crushing democratically elected governments. Now with titles like William Blum's Freeing the World to Death (Common Courage Press £11.99) through Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko and Seymour Hersh, there is no reason why we shouldn't be as familiar with the details of the Evil Empire as the rest of the world who suffer from its attention.


British imperialism has got off lightly. Mark Curtis describes its reputation among mainstream media, and therefore dominant ideology, as one of 'basic benevolence'. Books are commodities, and publishing houses are driven by profit. They are also much cheaper in America than here because the market is five times larger. The upshot for us is the scarcity of accessible detailed information about British imperialism. John Newsinger's British Counter-Insurgency From Palestine to Northern Ireland (Palgrave) came out in 2002 as a £55 hardback. Now Palgrave is deciding whether to go into paperback depending on the sales of a book initially priced well above most people's book budget. In 1990 Robert Edgerton's Mau Mau: An African Crucible (IB Tauris £39.50) went down without much of a fight, and is now only available as a print on demand title. Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) and Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins (Jonathan Cape £20) stand a better chance of making an impact on public consciousness. It's not difficult to believe that people were tortured in concentration camps now we've seen the trophy photos of Iraqi prisoners.


While I get the house teenager to put the kettle on, how many cups of tea do you drink a day? Tea: Addiction, Exploitation and Empire by Roy Moxham (Constable Robinson £7.99) describes the British opium wars on China. Chinese rulers were trying to stop the opium trade and rehabilitate their thousands of addicts. Britain was running out of silver to pay for the millions of pounds of Chinese tea they were consuming. The Chinese liked Indian opium, and Indian labour hadn't planted tea all over Assam yet, so you see how it was all perfectly reasonable and unavoidable, really. Also don't forget Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts (Verso £14), proving that the British rulers of India allowed the droughts at the end of the 19th century to kill tens of millions of people in the Indian subcontinent while they exported grain to England.


Publishers traditionally cover their costs by selling hardbacks - hence the price. Paperbacks are a bonus. This makes it all the more remarkable that Vintage went straight into print in paperback with Mark Curtis's Web of Deceit (Vintage £7.99). This detailed exposé of 'Britain's real role in the world' has sold 20,000 copies. Curtis expects us to use this angry book as a weapon to change the world.


In the gaping maw of publishing, the independents tend to be modest about their work. They do not go to the Frankfurt book fair and buy the rights to the next million-selling blockbuster. They specialise and do 'short' print runs of 3,000. One established printing company reports that even the monster companies do hardback runs in the mere hundreds, and are printing as few as 1,000 or 2,000 copies of some titles in paperback. It demonstrates the size and confidence of the anti-war movement in this country that the first printing of Stop the War: The Story of Britain's Biggest Mass Movement by Andrew Murray and Lindsey German (Bookmarks special offer £12.99) at 10,000 copies is five times the norm.