I for Imperialism

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Why does the BBC History magazine have a special issue devoted to the British Empire in 2008?

Not too long ago imperialism was regarded as a historical phenomenon with no contemporary relevance. Only out of date Marxists continued to use the term.

Today all this has changed and we have bestselling right wing historians like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts not only celebrating the British Empire, but urging continued British support for the US empire, indeed arguing that the US ruling class has to become more imperially minded. It is the return of colonial wars to centre stage that has brought this about. To be blunt, the BBC History magazine has had a special issue on the empire because there are British troops fighting in the US's colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In it Professor Denis Judd "balances the books of the British Empire". In his article he provides an assessment of the empire's impact on eight countries, concluding that it was negative in three (Jamaica, Kenya and Iraq), too close to call in three (Australia, South Africa and Egypt) and positive in two (the US and India). Leaving aside the multitude of objections that can be made to this sort of gimmicky history, how on earth did he include British rule in India among the positives?

Now, Judd is the author of a number of books on the British Empire, including an acclaimed general history, Empire, and the way he includes India among the positives is quite simple: he removes the great Bengal Famine of 1943 from the record. According to Lord Wavell, who took over as viceroy during the famine, it was "one of the greatest disasters that has ever befallen any people under British rule".

The nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru described it as "the final judgement on British rule" in India. The famine cost the lives of some three and a half million people - men, women and children - from starvation, disease and exposure. And to compound the horror, the prime minister, Winston Churchill, deliberately obstructed famine relief from motives of racist hatred.

Judd is not alone in this exercise in historical amnesia. Of all the general histories of the British Empire available today, none of those written from a conservative, liberal or social democratic perspective so much as mentions the Bengal Famine. Not even the immensely prestigious Oxford History of the British Empire, the summation of Anglo-American academic work on the empire, can bring itself to memorialise the over three million Bengali famine victims. Only the two anti-imperialist histories, the books by Piers Brandon and me, even begin to confront the famine and its significance. This is no accident.

Those Russian historians who conveniently forgot the terrible Ukrainian Famine of the early 1930s during the period of the Soviet Union are quite correctly dismissed as Stalinist apologists.

It is difficult to see how writing the Bengal Famine out of the history textbooks today is any different. Russian historians at least had the very real excuse that they lived in a country where history was dictated by the secret police.

Yet one problem with today's revived interest in imperialism is that even much of the writing that is critical of empire is theoretically impoverished.

Imperialism is reduced to Western colonial rule. This completely misunderstands the nature of imperialism today. Imperialism has two dimensions: the first, the driving force, is competition between the great capitalist powers. This competition is for economic supremacy, but it is fought out politically, militarily and strategically as well.

Both the great wars of the first half of the 20th century, the First World War and the Second World War, were imperialist wars, brutal murderous conflicts, costing millions of lives, and fought out between alliances of rival capitalist powers. The Cold War of the second half of the 20th century was an imperialist conflict fought out between capitalist and state capitalist powers. It ended with the bankruptcy of one side rather than military defeat.

The second dimension of imperialism is the control, either direct or indirect, of weaker countries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the European and American empires established direct rule over much of the world.

The colonial territories were ruled by force, and resistance everywhere was put down with great brutality. The colonies were ruthlessly exploited. This exploitation was not just for the profit of individual capitalists, but was also part of the competition between the great powers.

Since the Second World War control has been increasingly exercised indirectly, through puppet regimes that have kept their own local populations under control, often by similar methods to those used by the imperial powers.

Today serious debate about imperialism focuses on the relative decline of US economic power and the emergence of rivals in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Does this indicate a period of renewed imperialist conflict? While overwhelming US economic domination is a thing of the past, US military domination is still very much with us. What we are seeing at the present time is the US trying to substitute military power for economic supremacy. This is what is happening in the Middle East, where the US is trying to establish military domination over the region and its oil.

Quite clearly we are in the midst of an era of new colonial wars. Both New Labour and the Conservative Party are wholeheartedly committed to supporting the US in both its present and any future adventures. They see British capitalism's best interests as served by a junior partnership with US imperialism. This is why British troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Once again anti-imperialism is at the top of the agenda.

John Newsinger


Further reading:

  • The Blood Never Dried by John Newsinger
  • Imperialism and World Economy by Nikolai Bukharin
  • The New Mandarins of American Power by Alex Callinicos
  • Imperialism and Resistance by John Rees
  • The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brandon