Book Review: Empire: A Very Short Introduction

Empire:  A Very Short Introduction, by Stephen Howe

Although this series is not uniformly good, it generally does fulfill its appointed task of providing a very short introduction on a given subject.  And empire itself is a highly contentious subject that deserves at least some attempt to wrestle with one’s assumptions about what makes an empire and whether it should be viewed as a descriptive term or as a pejorative one.  The author is wise enough to delicately wade through the minefield of ambiguity concerning the term and in pointing out the different assumptions that people make when using terms like imperialism and colonialism and neo-colonialism (all of which are discussed here), he does yeoman service in allowing the reader to understand the unclear rhetoric that makes this term and its use far less straightforward than by all rights it ought to be.  And while the book does leave somewhat unclear the author’s own opinions about particular empires, that is for the best as readers are likely to come to this book with very different views on empire and somewhat varying opinions on how particular empires are to be evaluated as well.  And if this book helps us be more clear about what we mean, that is definitely for the best.

This book is a short one at a bit more than 100 pages and it is divided into five chapters and a bit of other material.  The author begins with a list of illustrations and then an introduction that shows the many facets of empire that are to be found in our daily news, whether we are looking at stories of post-imperial conflicts or the sports pages.  The author then discusses who an imperialist is (1), pointing out the various assumptions made about empire and who counts as an imperialist based upon one’s political worldview.  There is then a discussion of empire by land (2) that shows how many empires were built through conquest and inheritance, including the settlement of Argentina, the United States, and Russia, for example as well as a discussion of empire by sea (3), the model that best describes the British or Dutch empires, for example.  After that there is a discussion of the ends and aftermaths of empire (4) and how they are to be studied and judged (5) in a way that is fair.  The book then ends with references, suggestions for further reading, and an index, the usual sort of material.

My own views of empire are somewhat mixed.  I am hostile to the denial of freedoms and identity that tends to come with empire and believe that America’s anti-imperialist identity is made hypocritical by the possession of a formal empire, but at the same time as a nationalist and as a proud European-American I can see how empires have benefited the world as a whole by providing resources for those people who are best fit to use it and paying enough for them to help develop areas that would otherwise be neglected and ignored.  And given that even the sort of free trade and wide commercial ties that I would favor are viewed as informal empire, clearly someone with views like my own cannot be a doctrinaire foe of imperialism, which is at least one of the likely points of the book and its approach.  To the extent that people realize their own biases and perspectives when it comes to empire and what sort of imperial behavior gets their hackles up and which they support, this book will definitely have a successful role in making this contentious subject at least more clear if not more agreed upon.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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