Book Review: Imperialism

Imperialism, edited by Philip D. Curtin

This book provides what its intended readers would want to read, and it can provide something even to those whom the book is not directly aimed at. By and large, imperialism gets a bad rap in the contemporary period, and it is not like reading most of this material is going to make others feel positively about imperialism if they are not inclined to do so. The editor of this work is to be praised for providing so much material–over 350 pages of it–largely written by people in their own words about imperialism as they thought about it and experienced during the 19th and 20th centuries. Admittedly, though, this book is sorely incomplete because its hostility only deals with Western imperialism as colonialism, not the sort of imperialism that has been practiced throughout the world in human history and which most people are sadly ignorant of, the imperialism of Arabs or Chinese or Thai or Malians or Russians or Indonesians or Ethiopians, to give but a few of many possible examples. Those readers who are inclined to think of imperialism/colonialism as a problem for Western Europeans alone are likely to miss the fact that many would-be nation states are in fact empires and have the same failures, namely the rule of others by force or fraud and the use of justifications for rulership in a way that does not benefit the people at large.

This book is between 350 and 400 pages and is divided into seven sections and 26 selections of European and American thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries. The author begins with a discussion of imperialism–defined far too narrowly as Western European colonialism and related ventures–as an intellectual history of a disreputable term. First the author begins with the “scientific” roots of 19th century racism (I) with thinkers like Georges Cuvier, Robert Knox, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Kidd. After that comes a sample of the relationship between imperialism and the law of nations (II), including discussions by de Vattel, Westlake, the League of Nations, and the UN. This is followed with some essays on the application of pseudoscientific racism (III), including Carl Peters, de Saussure, Charles Temple, and Sydney Olivier. The economics of Empire are explored by such figures as Thomas Carlyle, Earl Grey, and Louis Vignon (IV). Then there are some discussions on the civilizing mission (V) by Macaulay, the British Privy Council, Rufus Anderson, Van Vollenhoven, and Lord Lugard. The exercise of imperium (VI) is explored by Lord Lugard on indirect rule and Delavignette on French administration. Finally, the book ends with a discussion about the right to rule from the Aborigines Committee, Jules Harmand, Lugard, and Hobson (VII), after which the book ends with a short index.

Indeed, the book would have been better without the sort of editorializing that exists. This book’s existence is demonstrative of the wide gulf that exists between our own age and others when it comes to what we are willing and able to say in polite company about groups of people, about which our language is frequently faulty and all too muddled now as it was in the past. If the author is critical about the motives of the past, readers who are more sympathetic to the problems faced by sympathetic rulers of people who are not advanced and whose struggle with modernity has remained frequently unsuccessful to this day, the editor is at least aware that there are dilemmas that have to be wrestled with by peoples themselves (but who counts as the people) with what they wish to keep from their past and what they wish to adopt from more successful and powerful cultures, as well as by those who wish to help others but find that their backwardness gets in the way of genuinely peaceful and beneficial relations. Life is complicated, and so is imperialism, no matter how it is practiced. It is a shame that this book does not do more to expand the definition of imperialism beyond the usual suspects.

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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