From Socialist Voice, June 2010

Book review

You can ignore imperialism . . . but imperialism won’t ignore you

Andrew Murray, The Imperial Controversy: Challenging the Empire Apologists, London: Manifesto Press; ISBN 978-1-907464-00-3; £12.95 / €15.55.

Andrew Murray is national chairperson of the Stop the War Coalition, director of campaigns and communications with the trade union Unite, and a member of the Communist Party of Britain. In this, his latest book he challenges those historians, journalists and broadcasters who in recent years have suggested that the British Empire has not been all that bad. Indeed some of them seem to think it has been some kind of charity agency.
     One such historian, Lawrence James, is quoted as writing: “Britain’s empire was a moral force and one for good. Few empires have equipped their subjects with the intellectual wherewithal to overthrow their rulers. None has been survived by so much affection and moral respect.”
     One of the biggest rehabilitators of the Empire’s reputation in the last decade has been Niall Ferguson. Murray says that Channel 4’s invitation to Ferguson to oversee the series on imperial history was like asking a creationist to do a series about the origin of life or a fascist to put together a programme on Mussolini. In his book Empire, based on the television series, he celebrates “the white man’s burden” and the spread of “civilisation,” the English language, and capitalism.
     Murray points out that Ferguson is one of those who make explicit the connection between eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century imperialism and that of the twenty-first century.
     Of course the pro-Empire historians have no option but to admit to some “excesses” in quelling resistance; but in Oxford (and UCD), among other places, the colonial administration was seen as the lawful authority, and its opponents were “rebels” or “terrorists,” who were the cause of violence, including violence inflicted by the Empire’s servants.
     Murray points out that the imperial historian Andrew Roberts excuses the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919 (in which more than a thousand peaceful demonstrators were killed on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer) on the grounds that “abstaining from murderous repression would have led to a still bloodier conflict as rebellion spread.”
     The Imperial Controversy emphasises the consistency and continuity of London’s imperial mindset over all that time. It is not that imperialism has not changed but nevertheless it “hasn’t gone away, you know.” A basic part of that change is the passing of the leading role to the United States (although some present-day imperialists would prefer to give the prime role to the European Union, if circumstances allowed).
     Indeed Ferguson admits (or boasts) that Tony Blair’s speeches “illustrate most clearly . . . how tenacious the grip of empire remains on the Oxford-educated mind.” Or, as Andrew Murray puts it, “Once again ‘our boys’ are planting the flag in foreign fields, taking the heathen by the hand and leading him towards the sun-lit tomorrow of free-market democratic capitalism.”
     By the way, it’s interesting to learn that in 1997 Blair had to be talked out of saying how proud he was of the British Empire (by Robin Cook).
     Much of the popular discussion of imperialism is coloured by Second World War propaganda that divided the world into “good” and “bad.” Fascism was depicted as being caused by a small number of “evil” men, without any consideration of social, political or economic forces. (Lucifer often gets blamed unfairly.) War propaganda is one thing; analysis is another. Murray says: “Suggesting that the Empire deserves to be viewed in the same historical light as Nazi Germany seems far-fetched, or even offensive.”
     He goes on: “What needs to be confronted, however, is the view that the crimes of other great powers of the last 150 years or so, being somehow, less lurid and dramatic than those of the Nazis, can therefore be subject to a more nuanced judgement, in which the deaths of millions of people on the one hand can be offset against the construction of railways on the other.”
     He reminds his readers that the Empire’s history is one of almost endless waging of war. In the eighteenth century Britain fought 119 wars; during the reign of the Famine Queen Victoria there were 72 such wars; and in the twentieth century there was war and repression in South Africa, Kenya, Palestine, Malaya, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Cyprus, Ireland, and other theatres.
     Murray shows how the imperial mindset was responsible for massive numbers of deaths by its attitude to famine in India and in Ireland. He says: “The famine in Ireland of 1845–47 exemplified the emerging synthesis of racism and capitalist economics.” He sums up: “The truth is Britain has never started apologising for the record of massacre, exploitation and despoliation that we have only sketched here. Today one is far more likely to hear arguments for starting the whole imperial show up again.”
     Murray deals with a very important aspect of the subject that is often ignored. “Imperialism,” he says, “has reached into the heart of the progressive wing of British politics down the years. The same story could be told regarding US or indeed French left-wing politics.” We in Ireland could add our tuppence-worth to this, as we have had, and still have, people who regard themselves as progressive but who objectively side with imperialism.
     Murray has particular disdain for the likes of Christopher Hitchens, who delights in cheap shots at God and Mother Teresa but who has enthusiastically joined the neo-conservative team. Hitchens asserted in 2003 that Saddam “certainly” had nerve gas and chemical weapons and was a patron of al-Qaida. We have long since known that none of this was true.
     Many “progressive” people have taken over the idea that national sovereignty is a thing of the past. Andrew Murray is quite clear in his evaluation of this. “Sovereignty is deeply entwined with the idea, traditionally accepted without demur by most of the left, of self-determination. People have the right to shape their own future. And this is not just an abstract right. Self-determination, however arduous, leads to different outcomes rooted in people’s own experiences, struggles and cultures, than would be obtained through external determination or imposition, however allegedly ‘well-intentioned’ the latter would be.”
     This book is essential reading for all who want to understand the present international situation. Andrew Murray might well have quoted what another Murray, Seán, one of the founders of the CPI, liked to say: “You can ignore the national question, but the national question won’t ignore you.” The same could be said of imperialism.

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