The American-Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy titled his (very readable) account of the disintegration of the Soviet Union The Last Empire. It was an optimistic title: a conventional explanation for Russian actions in Ukraine is that it marks a resurgence of Russian imperialism; nationalism, much closer to the root cause, doesn’t usually get a mention. In any case, it took no account of the persistence of the US empire: never formally acknowledged, the US deployment of military and financial resources worldwide makes any reading of the American global presence as anything other than imperial incomprehensible.
This is a point made by some American conservatives as well as by people associated with the left. At the same time, and for longer, as the US was dismantling much of its formal empire after the Second World War, many European powers recalibrated their relations with their former colonies. It would be erroneous to characterise the EEC-EU as an empire in any of the meanings usually associated with that word. But the Polish political scientist Jan Zielonka has suggested that the EU can be understood as a form of neo-mediaeval empire, something much looser than its more modern successor, and therefore more suited to containing the multiple varieties and tensions within the union. This is in contrast to those who see the EU as inevitably moving ever closer to something resembling a Westphalian state. Above all, the EU (neither a state nor an empire) does not have a single military force at its disposal: right now, it has outsourced much of its defence needs to the US; as has been said, Ukraine may not be in NATO, but NATO most certainly is in Ukraine. Much of Eastern Europe sees itself as reliant on the US for its defence needs, while relying on integration into the EU for enhanced economic performance. In this reading, the present war in Ukraine was the inevitable outcome of when two empires, two nationalisms, finally collide. This does not exculpate Putin for his illegal, immoral and very stupid acts. But it does question the premises on which Western policy was pursued, not least the inevitable spread of a liberal economic and social order.
Whatever chances Russia had of becoming a liberal democracy in the aftermath of the Soviet Union were scuppered by the West’s treatment of Russia. Neither George Bush snr nor Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to see the collapse of the Soviet Union; the spectre of the former Yugoslavia was a reminder of what could happen. Nor did many Russians see themselves as a defeated power: they had negotiated the end of one regime and were negotiating the creation of a new one. For a short time, Bush snr went along with this. But the language of triumphalism, treating Russia as a defeated power, coupled with the ruthless implementation of neoliberal economic policies, reduced Russia to what appeared to some commentators to be terminal decline. By all indices, mortality, crime, basic social provision, Russia fell through the floor. Rather than something like a Marshall Plan, Russia got something closer to the Treaty of Versailles. Putin, in some form or other, was an inevitable outcome, the product not least of a deeply felt sense of Russian inferiority in the face of Western dominance. But Russia had, for a very long time, seen itself as a great power, a status incompatible with being treated as an inconsequential actor in world affairs. Liberalism’s attraction for many Russians was shor lived.
More direct forms of being treated as a subaltern, colonialism in Ireland’s case, could also produce a sense of inferiority. Only in the second half of my lifetime has this really disappeared as a significant component in the makeup of many Irish people when they contemplate their relationship with the United Kingdom; quite simply, post-independence Ireland was not a success and they did a great many things better over there. How things change. A sense of inferiority was also a colonial legacy in India, where a strong if marginal, and often derided –not least by serious scholars of India ‑ liberal tradition persisted from early in the nineteenth century. It was a significant element in the framing of the post-independence constitution, and not least the affirmation of secularism as a response to the competing ethnic and religious demands of many of India’s population; unity in diversity, as the famous phrase had it. Latterly, India has manifested itself as one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a beacon of high-tech modernity. Yet an equally persistent and more assertive strain in the Indian social-political make up has come to the fore. Hindu nationalism has become a dominant political form: rhetorically, sometimes, this may express itself as form of deep tolerance of others; many of the others in question, Muslims, do not experience it this way. Liberalism as an implicit way of defining the parameters within which official India conducts itself has been marginalised. The centre of gravity of Indian politics has changed.
At a time when Ireland has become notably liberal, a number of politicians are championing significant increases in military spending. Ireland, we hear, must play its part if it is to have any say in what happens in a Europe at war and where massive population movements are possible. Leaving Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael rivalries aside, not least in the southwest, where significant increases in spending on the navy will have significant impact on local patronage; in a deeply hierarchical military structure, Ireland can never deploy the resources needed to have any meaningful power or influence. If it were to abandon neutrality in favour of active participation in EU and NATO actions, it would be construed as having joined up as an active participant in an imperial endeavour. Some time and thought has been expended considering Ireland’s ambiguous relationship to empire: the officials, some good, some very bad, who made their careers in imperial service; the rank and file soldiers who were certainly much more privileged than their indigenous fellow-soldiers, but whose lives can have been anything but easy: drink and sexually transmitted diseases did for many; Irish nationalism, and its sometimes close relationship to India, and the overtly anti-imperialist stamp of many government pronouncements. However, by looking at how the historian, with close Irish connections, WEH Lecky, evaluated empire the point to be borne in mind is not how it sounded to a British –including Irish ‑ audience, but how it sounded to a non-domestic audience, many of them involuntary subjects of an imperialism that brought them no discernible benefit.
Lecky was most active in the last third of the nineteenth century, an age synonymous with imperialism, when his influence spanned Europe and the United States. Imperialism, as distinct from empire, was a political strategy engaged in by Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli to create a bloc of support united around an elevated sense of British place in the world, at a time when Germany and the United States were challenging British supremacy. The Liberal Unionists were a group of disaffected liberals, led by Lord Hartington, determined to scupper Gladstone’s Home Rule policies for Ireland. In their midst were also unionist liberal imperialists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, who wanted to abandon older liberal policies of free trade and introduce tariff reform and protectionism. In 1895, Lecky became Liberal Unionist MP for Trinity College, Dublin, where he is remembered by a statue, a chair, and a library.
Most people, most of the time, have lived in empires. Some empires happen because a superior state formation expands into ever more distant and turbulent frontiers until it meets a barrier: mountain, ocean, desert, wall, fence, fort, technology, that requires it to stop. Alternatively, empires end because there is simply nowhere to go: no human opposition, no human production, no turbulence. Perhaps this can be seen, over the centuries, as a form of atavism: the “objectless disposition on the part of the state to unlimited forcible occupation”, as the economic historian Joseph Schumpeter put it. Superior state formation in England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries enabled the creation of the first English empire. Based on military aggression, English rule was imposed over a diverse assortment of territories, some contiguous, some linked by sea. It reached its high point under Edward 1 and was acquired haphazardly and without forethought, but it was one over which the English resolutely asserted their sovereignty and was made up of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the constituent kingdoms and principalities of the northwest European archipelago. Within two centuries, it was gone. As David Armitage writes: “Failure to enforce institutional uniformity, incomplete assimilation of subject peoples, the cultural estrangement of the English settlers from metropolitan norms and monarchical indifference together conspired to bring about its collapse.” Running in tandem, it can be argued, and from these very early roots, are the drives to create a unitary, legally bounded independent conception of the state in the united kingdoms, and the process of forming a multinational, extensive empire in the Atlantic world. Neither might have happened; both did. Scottish secession from the Union could be interpreted as the terminal moment of English empire.
English financial innovation was a crucial factor in empire-building, as was Scottish economic failure. The East India Company had chomped its way through Asia, only to collapse in 1857 in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion. By then, political economy had turned against empire and free trade was the desideratum. In the last three decades of the nineteenth century neomercantilism and protectionism, linked to the renewed strength of the imperial idea, would re-emerge. Direct control over non-European land, labour and sites of secure and profitable investment would enrich the metropole and might even unite it spiritually by providing all its people with an elevated sense of its towering grandeur and its assured and noble place –its providential mission ‑ in world affairs. By enacting Queen Victoria’s desire to be made empress of India, though not of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1876, Disraeli sought to weave together an alliance of crown, empire and working classes and shift attention from the colonies of settlement to India. In the classical idiom of the time, a move from a Grecian to a Roman conception of empire; from empire to imperialism. In January 1877, an Imperial Assemblage, an apotheosis of imperial hierarchy and forerunner of the Durbars, was held in Delhi, capital of the old Mughal emperors. After Wagner’s Tannhäuser had been played, the Viceroy proclaimed Victoria Kaiser-I-Hind, emperor – later changed to imperatrix ‑ of India. But support for imperial expansion was not confined to the right. Marx might recognise the potentially transformative effect of capitalist imperialism on moribund rural societies. “Fabian imperialism” saw no ill in civilisation’s award of glass baubles for gold ingots in tropical climes: fair exchange is no robbery, and the mass of people, at home and abroad, needed a firm hand if they were to improve.
In the nineteenth century, many of the most influential thinkers in the United Kingdom on empire were historians: earlier in the century, James Mill and Macaulay; later Froude and Seeley held sway. This at a time when “historical-mindedness” was seen as a key to understanding public matters; the measure of an argument was gauged by its affinity with precedent, tradition, organic development. Lecky shared his politics with the very idle but very fortunate Jack Worthing, central character of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Worthing had an independent income of £7,000, a house in Belgravia and a country estate. Lecky too had an independent income, but was anything but idle. Rather he was the embodiment of three articles of late Victorian faith: the destiny of the British empire; the Darwinian development of nation-states; the doctrine that nation-states require one, unquestioned source of legislative sovereignty, which must lie in Westminster. Liberal Unionism was a clear political expression of all three. The old empire in idealised form was Protestant, commercial, maritime and free. The philosopher Hegel might have been speaking for Lecky when he said, “as any English man might, that it is they who rule the East Indies and the oceans of the world, who dominate world trade, who have a parliament and trial by jury etc. It is deeds such as these that give the nation its sense of self-esteem.”
Discussing his formative influences, Lecky wrote: “all sound liberals in England then desired to restrict as much as possible the functions of governments and enlarge as much as possible the sphere of individual liberty; and they regarded unrestrained competition and inviolable contracts as the chief conditions of material progress”. Lecky remained true to these tenets –free market fundamentalism ‑ in much of his discussion of public policy. On pressing questions of political economy and the condition of the working classes, he was anti-state, anti-regulation, and anti-taxation. In Democracy and Liberty he opposed all moves to organise labour in trade unions, or any state regulation of working hours except perhaps on grounds of efficiency, which he saw as attempts to revive mediaeval guilds and restrict the labour market, to the detriment of employer and non-unionised labour alike. He couldn’t countenance the old age pension as a right. For Lecky, emigration to the colonies would alleviate the social pressure present in the Victorian city, yet caution at home was advised when it came to measures that might relieve popular distress. Improving hygienic and sanitary conditions might be counter-productive: “in not a few cases” infant mortality might be “a blessing in disguise”. Indeed, “[s]anitary reform is not a wholly good thing when it enables the diseased and feeble members of the community, who in another age would have died in infancy, to grow up and become parent stocks, transmitting a tainted type or the threat of hereditary disease”. This is a sentiment some Russians might recognise. On free trade, Lecky’s position was safe. There was only significant anti-free trade political activity in the early 1880s, before he was an MP, and after 1903, by which time Lecky was dead.
Liberalism is not a unitary philosophy. Lecky’s liberalism is that of Locke and Kant: this is the liberal project of a universal regime. Lecky’s toleration is a means to a universal rational consensus, not the toleration of difference. In this, he is a forerunner of the neoliberal Austro-British economist FA Hayek, who acknowledged Lecky as a classic proponent of liberalism. This is the liberalism, in one guise or other, that has dominated discourse in recent decades. Liberalism also has a tradition that believes people may flourish in different ways of life: toleration as a means to peace. This is the liberalism some Indian Hindus claim an affinity with. From this, we may conclude, with Raymond Geuss, that (a) liberalism has no definition; (b) it tends to rewrite its own past; and (c) it is open to very significant modification at any given time. Liberalism is the house ideology of British imperialism.
English political thought has for long had a thread sceptical of empire. In the seventeenth century, drawing on classical sources, fears of the corrosive effects of empire on domestic liberty were expressed. And empires came to an end –would England’s be any different? The enlightened Gibbon, historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, was deeply hostile to empire. Also sceptical were many late eighteenth and early nineteenth century political economists. Adam Smith derided empires, so too Bentham and James Mill. Republican Rome had been self-governing: territorial expansion brought despotic empire. While mercantalism’s closed markets assumed international trade and economic development a zero-sum game, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations idealised free trade and the international division of labour as universal benefits, setting in train the ideals of mid-Victorian individualism and the liberal industrial order, and now the official ideology of liberal capitalism and the contemporary world economic order. Yet in the 1820s and 1830s colonies might seem to be the answer to pressing problems; a safety valve for the social and political turmoil of post-Napoleonic Britain; provider of relief to the inhabitants of ever-degenerating urban environments. In 1859, John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end”. The ultimate justification of empire was civilisational spread: liberal states had a right –a duty ‑ to spread civilisation to those unfortunates born outside its remit. Advocates of the civilising mission contended empire was only legitimate if it benefited those people subject to it. It was a very short step to assuming that that is of course what it did.
Giving the inaugural address to the Empire Institute in London in 1893, Lecky considered that the British empire resulted from comparative advantage, both racial and geographic, and the logic of the situation they found themselves in:
Much is due to our insular position and command of the sea, which gave Englishmen, in the competition of nations, a peculiar power of conquering and holding distant dependencies. Being precluded, perhaps quite as much by their position as by their desire, from throwing themselves, like most continental nations, into a long course of European aggression, they have largely deployed their redundant energies in exploring, conquering, civilising and governing distant and half-savage lands. They have found, like all other nations, that an empire planted amid the shifting sands of half-civilised and anarchical races is compelled for its own security, and as a mere matter of police, to extend its borders.
From Lecky’s perspective, the results were an incomparable good:
Nothing is more wonderful in the history of the world than that under the flag of these two islands there should have grown up the greatest and most beneficent despotism in the world, comprising two hundred and thirty millions of inhabitants under direct British rule, and more than fifty million under British protectorates.
The despotism theorised here is compatible with slavery from the standpoint of Locke and the protagonists of the American revolution. John Stuart Mill, firmly on the side of the Union in the US civil war, could theorise a transitional slavery for “transitional races” as part of their ascent on the civilisational ladder. Slave emancipation was a thorny problem for Lecky, one he considered in his address as “an issue of property rights and interference in internal affairs of self-governing colonies. But the voting of 20 million stg. to accomplish it is a testimony to the liberality of parliament.” Lecky’s liberalism had great difficulty reconciling the absolute right to property with the rights of subalterns to a free existence, or any existence at all.
Specific places of incorporation required specific justifications. East India Company administrators justified their right to rule on the basis of treaties made with the Mughal sovereign and post-Mughal governments in Awadh. They also justified it on the grounds that before their intervention the subcontinent had been in a state of chaos and anarchy. In doing so they could draw on Hobbes’s justification for authoritarian government as the alternative to the state of nature, the “war of all against all”. Again, in his address of 1893, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and its brutal repression conjured out of existence, Lecky, now the living “embodiment of a national delusion generated by a fatal mythology” ( to use a phrase of EJ Thompson, Indian missionary and radical and father of the historian EP) could eulogise the outcome:
Remember what India had been for countless ages before the establishment of British rule. Think of its endless wars of race and creed, its savage oppressions, its fierce anarchies, its barbarous customs, and then consider what it is to have established for so many years over the vast space from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin a reign of perfect peace; to have conferred on more than 250 millions of the human race perfect religious freedom, perfect security of life, liberty and property; to have planted in these teeming multitudes a strong central government, enlightened by the best knowledge of Western Europe, and steadily occupied in preventing famine, alleviating disease, extirpating savage customs, multiplying the agencies of civilisation and progress. This, gentlemen, is the true meaning of that system of government on which Mr. Cobden looked with an eye of despair.
Early Indian liberals had responded to British justifications for domination by arguing that the Company had regularly violated its own treaties; it had failed to respect and support Indian cultural and religious institutions and had failed to respect its own agreements to respect the territorial integrity of Indian states. Nor was pre-colonial Indian government illegitimate, but rather had been sanctioned by the assent of the people through local bodies and constitutional arrangements. There was a tacit social contract. Rather than Hobbes’s atheism they favoured a providential Hindu deity working its way through history. As CA Bayly writes: “According to many liberal Hindus, the British, indeed, had perpetuated worst features of ‘Mahommedan tyranny’, without its countervailing cultural sympathy.”
John Stuart Mill considered the Irish (Catholic) so downtrodden by religion and maltreatment as to be not even capable bearers of civilisation abroad: Canada and Australia should be closed to them; they could only do harm. Closer to home, Lecky considered them, in his essay “Ireland in the Light of History”, originally published in the United States, unfit for self-government:
the existing Home Rule movement has grown up by the guidance and by the support of men who are implacable enemies to the British Empire; that it has been for years the steady object of its leaders to inspire the Irish masses with feelings of hatred to that Empire, contempt for contracts, defiance of law and of those who administer it; that, having signally failed in rousing the agricultural population in a national struggle, those leaders resolved to turn the movement into an organised attack upon landed property; that in the prosecution of this enterprise they have been guilty, not only of measures which are grossly and palpably dishonest, but also of an amount of intimidation, of cruelty, of systematic disregard for individual freedom scarcely paralleled in any country during the present century; and finally that, through subscriptions which are not drawn from Ireland, political agitation in Ireland has become a large and highly lucrative trade—a trade which, like most others, will no doubt continue as long as it pays.
All right-thinking people in Ireland, though only constituting a third of the population and including important Catholics, Lecky believed, opposed Home Rule: their will must prevail. In Democracy and Liberty he drew attention to the contamination of the immigrant vote in the United States, since immigrants were often “revolutionary elements”. Lecky started out in life intending to be a churchman: Christianity and liberalism bear more than a passing resemblance, as Geuss points out. Both are a blend of doctrines and ideals, as well as suggested methods for implementing these credos. Lecky’s Christianity, like his liberalism, was muscular, certain, and intolerant of those outside its fold. But like Christianity, liberalism has a history; in response to its own effects and inadequacies at any given time, it changes and morphs to rewrite its own history and engage on changed terms with the present in which it finds itself. This amorphous quality of liberalism which blots out the anachronisms of its past –not least the anachronism of the complacent coexistence of European liberalism with colonial subjugation, and worse ‑ should ensure liberalism’s continued reproduction, albeit as a liberalism Lecky might not recognise.
Certainly, Lecky would have had difficulty reconciling his liberalism with India as it emerged out of independence: state-ordered economic intervention, a constitutionally ordered mass democracy, a kaleidescopic unity, an ecumenical secularity in a world of passionate religiosity. The sheer scale of that achievement should never be underestimated, nor the extraordinary depth of poverty on which it was constructed. Nor because senior politicians reiterate certain tropes to explain their policy objectives, it does not follow that everyone, or even very many people, profess that world view; as long as there is a reasonable consonance between these languages of politics, a modus vivendi can be achieved. Because Nehru and his generation talked in terms of democracy, federalism, socialism, and secularism, it does not follow that the mass of Indians conceptualised economics and politics in these terms. But that equally does not deny the existence of the Planning Commission, the Five Year Plans, regular elections, a Supreme Court, a free press, an implicit understanding that religion be kept out of politics, at least by the major parties, reserved jobs and constituencies for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and some commitment to agrarian reform. In reality, big business continued to call the shots and land nationalisation was never considered. Rhetoric gave way to the reality of power.
If classic liberalism could not sanction state intervention in the economy, it also has difficulty legitimising intervention to ameliorate even the worst kinds of social exclusion. As Chris Bayly points out, even liberals such as TH Green are in difficulty theoretically when it comes to slavery: if southern Americans, Indian villagers, both assent to and assert their right to own slave labour, or to have their lavatory cleaned by an untouchable, then classic liberalism can do very little about it. The slowly ameliorating effects of a developing civil society are all that can be hoped for: in India, in the 1950s when very few youngsters even went to school, this could take a very long time; yet thinking like this was allowed undermine even minimal educational provision in Africa in the 1990s. In India Untouchables, like slaves in the southern states, were invisible, theoretically and spiritually disempowered. For Ambedkar, an untouchable with multiple masters degrees and two PhDs from Columbia and the London School of Economics, and chairman of the Constitution drafting committee, this could not do: what was needed was radical and positive social recognition and action by a committed state. As Bayly concludes, state recognition had to precede social recognition. Contemporary debates about positive discrimination have echoes of earlier concerns.
Since the 1990s, a form of western imperialism has coupled its efforts with a civilising mission located in the transcending possibilities of neoliberal economics. I don’t think it could be called a success, either domestically in those countries most associated with it, the US and UK, or elsewhere. Russia has relocated from Europe to Eurasia. India, never as expected, not least by the British foreign secretary at the time of independence, Ernest Bevin, became a British or wider Western subaltern in world affairs. In the last decade Indian governance has adopted a Hindu nationalist mode. Ethnic democracy, ethnic chauvinism, coupled with authoritarianism, sometimes brutally meted out, has become the new order; Gandhism, along with any residual liberalism, not least secularism, are deemed things of the past. Ireland, in that older order, was on the side of anti-imperialism. Where a genuinely liberal Ireland stands in future remains to be determined.