Monday, 2 August 2010

Review - The Truth About Empire

The Imperial Controversy: Challenging the Empire Apologists
By Andrew Murray, Manifesto Press
Foreword by George Galloway
152 pages, paperback £12.95


In the past decade or so, politicians, journalists and academics of various stripes have attempted to rehabilitate the notions of empire and imperialism. For example, in 2009 the then British PM Gordon Brown told the Daily Mail newspaper: “The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward. We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it”. Likewise academic historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts have attempted to rewrite the history of the British Empire as something essentially beyond criticism. Ferguson has said, “I am fundamentally in favour of empire. Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the 21st century than ever before”, while according to Roberts, “Imperialism is an idea whose time has come again”. Of course, these defences of historical imperialism serve merely as a prelude to a defence of the contemporary neo-colonialist projects promoted by the likes of former US president George. W. Bush and former British PM Tony Blair.

In this tightly argued book Andrew Murray, who is chair of the British Stop the War Coalition, takes on both historical imperialism and its contemporary neo-colonialist variant. Murray demonstrates that the British Empire, far from being the benign paternalistic force portrayed by the apologists, in fact delivered war, racism, famine, state terror and the suppression of self-determination and democracy on a scale comparable to that wreaked by Hitler’s Third Reich. For example, Murray points out that in the 18th century, there were 119 recorded wars involving the British Empire, and 72 such wars during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th. In the 20th century, major colonial conflicts occurred in South Africa, Kenya, Palestine, Malaya, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and Ireland, and Murray also lists Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Iran, India, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Guatemala/Belize, as sites of British military involvement, not to mention the invasion of Bolshevik-led Russia after World War I and more recent interventions in Greece, Cyprus and the attack on Yugoslavia. Far from being a “Pax Britannica”, the British Empire waged endless war “both against rivals anxious to share the spoils, and, more persistently the peoples of the subject territories themselves”.

In addition to detailing the vast human cost of colonial war, Murray highlights the racism at the core of the imperial project and demonstrates what it meant in terms of lives lost due to man-made famine. For example, the mass starvation suffered by the indigenous Irish population in 1845-7 was not, as is commonly thought, the result of crop failure caused by potato blight. Murray points out that this crop failure was general across Europe, and that only in colonial Ireland did it lead to widespread starvation. Murray quotes the historian T.A. Jackson who asserted that “the amount of corn, cattle etc exported from Ireland in these years would have fed all those who hungered twice over”, and he identifies the “absolute priority given by the government in London to maintaining the social position of the landlord class in Ireland” as the reason for the mass starvation. As Murray notes, a concomitant of this was a racist attitude towards the Irish peasant, regarded as a subhuman to be condemned on the basis of class and religion as well as race. This was not an aberration in the history of the British Empire: “anything from 12 to 29 million people died from starvation across India in the famines largely caused by the structures of economic development imposed by the Raj and greatly exacerbated by laissez-faire dogma and official indifference”.

In addition to highlighting the Empire’s frequent resort to state violence and terror – often in the service of quashing local movements for elementary democracy and national self-determination – Murray also marshals overwhelming evidence “that imperialism, far from promoting economic advance, actually undeveloped the colonies”. In colony after colony, as a matter of deliberate policy “indigenous routes to industrialisation were blocked off, monocultural crop economies were imposed on the widest scale possible, forced labour utilised to maximise profit to capitalist investors and the entire course of development subordinated to the needs of the imperial power”.

Nor were endless war, famine, racism, state violence and the suppression of democracy features specifically of British imperialism: Murray summarises the “achievements” of Belgian, German, French, Dutch and Italian imperialism to show that they were comparable to those of the British.

Some interesting political facts emerge. For example, the famous Liberal Party leader William Gladstone is described by the Marxist writer R. Palme Dutt as supporting imperialism “under a rose-tinted eiderdown of pacific sentiments” – but “No sooner had he taken office than he continued and carried to new heights Tory imperialist foreign policy”. Gladstone’s duplicity is now taken a further step by his descendant as leader of the British Liberal-Democrats, Nick Clegg, who “opposed” the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but now serves as Deputy PM in a Conservative-led coalition fully committed to the ongoing neo-colonial occupation of Afghanistan. Moreover, although the Labour Party has contained over time many committed anti-imperialists, the pro-imperialist sentiments of Blair and Brown were apparently shared by the first Labour PM, Ramsey MacDonald, who advocated “socialist imperialism” based on “pride of race”.

Murray reserves his most scathing arguments for erstwhile “left-wing” journalists such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen (who described the British army in Iraq as “the armed wing of Amnesty International”). Murray very effectively takes to pieces their arguments in favour of the invasion of Iraq, and shows that the “peace, prosperity and democracy” promised for the Iraqis is as illusory as that cited by 19th century apologists for imperial involvement in India or Ireland.

Overall, Murray’s book provides an important and timely reminder that imperialism, whether in its historical or contemporary form, is in Galloway’s apt phrase “murder in the guise of a civilising mission”. In writing it, Murray has done a great service to the progressive and anti-war movement.

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