Empires

HOEL


And let us at last take leave of imperialism. It is a pseudo-concept which sets out to make everything clear and ends by making everything muddled; it is a word for the illiterates of social science, the callow and shallow who attempt to solve problems without mastering a technique.

William Keith Hancock

“Et prenons enfin congé d’impérialisme. C’est un pseudo-concept qui vise à tout rendre clair et finit par tout rendre confus ; c’est un mot pour l’illettré des sciences sociales, le novice et superficiel qui tente de résoudre des problèmes sans maîtriser la technique.”


Empires have been key actors in world politics for millennia. They helped create the interdependent civilizations of Europe, India, the Americas, Africa, and East Asia which form much of our cultural heritage. They shaped the political development of practically all the states of the modern world. Before empires became disquieting subjects for scholarly analysis, they stimulated great literary works, and their historical and theoretical importance once made empire a word for scholars. Historians have steadily expanded our knowledge of individual empires. Social scientists have contributed studies of particular sources of imperialism. They are making empires and imperialism words for scholars once again. We have no reason now to exclude the subject from our study of the theory of world politics… […]

Empire, I shall argue, is a system of interaction between two political entities, one of which, the dominant metropole, exerts political control over the internal and external policy—the effective sovereignty—of the other, the subordinate periphery. To understand this interaction it is quite as necessary to explain the weakness of the periphery as it is to explain the strength and motives of the metropole.

Michael W. Doyle

« Les empires ont été des acteurs clés dans la politique mondiale durant des millénaires. Ils ont aidé à créer les civilisations interdépendantes de l’Europe, l’Inde, les Amériques, l’Afrique et l’Asie de l’Est qui forment une grande partie de notre héritage culturel. Ils ont façonné le développement politique de pratiquement tous les États du monde moderne. Avant que les empires ne devinssent des sujets inquiétants pour l’analyse savante, ils stimulèrent de grandes œuvres littéraires, et leur importance historique et théorique fit un jour d’empire un mot pour les savants. Les historiens ont augmenté de manière constante notre connaissance des divers empires. Les spécialistes des sciences sociales ont contribué aux études des sources particulières de l’impérialisme. Ils font des empires et de l’impérialisme des mots pour les savants une fois encore. Nous n’avons maintenant aucune raison d’exclure le sujet de notre étude de la théorie de la politique mondiale…  […]

L’empire, je dirai, est un système d’interaction entre deux entités politiques, l’une d’entre elles, la métropole dominante, exerce un contrôle politique sur la politique intérieure et extérieure — la souveraineté effective — de l’autre, la périphérie subordonnée. Pour comprendre cette interaction il est tout aussi nécessaire d’expliquer la faiblesse de la périphérie qu’il l’est d’expliquer la force et les motivations de la métropole. »

Statue de l'empereur romain Auguste dite Augustus Prima Porta (photo : Till Niermann)

Empires have been key actors in world politics for millennia. They helped create the interdependent civilizations of Europe, India, the Americas, Africa, and East Asia which form much of our cultural heritage. They shaped the political development of practically all the states of the modern world.

Our generation has befogged itself by its inveterate and atrocious abuse of language. There is no stability in the words we use; they change their meaning and emotional tone from country to country, from decade to decade, from person to person; the same word is to one man a term of scientific description, to another a war-cry, to a third an incantation. Consider the word colony; in my habit of speech, any political dependency is a colony; but Americans commonly employ a double standard of language: their own political dependencies are territories—a worthy name; but ours are colonies—a word of shame. To the Russians, the word is a missile of political warfare. Meanwhile, the plodding English retain it for simple description. Unfortunately, the things described do not stand still: in my own lifetime, the peoples of Magna Britannia—this phrase echoes Magna Graecia and thereby connotes ‘colonies of settlement’—have moved from dependent to sovereign status: when now we speak of colonies we envisage indigenous populations within the tropics, not emigrant communities of European stock. Yet I like to recall that the Hancocks of Massachusetts were colonials, and so were the Hancocks of Australia.

Still more confusing is the word imperialism. Muddle-headed historians in Great Britain and America use this word with Heaven-knows how many shades of meaning, while Soviet writers are using it to summarise a theory and wage a war. Communists did not invent it; as Professor Koebner has recently reminded us [‘The Concept of Economic imperialism’], it came into existence about one-hundred years ago, when apprehensive and scandalised Liberals hurled it against Napoleon III. Since then it has had many connotations and has many time changed its tone. There have been times and places where it has enjoyed a fleeting prestige; but throughout the longer part of its short life, and most certainly in our own generation, it has remained what it was at the beginning, a missile of political warfare. Lenin certainly used it that way. He hurled it with gusto at those unblushing, impotent, insincere, dishonest, cynical, opportunist, vulgar persons who did not think like Lenin. I have culled the adjectives—they are but a selection—from Lenin’s own book [Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written at Zurich in the spring of 1916]. They hardly suggest the dispassionate attitude of science. Yet Lenin believed himself to be a social scientist. To him, imperialism was a scientific concept—a master concept indeed; for it contained the explanation of a decisive chapter in human history. […]

And let us at last take leave of imperialism. It is a pseudo-concept which sets out to make everything clear and ends by making everything muddled; it is a word for the illiterates of social science, the callow and shallow who attempt to solve problems without mastering a technique.

William Keith Hancock – Wealth of colonies (1950)

The term “imperialism,” as students of history and politics know, has been a word of protean imprecision, remarkable above all for its polemical power. We hear today a great deal of dispute about whether the United States is or is not an imperial or imperialist power, and participants in those arguments often find themselves adjusting the meaning of that term in order to associate with, or to refuse, the connotations that come with it. […] language, in its coinages and its shades of meaning, reflects shifts in opinion and (more specifically) in feeling, … language, by assigning a stable symbol to shifting objects, serves to conceal those shifts. “Imperialism” has been in common English use for less than a century and a half, which is to say that it was possible for the British to conquer India and to colonize America without feeling a need for “imperialism.”

Mark F Proudman – Words for Scholars: The Semantics of “Imperialism” (Journal of the Historical Society)

Imperialism, Sir Keith Hancock has reminded us, is no word for scholars. It has been analysed too often, given too many shades of meaning. In our time it has become a football, a war-cry, a labelled card in a sociological laboratory. Originally a term borrowed from France, and in low repute accordingly, those in Great Britain who adopted it — Curzon, Rosebery, Milner in their day, Churchill and Amery the day after — gave it all the English virtues, and saw no shame in describing themselves as  Imperialists, with the capital letter. Imperialism belongs to its own time in British history, is of its own period; and the historian is not justified in ignoring it or in casting about for a better description because strange winds have blown upon and through it since.

Yet it should be emphasised that the attack on the imperial idea, whose course this book attempts to describe, was a failure on one sector of the long front. The purely intellectual argument against it made no headway, for imperialism was a faith and an emotion before it became a political programme; and even when its enemies had successfully overturned the political programme the faith and the emotion survived.

Archibald Paton Thornton – The Imperial Idea and its Enemies A Study in British Power (1959)

Imperialism is not a word for scholars.
                     Lord Hailey, 1940

Imperialism was not in the mainstream of scholarly literature on world politics when Halley, author of the monumental African Survey, made his remark, nor is it today. Historians have studied individual empires and colonies, but most abjure an “ism,” a general process and theory. International relations scholars, for their part, tend to place imperialism in a minor position, as one of many possible policies that a powerful state can pursue.

This relative neglect has several sources. Imperial rule involves not only international relations but also the domestic politics of both the subject country (the periphery) and the ruling state (the metropole). In the study of imperialism, therefore, international politics blends into comparative politics. Equally disorienting for current scholarship, empire turns on their heads the central insights of international relations theorists. Imperialism’s foundation is not anarchy, but order, albeit an order imposed and strained. Comparative politics, on the other hand, concerned with independent political units, recognizes imperialism as at best one minor influence among many in shaping a state. Empire and imperialism are indeed not “words” for scholars in these disciplinary traditions.

Lord Hailey’s statement is unassailable in practical terms. It is clear, however, that he strongly intended his “is not” to mean “ought not to be.” And that normative statement, which represents the view of many historians and political scientists even today, is highly debatable.

It is true that when Hailey wrote, the contending approaches of the leading theorists of imperialismJohn Hobson, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Schumpeter—were exceptionally programmatic exercises in political writing. Moreover, and perhaps more tellingly, the programs they were pursuing—the condemnation or defense of capitalism—related only indirectly to the purported object of their analysis, imperialism. The results were not scholarly, at least not in the sense of being careful and complete explanations.

But Hailey’s “ought not” was and is unacceptable if imperialism is taken to mean the actual process by which empires are formed and maintained. Empires have been key actors in world politics for millennia. They helped create the interdependent civilizations of Europe, India, the Americas, Africa, and East Asia which form much of our cultural heritage. They shaped the political development of practically all the states of the modern world. Before empires became disquieting subjects for scholarly analysis, they stimulated great literary works, and their historical and theoretical importance once made empire a word for scholars. Historians have steadily expanded our knowledge of individual empires. Social scientists have contributed studies of particular sources of imperialism. They are making empires and imperialism words for scholars once again. We have no reason now to exclude the subject from our study of the theory of world politics, and in this book I attempt to combine the insights of the historians and social scientists in a systematic explanation.

Empire, I shall argue, is a system of interaction between two political entities, one of which, the dominant metropole, exerts political control over the internal and external policy—the effective sovereignty—of the other, the subordinate periphery. To understand this interaction it is quite as necessary to explain the weakness of the periphery as it is to explain the strength and motives of the metropole.

This definition sets empire apart from the types of power characteristic of domestic and international politics. One subject with which empire can easily be confused is international inequality, and I will take pains to dissociate the two. To name two important examples of international inequality, a hegemonic power, as opposed to a metropole, controls much or all of the external, but little or none of the internal, policy of other states, and a dependent state, as opposed to an imperialized periphery, is a state subject to limited constraints on its economic, social, and (indirectly) political autonomy.

Although such distinctions are important, the study of empires shares much ground with the study of international relations, both in method and in conception. In the study of international relations one seeks the general causes of war and peace as well as the causes of particularly warprone periods and specific wars, alliances, and foreign policies. Similarly, in the study of empires one wants to know the sources of empire and independence as well as the conditions that gave rise to especially imperialistic ages and of monarchical or democratic empires, and the reasons for the growth, persistence, and decline of empires. Understanding in both cases demands study at various levels of specificity. As I shall show, empires, like international politics, do exhibit some regularities across the millennia; but bearing in mind that broad analogies can yield illusory similarities as readily as illusory differences, I ground my work in an examination of individual empires and specific historical experience. The conclusions that I draw in this book are thus the product of theoretical argument joined to historical illustrations and are best understood as hypotheses in the scientific sense.

Generalization and theory are not, of course, sufficient for an understanding of the evolution of empire. It is impossible to address the question of how empires were established and maintained, and how they fell, without resort to historical narration. What follows does indeed contain such narration—description as disciplined by plot as I have been able to make it. But in a field in which Hobson warned about the use of “masked words” to rally bemused intellectual support for brutal policies, in which Lenin feared the impact of jingoistic ideas on a labor aristocracy bought by imperialistic gold, and in which Schumpeter discussed the use of imperialism itself as a “catchword,” one has to be especially careful not to contribute to obfuscation. Because the scientific idiom is well adapted to an explicit presentation of arguments which lays bare any analytical weaknesses, I have used it in the theoretical sections of the book. I believe it is valuable as a pattern for argument even though no sociopolitical study can ever lay credible claim to “hard” scientific conclusions. General historical propositions are always heavily contingent, and my “general theory” is no exception. It does not build from basic axioms about human nature to propositions about imperial behavior. Instead, it begins with thoroughly contingent propositions of social science and extends them into connections—combined explanations—that shed light on aspects of the experience of empires. Such trains of explanation, unscientifically obtained though they are, are nonetheless susceptible to a useful scientific presentation in the form of statements that can be disconfirmed.

start with an overview of the three perspectives on empires which are already well established and with discussion of the meaning of empire. Part I, containing broad comparisons of the Athenian, Roman, Ottoman, Spanishand English empires, focuses on the general structural conditions that explain empires, particularly those conditions which distinguish imperial metropoles from imperialized peripheries. Part II focuses more narrowly on the processes of imperialism that account for the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s.

This work began many years ago, in discussions of the war in Vietnam. We described it as an “imperialistic” war, and I wondered what that label could mean. Understanding empires proved much more difficult than I had imagined it would be.

Michael W. Doyle – Empires


REVIEW :

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“Reaching as far back as the ancient Athenian empire and anchoring the substantive comparative discussion in the politics of the Scramble for Africa by the major European powers in the late 1800s, Doyle identifies key recurring features of imperial emergence, expansion, and collapse.  Unsurprisingly he concludes that imperial expansion is most probable when the metropole is powerful and politically stable, the periphery is weak, disunited, and militarily vulnerable, and the international system or competing great powers do not provide serious threats or obstacles.”

Ariel Zellman