A seemingly minor linguistic curiosity has marked study of imperial and colonial history. Between the 1980s and (approximately) lunchtime on 11 September 2001, the concepts of empire and imperialism were in apparent steady decline, that of colonialism and its ‘posts’ on the rise, across all sectors of this pre-eminently global and transdisciplinary territory. Since then, the trend has been reversed. Empire, imperial history, and indeed supposed ‘lessons’ from that history for the global present, are back in fashion.
All this represents a remarkable reversal of even longer-standing trends. For decades, imperial history was seen as fusty, hidebound, backward-looking – and it appeared to many that studying empires necessarily meant being in favour of or nostalgic for them. Studying formerly colonised countries or regions, their peoples and cultures, was ‘in’; and this usually meant doing so within national or regional frameworks, and often (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) taking anticolonial nationalism as one’s main object of study. Studying empires as such – which, it was felt, most often meant studying (and identifying or sympathising with) imperialists, and doing so via the procedures of top-down, old-fashioned political, diplomatic or strategic history – was ‘out’.
The turning of that tide, and the new atmosphere of optimism and dynamism in imperial history, are surely good news to anyone interested in the field. Meanwhile the number of those who are interested has obviously also shot up, as ideas and arguments about empire, especially the notion of American empire, have been driven into ever greater prominence by contemporary world events. After an extended period in which ‘area studies’ and national(ist) histories had apparently usurped much of the ground on which imperial history previously stood, a concerted attempt seems to be underway (in David Fieldhouse’s words) to ‘put Humpty Dumpty together again’.(1) Writing about empires and colonialism is today more varied and exciting than ever before. And important, innovative work is emerging in ‘traditional’ circles devoted to diplomatic, high-political or military history as well as in ‘newer’ feminist or ecological ones. Indeed the rhetorics of temporality so widely employed in recent years, of ‘old’ and (or versus) ‘new’ imperial histories, may obstruct rather than further genuinely innovative endeavours, both scholarly and political.
Maybe above all, the current scene is both more fully transnational and more transdisciplinary than ever before. The virtually complete political decolonisation of the old European empires; the persisting and mutating forms of less formal influence both by the former colonial powers and by others; the ever-increasingly important presence of people of non-European origin in the advanced industrial countries – of migration, diasporisation, multi-ethnicity, cultural syncretism; the rise to global significance of ‘postcolonial’ literatures and other cultural and intellectual productions; maybe above all, since 2001, the often febrile focus on ideas of American empire and a ‘colonial present’: all have combined to make the imperial legacy and its contemporary resonances ever more important in every intellectual and political sphere.
Yet not everything is quite so cheering – even apart from the gravity and the menace of some of the contemporary world events which have helped to give the field its current salience. The renewed, polymorphous vigour has been accompanied by new kinds of tension and schism, often ones where interpretative disputes are shot through with intense political or ethical differences. In the remainder of this short article I wish to focus on some of these – necessarily only a small and perhaps idiosyncratic selection from among them, and on the whole without attempting some would-be authoritative adjudication of them, though naturally many of my own prejudices will be on display.
The very core terminology of the subject(s) is deeply contested. Keith Hancock, seen by many as the greatest of all historians of the British empire, famously proclaimed that imperialism is ‘no word for scholars’.(2) A distinguished historian of early modern Ireland, Steven Ellis, suggests that whether the British-Irish relationship was a colonial one is merely ‘a matter of opinion, since colonialism as a concept was developed by its modern opponents and constitutes a value-judgement which cannot be challenged on its own grounds.’(3)
If I agreed fully, I wouldn’t have the chutzpah to engage in this field at all. But a kind of permanent vigilance and self-questioning about the very nature, even the validity, of the titular subject seems to me utterly necessary. What – if anything – is generically colonial about all the various situations labeled thus? What if anything do empires have in common across history? What is at stake in arguing over whether a particular mode of rule, cultural phenomenon, ideological formation or indeed bit of landscape is ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’, or whether particular modes of behaviour constitute ‘imperialism’, ‘colonialism’, ‘anticolonialism’, ‘resistance’ or ‘collaboration’? Behind these arguments lie others, which revolve around radically divergent evaluations of the strength or weakness of imperial and colonial states, their relationships with cultural formations and identity-claims, and – most sweepingly – the historical significance or otherwise of systems of alien rule.
Much colonial and postcolonial theory has exhibited a tendency to see colonial power as an all-embracing, transhistorical force, controlling and transforming every aspect of colonised societies. The writings and attitudes of those involved with empire are seen as constituting a system, a network, a discourse in the sense made famous by Michel Foucault. (Though the notion of ‘colonialism as a system’ goes at least as far back as Sartre, and I would argue for Georges Balandier as the crucial precursor for much which today is mistakenly hailed as new in the field.) It inextricably combines the production of knowledge with the exercise of power. It deals in stereotypes and polar antitheses. It has both justificatory and repressive functions. And, perhaps above all, it is a singular ‘it’: colonial discourse and by extension the categories in which it deals (the coloniser, the colonised, the subject people, etc.) can meaningfully be discussed in unitary terms.
Some current writing in this vein thus treats colonialism as homogeneous and all-powerful, and also often uses the term to denote patterns of domination, or even merely of transregional contact, which preceded, succeeded or indeed were substantially disengaged from periods of actual conquest, possession and rule. Calling all these sorts of things ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’ at worst systematically denies or underrates historical variety, complexity and heterogeneity.
How, for instance, by what criteria of judgement, can we decide what features of British culture are ‘imperial’? It has proved extraordinarily difficult to formulate such criteria and set limits, despite the mass of recent historical work in the field, and despite the seemingly elaborately organised, sometimes officially sponsored nature of the putatively relevant British cultural production. Assessment of the historical place of empire in British life is still marked by stark polarity between silent assumptions about its utter marginality and vociferous ones about its centrality or ubiquity.
In some quarters there is a danger of overcompensating for previous neglect of the interpenetration of domestic and imperial, failing to recognise that in many spheres of British life and thought, there really were powerful kinds of insulation between them. To a somewhat lesser but rapidly increasing extent, similar questions are being posed – and sometimes similarly polarised positions taken – by historians and historical geographers of France, Germany, Belgium and other European former imperial powers – and indeed those of Russia and America.
The kind of vigilance I am preaching – though no doubt often fail to practice – requires of course a considerable degree of explicit conceptual or indeed theoretical self-consciousness. Yet the role of such things in imperial history and colonial studies has also been notably contentious. In the study of empire, there have been comparatively few big ideas and, by comparison with many other spheres both of historical and of social scientific research, relatively little theory-building. One need only think of how much debate still revolves around the century-old theories of J. A. Hobson, or the 50-year-old ones of Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher. The most widely influential ‘new wave’ of the past few decades, Saidian cultural analysis, has been spurned or scorned by at least as many students of empires as have embraced it. Very few historians have been at all attracted by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s eloquent and suggestive but also impressionistic or even internally inconsistent arguments, or think that these offer fruitful ‘leads’ for historical research.
Yet this relative dearth of theoretical elaboration coexists with a remarkable effervescence of controversy and – especially, perhaps, since the 1980s – with influences coming from numerous academic disciplines, milieux and indeed theoretical traditions. If theory-building within imperial history as such has been sparse, the impact of various kinds of theory drawn from elsewhere on it has been ever more substantial and contentious.
A further and closely linked problem lies in the relative lack, still, of interaction between political, economic and strategic studies of global power, on the one hand, and work by literary and cultural studies scholars interested in the cultures and discourses of imperialism, on the other. These spheres of research have operated largely in an atmosphere of mutual indifference or even antagonism – and although here too a growing body of recent work seeks to close the gaps, they remain very wide. The post-1980s wave of cultural histories of colonialism and nationalism developed in large part out of literary studies, and has continued to bear the marks of its origin. It has also diverged sharply from much earlier work on related issues in its fundamental ‘take’ on the nature of imperial power.
One could over-simply, say that one camp sees the crucial relationships for analysing colonial and indeed postcolonial histories as being those between knowledge and power, whereas the other views them as being those between interest and power. The focus on a knowledge-power nexus involves not merely a stress on the centrality, power and purposefulness of colonial discourses (or ideologies: those two concepts are, disconcertingly often, used as synonyms) but on colonialism’s capacity in a strong sense to create that which it claimed to find in colonised societies. Arguments doubting this, ones seeing colonial knowledge either as essentially neutral ‘information’ or as being created by colonised as well as colonising subjects, ones denying that Orientalism in Said’s sense was a coherent system of thought, ones stressing the weakness of colonial power and the degree of agency retained by the colonised, all amount (in Nicholas Dirks’s terms) to an abject ‘disavowal of colonial power and prejudice’ or, yet more starkly, to ‘blam[ing] the victim again’.(4)
Colonialism, as classically conceived, is very specifically a political phenomenon, a matter of the state. In my view any coherent analysis or even definition of it must bear this constantly in mind, retaining the recognition that its core is a juridical relation between a state and a territory; one in which the colonising state took complete power over the government of the territory which it had annexed. This clearly distinguishes colonial polities from those which have internal self-government, such as British Dominions, and from formally sovereign states subject to various forms and degrees of influence or control from outside (though the latter, by the definitions I have adopted, may well be instances of imperialism).
Much contemporary theory silently abandons this focus, and inexplicitly (indeed, most often unknowingly) substitutes at best a notion of a colonialism of civil society, at worst a purely discursive conception of colonial power. The former focuses on interest groups, religious bodies, educational institutions and so on, while almost invariably failing to specify the relationship of their projects to colonial state power. Insofar as it is at all theoretically explicit, other than about its relations to earlier literary theory, it takes much of its inspiration from the later Foucault, with his rejection of attention to the state as privileged source or instance of power.
Much poststructuralist theory, of course, goes further, spurning not only the state but society as an object of analysis. Here colonial discourse analysis connects with the ‘linguistic turn’ in social and historical studies more generally in its rejection of social explanation and very often of totalising explanation tout court. Or rather, its ostensible rejection; for in fact very sweeping kinds of general claim, often unsupported by any evidence and indeed premised on glib denial of the necessity for any coherent criteria as to what might constitute evidence for the propositions advanced, are characteristic of the genre. At the extreme, as for Timothy Mitchell, it seems that colonialism is modernity and vice versa: ‘Colonising refers not simply to the establishing of a European presence but also to the spread of a political order that inscribes in the social world a new conception of space, new forms of personhood, and a new means of manufacturing the experience of the real’.(5)
Another sphere of contention is that over appropriate levels and units of analysis. The British ‘new imperial history’ has included a sharp critique of nation-centred historical models, with sometimes a suggestion that notions of imperial cultures as global networks should be put in their place. British history could form the centre of a worldwide web of interconnecting stories; but in tracing those connections, the centre itself would be decentred. Some others – including some who would in this over-polarised debate be characterised as ‘old’ historians, like A. G. Hopkins – also urge that important trends in the contemporary world both give the history of empire a renewed relevance, and enable new perspectives on it. If the great historiographical shift of the 20th century’s second half was from imperial to national history, there are strong grounds for this now to be reversed. Yet the resistances against such a move will be substantial: not only among those committed, whether on scholarly or political grounds, to narratives of a national past in Britain, Ireland and other European states, but from their counterparts in many former colonies too.
The key questions here often revolve around how far or in what ways – if, indeed, at all – notions of themselves as ‘being imperial’ enter into, or even become in some strong sense constitutive of, collective identities among both colonisers and colonised, their relationship to ideas about ‘race’ and ethnicity – and of course, though I am shamefacedly conscious of adding this in utterly tokenistic style, ideas about gender. If relationships to ideas of Britishness among a wide range of people in different parts of the empire, for instance, were complex, contested and rapidly changing (as clearly they were), and if they often included ‘feeling British’ in some sense and among other things, then evidently it follows that the colonialness of colonial rule was also a complex and variable thing. Maybe we need to talk, unfamiliarly and following the important recent arguments of Ann Laura Stoler, in terms of degrees of colonality. This is so also in a different sense where (unlike the British or indeed any modern European-imperial case) the ruling elites of empires were themselves ethnically diverse, as with the later Roman empire or the Ottoman one.
The whole idea of colonial ‘collaboration’ is also intensely contested. A key argument in much modern scholarship on European empire – perhaps especially that rather loosely identified by critics as a conservative ‘Cambridge School’ of imperial historiography – is that colonialism depended crucially on it. Collaborative bargains were not only inherent in the imperial relationship, but the nature of these bargains determined the character, and the longevity, of colonial rule. Again, ideas and ideology had little to do with it.
Conversely, the social bases of anticolonial nationalism lay in a web of particularistic relationships which linked locality, province and nation. Nationalist politics in India was crucially formed by local patron-client networks, by the ways in which resources were fought over or bargained for, and thus by the very structures of the Raj, as the biggest controller of such resources. All this implies great scepticism about the claims of Congress either to represent a unified national will or to be driven by high principles of national liberation. We are thus left with the question (and I am indebted to John Lonsdale for the formulation): Was the colonial state typically so weak in powers of coercion, so dependent on the politics of collaboration, that social conflict took place within the forms of colonial rule rather than, or more than, against it?
There is, then, an inescapably parallel contest over the historical legitimacy or integrity of anticolonial nationalism. The view thus sketched is, in critics’ eyes, in itself colonialist, according the colonised no will of their own, no meaningful role other than collaboration, no politics other than that structured by the imperial system itself. In a somewhat different, more overtly present-minded and indeed more strident vein, some current writers – the best known, perhaps most extreme case in the Anglophone world would be Niall Ferguson – see those who resist imperial power, past and present, as typically doing so in the name of deeply unattractive, inward- or backward-looking ideologies, and the postcolonial states they created a disaster for most poor countries. The continuation or renewal of some form of imperial governance might be better than independence for many.
That last claim in its turn rests, of course, on the viability, both as historical reconstruction and as present programme, of a model of ‘liberal empire’ such as that which Ferguson sketches. Such a model inevitably provokes not only analytical but political and emotional resistance, perhaps well encapsulated in the great Indian historian Ranajit Guha’s remarkable admission that even sixty years after the end of the Raj: ‘Whenever I read or hear the phrase colonial India, it hurts me. It hurts like an injury that has healed and yet has retained somehow a trace of the original pain linked to many different things – memories, values, sentiments’.(6)
My last theme is perhaps still more emotive and contentious. This is the role of violence, repression and atrocity in empire, and in its representations and memories. In Britain right now, some politicians urge that it is time to ‘stop apologising’ for the imperial past and instead celebrate its positive achievements and the abiding virtues of Britishness: several recent statements by Gordon Brown are striking cases in point. Countering this, critics press for renewed attention to past British colonial atrocities, drawing above all just now on important books about 1950s Kenya which reveal patterns of abuse and massacre far wider than previously acknowledged. Repeatedly and inescapably, the historical arguments are linked with images of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Arguments over the relationship between alien rule and violence – including stark claims that colonialism is inherently bound up with extreme, pervasive, structural and even genocidal violence, whose most famous early proponents were the French-Antillean thinkers Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire – have today a vigorous new lease of life. Some historians suggest that most episodes of genocide and mass murder in world history have been associated with empire-building: and in a particularly thought-provoking and disturbing twist, Michael Mann has recently argued that ‘democratic’ colonisers are the most likely to be genocidal.(7)
David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of the Empire (London, 2005)
Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley, Calif., 2005)
Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (London, 2005)
Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London, 2004)
At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World, ed. Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose (Cambridge, 2006)
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)
David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford, 2003)
Ashley Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War (London, 2006)
Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Cambridge, Mass., 2006)
Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004)
The British Empire: Themes and Perspectives, ed. Sarah Stockwell (Oxford, 2008)
Ann Laura Stoler, ‘On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty’, Public Culture, 18 (1) (2006), 125–46
Andrew Thompson, The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Harlow, 2005)
British Culture and the End of Empire, ed. Stuart Ward(Manchester, 2001)
Stephen Howe is Professor in the History and Cultures of Colonialism at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol.