Empire & Imperialism

The Story of Modern Empire

The modern imperial projects which reached their peak in the early 20th century redefined the idea of empire. The historical motives for empire building often still applied: security, exploitation, & glory, but empires of the classical and medieval eras had generally been single unitary states. In the modern era it was more common for relatively small states to exercise power over distant overseas territories. This was driven by a desire to control lucrative trade opportunities, as well a desire to civilise foreign people’s, rooted in a view among many European’s of their own religious and cultural superiority. This post is about the arguments for and against empire through history, as well as the reasons for the decline of the modern empires during the 20th century.

The story starts with the discovery of the new world, and the opening up of sea trade routes around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia. Against a backdrop of very different levels of economic, technological and political development, this raised new questions about the legitimacy of settlers claiming territory which indigenous people did not consider as private property in the European sense. One of the most distinguished writers to tackle this subject was the Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, who made a case for the Spanish seizure of territory in America. Christians have a duty to intervene to protect the innocent even when their assistance is repudiated. It could then be argued that the indigenous people required protection and the benefits of western civilisation. Christians also have a right to preach the gospel wherever they go, and any obstruction is an act of war. Vitoria rejected the more extreme view that the indigenous peoples are infidels and therefore automatically at war with Christianity, as well as the view that the encountered people were natural slaves.

Newly discovered lands were generally ‘unoccupied’ or waste by European standards. A comparison could be made to the open seas, which had always been recognised as belonging to no one and free to use by anyone, since it was impossible to occupy the open sea. If fishermen were free to hunt fish in the sea without fear of enclosure, shouldn’t Native Americans be free to hunt in the American mainland? Many views were presented by Europeans to justify colonisation. Some said it was acceptable if settlers purchased the land from natives, but it was not clear why natives would wish to sell the land given that they did not operate a money economy. Others said that the natives had more land than they needed, but this was only by European standards. Hobbes was invoked to argue that the natives lived in a state of nature that was miserable, so would be better off under stable government. Locke’s view that work conveyed rights to property meant that colonisers who farmed the land therefore had a right to the land over the natives. The granting of property rights was by the 17th century considered the first essential step of human progress, and many saw the cultivation of the earth (to make it productive) as an obligation under natural law. It was an obligation that Native Americans had failed to meet.

The Civilising Mission

By the 20th century it had become common to justify empire as a means of civilising native peoples. The distinction between civilised and uncivilised people can be derived from Aristotle, who believed there was sufficient difference in the capacity for rational self-government between rulers and ruled to justify despotic authority among rulers. This argument was developed to say that imperial powers had the right (or even duty) to bring uncivilised people the benefits of civilisation. However, in the 18th century this argument had represented a small minority among political thinkers. Montesquieu believed that civilisations developed slowly, and that it was virtually impossible to transplant institutions from one society to another successfully. Similarly, Burke argued that we cannot interfere with an unfamiliar society without having unpredictable and uncontrollable effects on it, and these effects are more likely to be harmful. Denis Diderot went further and mocked the assertion that western society was more civilised than those that it encountered. He found no rational answer to the question of which society is more civilised, and reminded readers of the European capacity for murder, corruption and many other vices. Kant argued that no society had the right to force its own idea of progress on another. People are different, and societies must decide for themselves what progress means and how to be happy.

In the 19th century western society appeared more confident and more stable. John Stuart Mill defended the East India Company’s government of India principally on the basis that it was an improving government, teaching the Indian population the art of rational and uncorrupt self-government. Again, this exposes the tension between utilitarianism and liberalism. Mill did not believe in a civilising mission that gave a right to acquire territory, and did not believe people could or should be civilised against their will. Tocqueville thought the British approach was hypocritical, and that the idea that Britain had acquired its empire naturally ‘by accident’ was nonsense – the French had been on the other end of British interventions to maintain and extent its empire. Nevertheless he believed that the French needed an empire to keep up with Britain. He acknowledged the human cost of empire for colonised peoples, but believed this was worth the benefit of French civilisation. As well as the difficulty of determining why one civilisation is better than another, the civilising mission has another problem. If a people are capable of being quickly taught the benefits of civilised society, it can be argued that they are capable of acquiring them voluntarily. If the thought is that a society is so uncivilised that they will never be able to organise themselves politically, then as Alan Ryan puts it in ‘On Politics’, forcibly civilising them makes no more sense than beating advanced calculus into four year olds. Unfortunately, the idea of the civilising mission also became conflated with ‘scientific racism’, and racism often underpinned the belief that white Europeans should manage the affairs of others. However the civilising mission and strict scientific racism do not logically go together – racial theory attempts to explain why inferior races will always be inferior, and therefore attempts to civilise them are doomed to failure.

Marx supported the civilising mission on the basis that the emergence of a modern capitalist society is the inevitable result, and that capitalism would inevitably lead to socialism. Marxists came to believe that imperialism exposed a flaw in the capitalist system. As more and more wealth flowed from workers to capitalists, the workers had insufficient purchasing power to sustain the profits of big business. Therefore these businesses expanded overseas to find new markets. However, the profits would go to the investing class, which would do nothing to solve the underlying problem of under-consumption. Once any wealth in the new markets had been extracted, the problem would remain. In reality many workers, to varying degrees, shared in the wealth generated overseas.

The Fall of Imperialism

The fall of western imperialism took place in just a few decades around the middle of the 20th century, and was mainly driven by the desire of colonised peoples for national independence. Frantz Fanon and Sayyid Qutb are two examples of people who had particularly radical anti-imperialist views. Fanon was a member of the Algerian national liberation movement in the late 1950s, who argued that colonial powers imposed on people an image that white is virtuous and black is evil. Fanon was radical for his unflinching endorsement of violence in order to gain liberation. As a Marxist, he also feared that Algerians would end up replacing oppression by the French with oppression by bourgeoisie capitalists. In reality Algeria would suffer years of civil war between a military dictatorship and Islamic insurgents. Qutb helped develop the idea that the Muslim world needed to regain its self-respect through separating itself from the corrupt world of the infidel. Born in Egypt, he studied in America and was repulsed by his experience of western culture. He was shocked by what he perceived as the loose morals of young Americans. More importantly, as an outsider he perceived that the western dream can only be offered to colonial subjects on condition that few take up the offer, as it relies on the exploitation of others. In his work ‘Milestones’ he argued that Islam is the only basis for civilisation, and that the western world was not civilised. This was more radical than previous colonial subjects, who said that if the western world was civilisation then they didn’t want civilisation. It appears that the longest lasting and most damaging legacy of western imperialism is the psychological and cultural animosities it has brought about.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:




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