All Things to All People?: Thoughts on Liberalism and Imperialism

This is the second post in our book forum on Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. The first post by Duncan can be read here. Dan Gorman is Associate Professor in History and Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Director of the PhD programme in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. He is currently working on a project which assesses the role of the UN as a venue for debates over decolonization from the end of WWII to the early 1960s.

Duncan Bell has packed a career’s worth of work on the intellectual history of Britain and its empire into the last dozen or so years.  His recent collection of essays, Reordering the World, considers the intellectual attempts by British liberal thinkers (mostly, though not entirely, Victorians) to reorder the international system through empire, and the means by which they justified and rationalized their ideas.  The essays republished in the volume have been updated to account for more recent scholarship and the evolution of Bell’s thought.  They are joined by new essays on the “dream machine” of liberal imperial thought and on the Victorian imperial publicist J.R. Seeley, whose book The Expansion of England (1883) is the exemplar of Victorian liberal imperial boosterism.  Reordering the World is not just a “scholarly greatest hits”; rather, its finely-grained and astute essays are united within a common field of interpretive focus on what Bell terms the “pathologies and potentialities of empire.” (2)

Despite imperialism’s central role in nineteenth century political discourse and world affairs, as well as its influence on the creation of the discipline of International Relations (IR), it has been conspicuously understudied by political scientists.  In a discipline that continues to position the nation-state as its theoretical alpha and omega, an examination of the constitutive role of imperial variables such as race and “civilizational” hierarchies has been left to exceptional studies by scholars such as Robert Vitalis, David Long, and Brian Schmidt whose work seeks to “desegregate” IR and reveal its imperial origins.  Yet, as Bell’s essays demonstrate, nineteenth century international relations was in many ways about imperialism, and empire remained (and, in the eyes of scholars such as Jeanne Morefield, remains) a salient category of international politics well into the twentieth century.  The “imperial turn” in historical scholarship,[1] meanwhile, has in a rich irony colonized much of the historical discipline over the past several decades.  Bell’s scholarship is so rewarding in part because he seeks to identify connections between imperialism and the disciplinary history of international relations.

In our ostensibly post-imperial age, imperialism would seem incompatible with liberalism’s core values of liberty and equality.  As Bell’s carefully constructed contextual and summative essays demonstrate, however, liberalism has historically been a protean and reflexive intellectual tradition.  While liberal thought on empire was united loosely by imperial imaginaries shaped by hierarchies of “civilization,” a conviction that technological progress was compressing space and time, and a historical sensibility, it was also highly elastic, and capable of containing contradictions (most importantly, concerning race) and hybrid ideas held in common with other intellectual traditions (for instance, liberals’ and socialists’ shared advocacy of strategies of indirect rule after the First World War).  Imperium et libertas could thus as easily be complementary forces as mutually exclusive.  Bell thus rejects the more canonical approach to the history of liberalism and imperialism adopted in key works by historians such as Uday Mehta, Jennifer Pitts, David Armitage, and Karuna Mantena.  While not neglecting the (sometimes misunderstood) role of Mount Rushmore liberals such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, Bell’s focus is not the archetypical liberal thinkers is whose ideas the wisdom of the age is allegedly distilled, but the public moralists, essayists, and imperial ideologues whose often unsystematic and sometimes contradictory thought informed much of the intellectual cut-and-thrust of Victorian political discourse on imperialism.

Bell highlights two significant themes in Victorian liberal thought on empire: the largely overlooked significance of settler colonialism, and of the white settler colonies, to Victorian ideas of imperial world order; and the historical consciousness of liberal imperial thought.  I’ll reflect only on the first theme in this post.  Settler colonial studies has continued to grow since many of these essays were first published (see, for instance, Lorenzo Veracini’s Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview and the very active Settler Colonial Studies blog), but it remains the case that imperial history, and especially self-identified “new imperial” histories,” as a generalization, concentrate on India, and to a lesser extent, Africa and the Caribbean.  One reason for this is the well-warranted “new imperial” focus on the history of race.  With exceptions, the settler colonies are comparatively absent from such work.  Instead, the imperial and racial histories of settler colonialism have emerged piecemeal from respective national historical traditions, and only in the last decade or so have historians begun to uncover the material and intellectual connections between them.[2]

What we need are more studies connecting the imperial histories of the settlement colonies with those of the dependent Empire (including India) and of Britain itself.  Bell’s essays provide several suggestive avenues for such connective histories, including transnational intellectual histories of “the thought-worlds of the settler empire” (368), that would avoid centrifugal histories of imperial thought that presume ideas of empire emanated from the imperial “centre” and were disseminated to a captive and passive colonial audience.  Here settler ideologies regarding indigenous peoples, property, progress, and competing cosmologies are particularly relevant.  So, too, is the historical irony that while metropolitan liberals argued in the later nineteenth century for the merits of imperial unity, settler colonial governments pursued various forms of imperial exclusion through restrictive immigration policies.

Bell’s thinkers are mostly British (and also all men, a reflection of the gendered nature of Victorian imperial thought that for reasons of length cannot be interrogated further here).  With some partial exceptions, such as the historian Goldwin Smith (who spent the last four decades of his life in Toronto) and the American journalist Clarence Streit, the subjects of these essays imagined the empire from their position at its centre.  Some had experience in the empire itself, such as the economist J.A. Hobson’s posting in South Africa as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian during the South African War.  For most of the intellectuals covered in these essays, however, the empire was an abstract and imagined entity (even Mill’s well-known Indian imperial administration was carried out in England).  Their international order visions as such did not always reflect contemporary imperial realities “on-the-ground.”  The late-Georgian Edward Wakefield’s writings on imperial immigration, for instance, influenced British thinkers, including Mill, long after the frontier societies Wakefield analyzed had transformed into industrial societies with their own distinctive political and economic identities.

Settler societies were connected to Britain, but not its mere extensions.  This was the fundamental category error made by many Victorian proponents of Greater Britain.  Settler loyalism and Britishness were not necessarily coterminous with national identities in Britain, and these identities coexisted in the settler colonies alongside non-British ethnic and sub-national identities.  These included the Quebecois nationalism of figures such as Henri Bourassa, Afrikaner nationalism, a frontier and settler ethos of liberty and opportunity that fostered more democratic societies than in class-riven Britain, and regional and local attachments.  Bell knows all this, and is sensitive to what he terms the “dissonance between fantasy and reality” (152) in Greater Britain discourse.  The imperial imaginaries conjured by writers such as Seeley, J. A. Froude, and others may not have fully represented colonial identities, but once published they shaped how their readers conceived of empire.  This disjuncture helps explain why many British imperialists advocated imperial federation in the 1880s and early 1890s, while opinion-leaders and intellectuals in the settlement colonies largely ignored these initiatives in favour of forms of colonial nationalism.  The appeal of Greater Britain was emotive, not programmatic, focusing on the moral and affective ties between the British and colonial subjects, and consistent with a political tradition guided by an unwritten constitution.  This is how I understand Bell’s description of Seeley’s Greater Britain vision as “theological,” with empire held as sacred and a “catechism” of imperial expansion and ethical instruction.  Meanwhile, “civic republicans” like Sir Charles Dilke positioned Queen Victoria, who never visited a settler colony and preferred Disraeli’s Orientalist imperialism to liberal visions of empire,[3] as the “iconographic heart” of a world British community.

J.A. Hobson identified one of the main barriers to imperial federation: a lack of incentives for colonial participation.  There was simply little to induce the colonies to enter willingly into a position of subservience to London, given that by the later nineteenth century they enjoyed responsible government and increasingly asserted their autonomy in a series of different policy areas.  The bonds of sentiment (a shared identity of Britishness and of “whiteness”) trumpeted by Seeley and others could be maintained without recourse to federal or other institutional ties that would leave the colonies in a subservient position.  From a colonial perspective, British ideas of imperial federation were not signs of imperial strength, but of Britain’s weakening grasp on imperial authority.

Why were Victorian liberal thinkers slow to discern the emergence of colonial nationalism, despite their attention to the settler colonies’ place within the Empire?  Was it simply a matter of confirmation bias?  In their determination to shift their readers’ attention to the settler colonies as a potential means of buttressing the “Anglo-Saxon” world community  against external and internal turbulence (the threat of other large world polities, the rocky transition to , did late nineteenth and early twentieth century liberals overlook, willfully or otherwise, the separate interests of settler colony subjects themselves?  One is also struck retrospectively by the lack of awareness amongst Victorian liberals (they were not alone of course) of the impact of settler colonialism on indigenous peoples.  I am not sure the resonance of civilizing mission rhetoric, or the various theories of comparative “civilizational” development voiced by liberals, sufficiently explains this theoretical blind spot, although they were certainly important.  Bell notes that Herbert Spencer was concerned that imperial pacification efforts could lead to the “re-barbarization” of the British (253), while “civic imperialists” like Froude (a thinker who strikes me as a conservative in liberal clothing) worried about materialism and dismissed claims derived from Mill and others that empire was a “civilizing” endeavour.  Each of these perspectives might have occasioned criticism of imperial violence and exploitation, but rarely did so.  Indeed, as Bell observes, the most famous liberal critique of empire, Hobson’s Imperialism (1902), criticized the colonies’ real and potential subjugation of their minority populations not as injurious to indigenous peoples themselves, but, in a precursor to Robinson and Gallagher’s “periphery” thesis, as a risk to imperial unity that could draw Britain into sub-imperial conflicts.[4]  Did a general sense that social evolution meant that indigenous people were on the wrong side of natural history override arguments for equality and proto-human rights?

Another notable lacuna in liberal imperial thought is a consideration of the materiality of empire.  With exceptions like Hobson, Victorian liberal thinkers largely overlooked economic sinews of empire, and also neglected military power.  This is surprising, given the techno-utopianism of many liberals (124-5).  While many liberal imperial thinkers attributed the expansion of British imperial power to the collapse of space, time, and distance brought about by technological advances (that is, a process of internationalism), they gave less attention to the influence of actual technical and industrial advances.  They were enraptured by the worlds they imagined that technology could produce, and overlooked the more mundane, but equally revolutionary, material changes that were occurring in the world around them.  It was as often these mundane, material factors, such as refrigeration, that underpinned imperial unity and enabled the settler colonies to develop and expand.

If they underestimated the role of political economy in explaining the growth of empire, unlike the political economists of the first half of the nineteenth century, late Victorian liberal thinkers were fully cognizant (if for blinkered and self-serving reasons) of the significance of race.  Bell examines the constitute role played by Victorian liberals in articulating and justifying an “anglo-racial imaginary.” (189)  The emergence of a global identity of whiteness as a predicate for Anglophone societies’ global hegemony in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been elucidated by historians such as Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.[5]  Bell’s essays help explain how and why liberals could advocate variations of a global racial order built on racial hierarchy and inequality.  Victorian liberals from Mill to Leonard Hobhouse were all, in the most literal sense, white supremacists.

Bell describes his subjects as “norm entrepreneurs” (158) who helped create a “translocal” British imperial community, a “planetary public” wherein the binary of domestic and foreign affairs collapsed.  By “public” Bell means the subsection of imperial subjects that was educated and invested in politics.  It is not always clear, however, how each individual thinker performed this role.  Cass Sustein, Martha Finnemore, and Kathryn Sikkink defined norm entrepreneurs as figures who advance particular ideas to effect political change.[6]  They, and others who have extended the concept, say comparatively little about how and why such norm entrepreneurs emerge (in other words, they don’t historicize the concept fully).  Nor do they ask whether the concept of a norm entrepreneur is dependent on an international political ecosystem where the complexity of political issues demands the participation of more than just state actors, and where non-state actors have already secured an institutionalized and networked presence.  How were ideas (such as liberal imperialism, imperial federation, or racial hierarchies) internalized and legitimized in a historical period and place, such as late-Victorian Britain, where politics was the preserve of a small and privileged elite, and where the barriers to entry for non-elites were comparatively high?  These are not Bell’s questions, and it is not fair to ask why his essays do not track more broadly the resonance of his subjects’ ideas.  Rather, one of the many intriguing questions I was left with after reading (and in some cases, re-reading) these essays is how the book’s thinkers framed and positioned their arguments according to the political context within each wrote, and the media through which they choose to disseminate their arguments.

Bell’s essays demonstrate how liberal world order thought evolved throughout the Victorian era, and how it adapted to, and perhaps contributed to, the eventual de-legitimization of imperialism in the middle decades of the 20th century.  If liberal thought was tied to imperialism in the 19th century, and, as Bell argues, has now become the “metacategory of modern political discourse” (63), then it is unsurprising that we should see echoes of Victorian arguments for the virtues of Greater Britain and Anglo-union in current political debate.  What has changed is not so much the ideas themselves, but the context.  Victorian liberal ideas of empire are now deployed by conservatives and reactionaries who wish to return Britain to the imagined stability of that age.  Nostalgia as deployed in academic discourse is usually a term of opprobrium.  Witness the categorization of the 1980s revival of books, television shows, and films on British India (Paul Scott’s Raj quartet and its television mini-series, David Lean’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India) as “Raj nostalgia.”  Certainly many recent revivals of the Anglosphere idea are naïve at best, such as Brexiteers’ fanciful idea to replace EU trade links with an “Empire 2.0” commonwealth trade pact, or at worst trade on imperial apologias and “on-balance Empire was a good thing” arguments proffered by figures such as Jeremy Paxman, as Bell himself has recently argued.  Yet the sentimentality and wistfulness of imperial nostalgia, if not its sense of regret, bitterness, or denial, also accounts for the continued and anachronistic existence of institutions such as the Commonwealth Games, whose imperial origins, if acknowledged at all, are long since incidental to its internationalist pretensions.

Imperialism and “civilization talk” have not disappeared in modern political discourse.  To take just one example, the liberal intellectual Michael Ignatieff advocated “empire-lite” during the Iraq war, and more recently has defended the Central European University, where he serves as rector, against discriminatory legislation from Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian government by appealing to the asserted universal merits of liberal democracy.[7]  But as the Commonwealth Games example indicates, since the 1970s at least, empire and “civilization” arguments have been largely subsumed within the politics of internationalism and its more capacious conceptual cousin, globalization.  The intersection between imperialism and internationalism, in different ways, was also central to the international relations of the later nineteenth century, as Bell illustrates.  This is not to suggest that Victorian liberal imperial thought necessarily anticipated modern debates about empire and international intervention (although I think it did), but that imperialism and internationalism are transhistorical variables in the perennial process of global ordering.  If hierarchy has been an endemic feature of international relations, as John Hobson has argued,[8] then Reordering the World reveals the deep and lasting impact imperialism has had in shaping, and sometimes contesting, these hierarchies.

Advocates of international order ideas advance one or more of three underlying rationale for their respective prescriptions.  Some seek to preserve a prevailing status quo.  Others are interested in preventing or forestalling internal and/or external threats to the nation, empire, or particular (usually elite) social groups.  Last is a desire to create conditions of international “stability” that will enable future progress.  Victorian liberal international thinkers most often expressed this latter, progressive rationale for their visions of imperial order.  The progress they promised, however, was always in the future, never in the present.  The promised benefits of empire for colonial subjects were mortgaged to the political exigencies of the moment, exigencies which usually favoured one of the first two rationales for empire.

Liberal world order visions were not about policy or governance in a direct sense.  Rather, their significance rests in their narrative power.  Victorian liberals organized the empire’s past, present, and future according to their respective liberal nomos, and in so doing helped to construct the imaginative space within which empire functioned.  They created imperial possibilities.  Bell’s key conclusions are that liberalism is not antithetical to empire, and neither is it a coherent and fixed intellectual tradition whose intellectual history can be traced teleologically.  Such essentialist views often lurk as unquestioned assumptions in IR thinking about liberal internationalism, and are themselves manifestations of the liberal progress narrative that assumed its modern form in the Victorian era that Bell examines.  Rather, Bell’s essays demonstrate liberalism’s capacious nature to adapt to prevailing geopolitical circumstances.  In the nineteenth century that meant rationalizing imperialism.  By the mid-twentieth century, it meant anti-imperialism and an embrace of human rights, as well as market capitalism.  In our own political moment, it might mean a double-movement of accommodation and resistance to resurgent nationalism.  Claims that the prevailing liberal international order is in imminent collapse thus mistake the architecture of the historically contingent post-1945 world order for the universal principles pronounced by the framers of that order.  Modern liberalism has always been about the advancement of universal principles, as Bell’s essays demonstrate.  The history of the liberal intellectual tradition shows us, however, that liberals have not agreed on what those universal principles are, and continually reshape them to the politics of the day.

[1] Durba Ghosh, “Another Set of Imperial Turns?,” American Historical Review 117:3 (2012), 772-93.

[2] Representative examples include Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8:4 (2006), 387-409, and Cecilia Morgan, Building Better Britains?: Settler Societies in the British World, 1783-1920 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

[3] See Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 60-64.

[4] Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, with Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism

Author (London: Macmillan, 1961).

[5] Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] Cass R. Sustein, “Social Norms and Social Roles,” Columbia Law Review 96:4, (1996), 903-68; Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52:4 (1998), 887-917.

[7] “‘We’ve had transitions that have not gone toward liberal democracy, but have gone towards illiberal democracy,’ [Ignatieff] said. The crisis shows the ‘story has not ended,’ he added.”  Globe & Mail, April 25, 2017.  By “story,” I take Ignatieff to be appealing to a presumed universal liberal narrative of progress.

[8] John M. Hobson and J. C. Sharman, “The Enduring Place of Hierarchy in World Politics: Tracing the Social Logics of Hierarchy and Political Change,” European Journal of International Relations 11:1 (2005), 63-98


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