Historicizing Liberalism and Empire: On Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World

This the sixth post in the forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and EmpireRichard Devetak is Associate Professor and Head of School of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has published on the history of international thought, contemporary theoretical debates in international relations, humanitarian intervention, the ‘war on terror’, and globalisation’s implications for justice and the state. His major contribution has been in the area of international relations theory, more specifically in the exposition and analysis of Frankfurt School Critical Theory and post-structuralism. His current research interests include: the history of international thought and the history of the states-system.

Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire is a superb study of liberalism and liberal visions of empire. For its historicization and contextualization of both liberalism and liberal empire, Bell’s Reordering the World challenges many of the theory-driven assumptions that colour contemporary political and international relations theory. Extensive knowledge of Victorian Britain and the intellectual terrain of its political thought enable Bell to cast new light not just on the past, but on our present ways of thinking – especially the ways we try to grapple with the past, deal with colonial legacies, and understand liberalism and liberal world orders.

One of the features I appreciated most about Reordering the World was its will to resist easy (or lazy) theorizing that is intended to advertise the theorist’s enlightened and postcolonial moral superiority over past thinkers. The purpose of the book is not to engage in moral or theoretical self-fashioning; rather, it is to write history – to engage with the past as a historical object of enquiry, not a philosophical or moral one. That is not to say that moral or philosophical registers are entirely absent from the book, they aren’t. But it is to say that Bell does not allow them to overwhelm or pre-empt the historical material or argument. Bell maintains a firmly and unapologetically historical approach throughout. And it is this stance, I suggest, that enables Bell to produce the insights that permit better understandings of liberalism and its colonial legacies.

There is much to be learned about liberalism, empire and Victorian political thought in Reordering the World. Liberalism has long been both a theoretical protagonist and criticized subject of international relations. That’s not the case with empire and Victorian political thought. It is a cliché now to say that the discipline of International Relations (IR) has failed to come to terms with empires and imperialism. Fixated with the reified notion of the sovereign or nation-state, theories of international relations, especially since the mid-twentieth century, have neglected the historical legacies left by empires in making and ordering international society. This has seen a rising tide of IR scholarship dedicated to correcting IR’s neglect of empire. Several notable studies of empire – theoretical, historical and empirical in approach – now exist (see for example Jeanne Morefield; Andrew Phillips; Jennifer Welsh).

Less examined in IR, however, is the relationship between empire and liberalism, at least from a historical point of view. The tendency has been either to posit an elective affinity between empire and liberalism, what Bell calls the ‘necessity thesis’ (eg., Uday Singh Mehta; Beate Jahn), or to suppose their innate opposition, what he calls the ‘rejectionist thesis’ (eg., G. John Ikenberry). Starting from one or other of these prior theoretical or political commitments, the theorist then scours history and/or the history of political thought to defend the prescriptive commitments. Such approaches, Bell rightly (p. 9) notes, have the effect of effacing ‘the complexity and messiness of the historical record’. Bell takes an alternative, less theoretically determined approach that is both empirical and historical – the ‘contingency thesis’ (p. 21). No particular relationship is presupposed between liberalism and empire, not least because of liberalism’s ‘internal diversity, … national and regional variation, and its polyphonic evolution’ (p. 67).

On Liberalism

It might be the case that IR has recognized multiple strands of liberalism, but rare are the cases where liberalism is treated historically and contextually. To a large extent this seems a product of the discipline’s pre-occupation with theory – particularly forms of theory anchored in philosophy and science. When governed by these disciplines, IR theory tends to become detached from history in the search for transcendental or generalizable truths, or examination of propositional content. Liberalism can then be treated as a body of propositions susceptible to the rigours of philosophical and/or scientific methods of enquiry. To the extent that past thinkers are considered at all, it is through the ‘stipulative’ (p. 66) lens of present theoretical concerns. Historical and national variability, apparent contradiction, and intellectual contestation are subordinated to an integrative drive to find anticipations of, and resemblances and continuities with present understandings. As the prolegomena to a philosophical exercise that may fine. But as an attempt to grasp what a past thinker intended or was doing, philosophy and science become impediments; they have neither the intellectual equipment nor the desire to engage the past as a historical object. Liberalism then becomes little more than a construction projected onto the past from the present. Historical nuance is obliterated. Apparent anomalies, such as the fact that late Victorian liberals insisted that liberalism encompassed socialist ends as well, are written out of the story.

By contrast, Bell approaches liberalism as a historical phenomenon. Coming to terms with what liberalism is or has been cannot be achieved by treating it as an abstraction, as if it had a life of its own independent of the actors who have articulated or challenged its principles and values. In the words of Quentin Skinner, it’s about trying to ‘see things their way’. Liberalism is, as Bell emphasizes, ‘an actor’s category’, that is, a term used by actors themselves. Bell’s approach is nominalist to the extent that he allows liberalism to emerge from the historical investigation. He doesn’t start with a definition taken from the present and then impose it on past thinkers and texts. Doing so results in the kind of anachronism that identifies John Locke as a foundational liberal. One obvious test for claims such as this is to ask whether Locke himself or other contemporaries described themselves liberals. As Bell explains, this is not merely ‘a semantic argument about the absence of the word “liberalism” in the early modern period, but rather a claim about the range of concepts and arguments available to historical actors’ (p. 68). The conceptual architecture that has become associated with liberalism simply was not available in the late seventeenth century, though that does not rule out the existence of certain components that would later be integrated into liberalism’s architecture. As Bell (p. 74-5) notes, it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that usage of the label ‘liberal’ proliferated, and not until the twentieth century that political theory textbooks made the effort to ‘construct an authoritative liberal tradition’.

One important feature of Bell’s contextual approach to liberalism is that he is able to distinguish doctrines from personae (p. 71). This refers to the difference between articulating arguments, principles or values that may be characterized as liberal (doctrines) as opposed to ‘being’ a liberal (persona). The latter is a matter of theoretical self-fashioning, of constructing and projecting oneself as a liberal. If more IR theorists availed themselves of this distinction they would understand contemporary politics a little better, and would avoid the inane characterization of political leaders such as Hillary Clinton as ‘neoliberal’. But this distinction is also useful in thinking about how today’s IR theorists perform work on themselves in order to embody their preferred theory. Elsewhere Bell has used this distinction in conjunction with the work of intellectual historian Ian Hunter to describe the practices or techniques of the self that form particular theoretical personae. This involves treating theory as an activity in which assorted intellectual practices, techniques and pedagogies transform the self into a theorist capable of accessing higher truths.

On Empire

The substantive contribution of Reordering the World, however, is the comprehensive and detailed account of Victorian liberal reflections on empire and, in particular, settler colonialism. As already noted, it is now uncontroversial in IR to recall the imperial context out of which the world of sovereign states emerged. But too often the treatment of empire is shaped by imperatives issuing from prevailing theoretical preferences and personae, not from the empirical and archival material of the past. Empire becomes a general concept whose importance attaches to a theorist’s moral and political comportment. In other words, it becomes a tool of intellectual self-fashioning, and is no longer concerned principally with empirical history.

Bell avoids treating empire in this way, sticking to empirically verifiable statements about the past and past statements. His approach is contextual: situating discussions of empire in the context of Victorian political thought, which was predominantly liberal. It was also, as Bell observes, strongly historicist in orientation. One of the interesting insights Bell offers is the major importance of history in the way that Victorian liberals thought about empire.

Bell’s discussion of the way history was put to work by Victorians as they battled over the future of the British Empire, particularly in Chapter 5, is fascinating. The historical consciousness and impressive erudition of antiquity displayed by Victorian thinkers conditioned the way they thought about and sought to practice imperial politics and government. ‘The stories of Greece and Rome’, he argues (p. 122), ‘provided a common frame of reference, a claim of authority, and a productive repertoire of images and arguments for a classically educated elite to interpret contemporary culture and politics, and they played a privileged role in thinking about the nature of imperial rule’. The trope of imperial decline and fall was at the heart of the debates. It was, as Bell (p. 120) put it, a ‘clash of historical epistemologies’; a dispute over how the past was interpreted and understood, and of the extent to which historical actors could make a difference in the world.


The towering influence of Edward Gibbon is unmissable here. He had argued that the fall of Rome was made inevitable by its ‘immoderate greatness’. Victorians could not but confront the argument of the great English Enlightenment historian. But the question for them was whether the British Empire was comparable with the Roman Empire. Bell’s cast of Victorian thinkers were committed to making empire work. They were bent on its survival. Consequently, they searched for reasons to reject the analogy with Rome. Either they believed in ‘imperial redemption’ or they disputed the characterization of Britain’s empire as an empire. John Robert Seeley put it bluntly: ‘our Empire is not an Empire at all in the ordinary sense of the word’ (quoted at p. 142-3). In both cases, the future of the empire depended on claims to civilization or liberty. The British model of empire, it was purported, was ‘uniquely progressive, a global agent of human advance’ (p. 133). Whatever we late moderns may think about such a claim, it rang true to Victorian elites in the imperial metropole. They were convinced that Britain was, or could be, a force for good in the world.

Bell identifies two further important features of the Victorian discussion of empire. One relates to the reimagining of empire as ‘Greater Britain’, something Bell explored at length in a previous book. The other to the place of settler colonialism. Crucial to the Victorian imaginary was an emergent distinction between empire, as represented by India, and colony, as represented by the settler sovereignties of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Again, Seeley is to the point: ‘The colonies and India are in opposite extremes’ (quoted at p. 143). The modalities of rule required to govern India were thought to be very different to those required in settler colonies. Again, theories about history played a part in how the two modes of government were conceived. India, it was alleged, was backward, stuck in the past. The colonies, on the other hand, were really just offshoots of the ‘mother country’. As Britons transplanted to the colonies, they were believed to be capable of upholding commitments to democracy and constitutional liberty nurtured in the motherland. In fact, John Stuart Mill, whose early enthusiasm for settler colonialism would late in his life be displaced by what Bell calls ‘melancholic colonialism’, described the colonies in 1856 as the ‘most prosperous and rapidly progressive communities’ (p. 222).

As Bell makes clear, this distinction could only arise on the basis of a racially encoded imperial imaginary (p. 96). But it was precisely this imaginary that led Victorian liberals to envisage a global British polity or ‘imperial federation’ in which Britain and its settler colonies could reorder the world, or at least the ‘globe-spanning colonial empire’ (p. 233), along liberal principles. Though the political architecture proved impossible to achieve, the Victorian theories and practices of liberalism and empire have endured through the project of the ‘Anglo-world’ (ch. 8).

The ‘Anglo-world’ legacy remains strong in the Antipodes where ties to Britain have not been completely cut. Australia continues to share its Head of State with Great Britain (as does New Zealand), and perdures under a constitution that to this day fails to recognize the original owners of the land – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Australian constitutional monarchists remain as enthusiastic about Queen Elizabeth II as the Victorians did for their ‘patriot queen’, Victoria. But the Australian Republican Movement, set back by a failed referendum in 1999, has not been extinguished. In fact, it is on the rise again, and the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is a former Chairman of the Republican Movement. Additionally, calls for constitutional reform aimed at including a ‘First Nations Voice’, a representative body, in the Australian parliament have been given powerful expression in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, an exhortation issued by the First Nations Constitutional Convention on 26 May 2017.

On a recent visit to Australia, British Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, stoked memories of Greater Britain, promising to put Australia ‘at, or near, the front of the queue for a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain’. In the present context, that Brexit Britain is left mawkishly to entreat its old colonies testifies not just to the disastrous decision to leave the European Union, but to the enduring legacy of Britain’s imperial imaginary in some quarters.


Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World masterfully maps an intellectual terrain that is too often simplified and distorted for theoretically or politically determined purposes. Bell’s commitment to historical-mindedness – his contextualism and historicism – distinguishes his account of the relationship between liberalism and empire. Reordering the World not only offers an insightful glimpse of another time, but enables better understanding of the kinds of legacies left by Victorian visions of liberal empire, both at the heart of the imperial metropole and at the heart of the settler colonies. A book on Victorian political thought might appear at first glance to be an exercise in antiquarianism. But I would conjecture that by historicizing liberal empire Bell’s very fine book has also created the intellectual conditions for the decolonizing of liberalism today.



One thought on “Historicizing Liberalism and Empire: On Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World

  1. Pingback: On Uses of Intellectual History: Past and Present in the Critique of Liberalism | The Disorder Of Things

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