Liberalism and Empire, at the Intersection of Theory and History

This is the third post in our book forum on Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire. Inder S. Marwah is Assistant Professor at McMaster University’s Department of Political Science.  He is currently working on a project examining Darwin’s influence over anti-imperialist political thought, particularly in non-Western contexts, at the turn of the 20th century.

Let’s start where we can’t help but to start: with a just a little bit of light gushing.  Reordering the World is a masterful collection of essays that substantively advances the study of liberalism and empire, and for those of us interested in the subject, it would be difficult to find a more fruitful, illuminating, and accomplished piece of work.  Duncan’s expositions of conceptual formations (liberalism in particular, but not alone), of complex historical periods (the 19th century), and of the many figures he treats are, quite simply, models of scholarly rigor: philosophically-rich, historically meticulous, and best of all, persistently resistant to overextension.

Of the book’s many achievements, this one stands out: Duncan imparts a level of analytical, historical and philosophical clarity to the study of liberal imperialism, whose complexities are all too often not just papered over, but actually obscured by overgeneralization.  For all of the important strides that political theorists have in recent decades made in exposing liberalism’s imperial underbelly, they’re not without their anachronisms, confusions and absences (to which I’ll return below).  Duncan lucidly draws out the deep ambivalences within liberalism, whose contours are more often assumed than actually delineated, and gets us to see its internal rifts.  He also shines a light on the scholarship’s blindspots – in particular, its neglect of important figures marginalized by our focus on the canon, and the dearth of scholarship on settler colonialism.  His revision of Mill – a towering figure in the critical literature – is equally nuanced, complicating the often truncated characterization of his “imperial liberalism” that’s become something of a commonplace, and his exposition of lesser-known (but no less influential) figures such as Freeman, Seeley, Froude and others, are similarly illuminating.

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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.

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Symposium: Reordering the World

This is a guest post from Duncan Bell who is a Reader in Political Thought and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire to which this symposium is dedicated. Stay tuned for more contributions on Reordering The World in the coming days.

I’d like to start by thanking The Disorder of Things for hosting this symposium, Nivi Manchanda for co-ordinating it, and the participants for generously agreeing to write commentaries.

Reordering the World is an unusual book. It was not designed as a single volume, though I hope that it works as one. It collects together a series of essays that I have written about ideologies of modern British  imperialism over the last decade or so. I added a long Introduction and Coda, as well as a substantial new framing chapter – “The Dream Machine: On Liberalism and Empire.” I faced a choice about how to deal with the bulk of the other chapters – should I rewrite them significantly or leave them largely untouched? I opted for the latter course, with one exception: I rewrote a chapter on J. R. Seeley, the historian and influential late Victorian imperial ideologue. The resulting volume presents an analysis, though far from an exhaustive one, of some key themes and trends in the history and theory of modern imperial order.

My work in the history of imperial thought has been motivated by curiosity about the ways in which historical actors made sense of their world, and a conviction that studying their ideas can shed light on significant moments and movements in the past, while also helping to inform contemporary political thinking. Reordering the World is primarily a study in (international/imperial) political thought, an intervention in a set of wide-ranging debates among political theorists, intellectual historians, and IR scholars, about how empire has been conceptualised and legitimated, though I hope that it will be of interest to at least some IR scholars who work in different areas. The volume continues, while extending, the work on imperial ideology that I started with The Idea of Greater Britain: Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (2007), and that I am currently working on for a volume entitled provisionally Dreamworlds of Race.

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From Global to Transnational: Reading Global Justice through W. E. B. Du Bois

s200_in_s.valdezThis is a guest post by Inés Valdez, assistant professor in political science at The Ohio State University. She works on the political theory of immigration, critical race theory, and cosmopolitanism and her articles have appeared in the American Political Science Review, Political Studies, and Politics, Groups, and Identities, among others outlets.Her book manuscript in progress is on Kant and W. E. B. Du Bois’s cosmopolitanisms. This post is based on a recent workshop paper that will be appearing in a collection on empire, race, and global justice edited by Duncan Bell.


An emerging literature in the field of history has made clear that transnational connections between black Americans and anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and Asia were prominent in the twentieth century (see, among many others, Slate 2012). These connections resulted in more or less institutionalized forms of communication, exchange, and solidarity that influenced politically how these groups understood their own history of injustice and struggle.

These connections indicate that groups within the West saw their marginalization as connected to groups within what we today call the global South and saw the potential of realms of politics beyond the nation as sites of emancipation and justice.

Despite this literature, and the relatively recent events that they cover, the global justice literature is largely unconcerned with them. There are many disagreements within the global justice literature but one assumption is common: that wealthy countries are homogeneously prosperous and poor countries homogeneously poor. Moreover, whenever scholars do note the inequality within the West, they do so to posit that addressing it should take priority over obligations to the non-West. While scholars tend to disagree on the question of whether the West has a duty of justice toward the non-West, neither those who favor a duty to distribute (cosmopolitans), nor those who disagree with it (social liberals), pause to reflect on the potential affinities between marginalized groups within and outside the West.

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White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.


Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

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What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


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It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”

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