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Aug 1, 2006 2:52 am


Bernard Porter Responds ...



Below is the response submitted by Prof. Bernard Porter to our recently held symposium. We thank him for taking the time out to respond.

I don’t have much to say in response to the comments on my article, mainly because I agree with most of them. When the piece first appeared on this site - before the ‘symposium’ stage - I was a little discouraged, I have to say, by some of the early replies it elicited, from readers who had either not read it, or read it through a red mist of prejudice [ed notes: Prof. Porter is referring here to the comments on the HNN page.]. Peter K. Clarke is right to question simplistic uses of the word ‘imperialism’; but that is the very point I was trying to make at the beginning of my article. At a recent conference in America I suggested that we historians agree to a moratorium on the ‘i’ and ‘e’ words for, say, five years, in order to force us to find other ways of describing what could be, in fact - and as Jonathan Reynolds (18 July) points out - very different phenomena. That might also enable people to accept some of the similarities between British and US policies in the past, which at present they shy away from because they seem to be staining America with the Great Sin of empire. ‘Free Trade’ imperialism (so-called), for example, which was Britain’s ideal for most of the 19th century, is very close indeed to America’s policy of the ‘Open Door’. Personally, I don’t care in the least whether what America has done or is doing in the world is called ‘imperialism’ or not. If banning the word will take the red mist away, and allow a more rational discussion of the issue than some of the early contributions to this debate evinced, that’s fine by me.

Other parts of Peter Clarke’s comments I’m afraid I couldn’t understand. I know my Hobson (not ‘Hobsen’) well - I did my PhD on him, years ago - and I think Clarke is wrong about him. I’d like to know how Patty Hearst can be seen as an imperialist. And I simply don’t get what Clarke means by my wasting my ‘analytical rigor and insight’; on ‘an edifice of jargon’. Likewise, I must protest against Dale B. Light’s labelling of me as a ‘Leninist’, and his slur that I’ve not developed my ‘economic’ views in order to ‘seem... clever’; in fact it was because I didn’t have room here, because the point seemed marginal to my main argument, and because I’ve anyway developed these views at length in at least three earlier books. To ‘Nick’ at ‘A Smoother Pebble’ I’d like to say that I didn’t claim that American imperialism is ‘doomed to fail’, only that it’s going to be very difficult to do it on the British pattern, as Niall Ferguson seems to be advocating, because the US doesn’t have the same kind of ‘ruling class’ that Britain had in her imperial days.

There has been some wider misunderstanding of this last point; which is partly my fault for not explaining it better, and partly because many Americans, I think, have little idea of the peculiar ethos that motivated Britain’s colonial rulers in the 19th century. Arnold Shcherban’s contribution (27 June) seems to indicate this. I wasn’t talking about the ‘aristocracy’ (‘Nick’) - in fact echt aristocrats took comparatively little part in all this - but about the essentially paternalistic, anti-capitalist section of the upper-middle class who imbibed notions of ‘service’ at their public schools, and then did the ruling of the colonies after other kinds of middle-class men (like Nick’s Rhodes) had conquered and begun to exploit them. There was a difference between empire-builders and empire-rulers. Britain’s empire-rulers were not at all the same as Nick’s Americans ‘steeped in patriotism, the martial virtues and a sense of divine mission’; or as the ‘millionaire and multi-millionaires’ that Arnold Shcherban seems to think constitute ruling elites ‘in any country’. Whether America’s patriotic soldier-missionaries and multi-millionaires will be able to sustain an empire in the way Britain’s ruling class did I can’t say. All I know is that it won’t be the same sort of empire as Britain’s. Can we agree on that?

Coming on to the serious, ‘symposium’ contributions: I liked Jonathan Reynolds’s (and Oscar Chamberlain’s) comparison of the modern American ‘empire’ (note the inverted commas) to the cheese-eating, surrender-monkey one. There’s a lot in this, at the level of ideology: both countries seeking to ‘enlighten’ those in darkness, for noble motives. (I agree, incidentally, that many American ideologues’ motives are noble; which is not to say, of course, that they can’t be foolish, or manipulated by the more cynical.) I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between British ‘indirect rule’ and French ‘assimilation’ - a difference which, however, I think may have been more theoretical than practical. The other problem with this comparison, of course, is that France wanted to integrate all her assimilés in a ‘Greater France’, whereas the US doesn’t. Here I think British 19th century ‘free trade imperialism’ (Cobden, and all that) is a closer fit. I also liked Reynolds’s other idea, comparing the British Empire with the UN. It is interesting how much British imperial propaganda in the post-1918 period painted the Empire as a kind of proto-League of Nations: a multi-national, global ‘Commonwealth’, dedicated to ‘progress’ and peace. (This was because the majority of Brits were never comfortable with the idea of ‘imperialism’ in its more aggressive sense.) So far as Britain was concerned, ‘imperialism’ was rarely at this time seen as in apposition to ‘internationalism’. This of course is a huge contrast with the outlook of the present-day American administration.

I agree with KC Johnson most of the way, too - though mainly, perhaps, because he agrees with me. I’m not sure that he’s quite right about the lack of public accountability for British imperialism in the 19th century: Britain always had a pretty representative House of Commons, with a majority of males voting for it after 1867; which could (and did) turn nasty if the Government did things it didn’t approve of abroad. The main difference is that the people it was representing weren’t generally as religious and utopian as the present-day American electorate seems to be. It’s a cultural, not a political, thing. Again (re Johnson): very many mid-Victorian Britons also believed in the power of commerce to spread liberal and democratic ideas in the world (Cobden and ‘free trade imperialism’ again). This certainly isn’t something that distinguishes America, either. These two points highlight one of the problems I’ve found in making these comparisons. One of the reasons some Americans don’t see how close modern America is to 19th century Britain (for example, in this area of ‘imperialism’), is that they don’t realise how close 19th century Britain was to America in many ways. I elaborate this (‘exceptionalism’ and all that) in my book.

I go also along with Manan Ahmed’s points about ‘clear vision’ versus ‘stump speeches and platitudes’, too. Absolutely. (But you can have superficial ideals as well as deep, programmatic ones.) Likewise on the ‘free market’ in Iraq. Both Britain and the US, of course, have always tried to manipulate markets for their own benefit. Most talk of freedom of trade is hypocritical. And yes, we do need to wait and see. A comment on Oscar Chamberlain’s contribution (which, again, I mainly agree with): don’t you think that the reason the US doesn’t put the ‘work’ into democratizing nations is that it thinks democracy doesn’t need to be ‘worked’ on: it’s the natural, fail-safe position when ‘tyranny’ is taken away? Superficial ideology, again.

I’m sorry not to be able to give you all a better fight, but I really do take on all your points. My purpose in writing both my book and this symposium piece was, quite simply, to show how much more complicated and ambivalent the comparisons between British and American ‘imperialisms’ are, than many journalists and politicians (and one or two historians) in both our countries assume. This discussion has complicated the picture further, which is all grist to my mill. Complexities like this mean that any parallels that can be made are far less ‘useful’ than they are often claimed to be; in the sense of giving no clear, straightforward lessons about how the US (and Britain, trotting along faithfully behind) should conduct its ‘imperialism’ (or whatever you want to call it) today. But that’s fine. The important thing about historical lessons is not to go to the wrong ones. Rumsfeld and Co. certainly did, when for example they likened the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad to that of Paris in 1944. They could have chosen imperial ones (Britain in Egypt is the one that is most often suggested), but were reluctant to, obviously, because of the odium that attaches to the ‘i’-word. It’s encouraging for me to have it confirmed that in the American academy, at least, there is not the same taboo. I only wish more Americans outside the Academy could be got to see this. (On this question, let me commend an article by Linda Colley, ‘The difficulties of empire: present, past and future’, in the current issue of Historical Research (UK), vol. 79, August 2006.) Consideration of British (and other) imperialisms might not them any clear guidance about what they should do today, in Iraq or elsewhere. But it would at least show Americans that - looked at in the context of these past events - they are not unique in every way. And certainly not in the ways they think they are.

Bernard Porter

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Jonathan Dresner - 8/1/2006

Many thanks to Mr. Porter for his exceedingly thorough and fair commentary!

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