Journal of World History 8.2 (1997) 338-343
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Predicting the demise of the vast Spanish empire, Francis Bacon wrote that "upon the breaking and shivering of a great state and empire, you may be sure to have wars...when they fail...all goes to ruin, and they become a prey...every bird taking a feather." So it was with imperial Rome and Spain; so it is with imperial Britain. Among the birds taking feathers are historians, such as Victor Kiernan, P.J. Marshall, and their comrades, dueling over the causes, workings, and balance sheet of the once Great Britain. Their debates have been revitalized by the new questions that cultural studies scholars have posed and by the recent failures in empire building and nation-state building in Europe and abroad. These are heady times for imperial historians to take feathers, as both scholars and the general public consider the im-perial plumage: migration, racism, borders, war, capitalism, the English language, and nationalism. Whether discussing Jane Austen or "gentlemanly capitalism," the empire is back!
In Imperialism and Its Contradictions, Victor Kiernan's eight essays on various facets of imperialism are compiled and introduced by Harvey Kaye, the unofficial scribe and club historian for the British Marxist school of historical studies. Kiernan's esteemed and contentious colleagues include Christopher Hill, Perry Anderson, and the late Ed-ward Palmer Thompson. This is the third volume collecting Kiernan's previously published topical essays, and Kaye projects two more. This book addresses questions of development and underdevelopment, the European bourgeoisie at home and in the colonies, and the violence of state building, whether by European imperial overlords or Indian, African, and Chinese imperial warlords.
Kiernan's position? To demonstrate the fundamental social nature of imperialism and thus to draw parallels between colonial and European historical developments. These essays remind us that continental state building displayed military, cultural, and commercial coercion in ways that were strikingly similar to the growth of overseas colonial states, and that bourgeois social revolutionaries attacked feudalism in the pursuit of profits and status in London and Paris, as well as Calcutta and Saigon. [End Page 338]
Armed with his encyclopedic knowledge and equally ambitious interpretive eye, Kiernan sets out to demonstrate how empire building might have differing specific contexts, but one essential contour, or "double mission." Empire builders at home and abroad were intent upon destroying old societies and regenerating them by constructing new ones. To paraphrase Marx, the victors drink the nectar from the skulls of the slain, and the British workers lost their heads, as did the Indian peasants. Class struggle and formation, and the "protean versatility of capitalism," are the focal points of history, whether one discusses Mughal India, the Raj, or India after 1947. In this way, Kiernan's essays build upon his previous studies of imperial theory, nation-states, capitalism, European attitudes to non-Europeans, and the roles of war and armies in both Europe and its empires. It is interesting to note that Kiernan has considered the historical development of imperialism for nearly half a century, since his book on Anglo-Chinese diplomacy during the 1880s was published in 1939 (British Diplomacy in China, 1880-1885. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939).
In contrast, P.J.Marshall and the contributors to the Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire attempt to demonstrate the uniqueness of imperial developments, such as colonial cities and societies, and imperial continuities, rather than social discontinuities, since 1783. Not only was British imperialism different in many ways from those of its French and Dutch partners, but also it differed between Australia and West Africa. If Kiernan sees a mirroring of European class with colonial race, the contributors to the Cambridge volume...