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Reviewed by:
  • Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies
  • Jeremy Black
Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies. By Herman Lebovics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. 172 pp. $74.95 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

Herman Lebovics offers a sophisticated set of six essays that together amount to a critique of the impact of empire on metropolitan countries, specifically France. Originally, the essays started work as invited lectures or conference papers, but Lebovics, professor of history at Stony Brook University, has used the opportunity to rewrite the pieces, to bring the discussions and bibliographies up to date, and to add a preface and afterword. The book's theme is that colonies are dangerous to the health of democracy or, more specifically, that imperial strivings harm the chances for an egalitarian social order; although the relationship between that and democracy is less clear than Lebovics assumes. Lebovics cites George Orwell's reflection that "When white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom that he destroys" and probes this theme.

The first essay looks at another colonial administrator, Raymond Gauthereau, who also found himself elephant-hunting, in this case in the Ivory Coast. His account is taken by Lebovics to throw light on the inadequacy of force to carry out the colonial project, and indeed its exhaustion, and this becomes a point of departure for the falling apart of the sense of mastery and self-justification of some other French colonial administrators. The second essay considers Pierre Bourdieu's thinking about how colonialism affected metropolitan French life and discerns a division between sociology and ethnology that, he argues, was partly based on a desire among intellectuals to think one way about metropolitan populations and another about colonial subjects. To Lebovics, Bourdieu's deconstruction of the scientific and political boundaries between ethnology and sociology made a decisive move to address the European crisis of post-coloniality and find his own way, [End Page 106] not by putting forward a social science of universal laws but rather by working out a universal method of work.

The third essay switches to the arts, in the person of the filmmaker Jean Renoir. A close reading of the political films provides an opportunity to link them to a sharply changing context in France. This alsooffers Lebovics a view on the struggle over the representation of France. Renoir is seen as proposing in the 1930s a utopian France of friends and neighbors, a community of the people of the republic that corresponded to the Popular Front, but was wrecked by the 1940s. Renoir turned to Hollywood, but then left it, in response to what Lebovics suggests was an overly mechanical and modern United States, to turn to India. To Lebovics, this reflects a post-1945 Western longing for a world without tumultuous cities, social conflict, and politics, and he concludes that the temptations of the romantic Orient have always existed to distract the people in the West from fighting for a better world at home.

In his fourth essay, Lebovics uses Baudelaire to begin an investigation of the connection of modernity and colonialism, a wide-ranging piece that comes up to date with the response to the collapse of Yugoslavia and continued controversy over the Algerian war. Baudelaire is seen as pointing the way to understanding the rapports of aesthetic modernism and social modernity with the world of the tropics. Modernism is seen as tempting overwrought artists and intellectuals of the democratic West with the offer of shelter in a purer world of art.

Lebovics then turns to John Locke to offer a different exposition of social imperialism, an interesting, if somewhat ahistorical, piece. Locke is presented as clearly spelling out the relation of property, colonial expansion, and good government.

Lastly, Lebovics asks why American historians are turning to study cultural history. This is an overly determined piece that intellectualizes academic interests and strategies in a politicized context. It would have been far more rewarding to offer a close reading of relevant publications as well as to consider Ph.D. programs and hiring policies.

More generally, as the afterword confirms, his engaged work, while interesting and informative throughout, does not stand back sufficiently in order to allow opportunities...


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