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Reviewed by:
  • Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies
  • Michael G. Vann
Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies. By Herman Lebovics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Despite several brilliant and insightful passages, Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies will disappoint many readers. The work is not a sustained argument where each chapter proves the author’s position. Nor is the work a systematic study of how the acquisition, maintenance, and eventual loss of empire impact the political institutions of representative democracies. Instead, the text is a collection of diverse essays brought together into a single volume. In the introduction Lebovics acknowledges that each essay had an independent and distinct origin over the course of a decade, but he holds that there is a coherence and reoccurring theme to these essays. This is true. The essays do touch on various ways in which liberal democracies interacted with their colonial empires. However, the essays are too divergent, too unrelated, and nowhere near sufficiently cohesive to meet the standard set by the intriguing and promising title. Despite some excellent observations in the conclusion, the book does not hold together as a demonstration of how empire and democracy are antithetical. That said, if we take each essay on its own and examine its merits, this volume is an important collection from a prominent historian that contributes to the critical history of imperialism.

As stated, this book is really an anthology of some of Lebovics’ various papers presented over the past decade. The first essay is a comparative study of British and French colonial administrators in the 1930s and 1940s, using the prism of killing an elephant. He sets up Orwell’s classic essay as a contrast with the lesser known (and he holds plagiarized) memoir of Raymond Gauthereau. Lebovics argues that the British example shows how self-reflection led to an understanding of the evils of empire, while the postwar French administrator was of a lesser intellectual quality (“Not the Right Stuff” is the title of the essay) and did not understand that his nation’s imperial control was coming to an end. The essay is perceptive, thought provoking, and well written, but is rather impressionistic in its focus on two primary sources. The essay seems to hint at a good cop/bad cop dichotomy between Orwell and Gauthereau.

The next essay is a somewhat radical change of subject. Here Lebovics explores the career of Pierre Bourdieu and his challenge to French academic studies of culture. He argues that Bourdieu, with his Algerian experience, was able to transcend the imperial perspective and examine with the colonial other with a sense of respect that amounted to nothing short of a “cultural revolution” in French social sciences. The gist of this short piece is that for most of the century, French academics failed to realize their own role in the imperial project and how this distorted their gaze. Bourdieu, the hero of Lebovics’ narrative, led a revolt that used social science to better the lives of those ruled over by the French empire.

The next essay takes the reader into another surprising, but enlightening, direction. Here Lebovics explores the career of filmmaker Jean Renoir. He argues that Renoir’s films need to be looked at as the search for a “true France” in the turmoil of the rise of fascism in the 1930s to decolonization in the 1950s; a quest to find an organic and authentic identity. Lebvoics holds that Renoir’s films show an increasing political engagement until Europe’s self-destruction in the Second World War. At that point, a disillusioned Renoir leaves France for the United States of America but only to journey onto India where he made “The River.” Set only a few short years after the trauma of decolonization and Partition, the film is an apolitical search for a timeless “East.” Lebovics argues that this is one of many ways in which Westerners who are destabilized by the challenge of modernity turn to a supposedly timeless Orient for stability. Pleasantly for the reader, the next essay follows a similar course. Starting with Baudelaire and continuing through such figures as Picasso and Josephine Baker, Lebovics examines France’s fascination with the...

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