Empire and Modern Political Thought

by Duncan Money

Empire and Modern Political Thought, edited by Sankar Muthu. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Since the 1970s, various academic disciplines have discovered the value of examining European imperialism and how what we now perceive as 'Europe' was constituted through a process of acquiring and maintaining colonies. Now, somewhat belatedly, it is the turn of political theory. Outside postcolonial studies, there has been comparatively little attention paid to the imperial dimensions of European political thought, and how engagement with actually existing empires helped form many of the ideas of major European thinkers. This is despite the fact that, for many thinkers, the empires of their day were at the centre of their concerns.

In a wide-ranging, ambitious series of essays, Sankar Muthu has assembled a cast of accomplished academics to plug this gap. It is a highly impressive effort, ranging in scope from fifteenth century Florentine republicans affirming the manifest virtues of annexing their neighbours, to nineteenth century social theorists grappling with the implications of the Indian Rebellion.

Given such geographical sweep, this is by no means a comprehensive account, a feat which, as Muthu notes, would be nigh on impossible. Instead it proceeds chronologically, exploring a smattering of significant thinkers and themes along the way. Most of the chapters take the form of tightly argued essays tackling the ideas of thinkers in an episodic fashion. Each thinker is grounded firmly in the intellectual and social context of the time: an element of biography is generally coupled with a detailed exposition of prevailing ideas of conquest, commerce, international law or property, to give but a few examples of the remarkable scope of this book, followed by an examination of how each thinker adopted, amended or set themselves against these ideas. Emma Rothschild does a particularly good job describing Adam Smith's immersion in the imperial connections between the Scottish Lowlands and the Americas and how these shaped his thought. Around one third of The Wealth of Nations is about empire and Rothschild connects the centrality of empire and long-distance commerce in Smith’s work to his intellectual and social milieu in Kirkcaldy, Glasgow and London, which was populated with colonial officials, merchants and slave-owners. Many of the other chapters offer similarly clear illustrations of how interaction with and knowledge of non-European societies helped to form what is thought of as distinctively ‘European’ political thought.

Only the structure of the chapter on Hegel and Marx sits uneasily in this general formula as it is not clear why Gabriel Paquette considers these two thinkers together, other than to point out that this was an area in which they disagreed. Their ideas on colonies and empires are explored separately and it reads like two distinctly different chapters were welded together. Uday Mehta’s chapter on Burke and India also feels like a dip in the general standards. While clearly delineated, Mehta largely focuses on Burke’s ideas in a more general sense, particularly around notions of social order. He also appears to have a profound sympathy with the man and these ideas, identifying an “almost reverent humility” which “touches and surrounds [Burke’s] thought.”

Muthu's introduction notes that underpinning the intellectual turn towards empire have been concerns about current U.S. dominance and its predilection for military aggression, as well as the recognition that the dilemmas citizens and states face today have long intellectual histories. Yet only a few of the authors here draw such connections. Those who do produce more interesting chapters for readers, like me, who are not simply interested in political theory for its own sake. Michael Mosher, for instance, finds Montesquieu’s retrospective endorsement of the treaty between Gelon, king of Syracuse circa 5th century BC, and Carthage as, “the perfect analogy to a modern human rights intervention,” because the treaty imposed on Carthage demanded only that the Carthaginians cease sacrificing children. There are a number of revealing insights into the historical antecedents of the idea that it is a concern for the well-being of people in places like Iran that informs the desire to bombard the country with high explosives in Mosher’s chapter and it’s a shame that other authors in the volume didn’t follow a similarly engaged approach. This is not to say that academic work without political content is diminished in value, but when writers are so clearly prompted by contemporary events and the potential parallels are so obvious it feels as if the writers concerned are holding back. The link with contemporary events is drawn most explicitly by Jennifer Pitts who ends her excellent chapter on nineteenth century French republicanism with the observation that:

"The distinctive stress that French republicanism has always laid on national unity and a national mission, which contributed to the mid-nineteenth-century colonial enthusiasm I have described, arguably continues to bedevil debates over the postcolonial present."

This is a perspective that goes some way to explaining why, for instance, sorry seems to be the hardest word for François Hollande, who promised to apologise for the French colonization in Algeria while in opposition but didn’t manage to utter the word when he visited the country as president in December 2012. It also provides a useful framework for understanding the deeply troubled relationship between the French left and a whole array of issues around the country’s former imperial possessions.

The apparent paradox within liberalism of a political philosophy emphasising individual liberty yet intimately linked with empire—explored in Pitts' chapter through Tocqueville’s enthusiasm for colonial brutality in Algeria—has, along with criticism of the Enlightenment as an integral part of European imperialism, generated much of the literature on political thought and empire in recent times. It is therefore refreshing to see an appreciation of the diversity in modern European political thought demonstrated in this book. Many of the thinkers explored here were in varying degrees opponents of the empires of their day, including Francisco de Vitoria, Adam Smith, Diderot, Condorcet, Kant and, especially, Montesquieu, who produced denunciations of empire as fierce as any twentieth century anti-imperialist. The Spanish, he thundered, were

"barbarians whose only thought, in discovering the Indies, seems to have been to reveal to mankind the ultimate limits of cruelty."

Yet, it’s worth noting that European imperialism seemed to survive such intellectual barbs. Throughout the book I couldn’t help feeling that, while many of these thinkers have had a lasting influence in a wide range of disciplines, their ideas don’t seem to have had much impact on the spread of empire. A case in point is Karuna Mantena’s comment that it is “surprising” that the greatest territorial expansion in the nineteenth century occurred after liberal theorists began to question many of the central assumptions about the need to intervene and drastically reconstruct indigenous societies. The connection between their ideas and the operation of empire is not obvious. As Anthony Pagden notes of the Spanish theologians who, two centuries prior to Montesquieu and in a more restrained manner, denied the legitimacy of the occupation of the Americas,

Certainly none of the arguments against colonization and settlement expressed by the School of Salamanca had much direct impact on colonial practice or even colonial legislation.

This comment could, more or less, cover all the opponents of empire covered in this volume. Burke didn’t even manage to convict Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal, during a seven-year trial, though Mehta highlights this episode as illustrative of his deep-rooted opposition to empire.

Chapters focused on the imperial dimensions of a single thinker are interspersed with more thematic essays. Some of the most impressive parts of the book are to be found in these sections, particularly in the exposition of the deep intellectual roots of some of the ideas which underpin empire. Muthu's chapter traces the emergence of the conviction that global commerce is universally beneficial—always and at all times. This was a view espoused by Condorcet, who perceived merchants as a potential civilising vanguard, bringing liberty and reason to African and Asian societies whether they liked it or not. This is grounded in a discussion of changing conceptions of the ocean: from vital barrier isolating utopian societies from corrupting influences to happy facilitator of global interconnection.

We can also see the seeds of colonial and postcolonial development projects in Mantena’s succinct explanation of the social categories devised by the English jurist Henry Maine. Maine's categories permitted non-European societies to be directly compared with pre-modern European societies. Crucially, this meant we could anticipate the ways they would develop: their future was Europe’s present. This was “a process of comparison in which what lay beyond Europe was always already before Europe [emphasis in original].” This is the sort of assumption that has underpinned decades of development projects emanating from the World Bank and its ilk, while related ideas underpin much recent commentary on economic growth in Africa (i.e. that Africa is Asia, 30 years ago).

Some concepts which crop up regularly through the various chapters could have benefited from more systematic treatment. The relationship (whether corrupting or enhancing) between metropolitan liberty and empire is an important concern for many of thinkers examined but is itself examined only in a sporadic fashion. Thus, we learn that Machiavelli believed that liberty was best preserved domestically by waging war and acquiring territory abroad. Montesquieu warned that colonial domination would endanger liberty in the metropole and that empire generated despotism. Burke thought that empire would imperil the constitutional liberties achieved at home, a concern shared by Adam Smith. In contrast, Mill saw little danger to liberty in Britain, because the threat of political corruption posed by empire would be overcome by the resilient national character of the English. This is clearly a concern for thinkers across the centuries and it would have been useful to have an assessment of its recurrence and development over time. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, Muthu argues in the introduction that it is beyond the scope of the volume to treat ideologies systematically and that the book is designed to provoke further analysis.

Some of the thematic chapters do offer brief suggestions about how and why widely-held concepts change over time, generally pointing towards pragmatism in the service of the national interest. Richard Tuck suggests that the Netherlands broke in 1603 with the principle of refusing to form alliances with non-Christian peoples, then in vogue across Protestant Europe, to form a military alliance with the Sultan of Johore under the threat of war with Spain, which had previously ruled the Netherlands. (As an aside, it’s worth noting that most contemporary Dutch theorists thoroughly opposed this move, underlining what was said above about the political relevant of intellectual opposition to empire. Tuck notes that Hugo Grotius supported it, but only after the fact.) Pitts offers a comparable explanation for the disappearance of the French anticolonialism associated with Diderot: the desire to maintain French national prestige vis-à-vis Britain meant that it was in the national interest to maintain colonies, and so anticolonial thought was marginalised.

Surprisingly absent from the book is substantive discussion of racism and the general denigration of non-European peoples, with the arguable exception of Mehta's chapter on Mill’s argument that barbarian peoples were exempt from the laws governing intervention in civilised nations. While being careful not to project more recent understandings of racism onto early modern Europe, accounts of colonial annexation and dispossession during this period usually identify the general attitude of Europeans towards non-Europeans as an important ideological facilitator of the enslavement or extermination of the latter.

Kant’s hierarchical and biological views on race are dealt with in a single footnote, which argues that his thinking on the subject changed during the mid-1790s. A single footnote is also judged sufficient to deal with Hegel’s opinions on subject. This is justified on the grounds that there is already a substantial literature on the matter, which is true, and because Hegel does not link his dismissal of non-European people to his advocacy of European imperialism, which is more questionable. It seems more likely that Hegel believed colonies to be a suitable repository for surplus Europeans precisely because of the way he regarded the people already living there.

David Armitage’s treatment of Locke’s racial thinking feels similarly unsatisfactory. Armitage argues that Locke did not order populations hierarchically or believe in inherent ethnic differences, and thus was not an ‘imperial’ thinker. Yet this argument sits uncomfortably with Locke’s contribution to the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in which he states that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and Authority over his Negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” Armitage mentions this statement but does not adequately address it, and does not answer his own question about how this could be reconciled with Locke’s condemnation of slavery as “vile and miserable” in the opening line of Two Treatises of Government. It is difficult to see that Locke perceives the "freeman of Carolina" to be anything other than white and European, with unquestionable authority over slaves who are black and African.

These criticisms do not, however, detract greatly from the overall strength of this work. This book is an impressive achievement. As a set of concise, convincingly argued essays covering a broad sweep of intellectual history, it will hopefully go some way to restoring an appreciation of the imperial preoccupations of European political theorists.

Duncan Money is a PhD student at the University of Oxford working on the history of empire.

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First published: 17 January, 2013

Category: Book Review, Foreign policy, History, Philosophy and Theory, Racism

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4 Comments on "Empire and Modern Political Thought"

By Chris2, on 17 January 2013 - 21:26 |

“...Burke didn’t even manage to convict Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General of Bengal, during a seven-year trial, though Mehta highlights this episode as illustrative of his deep-rooted opposition to empire…”

Burke could not convict (that was up to the House of Lords) merely prosecute Hastings. So what is the reviewer actually saying, or attempting to say, here?

The crucial case  appears to me to be Mill, still immensely influential in anglophone political discourse,  whose  inherited job with the EIC afforded him the opportunity to advocate despotic rule in India.

Pamkaj Mishra’s latest  book is worth reading on this. 

By James Arnold, on 18 January 2013 - 23:05 |

Very interesting, informative review.  Thanks Duncan – made me want to go and read some Montesquieu!

[Could do with some more separating into paragraphs.]

By JamieSW, on 18 January 2013 - 23:13 |

The lack of paragraphs is the result of some technical issues we’ve been having. We’re working on it.

By Duncan, on 21 January 2013 - 13:38 |


Perhaps it would have been better phrased that Burke was not able to successfully prosecute Hastings, despite a lengthy attempt. I was using it as another example of the apparent failure of intellectual opponents of empire to influence the actually existing empires of their time.

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