by Carol Turner
AS ITS TITLE SUGGESTS, Andrew Murray’s book addresses the attempts of western intellectuals to provide a justificatory gloss for US and British military aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is neither an account of contemporary wars nor an exposition of the anti-war movement, in which the author has played a leading role, but a political and historical polemic directed at those who defend George Bush’s war on terror from the safety of their libraries and offices.
Murray argues that, just as capitalist economic crisis has “often been the introduction of the politics of war. So the study of the ideological and political debates around the wars of the 21st century remains, alas, relevant.” Accordingly, his aim is to evaluate the debates which have been used to underpin Bush’s long war.
As George Galloway points out in his foreword, the author “allows today’s wannabe imperialists to damn themselves out of their own mouths”. Murray’s literary scalpel cuts straight through the subterfuges of the pro-war intellectuals. By contrasting their claims with well-documented colonial history and perspectives, he leaves his reader in no doubt of what is on offer from today’s empire apologists: an intellectually sloppy prettification of a shameful and shaming period of British and western history.
In the first two chapters of The Imperial Controversy Murray revisits the arguments used by historians such as Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Paul Johnson to rehabilitate the notion of empire, and he provides a truer reading of 19th and 20th century expansionism. Later chapters tackle the notion of liberal interventionism and the role of the pro-war left, examining in particular Tony Blair’s premiership and the Iraq War. Finally, Murray turns his fire on the Bush administration, castigating the journalists and pundits who sought to put a sheen on the dirty doings of the neo-cons and their Project for a New American Century.
Murray pays special attention to the historical record of the Middle East. He documents Britain’s role in its geographical division, and charts first European then US political and military intervention in Middle Eastern politics to aid their oil grabs, quoting Lord Crewe at the beginning of the 20th century: “What we want is not a united Arabia, but a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty.”
The book’s great strength, though, lies in the breadth of examples – over more than 150 years, from Asia, Africa and Latin America – which the author cites to show the real and gory history of imperialism, and the racist and xenophobic ideology on which its foul practises rest.
British intellectuals have led revisionist attempts at popularising empire. In 2003, Murray recalls, with the Iraq War upon us, Ferguson was among the most prominent of those who expounded the virtue of British imperialism, his grand platform that of the controversial Channel 4 TV series, Empire. Ferguson argues that despite its ‘excesses’, British imperialism was beneficent in spreading civilisation and capitalism across the globe. Roberts likewise insists “the British empire delivered astonishing growth rates, at least in those places fortunate enough to be coloured pink on the globe”.
The Imperial Controversy reminds us just what those ‘excesses’ were, and chronicles their fundamental, rather than accidental, role in spreading the capitalist economic order. China was attacked so Britain could profit from selling opium to the Chinese; Egypt was occupied to force it to pay its debts; Nigeria was attacked to secure the free entry of British goods; the Boer War was launched to protect City of London investments; and so on and so on.
Neither is the human meaning or cost of imperialism overlooked. Economic advance in the 19th and 20th centuries was, of course, confined to the colonial powers. Murray recounts how millions died of poverty and disease in Asia and Africa. Under the Raj, for example, Indian life expectancy dropped by 20%. He cites among others the work of Walter Rodney, whose book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a 300-plus page statistical as well as political indictment of the claim that capitalism brought economic development in its wake.
Then, as now, imperial plunder was underpinned by institutional racism, and its theorisation formed the backbone of pro-empire apologias. This is central to Murray’s argument, and he backs it up with a succession of revealing narratives. Take, for example, the Australian colonial governor, who reported to Gladstone that cultured and refined white Queenslanders talk “not only of wholesale butchery ... but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day’s sport”.
More controversial perhaps, is the book’s tendency to equate imperialism and fascism. In a chapter entitled Colonialists and Nazis, Murray argues: “That Hitler’s regime is seen as the most bestial of modern times is not of course objectionable. What needs to be confronted, however, is the view that the crimes of other great powers of the last 150 years or so, being somehow less lurid and dramatic than those of the Nazis, can therefore be subjected to a more nuanced judgement in which the deaths of millions of people on the one hand can be offset against the construction of railways on the other.”
Right as this is ethically, morally, politically, rationally, humanly, it does not mean that imperialism and fascism are the same thing. Implying that they are clouds the otherwise astringent political polemic of a book which aspires to arm the millions opposed to the war policies of the US and UK. And, as the author himself says, these debates are far from academic.
Fascist ideology rests on the notion of blood and belonging, the superiority of a pure race. As such it has of course much in common with the ideology of empire, as Murray so clearly draws out. But, as he also ably demonstrates, ideology plays a very practical role in the project of empire: that of marshalling intellectual resources in the service of concrete economic and political goals.
Fascism, colonialism and imperialism have precise – and different – meanings which differentiate them from each other despite their similarities. In essence (though oversimplified) empire represents a period of capitalist expansion; fascism on the other hand is big capital’s way of replacing the bourgeois democratic political system in its own heartlands in circumstances where capitalism’s decline brings a threat of imminent revolution. Each is to be resisted, but with a different political strategy.
The author has promised a sequel that deals with today’s capitalist crisis. When and if he writes it, I’d urge him to bear this in mind.
Carol Turner is a member of CND council and the Steering Committee of Stop the War Coalition