Review: The Brutality of British Empire on Display in Legacy of Violence

Caroline Elkins' book raises an important question for people today, particularly liberals—an issue that Elkins herself sidesteps.


Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, by Caroline Elkins, Knopf, 896 pages, $37.50

Histories of imperialism, especially the European imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, were long dominated by purportedly neutral accounts that sanitized the often bloody practice. More recently there has been a resurgence of apologias for empires in general and the British empire especially, from such writers as Niall Ferguson, Ian Morris, and several of the neoconservative intellectuals who enjoyed a moment in the sun during George W. Bush's presidency.

Their work is not of interest only to historians. These books explicitly address contemporary politics. Empire, they suggest, is the most practical and effective way of organizing political life on a geographically large scale and of bringing progress to places that otherwise would be stuck in tribalism and barbarism. The British Empire in particular is presented as essential to the appearance of a modern and liberal world order, usually with the argument that the United States should now take up that mantle. These ideas have had a seductive appeal to some social democrats and liberals, as the Bush years showed.

Caroline Elkins' Legacy of Violence should put such fantasies to rest. Elkins, a Harvard-based historian, shows in exhaustive detail what British imperial rule repeatedly involved for the subject peoples: systematic brutality, repression, and violence. As she traces this history of mass killings, forced population removal, concentration camps, and arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and torture, no reader should be left with any illusions about the empire. This violence was not incidental to imperial rule or an egregious departure from normal practice; it was an essential feature of it.

The book takes us from India to South Africa to Ireland to Palestine and beyond, with the same cast of characters appearing in each location as the system is perfected. A central aspect of Elkins' story is the way lawless action was authorized by a form of law, producing what she calls "lawful lawlessness."

Clearly, there is an inherent contradiction between such an empire and the principles of liberalism—universal human rights, the liberty and dignity of all individuals, the rule of law, limited government based on the consent of the governed. Yet as Elkins shows, the British empire, like its French counterpart, justified itself on liberal grounds. In this liberal imperialism, empire is seen as a means of raising "undeveloped" populations to the heights of liberal civilization. It imposes a paternalistic government with liberal goals, deriving from a tutelary duty laid upon those parts of the world with a higher level of social and political development. The ultimate (but in practice distant or receding) goal was for the colonies to become self-governing equals of the metropole.

This justification for imperial rule was deeply hypocritical and contradicted by practice. Yet as Elkins shows, many in the empire's administrative and political classes sincerely believed it. It was not just sanctimony, although that was undoubtedly a feature of it. As a result, liberal imperialism was not just brutal but vulnerable, because its victims could try to hold it to account for violating its own justifications—a path that was impossible with more openly power-based imperialisms.

Elkins argues compellingly that the British empire was a failure in terms of its own legitimating ideology and that it was undone in part by this. (It was also undone by resistance from its subjects and by the hostility of other powers, above all the United States.) Elkins adds that imperial rule damaged liberal practice in the metropole as well, as the repressive methods perfected in the colonies were employed at home during war or crisis. And she notes briefly a point made by a number of people: that fascism and Nazism were the practice of imperialism done in Europe itself rather than in other parts of the world.

Legacy of Violence is thus a valuable corrective and a reminder to liberals of the clear contradiction between our ideals and the nature of imperialism. But the book has definite flaws as well.

One is its confused treatment of political economy. Although Elkins associates the British empire with free market capitalism, the policy that was increasingly advocated after the 1880s and instantiated from 1932 through the 1960s was a state-directed capitalism with a central role for an interventionist government. This project, she observes several times, failed on its own terms, and the empire was on net a bad economic deal for most Britons, never mind the oppressed colonies. But she simultaneously argues that it was a system of economic extraction for Britain's benefit. The obvious way to resolve that contradiction and strengthen her own argument is to reiterate the classical liberal point made by J.A. Hobson and others: The empire was bad for the majority of Britons, including most business interests, but very lucrative for specific minorities, notably the aristocracy, the administrative class, the military, and politically favored capitalists.

This confusion is linked to another weakness. Elkins implies both that, in the British case, liberal imperialism was the only kind of imperialism and that there is an inherent connection between liberalism and imperialism. Both ideas are simply wrong. A long succession of liberals, such as Richard Cobden and Herbert Spencer, were strongly hostile to empire. There was also a conservative justification for empire, found in the works of people like James Fitzjames Stephen, that did not involve any idea of a tutelary responsibility and rested frankly on appeals to power. There were both pro-empire socialists (as Elkins recognizes in her account of Clement Attlee's government) and anti-empire conservatives, such as Edmund Burke, who rejected imperialism as a violation of both law and traditional rights. While Elkins notes Burke's critique of British practices in Bengal, she then awkwardly tries to shoehorn him into the liberal imperialist tradition.

This book raises an important question for people today, particularly liberals—an issue that Elkins herself sidesteps. At various points she notes how the aftermath of the British empire saw communal conflict (most obviously and disastrously in Palestine and the Indian subcontinent, but also in Ireland, Cyprus, and Malaysia) or authoritarian rule that continued the empire's repressive methods (e.g., in Kenya). She blames these results exclusively on the repression and violence of the empire and its divide-and-rule policies; they are the "legacy" of her book's title. In the Indian case, for example, she blames the Hindu-Muslim animosity that led to partition entirely on the British, as though it did not exist before the empire arrived. This will come as news to many people in that part of the world.

Here an apologist for empire might argue that imperial rule prevented the violence that broke out once it ended. But colonial policy undoubtedly did contribute to the violence, even if it was not the only factor. First, it often undermined earlier forms of governance, so that its withdrawal created a vacuum and triggered a conflict cascade and escalation. Second, and more important, the opposition to empire usually sought not the restoration of pre-imperial institutions but the empire's replacement by sovereign, exclusivist nation-states.

The problem is that in the modern world, empires and nation-states are the only institutional arrangements on offer for a large-scale, complex political order. Both are unsatisfactory from a classical liberal point of view. The challenge, then, is to work out what other forms there might be.