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Empire: A Word and its Meanings
Minefields, Political and Cultural
Over the last two millennia the word `empire' has meant many different things to different people from different countries at different times. Indeed it has often had different meanings to people from the same country at the same time. Statesmen and political thinkers have on occasion noted the word's ambiguity, themselves deliberately using it in different contexts to convey a variety of meanings.
It greatly complicates matters that use of the term `empire' has often been highly polemical. To call any polity an empire was at various times instantly to label, praise or condemn it. In the Cold War the Soviet Union denounced its Western enemies as imperialists. They responded by labelling the Soviet Union an empire. Scholars debating these terms were therefore sucked into the polemics of the Cold War, becoming part of the almost universal ideological and geopolitical struggle that dominated the postwar decades. Though the terms of the debate and the specific context differed from anything that had gone before, politically charged confrontations over the meaning and legitimacy of the concept of empire were not new. In the eighteenth century empire, though often given another name, was frequently condemned and debated in not entirely dissimilar terms to those current in contemporary discussions of imperialism. In medieval Europe pope and emperor clashed furiously over conflicting doctrines of empire, which embodied rival claims to leadership within Western Christendomand different conceptions of the role of church and king in a Christian society.
In contrast to the late twentieth and (more equivocally) the eighteenth centuries, in medieval Europe the concept of empire enjoyed almost universal approval. It had connotations of unity within Christendom, as well as of peace and justice within the Christian community of kings and their subjects. Similarly, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for most Europeans (except some of those themselves subject to empires) the concept of empire was a positive one. To be an empire was to be powerful, in an era when the gulf between strong and weak states was growing ever wider, and when the weak seemed doomed to marginalization or extinction. Empires were in the van of progress and civilization, bringing all the benefits of Western values and technology to the benighted `lesser races', and ensuring that the world of the future would carry the stamp of the imperial people's own culture and history.
A century subsequently, `empire' has once again become a dirty word. Embodying externally imposed and authoritarian rule over a society, it clashes head-on with democracy, the dominant ideology of the modern world. Implying the domination of the Third World by Western political, economic and cultural power, it arouses the wrath not only of the Third World's intelligentsia but also of groups within Western society who feel themselves to have been the victims of the class, sex and value systems that have dominated and set the tone of European and North American civilization over the last two centuries.
Whether or not one defines a polity as `imperial' therefore has major political implications. Britain and France provide clear examples of this. By the standard of most empires in history it is rather easy to distinguish on the one hand the British and French metropolitan polities, and on the other hand their overseas colonies. The British and French nation states were distinct from their peripheral empires, over which they exercised unequivocal domination. The two great anomalies within these empires were, however, Ireland and Algeria, which in constitutional terms were defined as part of the metropolitan polity itself.
Because Ireland after 1801 was part of the United Kingdom, historians of the British Empire have usually considered it beyond their remit. Yet sixteenth-century Ireland was where many of the key principles that underlay British imperial rule were first established. These included the ideology of a civilizing mission, a deep and generally contemptuous sense of cultural superiority over the native peoples, and the doctrine of terra nullius — the idea that land (and by implication other economic resources) not effectively utilized by the indigenous peoples could legitimately be expropriated and developed by a superior invading nation more competent to do so. Although eighteenth-century Ireland is now increasingly studied by historians in a colonial or North Atlantic context (in other words as part of an imperial system that included the American Colonies, the West Indies and Scotland), in studies of Britain after the Act of Union which defined Ireland as British, such comparisons tend to cease. In the nineteenth century Britons stopped seeing Ireland in a colonial context, and so largely did historians.
In late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain this definition mattered hugely. Already by the 1860s it was implicitly accepted in London that the White Dominions were self-governing communities which had the right ultimately to determine their political future for themselves. In 1870 Earl Russell, the former prime minister, was stating a platitude when he commented that `once the majority in any of our dependencies declares by the vote of its representatives that it wishes to separate from us, no attempt will be made to hold on to it. The mistakes made by G. Grenville, Ch. Townshend and Lord North will not be repeated.' No such indulgence was accorded to Ireland. Forty years later home rule for Ireland encountered huge opposition in London and to avoid the risk of Irish independence much of the British elite was willing to encourage gross violation of the British constitution and even civil war. Of course the determination to treat Ireland very differently from the White Dominions was far more than a mere question of definitions. Nevertheless, the latter did matter greatly as a weapon for holding Ireland within the empire and as a means of shaping public consciousness of the Irish issue. In very similar terms, whether one defined Algeria as a colonial possession or as `l'Algérie Française' determined whether one saw Algerian independence as a legitimate and inevitable part of the decolonizing process or, on the contrary, as a violation of the sacred unity and territory of France.
Never has the definition of empire been more important and more contentious than in contemporary Russia. A post-communist Russia has to determine for itself a new sense of identity and purpose, and to do so has to come to terms with its tsarist and Soviet past. Especially given the Marxist-Leninist simplicities in which most Russians have been educated, to define the Soviet Union as an empire is to condemn it outright, in the process despatching much of the lives of Russia's older generations to the rubbish bin, or even damning them as morally tainted. If the Soviet Union was an empire then not merely was it illegitimate, it was also fated to disappear in a modern world in which empire is taken to be redundant. In the contemporary global village where markets are open and ideas flow freely across the Internet, any attempt to reconstitute an empire would be quixotic, reactionary and hopeless. If on the other hand the Soviet Union was not an empire but a supranational community with a strong sense of common identity, worth and purpose, then its destruction was certainly a mistake and possibly a crime. The desire to reconstitute part or even all of it is neither necessarily wicked nor hopeless. Since much of the Russian population has not yet come to terms with the post-Soviet order and will not do so definitively for at least a generation, the question of empire and its definition remains extremely important and politically contentious.
In 1902 the English scholar J.A. Hobson began his book on imperialism with an attempt to define the concept. He commented that `where meanings shift so quickly and so subtly, not only following changes of thought, but often manipulated artificially by political practitioners so as to obscure, expand or distort, it is idle to demand the same rigour as is expected in the exact sciences.' Empire is a much older, more complicated and more diffuse concept than imperialism, which indeed the word `empire' itself to a great extent encompasses. Nevertheless, unless this book is to lose all clarity of structure and argument, it is essential that the reader has some grasp of the many meanings of the word `empire', of the contexts in which they have been used, and the manner in which they have evolved.
The laziest approach to the concept of empire is simply to accept a state's right to call itself whatever it chooses. Bokassa's polity was an empire because he chose to call it one. The Soviet Union was not an empire because its rulers vigorously rejected the term. This approach will not yield many rewards.
It is much more interesting to consider what images and value judgements the word `empire' conjures up in the everyday (i.e. non-academic) English-speaking world. To the older British generation `empire' is associated above all with a specific imperial polity, namely the British Empire. It conjures up memories of a time when the British felt themselves to be the world's most powerful, most civilized and most envied nation. A sense of solidarity with kith and kin across the oceans is also evoked. So too is remembrance of a time in 1940 when Britain stood isolated, heroic and vulnerable, and when volunteer imperial forces came to her assistance. Contemporary Britain still possesses many concrete leftovers from empire, ranging from `Tales of the Raj' Indian restaurants up to its rather top-heavy post-imperial monarchy, perhaps even slower to come to terms with shrunken post-imperial status than is the nation it symbolizes and represents.
For the youngest generation, even in Britain, let alone in North America, `empire' has different connotations rooted in inter-galactic conflict and science fiction. Children's books and videos embody the dominant modern judgement of empire, especially in North America. Their heroes struggle to free themselves from the dominion of evil empires whose authoritarian rule is rooted in ruthless coercion and trickery, whose greed is insatiable, whose minions look like spaceman versions of Nazi storm-troops, and whose leaders have the faces and voices of English upper-class colonial governors or Prussian aristocrats. Books and videos that stretch children's imaginations by projecting them into a far-distant, inter-galactic future also, rather appropriately, pick names from an almost equally imaginary and far-distant imperial past. Sargon I, ruler of ancient Akkad and perhaps the world's first emperor, lives again in inter-galactic imperial guise. Such visions shape the thinking not just of the broad public but even of some political leaders. Ronald Reagan's depiction of the Soviet Union as an evil empire surely owed something to science fiction and certainly struck a chord with a people used to its terminology. Which is by no means necessarily to say that Reagan's view of the post-Stalinist polity was wholly wrong.
To understand the many meanings and nuances of the word `empire' it is essential to trace the evolution of the word over the millennia. Nevertheless, this approach does have its dangers. `Empire' derives from the Latin word imperium, the meaning of which is best defined as legitimate authority or dominion. Other key words such as `emperor' (imperator), `colonialism' and `colonization' (colonia) also have Latin roots. Over the centuries these words evolved within the Latin Christian tradition and were used, by a constant process of analogy, to mean things somewhat far removed from the initial Latin conception. Nevertheless, it is possible to see a thread of evolutionary logic running through the uses of the term `empire' in the Western tradition.
But the term has also been applied not merely by scholars but also by Western society in general to political systems well outside the Latin tradition. In many cases the analogies are rather clear and the use of the term `empire' is justified and fruitful. Nevertheless, a little caution is required. Even where laws, institutions and political systems seem very similar, they cannot avoid reflecting in part the cultures and civilizations in which they are rooted. Institutions may be disarmingly similar but the mentalities and assumptions of those who people them alarmingly different. The same word used in a different cultural context may give a wholly illusory sense of common reality.
The term `emperor', for instance, in its initial Roman context meant a successful general. Though even in Roman times the word came to denote the monarch, it always retained its strong military connotations. Roman emperors always remained, first and foremost, military commanders-in-chief. Over the millennia, within the Western tradition, the term `emperor' came to have other connotations too but the military ones never died and, from the eighteenth century, gained renewed strength. The last German and Russian emperors were seldom pictured out of uniform. Often their favourite image was as commander of the most prestigious regiments of their armies, namely the heavy cavalry of the Guards, their helmets crowned with eagles which symbolized their direct descent from military Rome.
When Meiji-era Japan decided to westernize itself sufficiently to join the club of `civilized' great powers, it chose these powers as its models. Logically enough, Imperial Germany was its preferred role-model. The Japanese monarch called himself an emperor, for to be anything less would be an admission of a status inferior to that of the leading European rulers — after all, even the British queen proclaimed herself an empress (of India) in 1876. The Japanese emperor dressed in modern-style military uniform and reviewed his troops, whose supreme commander he was proclaimed to be, just as he was also — constitutionally — head of state and supreme director of the polity. None of these roles had been performed traditionally by the Tenno, who was closer to a high-priest than a monarch in the Western tradition. Not even after the Meiji Restoration did the Japanese monarch adjudicate between ministers or determine policy in a way that European emperors were supposed to do and still to some extent did. But the Emperor Hirohito, reviewing his victorious troops on a white horse, acted out the imperial play which the Western concept of emperorship had established in Japan, and in the process demonized himself in the eyes of much of Western public opinion, which inevitably understood symbolism imported from Europe in Western terms. It is not a complete exaggeration to say that the Japanese monarchy fell victim to the transfer of words and concepts into alien cultural milieux, where they took on a different meaning camouflaged by similar terminology and symbolism.
Roman Conceptions of Empire
Forewarned about the pitfalls and suitably modest about the inherent limits of the project, let us continue to explore the word `empire' and its evolution. The imperium of a Roman magistrate was his right to give orders and exact obedience from those legally subject to his authority. In time this concept was extended by analogy to mean Rome's right to command obedience from the peoples it had subjected. As one might expect of the Romans, the initial concept of empire was well-defined, legal and political. To some extent it remained that way both in Western history and among Western historians. Certainly it is safer to use the concept of empire if one can keep it straitjacketed in tight legal and political definitions. In this sense empire is a specific polity with a clearly demarcated territory exercising sovereign authority over its subjects who are, to varying degrees, under its direct administrative supervision. It is not mere hegemony or predominant political influence, still less is it the magnetic appeal of a great culture or the power of some shadowy global economic system. Least of all is it merely any form of alien and imposed authority and influence.
But although it is more convenient to confine empire to a narrow political definition, it may at times prove both difficult and limiting to do so. Michael Mann has convincingly shown that politics, armed force, economics, culture and religion are all factors of power, their relative weight differing from era to era. At the beginning of the twenty-first century as economic and cultural power occupies the foreground, does this mean that empire is dead or merely that it requires redefinition in terms more appropriate to the contemporary constellation of power? At its most significant and interesting, after all, empire has always tended to be the political face of a great civilization or at least of a culture of far more than purely local significance. The civilization itself has often been, in part anyway, the embodiment of some great religion.
In Roman eyes, the Roman Empire was a universal monarchy: it encompassed the whole globe, or at least all of it that was worth bothering about. The barbarians beyond the empire's wall they regarded in terms somewhat similar to nineteenth-century European colonists' view of `natives'. Their only imperial neighbour, the Parthian Empire, was considered by the Romans to be `an oriental despotism, a barbarian, braggart and motley nation'. As in every other aspect of their culture, the Roman sense of universalism owed much to the Greeks. Alexander had conquered virtually the whole of the known world and although his empire was very short-lived the spread of Hellenistic culture was not. `The Greek philosophers, in particular the Stoics, stressed the notion that all mankind formed one community, partaking of universal reason ... it was, indeed, the Greeks who from the second century BC had regarded the Roman Empire and the universe (oikoumene) as one ... Ideas such as these made a deep impression on the minds of the political and intellectual elite of Rome, and through their influence the two notions of orbis terrarum and imperium came to be regarded in the first century as identical: from then on no distinction was ever made between them.'
The adoption in the fourth century of Christianity, a world religion which recognized no ethnic or cultural borders, could only increase the Roman imperial sense of universalism. In time Christian clergy undertook evangelizing missions outside their polities' borders, converting whole peoples to their religion and therefore, in the end, also to a great extent to their culture. This the rulers of imperial Rome had never conceived of. The combination of a universalist imperial tradition with a monotheistic world religion created a somewhat new type of empire, a type which was to include many of the most significant polities that have existed until today. Compared to the syncretic, polytheistic empires of the past, the `doctrinal rigidity' of Judaic monotheism could be a source of both solidarity and division. Common religion could contribute to shared culture and even nationality. But `we should consider the possibility,' writes Garth Fowden, `that monotheism itself may, under certain circumstances, have divisive effects. For where polytheism diffuses divinity and defuses the consequences, if not always the intensity, of debate about its nature by providing a range of options, monotheism tends to focus divinity and ignite debate by forcing all the faithful, with their potentially infinite varieties of religious thought and behaviour, into the same mould, which sooner or later must break.'
Heirs of Rome
Roman, Christian monotheistic empire had three heirs: Byzantium, Islam and Western Christendom. In the seventh century the onslaught of Islam hugely weakened the Byzantine Empire and dramatically reshaped its culture, society and institutions of government. Until then, however, Byzantium was not really Rome's heir but simply the Roman Empire continued. Gaul, Spain and Britain had always figured among Imperial Rome's less important and wealthy provinces. The heartlands of the Mediterranean empire's culture and economy were to an increasing extent on the sea's southern and eastern shores, and it was here that the Roman Empire consolidated itself in the fifth century. A century later, under Justinian, the Byzantines recaptured most of Italy. After the seventh century Byzantium differed from Western Christendom in many crucial respects. Where empire is concerned, the biggest single difference was that the Byzantine emperor controlled the patriarch of Constantinople and the Eastern Church much more fully than it was possible for any emperor in the West to command the pope. In addition, Western Christendom came to be dominated by the hereditary territorial aristocracy. The latter put strong constraints on royal and imperial power not only de facto but also by law. The feudal contract was a mutually binding agreement whose infringement by the monarch legitimized resistance by his vassals. As with every autocratic monarchy in history, the theoretically absolute power of the Byzantine emperor was in practice constrained by many factors. But it was not limited by law or conceived as a contract, and therein lay a key distinction between East and West in Europe.
In 1453 the Byzantine Empire collapsed, leaving no direct heirs. Though tsarist Russia inherited some aspects of Byzantine imperial ideology and symbolism, the tsarist polity was very different indeed from Byzantium in most respects. Still less can one draw any line from Rome to the Soviet Union through Byzantium and tsarist Russia. All such genealogies are wholly fanciful. Nevertheless, in one important respect the Soviet Union could be considered to stand in the Roman Christian tradition of empire, combining great power and territory with a would-be universalist and monotheistic world religion. International communism in time suffered a fate similar in some respects to earlier monotheistic universal empire: rival centres of power emerged, grouped around political factions but legitimized by different interpretations of doctrine. These new polities rejected the control of the religious and imperial centre, and over time came to absorb much in the traditions and culture of the regions from which they sprang. Such comparisons, beloved of Arnold Toynbee, have sufficient merit to be worth considering when we come to study the Soviet polity in the context of empire.
Islam was not so directly Rome's heir as had been the case with Christian Byzantium. The emperor did not convert to Islam, nor did the Roman-Byzantine elite become the spiritual and secular leaders of the Islamic community, bringing to it (as had been the case with the Christian Roman and Byzantine empire) their values, ideas and traditions. The empire of the early caliphate was above all founded on a new religion, around which formed a distinctly new civilization.
Yet in an important sense the early caliphate of the Abbasids and Umayyads was Rome's heir. The new religion was monotheistic and universalist in the tradition established by Christian Rome. Islam accepted its descent from Christianity and showed considerable tolerance to `people of the Book'. The caliphate occupied many of the heartlands of the Roman Empire but its dominion extended well beyond them, stretching across the whole Fertile Crescent, the Persian plateau and into Northern India. To a degree that no other empire ever matched, the caliphate controlled almost the whole of the ancient world, in other words Egypt and what we nowadays describe as the Middle or Near East. In time this empire fell victim not just to the huge strains of governing so vast a territory with pre-modern communications but also to the doctrinal disputes that monotheism invited.
In its wake the caliphate left behind what Garth Fowden calls a commonwealth: `a group of politically discrete but related polities collectively distinguishable from other polities or commonwealths by a shared culture and history.' The French historian A. Miquel describes what it meant to live in this community, even after its political unity had cracked. It meant `being able to discuss theology or law, from one end of a gigantic territory to the other, according to one vocabulary and one code accepted throughout; to debate the claims of tradition or of personal judgement; to be moved at the tomb of a holy person, venerated since one's childhood in Palestine and buried thousands of kilometres from there; to recognise the observation of the same rites and common membership of the same school of legal thought; to share the same timetable divided by the five daily prayers; to cite an author known and celebrated throughout; to engage everywhere in the controversy over the legitimacy of the Umayyads; to be understood in Arabic almost everywhere; in every Mosque the place indicating the direction of Mecca; in brief to share a history, a culture, features of everyday life and a common sensibility'.
In time this commonwealth was to spread far beyond even the wide borders of the former caliphate. Muslim warriors and, above all, traders carried it to parts of East Africa, to India and Central Asia, and beyond them to Java, Sumatra and even China. In many of these areas Islam was to penetrate native culture and overcome native religion much more successfully than generations of later Christian empire. Even amidst the very powerful and assimilationist forces of Chinese culture the sense of Islamic identity among the ethnically Han Muslim minority (the Hui) was so strong that, despite the fact that they lacked a territorial base, largely spoke Chinese languages and looked like Han Chinese, they were officially recognized as a separate nationality by the communist regime — a unique recognition of identity rooted in religion and one that flatly contradicted the official Chinese definition, derived initially from Stalin, that saw nationality as a product solely of language, territory, economic life and common culture.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries much of the old caliphate was restored as a single polity — an empire — by the Turkish dynasty of the Ottomans. Unlike the Umayyads and Abbasids, the Ottomans were not descendants of the Prophet and made no claim to be. They never controlled Spain or Northern India, nor for any meaningful period did they dominate the Persian plateau. On the other hand, also unlike the early caliphate, they did conquer the Christian Balkans and, above all, Constantinople — the imperial city, the Roman Christian capital, of whose capture Islam had dreamed for so long. If, obviously and above all, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs were the heirs to universal Islamic empire, they were also to some extent the heirs to Byzantium and Rome. Calling themselves the Sultans of Rum (i.e. Rome) and installed in the `Roman' capital, they very definitely saw themselves as the legitimate successors to Rome in particular, but more generally to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern tradition of empire. Particularly in the first century after Constantinople's capture, one aspect of this imperial legacy was the haven of relative peace, security and tolerance which the Ottomans offered not just to Muslims but also to Christian and Jewish subjects of their would-be universal empire.
|List of maps||vi|
|1.||Empire: A Word and its Meanings||3|
|2.||Power and Empire in the Global Context||27|
|3.||The British Empire||89|
|4.||The Ottoman Empire||128|
|5.||The Habsburg Empire||158|
|6.||The Russian Empire: Regions, Peoples, Geopolitics||201|
|7.||The Tsarist State and the Russian People||231|
|8.||Tsarist Empire: Power, Strategy, Decline||262|
|9.||The Soviet Union||288|
|Part 4||After Empire|
Posted June 19, 2010
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Posted May 26, 2011
No text was provided for this review.