Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies

Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies

by Herman Lebovics

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In this important volume, Herman Lebovics, a preeminent cultural historian of France, develops a historical argument with striking contemporary relevance: empire abroad inevitably undermines democracy at home. These essays, which Lebovics wrote over the past decade, demonstrate the impressive intellectual range of his work. Focusing primarily on France and to a lesser extent on the United Kingdom, he shows how empire and its repercussions have pervaded—and corroded—Western cultural, intellectual, and social life from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

Some essays explore why modern Western democratic societies needed colonialism. Among these is an examination of the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke’s prescient conclusion that liberalism could only control democratic forces with the promise of greater wealth enabled by empire. In other essays Lebovics considers the relation between overseas rule and domestic life. Discussing George Orwell’s tale “Shooting an Elephant” and the careers of two colonial officers (one British and one French), he contemplates the ruinous authoritarianism that develops among the administrators of empire. Lebovics considers Pierre Bourdieu’s thinking about how colonialism affected metropolitan French life, and he reflects on the split between sociology and ethnology, which was partly based on a desire among intellectuals to think one way about metropolitan populations and another about colonial subjects. Turning to the arts, Lebovics traces how modernists used the colonial “exotic” to escape the politicized and contested modernity of the urban West. Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies is a compelling case for cultural history as a key tool for understanding the injurious effects of imperialism and its present-day manifestations within globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822387794
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/14/2006
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Herman Lebovics is Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is the author of Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age, also published by Duke University Press; Mona Lisa’s Escort: André Malraux and the Reinvention of French Culture; and True France: The Wars Over Cultural Identity, 1900–1945.

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Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies

By Herman Lebovics

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8779-4



Shrinking Colonial Administrators

Raymond Gauthereau, a new district officer, arrived in 1945 in the French colony of the Ivory Coast. In the book of memoirs he wrote about his service, he devoted a few pages to his shooting a marauding elephant. The passage reads very much like a set piece. After he left the colonial service, Gauthereau turned to writing novels, and thus he had some practice in literary invention. It is unlikely that there is any truth to the story. Yet its invention tells us more about the history of colonial administration, and of its dissolution, than if it had been a true report of a real event.

Three times in two weeks the villagers of Krakou had sent emissaries to request that he do something about a marauding herd of elephants. A group of about thirty had moved into the district and were ravaging their crops. Coming very close to the village itself, they threatened to turn a hut over or even hurt someone. It had happened before. The villagers had no arms. Even the native constables were not issued ammunition for their old rifles. So all depended on him.

Gauthereau had hesitated to act. The local people exaggerated so in their accounts of events. They had an appetite for the "big meat" (grosse viande) (165) that a downed elephant would add to their diet. And then to do a wild-animal kill he needed to seek the explicit consent of the governor-general, a man far away, with whom he had had very little contact up to now. Finally, the villagers sent a delegation, led this time by two small coffee growers who were black veterans of World War I clad in their old uniforms, "which had been blue before becoming gray" (166). These old tirailleurs had not entirely forgotten their French. As evidence of the damage suffered, they brought along half-eaten plants and sticks, some nearly sixteen inches (forty centimeters) thick, that the elephants had broken.

All right, Gauthereau would have a look. He had never shot an animal. Big-game hunters in his district had offered to take him along on one of their authorized tourist shoots, but he had refused. Shooting a big animal was "an adventure that I wanted to deflower alone" (167). He wrote the governor-general asking permission for an "official kill" (167).

While still waiting for the telegram authorizing the hunt, his immediate chief suddenly turned up unannounced. Or, rather, he showed up before the telegram informing the young district officer of the visit arrived. It was his superior's first tour since Gauthereau had been posted to the district. The man did a turn of inspection of the compound—the maternity clinic, the prison—said a few words of encouragement, and left. Clearly, his boss had nothing to tell him; Gauthereau was on his own. As he narrated the sudden visit and quick departure of his superior, Gauthereau took a moment to meditate on how he had had to learn his job by himself. His training at the E?cole Coloniale was not what he thought most important. Rather, he had learned on the job to act "with prudence, good sense, a regard to justice, and the judicious alternation of severity and amiability—and above all, with patience. And, by God, I haven't screwed up yet" (167).

Finally, after three weeks of waiting, the permission arrived. Gauthereau tells the tale as a flashback, in the après-hunt mode. Sitting at his table, cleaned up, bathed, fed, and relaxed, he writes in his diary, "Today, I, who have never hunted before ... killed an elephant" (178). It had taken a whole day, nearly thirty-five kilometers of walking, and seven shots (admittedly with ordinary-issue ammunition, not heavy rounds), but he had gotten his kill.

When he had arrived at the village to begin the hunt, the people greeted him with great enthusiasm. The herd had moved on by now, no longer posing a threat. But, he lets us understand, the villagers were still eager for their banquet, as well as for their revenge on the beasts. They had sent out trackers who soon picked up the freshest trail of the herd. There was no way out; the villagers expected him to shoot an elephant. For Gauthereau this posed a series of technical problems—beginning with the question of his competence as a hunter—but no moral issue about killing what were now harmless wild animals.

Early the next morning, the whole village assembled to urge him on with so much enthusiasm and confidence "that there was no question of my coming back without a kill, except at the price of losing face" (179). With a village tracker and his "least bad musketeer" (179) from the post, he set out on the forest path to save his honor. In the course of the long walk, the two Africans quarreled a lot about the signs and what they meant, but also just to quarrel, according to Gauthereau. The villager was a Gouro (a southern Mande population) with "too hard a head," (180) according to the pidgin French of his constable, Dosso, a Muslim from another group. So, in a cameo of the imperial alibi, he, the white colonial officer, had to enforce peace between the two, ethnically different, feuding Africans.

Suddenly, in a clearing, they spotted a single elephant. Without much fanfare, Gauthereau raised his rifle and put a shot into the animal's heart. He did not aim for the head because the ammunition he had in his standard-issue rifle was too low powered to penetrate the thick bone of the skull. Surprised, the animal started, and then began to run. Gautherau shot again, with no apparent results. Following the trail of blood, the three men ran after the wounded animal. Again, they got close enough. Despite the advice the experts had given him, Gauthereau sent his next two shots into the head. The elephant seemed not to be weakening. And Gauthereau, despite having done a lot of sports, was getting tired chasing it. He was winded, dehydrated, and almost exhausted. He had fallen several times during the chase. To keep going he reminded himself that, in a similar situation, his friend, the white hunter Denkel, had not failed. The pursuit continued. As he strained, Gauthereau held desperately to his conviction that a well-conditioned white could keep up with a black in the forest.

It began to get dark. Finally, just an hour before nightfall, they came on the middle-sized, perhaps three-ton (metric) male, standing as if awaiting his inevitable fate. Gauthereau moved in close and fired three more rounds. The elephant raised his trunk, fell to his knees, and died.

Dosso approached the fallen animal and more or less symbolically—the skin was so thick—cut its throat in good orthodox Muslim fashion. Suddenly, men from the village appeared in the clearing. They had trailed discreetly behind, and then, following the sounds of the shots of the final kill, had closed in. Holding torches, knives, and machetes, a dozen of them stood around the huge mass of flesh lying on the ground. Dosso persuaded them to wait until the next morning to butcher the animal. It was getting dark. It would be better to go back to the village. The men agreed, but not before cutting off the two choice morsels of the trunk and the testicles—this latter, according to Gauthereau, appreciated locally as a "a delicacy, rich in beneficial qualities" (183). They left a guard to protect the meat from the "cupidity" of people from other villages and headed back. When Gauthereau arrived back at Krakou, they honored him "with a triumph" (183).

To end his diary entry—which, after all, as a literary exercise needed a strong finish—Gauthereau offers us his meditations on his experience. He confesses to having mixed feelings. The adventure had been exciting, but it could have been more so had he known more about tracking and hunting. He had found the actual kill a bit disgusting. He makes no mention of the herd that was still out there, nor even of the by no means certain connection of this shot elephant to the damaged crops. What had he learned from the drama? If he had had to do it all over again, "it would be with a rifle powerful enough to avoid another marathon chase—and to reduce the elephant's suffering" (183).

This is how he concludes his morality tale about colonial rule and personal competence—that is, he shows us not very competent Africans and a French administrator who proves himself. It is at the same time a tale in which expertise and technical skills have the most important value—the operation of a telegraph needing improvement, the skill and conditioning of the shooter, the quality and caliber of the firearms. This is a vision of African colonialism as a series of administrative and technical problems, narrated as a self-celebration of the machismo of a proconsul of the empire who overcame them. For added effect, he gratuitously sneers at the people. It is the story of the two logics of contemporary colonialism: the disjunction between the deeply pre-modern values of the administrator and his taste for technological modernity. It is just what the champions of empire's separation of cognition from feelings that in his Passage to India E. M. Forster called the "undeveloped heart."


From the literary point of view, Gauthereau's is not a very interesting or well-told story. But, then, most writers are not George Orwell. It is clear that Gauthereau modeled his tale after Orwell's famous story "Shooting an Elephant." In fact, the similarities between the two events are so striking that I would hazard the judgment that Gauthereau's never happened; or if it did, it was nothing like what he described. Orwell's was written long before Gauthereau published his memoirs; it was a well-known short story, at least in the English-reading world. That is probably where Gauthereau found his elephant, or most of it. Orwell's incident did not happen the way he tells it either, although his biographer Bernard Crick has found good evidence that he did in fact shoot an elephant while in the Burma police. But the two stories written about killing an elephant, stories we can compare, are certainly historical facts.

The two accounts both play on the killing-the-dragon variant of the lone-champion literary convention. They are both tales of an untried hero, surrounded by expectant, weak, but judgmental onlookers, who has to prove himself by killing a great, terrifying beast. Although poorly armed, the (white) champion, after much travail, prevails. In the two stories the scenes leading up to the killings have many features in common. The action of the hunters, of the elephants, even those of the local people are described in very similar fashion, sometimes using the same words or images. Both stories are about a European saving face before the native people he rules and so protecting imperial hegemony. In both Orwell and, following him, in Gauthereau, the figure of the elephant becomes a trope for the dark unknown mass of the colonized, a great force of nature that if trained properly, remains mostly tranquil and normally hardworking. But sometimes the same people can rebel explosively and then prove dangerous. And from the experience of shooting an elephant, each account draws important lessons for the colonial officer and the colonial enterprise. But there, Orwell and Gauthereau diverge. Let us look at the Orwell story more closely.

A young officer in the Burmese colonial police is called on to stop a marauding elephant. The creature had gone into heat, "must," and had broken his chain. He was rampaging about town. A Burmese sub-inspector across town asked the narrator—hereafter referred to as "Orwell" although the author does not give him a name—to deal with the matter. "The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it" (16-17). Taking his carbine—actually, a Winchester 44, the rifle made famous for having conquered the indigenous peoples of the American West—Orwell went out to look for the animal. When he came to the bazaar, where the animal had last been seen, he could not get a very coherent story from the local people about where it had gone: "This is invariably the case in the East (17).... I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies, when we heard yells a little distance away" (17). Walking in that direction, he came on the body of a black Dravidian coolie, whom the charging elephant had crushed. His grotesque corpse had been trampled deep into the mud, the skin on his back flayed off in strips by the scrapping of the elephant's foot. On seeing what this animal could do, Orwell sent an orderly to a friend's house for an elephant gun. The soldier quickly returned with the weapon and five cartridges.

Soon, some Burmese came to tell him that the elephant was now grazing in a field a few hundred yards away. He started in the direction they indicated. Now he was being followed by what appeared to be the whole population of the quarter, with more and more people swelling the crowd as he walked. They were relishing the entertainment in the offing and "they wanted the meat" (18). They wanted the kill, and at the same time they wanted the British policeman to fail. But above all, as Orwell realized, as he stood alone deciding whether to shoot or not, they were the ones in charge.

When he got to the animal, it was peacefully grazing in a paddy field, not far from the road. "As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainly that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery" (18-19). Besides, clearly the attack of must was wearing off. The animal would now graze quietly until his mahout came to get him.

But, to the general delight of the now perhaps two thousand spectators, Orwell did shoot. The first shot surprised the animal. He had aimed well. The elephant sank slowly to his knees. But the second hit seemed to revive him. At least, he stood up again. The third jolted his body. You could see it. The wounded creature raised his trunk and trumpeted a single time, and then fell full length to the ground. "He was dying, very slowly and in great agony" (22). To finish him, Orwell fired his last two bullets into where he thought the creature's heart might be. But it would not die faster. He then took up his lower caliber rifle, the Winchester, and put shot after shot into the heart and, through its open mouth, down the throat of the animal. The young officer could not stand the slow dying. He walked away. A half hour afterward, he heard later, it finally died. "Burmans were bringing dahs [knives] and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bone by the afternoon" (22).

The French colonial administrator sees his act as a vindication of the colonial tasks he had been sent to do. In killing his elephant, Orwell discovers the terrible secret of colonialism for the rulers: it enslaves them to the people they oppress. In telling us about how he went about his job, Orwell also speaks of his prior disenchantment with British imperialism. Even before he had to kill the harmless elephant before the cheering crowd, he had already decided that "imperialism was an evil thing" (15). He was ready to quit the Burma police service. But this hunt taught him something new about himself as one of the rulers. Colonial rule destroyed the freedom of the governors. The role they had to assume made them the stick figures in a colonial drama. He had stood there in the field certain that the animal, now calm, need not be killed,

And suddenly I realized that I would have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's domination in the East.... In reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of these yellow faces behind. I perceived at this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys (19).

The white man becomes a posing sahib. And "a sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind, and do the definite thing" (20). With all those people watching, Orwell could not just put down his rifle and walk away. He had to do the kill or be considered weak. The people he should rule would laugh at him. "And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at" (20).

That is why Orwell had to shoot the now calm elephant, and that is why, after a herd had done some damage, Gauthereau had to kill the first elephant that came into his gun sights. But where Orwell deeply understood how imperialism had cost not just the freedom of the ruled people but also his own, Gauthereau's head was cluttered only with worries about his manliness, about not embarrassing himself before the natives, and about the quality of his firearms. He doesn't get it.


Many citizens of democracies whose nation takes on colonial rule do not understand the cost to freedom at home. It is, in fact, systematically misunderstood, like the French administrator's lack of insight into what was really at stake about his role in the hunt, about France's role in Africa, and about Africa's role in France. It is hard to find a better illustration of the difference between instrumental reasoning—Gauthereau's sort of technocratic shoot—and normative reasoning—Orwell's understanding about why he was morally obliged to leave the Burmese police service for his own sake as much as for that of the people he ruled.

Although both men had been sent as colonial proconsuls by representative governments, colonial rule harked back to a lost ancien regime. At least it was disappearing in the European nations. The resituating—even revival—of aristocratic Britain in the colonial empire is a well-known story. Most recently, David Cannadine's Ornamentalism plays it again. But the many commentators on French imperialism have seen colonialism as a modernist project. Metropolitan French society was increasingly gridlocked; but social experiments, in city planning, architecture, administration, medicine, social science, and, of course, military matters were possible in the empire.


Excerpted from Imperialism and the Corruption of Democracies by Herman Lebovics. Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xix

1. Not the Right Stuff: Shrinking Colonial Administrators 1

2. Pierre Bourdieu’s Own Cultural Revolution 22

3. Jean Renoir’s Voyage of Discovery: From the Shores of the Mediterranean to the Banks of the Ganges 34

4. France’s Black Venus 60

5. John Locke, Imperialism, and the First Stage of Capitalism 87

6. Why, Suddenly, are the Americans Doing Cultural History 100

Afterword 113

Notes 121

Selected Works of American Cultural History Writing 155

Index 159

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