Monday, April 14, 2014

Fruitful comparisons of Roman and British Empires?

Someone from a forum wrote, ""Trouble is (as with all such comparisons) Roman historians probably don't know enough about the British Empire, and modern historians certainly don't know enough about the Roman Empire, to make really fruitful comparisons.

50 (ish) years ago, E. H. Carr wrote that he'd love to see a study of how Roman imperialism served as a model for British. I'm not aware that anybody has taken up his challenge in a major publication (correct me if I'm wrong), but it would be interesting."

Is that really true? If it is, i.e., that no Roman or British Empire historian is in a position to make a "fruitful" comparison, then perhaps the Foreword to Mattingly's Imperialism, Power, and Identity provides a clue as to why that might be. Hitchner wrote, "But with the breakup of the European empires after World War II, assessments of Roman imperialism began to shift." Hitchner applauds Mattingly's call "to replace the outdated imperial-age concept of Romanization in favor of an approach emphasizing the insights provided by postcolonial studies . . ."

Reading E. H. Carr's words, I wonder just what "fruit" a comparison of the two Empires might produce, or more specifically, what Carr thought it might produce. Wikipedia tells us Carr devoted much of his life to a study of the Soviet Union. He wanted Britain to become more Socialistic in order to be a better fit with the Soviet Union. Maybe someone who has actually read Carr could add to that. And just how much of a Marxist was Carr? Had he read Lenin's Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism? And if so, what did he think of it? I found this comment in a Wikipedia article on Carr's view of history: "Carr made a division between those who, like Vladimir Lenin and Oliver Cromwell, helped to shape the social forces which carried them to historical greatness and those who, like Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon, rode on the back of social forces over which they had little or no control."

And then this: "In this section of the book Carr talks about causation in history. He believed that everything that happened in this world happened because of cause and effect. Carr holds on to a deterministic outlook in history and firmly believes that events could not have happened differently unless there was a different cause." Does that make sense? How can something be deterministic if the effects can change as causes do? Doesn’t determinism mean (oh ye philosophers) that causes and effects can be no other than what they have been and will be?

On the other hand, he drafted a new preface to his What is History which includes the following: “For his planned second edition, Carr authored a new preface, which was posthumously found among his papers. In this short text, he contrasted what he saw as the optimism of the 1960s, when he originally authored the text, with the pessimism of the 1980s, when he was putting together the second edition. The former, he argued, was marked by the dissolution of the British Empire, the economic recovery of France, Germany and Japan following the destruction of the Second World War, the boom of world stock markets, and the process of de-Stalinization in the USSR and de-McCarthyization in the USA. The latter, he felt, was characterised by the economic crisis, mass unemployment, resumed intensity of the Cold War and the increasing power of Third World nations.

“Carr then rejects this pessimism, seeing it as nothing more than the elite opinion of Western Europeans and North Americans whose position as global superpowers has rapidly declined since the 19th century. The rest of the world, he reasons, has reason to be optimistic as standards of living are being raised. He furthermore argues that the "standard-bearers" of this pessimistic western view are the intellectuals, who are themselves an elite. He does however exempt the role of "dissident intellectuals" – a category into which he classes himself – whom he believes reject such mainstream intellectual theories.”

Carr’s views presented in the penultimate paragraph are dated but in the previous one seem interesting – unless they are dated as well. Who are the pessimistic intellectuals? The ones that come to mind probably wouldn’t have been familiar to Carr by the time he wrote, e.g., Samuel P. Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson have been pessimistic about the diminution of the West’s position in the world. And would Francis Fukuyama be a “dissident intellectual” for being optimistic about the spread of “Liberal Democracy.”

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