Friday, May 2, 2014

Toward a definition of “Empire”

In The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Piers Brenden on page xviii and xix writes, “The British Empire had a small human and geographical base, remote from its overseas possessions.  In the late eighteenth century it gained fortuitous industrial, commercial and naval advantages that rivals were bound to erode.  Having such a limited capacity to coerce, it sought accord and found local collaborators.  But imperial domination, by its very nature, sapped their loyalty. . . The history of empires,’ he wrote, ‘is the history of human misery.’  This is because the initial subjugation is invariably savage and the subsequent occupation is usually repressive.  Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on arms, diplomacy and propaganda.  But no vindication can eradicate the instinctive hostility to alien control.  Gibbon, himself wedded to liberty, went to the heart of the matter: ‘A more unjust and absurd constitution cannot be devised than that which condemns the natives of a country to perpetual servitude, under the arbitrary dominion of strangers.’  Resistance to such dominion provoked vicious reprisals, such as the British inflicted after the Indian Mutiny, thus embedding ineradicable antagonism.  Yet Britain’s Empire, much better than any other, as even George Orwell acknowledged, was a liberal empire.  Its functionaries claimed that a commitment to freedom was fundamental to their civilizing mission.  In this respect, Lloyd George told the Imperial Conference in 1921, their Empire was unique: ‘Liberty is its binding principle,’ To people under the imperial yoke such affirmations must have seemed brazen instances of British hypocrisy. . .  And in the twentieth century, facing adverse circumstances almost everywhere, the British grudgingly put their principles into practice.  They fulfilled their duty as trustees, giving their brown and black colonies the independence (mostly within the Commonwealth) long enjoyed by the white dominions.  The British Empire thus realized its long-cherished ideal of becoming what The Times called in 1942 ‘a self-liquidating concern.’”

Observations:  While the above isn’t precisely a definition, we who have not been influenced by Lenin, will understand what Gibbons means when he uses the word “empire.”  Rome and Britain subjugated a long list of cities and tribes.  After that it occupied them and made them colonies.    Britain because of influence of the Enlightenment and Humanism perhaps could not feel good about all aspects of their empire building – at least not ultimately.  That did not seem to be true of the Russian empires.

In Russia's People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present, ed by Norris and Sunderland, we read on page 251, “In the last years, enfeebled by strokes, Stalin was arguably the most powerful man in the world.  Not only did he control the USSR and much of Eastern Europe, but the communist leaders of China, North Korea, and Vietnam deferred to him.  In 1950 he agreed that Korean leader Kim Il Sung could invade South Koreas, thus opening the way to the Korean War. . .”

“Like his predecessors Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great, Stalin was both a state builder and an empire builder.  Historically Russia’s ‘national’ identity was an imperial one – nation, absolute state, and empire intimately intertwined – and Stalin contributed to that tradition in an exceptionally brutal manner.  His legacy was a hypercentralized state, a crudely industrialized economy, a country in which millions died to build his idea of socialism, and other millions to defend their country against the enemies of Communism.”

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