Empire vs Nation-State

Fred Cooper’s Colonialism in Question is mainly about changing fashions among the people who study colonial and post-colonial societies. But its third section, ‘The possibilities of history’, opens up larger questions, particularly in the essay, ‘States, empires and political imagination’ (the longest in the book). Here FC argues persuasively against the tendency to read modern history through its dominant political form, the nation-state, arguing that transnational associations, empires, have been and maybe still are just as important. I endorse the view that studying modern empires — and, by way of comparison, any empires – should be a salutary antidote to the contemporary obsession with national frameworks for doing history. And I quite agree that contrasting British and French styles of colonial empire, as I did for example in my book on West African agriculture (1982), is partly a way of reducing empire to the nation-state. My comments take off from this point of agreement.

I have drawn up a loose list of methodological principles from reading Fred’s book, which he may or may not recognize as his own:

1. It pays to undertake enquiries within the widest possible framework of comparison.
2. Grand narratives, simple-minded oppositions, teleology and reductionism of any kind are to be avoided.
3. Historical scholarship is best advanced by tracing events to the complex interactions of specific interests in a number of cases.
4. Historians should not allow contemporary political concerns to shape their enquiries.
5. It is unwise to draw too facile a connection between political and intellectual history.

The principle of wide comparison is one I share. It underlies the best work in anthropology, history and sociology. But I am not a professional historian and I retain a taste for big stories and catchy headlines. Who would not want to grasp the complexity of human affairs? But we need abstract analysis to get there and this in turn depends on clarity of vision. Marx, Darwin and Freud all started out with a clear vision that lit up their writing, before being dragged down to the level of the controversies they stimulated. I think it is inevitable that contemporary society will influence our enquiries, so I would be open about that, rather than simply ruling it out. And everything is political, including intellectual work, so we may as well pay attention to the connection.

I see this latest book as FC’s attempt to reclaim the metaphysical high ground after the monumental scholarship of his 1996 book on decolonization. But I am still not sure that he pays enough attention to the process of building a vision; and some of the principles I have enumerated, if adhered to, will continue to stand in the way of such an objective. The main problem is being locked up in ‘late academia’ (as I call universities when they are past their sell-by date). It remains anomalous that the periodization of African history as pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial has as its central point of reference the time when Europeans controlled it directly, whereas for some areas this was only 60 years.

As if acknowledging the need for a different vision, he returns in his Conclusions to the issues that make the study of African history compelling. Africa is the most potent symbol of unequal society in a racist world. Africans have endured and resisted the engines of inequality for centuries – first slavery and the international movement to abolish it, then colonial empire and the anti-colonial movement (linked to Panafricanism), finally apartheid and its negation. Yet Africa still stands for poverty and underdevelopment in a world that is rapidly growing more unequal. Where does it end? When, if ever, will Africans devise the political means to emancipate themselves in a lasting way?

And this is where his interrogation of the nationalist framework of history links us to the grand theme of modern history – the long human struggle for emancipation from unequal society and the formation of world society on the basis of economic democracy. As it happens, I have studied the abolition movement, starting from an unlikely place, Cambridge University in the late 18th century. Cambridge turns out to have been the movement’s centre in Britain, which took the lead in a dispersed international network. This was mainly because the prime minister, Pitt, was the university’s MP; Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce also had strong ties there and to him; the vice-chancellor himself, Peter Peckard, launched the issue with a sermon widely regarded as the most radical since the reformation (in which Cambridge also took the lead); a remarkable coalition, ranging from political placemen and High Tory churchmen to non-conformist preachers and revolutionary journalists, actively united around the abolition issue. Middle class families like the Darwins boycotted West Indian sugar and prayed for the slaves before dinner every night. Clarkson, as the campaign’s principal manager, more or less invented the techniques of modern single-issue politics as a package: petitions, lobbying, pamphleteering, exhibitions, boycotts, local networking and much more.

The key to all this was William Pitt who introduced the bill to abolish the slave trade in Wilberforce’s absence and was one of only three members of his party to vote for it – all of this while running the war with Napoleon. I believe that the Haitian revolution of the 1790s, coming as it did after the war of American independence, confirmed Pitt in his long-term strategy to switch the balance of British interests from the dominant West Indies lobby to one facing East, especially to India. The British lost an army of 60,000 soldiers sent to intervene in Saint-Domingue. These losses delayed renewal of the war in Europe by five years. The Haitian revolution was thus no trivial side event. However great the wealth generated by slavery and the slave trade at that time, it was a declining asset and one that could prevent Britain from moving effectively into a new orientation to the world. Pitt’s thinking was still broadly mercantilist and his allies were merchant capitalists. C.L.R. James and Eric Williams were wrong to see the abolition movement as a direct outcome of the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain. Hull, Wilberforce’s home and the only major British port not linked to the Atlantic slave trade, had more influence than Manchester at this time.

We all know that the industrial revolution took off in Britain around then. But the abolition movement might be thought of as Britain’s political revolution, to set alongside those in America, France and Haiti. There was in any case an ideological transformation at this time linking evangelical Christianity, economic individualism and free trade – all of which came together in the politics of the abolition movement. This also lends support to FC’s advocacy of empire as a framework for historical enquiry, since, unlike the basically national character of the other revolutions at first, this one was always international, playing itself out within the translocal space that Britain was then carving out for itself.

Everyone acknowledges that the American civil war was the most significant of a series of political revolutions in the 1860s and early 70s that launched the leading countries on a path of industrial capitalism. It was also about slavery and brought the abolition movement to a bloody climax. Abolition was a disaster for West Africa. Capturing slaves remained the preoccupation of indigenous ruling elites there, but the collapse of transatlantic demand destroyed the market. The price of slaves fell as a result and this led to an escalation of abuses, such as human sacrifice, as well as to more warfare and turbulence in some areas, such as Yorubaland. The European powers, emboldened by their machines and money, used this in part as an excuse for invasion in the name of their civilizing mission. The colonial regimes that ensued often relied on local figures whose power rested on slavery; but that aspect had to be covered up. In any case, the relationship between slavery and colonialism is a direct one and it leads to later manifestations of structured inequality in Africa, such as apartheid. Most Africans and New World descendants of slaves are still waiting for the emancipation that was announced two centuries ago.

Panafricanism flourished in the first half of the 20th century as the anti-colonial ideology of those who wished Africa to be returned to its original owners. It was in the broadest sense a nationalist movement, but it brought together people from an extraordinarily wide range of societies on both sides of the Atlantic and took on a universalist quality as a result. In the 1930s, two Trinidadian Marxists, CLR James and George Padmore set up an International Africa Service Bureau in London which recruited young African politicians like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, as well as Marcus Garvey’s widow. James, in an extraordinary burst of publishing that included the first English history of the Trotskyist movement and a pioneering novel of Caribbean urban life, wrote The Black Jacobins (1938), a history of the 1790s slave revolution in what became Haiti. It is safe to say that until then the Haitian revolution had dropped out of history.

FC makes over a dozen references to this revolution in the present book, including a sympathetic extended summary of James’s account. Yet he excises James’s explicit rationale for writing his book, namely as a stimulus to and prediction of the anti-colonial revolution in Africa, as if this has nothing to do with the brilliance of his writing. For James, the slaves of Saint-Domingue proved that a colonially oppressed class could make a successful revolution by themselves and that Africa would win its independence soon, largely through Africans’ own efforts. This idea was pretty unthinkable at the time and the prediction was correct, allowing for the nuances of who did what to whom that FC has explored at great length. In the same year of 1938, James published a much shorter book that FC doesn’t mention, The History of Negro Revolt (republished recently and edited by Robin Kelly as The History of Panafrican Revolt) which spelled out the historical relationship between Haiti and the coming anti-colonial revolution in Africa.

Here James traces a sequence of black struggles from Haiti through the American civil war and after, concluding that, if in the 19th century the New World was the main arena for this conflict, in the 20th it had become Africa. It was not just that for colonial apologists the sun would never set on Empire; the European left held that colonial subjects would have to wait for their independence until after the revolution in Europe. James held that capitalism and racial oppression made for a revolutionary combination in their own right. The sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue were at once the most advanced industrial formations in the world and the most brutally oppressive. He traced the contemporary struggles of Africans in the South African mines, the Gold Coast docks and the East Nigerian export farms that spawned the Abba women’s riots and predicted that race and capitalism would combine again soon to lead Africans to overthrow the colonial yoke. Apart from its validity as history, where did James get all his material from? The answer is from Padmore, who escaped with his life from being Stalin’s main man in Moscow on the colonial question, choosing to quit when his boss switched allegiance to Britain and France and told his team that they should go easy on them while attacking Germany and Japan who had no colonies

It is unacceptable to detach James’s great book from his political programme. When he argued for the interaction between the imperial metropolis and the colonial periphery, he was articulating a revolutionary vision for Africa, one whose subsequent failure he was quick to acknowledge in the book he wrote about his former friend, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977). James happened to be explicit about his own political motives for writing. But, when we refuse to acknowledge them, they surface anyway; and it is surely the historian’s task to make the link.

I want to end by pointing to somewhere else FC’s important initiative might lead, especially if historical scholarship could be more explicitly grounded in contemporary political developments. It is not long since Hardt and Negri’s book, Empire (2000), took on cargo cult status in some branches of academia by asserting that the Rooseveltian project of transnational world government was now a fact. The revival of a more naked version of imperialism since 2001 has set this idea back a bit. Like many who have lived through the second half of the 20th century, I am shocked by the revival of unashamed imperialist sentiment and the racism that goes with it today. I can understand Fred’s reluctance to pin his programme on such ephemera. But they do affect how we think, study and write and we need to be aware of this. The historical standing of the United States, whether as empire, federal association, nation-state or some shifting hybrid of all three, is just as important as the part played by European empires in the formation of world society. Nor is this process finished, as the example of regional federations like the EU, NAFTA, Mercosul, ASEAN and, behind them, dreams of political unity reveal. I would also suggest that ‘empire’ and ‘federation’ belong to a set of imagined communities that includes ‘world’, the most inclusive human community, as well as ‘nation’.

Several countries or federations of states are so large, so diverse and so self-contained as to constitute worlds in their own right. The United States, Russia, China, India and Brazil come to mind, while the European Union is the most dynamic political experiment on the planet — or was! We could add some of the larger states formed in temperate zones by the British and Spanish empires or indeed any polity predicated on combining diversity. If we would move beyond the myopia of national consciousness (Fanon), it might pay to examine how these countries function as semi-independent worlds, as well as the empires to which they are often linked. In the process, we will discover that the modern principle of federalism is as old as that of the nation-state and much better suited to wide political association. The original word for society itself, societas, was for the Latins a loose-knit federal network, much less centralized than the constitution of the United States or Switzerland, for example.

And there, reluctantly, I must end.

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