[Marxism] Pages from the past: Victor G. Kiernan on the portrayal of imperialism by historians

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Fri May 7 18:28:46 MDT 2004

"For some years now a New Cambridge Modern History has been heaping itself
upon library shelves. By a gradual filtration of ideas through school and
college teaching, it will exert a widespread influence. It was to be
expected that a compendium on this massive scale, in Britain of all
countries, would be planned with very special attention to the subject of
imperialism. Instead it suffers on exactly this subject from a vast lapse of
memory. (...)

It is easier to acquit nine-teenth century bankers of unlawful desires in
the Sahara than anywhere else except at the North and the South Pole. And
one acquittal leads easily to another. Capitalism did not really covet its
neighbour's sand. Therefore capitalism cannot really have coveted its
neighbour's oil, or his coal, or his rubber, or his ox, or his ass, or his
man-servant, or his maid-servant, or anything that was his. Henry VIII
cannot have chopped off the head of his last wife. Therefore Henry VIII
cannot have chopped off the heads of any of his wives. Twice two is not
five. Therefore twice three cannot be six. A price has to be paid for this
reassuring triumph over Lenin, whose bones are thus left bleaching in the

Before the last war the 'jolly old empire' was very much a part of Cambridge
orthodoxy, and students who declined to take it at its face-value were
regarded by their seniors as very abandoned characters. (This fact of modern
history is recorded here because it has failed to find its way into Volume
XII of the "New Cambridge Modern History"). Now all of that has to be
written off. But capitalism, or jolly old free enterprise, is still very
much a part of orthodoxy, and its youthful wild oats, its unsavoury
connections of former days, are best forgotten. Imperialism was bad, but
capitalism has nothing to do with it. This quiet disengagement, or British
compromise, has a not very distant relative in West Germany, where it is
agreed that Hitler was a bad man, but that Krupp and the rest only joined
him in a fit of absence of mind.

In Volume XII [of the New Cambridge History]  this strategic interpretation
is endorsed and expanded. What brought Mr Gladstone into Egypt, an
incongruous Mark Anthony, to tumble on the bed of Ptolemy ? The Canal. Why
was the Canal so electrical ? Because of India. Salus Indiae suprema lex:
here Cambridge finds its guiding thread through the whole diplomatic
labyrinth. What it overlooks is that the cry of "India is in danger" was a
convenient one for financiers and concession-hunters, as well as historians;
for anyone with an eye on Burmese rubber, Yunnan railways, Malaysian rubber,
or Persian oil. It was a plausible excuse for all businessmen found in
compromising situations, an unanswerable claim for official backing. If
there had been space travellers in those days, India would have been a
compulsory reason for Britain to take part in the race to the moon - which
after all is actually within sight of Simla.

It was a plausible excuse besides for charging the cost of military
operations up and down Asia and Africa to the Indian taxpayer. The hard-up
Indian government itself, to do justice, regularly protested against the
fraud, and pointed out that the benefit to Indian security from most of
these campaigns abroad was nil. (...) how much was the Indian empire really
worth, and how were its dividends appropriated ? ... [The new Cambridge
History] does not try to answer the question. This inmost arcanum imperii
remains an official secret."

V. G. Kiernan, Marxism and imperialism (London: Edward Arnold, 1974), p.

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