[Marxism] A critique of Niall Ferguson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Mar 9 10:25:02 MST 2005

Boston Review, February/March 2005
The Good Empire
Should we pick up where the British left off?

Vivek Chibber

Colossus: The Price of America's Empire
Niall Ferguson
The Penguin Press, $25.95 (cloth)

Not too long ago, it was difficult to find mention of empire in American 
intellectual circles, save in discussions of bygone eras or, more commonly, 
of the Soviet Union’s relation to its satellites. The steady stream of U.S. 
interventions in countries around the globe could not, of course, be 
denied; but they were commonly explained as defensive responses to Soviet 
or Chinese imperialism—as efforts to contain Communist aggression and 
protect our way of life. But America itself could not be cast as an 
imperial power.

Times have changed. America and empire are joined at the hip in political 
discourse, not just on the Left but also in visible organs of the Right. 
The United States is often described as an empire and proudly proclaimed to 
be in the company of the best, outshining its English predecessor and 
catching up with the standard-setting Romans.‚This semantic shift was not 
instantaneous. In the immediate aftermath of the Eastern Bloc’s demise, the 
terms most typically used to describe American supremacy were more 
benign—sole superpower, new hegemon, and so on. The real change came with 
the George W. Bush presidency, and especially in the aftermath of 9/11. 
Commentators and ideologues no longer shy away from the E word and, indeed, 
openly embrace it—as well as the phenomenon it describes.‚For the most 
part, the arguments favoring a Pax Americana have not been developed beyond 
short articles or op-ed pieces. But the work of Niall Ferguson—a Scottish 
historian now transplanted to Harvard—takes them further. In his recent and 
widely reviewed book Colossus, and in a series of other publications, 
Ferguson offers an extended defense of the imperial project, past and 
present. Unlike many of his conservative peers, however, Ferguson does not 
cast his defense of imperial expansion in terms of its benefits for the 
United States—as a strategy of prevention against potential aggressors or 
as a mechanism to secure American dominance for the foreseeable future. 
Instead, he views an American empire as a boon to its subjects. As he 
explains, he has “no objection in principle to an American empire,” for 
indeed, “many parts of the world would benefit from a period of American 
rule.” To be sure, American rule must be subject to constraints. Empire is 
beneficial, he avers, if it is imbued with, and institutionalizes, the 
spirit of liberalism: enlightened and non-corrupt administration, fiscal 
stability, and free markets. In short, what the world needs is not empire 
per se: it needs a liberal empire.‚In pursuing this project, the United 
States needn’t venture forth untutored because it can draw upon the 
considerable achievements of its predecessor, the British empire, which was 
the first to use its power to spread liberal institutions to the developing 
world. The British experience plays a dual role in this argument. First, it 
provides a record of historical achievement, which gives support to the 
view that a properly conducted imperialism can be a force for social 
improvement. Second, it offers lessons on how to properly go about 
colonizing those who need it. And there is no shortage of needy nations. 
Ferguson mentions, in passing, the Central African Republic, Uganda, 
Liberia, Rwanda, Chad, Niger, Eritrea, Guinnea-Bissau, Burundi, Ethiopia, 
Somalia, Afghanistan, and several others. That they are almost all in 
Africa does not escape his notice. The fact is, he writes, that the African 
“experiment” with decolonization (as he calls it) has largely failed. For 
many countries across the continent, the only hope is to be folded into a 
new empire, which could finish the job that the British started.

The only problem is that the United States seems unwilling to accept the 
challenge. It is chary to go beyond the imposition of informal control over 
its minions and hence is unable to provide the benefits of direct colonial 
rule. Ferguson’s large ambition is to persuade American elites to shed 
their hesitancy and embrace, for the good of the world, their colonial mission.

Ferguson’s defense of liberal empire has made him into something of a media 
celebrity: he is featured prominently on national radio and television, a 
much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit, and even the star 
narrator of two television series. Although the attention is unusual for a 
professional historian, it is not entirely surprising. Here we have views 
that were, until recently, associated with the crackpot Right now being 
defended by a rising academic star who comes with all the status of Oxford 
(his previous employer) and Harvard. More surprising is the reception that 
his book has received in established academic journals and magazines. One 
might have thought that, in the most respectable organs of the liberal 
intelligentsia, a book calling for the resuscitation of colonial rule would 
have met with at least a few raised eyebrows. Instead, it has been given a 
surprisingly warm welcome. John Lewis Gaddis goes so far as to single out 
for special praise the call for the United States to colonize parts of the 
world to save them from their infirmities; in fact, Gaddis worries that the 
book’s other shortcomings might prevent a more serious consideration of the 
need for American “tutelage” of these deserving states. Further to the 
right, Charles Krauthammer has echoed Ferguson’s fond remembrance of the 
British Empire. In the fall 2004 issue of The National Interest he offers 
that the United States “could use a colonial office in the state 
department—a direct reference to British institutions.

Were it not for this warm reception, there would not be a pressing call to 
engage the arguments in Colossus. The book doesn’t cohere especially well, 
being more a concatenation of loosely connected essays than a 
well-structured argument. Ferguson writes in a highly discursive fashion, 
scattering the text with claims and asides that are often only distantly 
connected with the theme at hand. Some of them are so outlandish that they 
seem less the handiwork of a respected historian than of an academic shock 
jock. What, for example, are we to make of the notion that the United 
States ought to have seriously considered using nuclear weapons against 
China during the Korean War? The actual arguments Ferguson makes to support 
his case are by no means new; to the contrary, he trots out some of the 
hoariest myths of the colonial experience. To make matters worse, his own 
narrative undermines several of his central points, as I shall demonstrate 

The main reason to examine the book closely, then, is that it reflects a 
widening current of opinion among American intellectuals, including its 
liberal wing. It is the fact of the book’s success, and the warm praise 
showered upon its author, that warrants a sustained examination of its 

full: http://bostonreview.net/BR30.1/chibber.html



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