[Marxism] Robin Blackburn on Niall Ferguson

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 10 11:56:59 MST 2005

New Left Review 35, September-October 2005

Robin Blackburn on Niall Ferguson, Colossus and Empire. Rehabilitations of 
colonial rule for today’s proconsuls in Baghdad and Kabul.



The often disappointing results of decolonization have bred a revisionism 
that forgets why colonialism was discredited in the first place. The 
British historian Niall Ferguson became an outstanding popularizer of this 
current with the publication of Empire: How Britain Created the Modern 
World and Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire. Written as if 
to teach us statesmen and citizens how to be good imperialists, they have 
become bestsellers, and an obligatory reference point in debates on empire. 
Their author—who in an important earlier work, The Pity of War, had shone a 
withering spotlight on the patriotic militarism of the Great War—has gone 
in quick succession from Oxford to New York University, and thence to Harvard.

Ferguson’s attention to economic history is welcome, since it is a 
sub-branch of the discipline ignored only at great intellectual cost. He is 
more cautiously to be commended for calling empire by its name. He believes 
that Britain invented capitalism and, with it, what he sees as the most 
valuable ideas and institutions of the modern world—the English language, 
private property, the rule of law, parliamentary structures, individual 
freedom and Protestant Christianity. Admirers would see inclusion of 
Protestantism as an example of impish fun, tweaking the tail of the 
politically correct, but we can be sure that Ferguson is quite serious. The 
complacent British self-regard of Empire easily segues into endorsement for 
American national messianism in Colossus, with the Anglo-American imperial 
formula—which he dubs ‘Anglobalization’—offering the colonized the best 
hope of capitalist success. As a historian of the English-speaking peoples 
Ferguson seeks to rescue Winston Churchill’s account from its contemporary 
entombment in countless forbidding leather-bound volumes. He offers a 
pacier narrative, garnished with good quotes from the great man; but the 
neo-conservative gloss he adds to the Churchillian vision would surely have 
inspired reservations in someone who, after all, helped to found Britain’s 
welfare state. By contrast, Ferguson sternly insists in Colossus that if 
the us is to make a success of empire it will have to cut social programmes 
to the bone.

Ferguson’s claim about the decisive contribution which empire makes to 
development is meant to hold for the future as well as the past. But the 
evidence he relies on is very selective: the only empires he really has 
time for are those of Britain and the United States. His failure to 
introduce any proper comparative dimension is in striking contrast to the 
serious attention he gives to all the major belligerents in The Pity of 
War. While he exhibited a command of a wide range of German and Austrian 
sources in that book, the bibliographies of Colossus and Empire do not 
include a single work not in English. The overall decline in the quality of 
Ferguson’s work between Pity and these two later books is a performative 
rebuttal of his faith in the magic of the market, since they were hastily 
produced in response to demand.

While good yarns make Empire readable, Ferguson misses, or misconstrues, 
crucial aspects of imperial logistics and political economy. It is quite a 
feat to write the history of the British empire and omit any real 
discussion of the Royal Navy during the critical period 1650–1815. This is 
Henry v without the battle of Agincourt. Only a quite modern state could 
have built, manned and supplied a permanent force of over a hundred ships 
of the line. If Ferguson has consulted the work of N. A. M. Rodgers—an 
author whose outlook he would find very congenial—he could have given 
readers a glimpse of what life aboard an 18th-century warship was really 
like and explained why the British outgunned the French. And if he had 
consulted Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution and John Brewer’s 
Sinews of Empire—authors he might find less congenial—he could have 
achieved a better grasp of the economic foundations. Likewise, Ferguson 
gives a lively sketch of the us empire in the days of ‘manifest destiny’ 
and the ‘big stick’ in the early chapters of Colossus, but pays little 
attention to the huge diplomatic and economic effort that subsequently went 
into the construction of a global chain of military bases (an aspect well 
covered by Chalmers Johnson in Sorrows of Empire). The suspicion grows, 
confirmed by his enthusiasm for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, that Ferguson, 
like other neo-conservatives, is seduced by the romance and rhetoric of 
empire, but when it comes to its logistics and economic rationale he is in 




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