I was reading a bunch of essays by liberals and Fabians about the colonies from the early-to-mid 20th Century. It shouldn't be a terrific surprise that these are characterised by criticism of imperialism, but the curious thing is how the definition of imperialism is casually tailored to allow continued colonial or quasi-colonial forms of domination.
"Our colonies," declared the liberal intellectuals in 1900, are blessed with "a policy of non-interference". Further, they are the treasure of the world thanks to the "studied avoidance of aggression" and "toleration and generous amity between conflicting creeds and diverse races". All of this underpinned by "liberal principles and liberal ideas". These essays go on to assail certain aggressive policies, dull racism and all the rest of it. That is, the "liberal believes that the greatness of the British Empire imposes a special obligation to act with self-control and moderation." The intellectuals in question were serious public intellectuals at the time. Gilbert Murray, Francis W. Hirst and John L. Hammond were all aligned to the Liberal Party, all prolific writers. Murray worked as a diplomat, Hammond for the Manchester Guardian, and Hirst for The Economist. This was the mainstream 'critique' of imperialism at the time: domination and exploitation, in moderation. Throughout the essays, Imperialism is formally and explicitly opposed to Liberalism, even as the latter proposes to continue to rule the colonies and extract from them on the basis of Free Trade.
Skip ahead forty-five years and the cause of anti-imperialism is one now inflected with the writings of Hobson and Lenin. Even the Fabians admit their influence and rigor, and with an incoming Labour government are committed to framing "positive" policies aimed at "showing how the primitive and colonial peoples can be integrated within the organised life of mankind". The prominent left-wing writer H N Brailsford wrote those words, and was one of the more committed anti-colonial writers of the time, an early supporter of the ILP and a pacifist of kinds. He references both Condorcet and Lenin, in the first instance to show that colonies contain progress, in the latter to show that they are exploitative and are based in the modern case on the need to export capital. He proposed a Fabian solution to empire, the gradual education of the natives so that they may become accustomed to self-government. Similar stances were taken by the other essayists including Arthur Creech Jones MP, who went on to serve as Attlee's colonial secretary. (He worried that if the "backward races" were left in ignorance and squalor, then they would "menace" the rest of the world.)
By 1959, a new set of Fabian colonial essays had come out. Rather less optimistic this time, a bit more explaining offered as to why Labour's colonial policy had not been quite as envisaged. Rita Hinden, a South African writer who composed elegant and vitriolic pieces for the Labour right's Socialist Commentary, was also secretary of the Fabians' Colonial Bureau. She attended conferences of the Congress for Cultural Freedom along with Tony Crosland, Hugh Gaitskell and Daniel Bell, and would go on to become a supporter of the Vietnam War. She had been expectant of a gradualist drift away from colonies in 1945, based on the introduction of socialist forms of governance into the colonies and the reconstitution of the empire as a commonwealth. This time she proposed a different outlook.
She quoted from the Labour Party's programme in 1919 entitled Labour and the New Social Order: "If we repudiate, on the one hand, the Imperialism that seeks to dominate other races, to impose our own will on other parts of the British Empire, so we disclaim equally any conception of a selfish and insular 'non-interventionism' unregarding our special obligations to our fellow citizens overseas: of the corporate duties of one nation to another; of the moral claims upon us of the non-adult races; and if our own indebtedness to the world of which we are a part." Emphasis added, naturally. Hinden comments: "Anti-imperialism? Yes. But non-interventionism? No. We must intervene, but somehow it must be for the other man's good. We must be trustees, not imperialists." This was a persistent theme of the time: humanitarian interventionism meant acting against one's own national interests. This was Strachey's attitude in The End of Empire, also published in 1959 after his stint in office (and a long drift to the right). He wrote that "it is necessary that the developed countries should deliberately intervene against their own interests, or at least against their apparent interests." To be fair to Strachey, however, he is referring to the transfer of capital to assist development, not to continued rule. I merely note the theme, which has always been used to pluck on the heartstrings of the sentimental Labour Left (perhaps people remember Glenys Kinnock explaining in 1999 that the Kosovo war was legitimate because, after all, there was no oil there). Hinden went on to note that the 'socialist' government of the Labour Party had not been especially repressive of the colonies (Lenin and Hobson are derided as 'false prophets' in this regard), but notes that the more is done for the "colonial peoples, the further they advanced in wealth and welfare and knowledge, the less satisfied they have been to remain in tutelage, however benevolent."
However, the response of socialists to this straining at the shackles should not be simple anti-imperialism, for there was the problem of "the plural societies", those colonies "particularly in East and Central Africa" where "different races live side by side and refuse to mix, let alone coalesce into nationhood ... Hardly any of the local population of whatever race, who can see further than the end of their noses, really wants the imperial power to recede while all those passions are on the boil. Someone is needed to keep te ring and to help forge a nation out of what is still no more than a collection of warring and suspicious 'tribes'". This presents socialists with a "dilemma". Dare we, she asked, withdraw from Kenya or the Central African Federation "and so open the door to repetition of the South African sotry with its white minority domination?" It would be hard not to notice that those societies were already under white minority domination, but far more curious is the reference to Kenya which continually appears. At this point, as we now know thanks in part to the popularising history of David Anderson and Carolyn Elkins, Kenya was being brutally suppressed by the British government with the use of concentration camps and mass executions. Inasmuch as there was sectarian or ethnic tension in Kenya, it was courtesy of a British divide and rule policy.
Hinden goes on to worry about the consequences of straightforward anti-imperialism. What if we get a repeat of "the Middle East crisis in 1956"? There you had, she writes, Britain as the main imperial power being pressured by both the socialists and the nations of the Middle East to withdraw. There you had trusteeship and in short order the empire "was in fact ended" (as if by a gift here, and not by nationalist revolutions in Egypt, Iraq, Aden etc). And what was Britain's reward? "Petty princelings ruled in corruption; oil companies intrigued and bribed; Big Power politics played off one small state against another, encouraged their puppet regimes, seduced them with armaments. Was this so much better than the old imperialism? In some ways it might even have been worse ... Imperialism, for all its defects, was a form of world order. Pax Britannica maintained some kind of peace and international security over large parts of the world. As country after counrty now throws off the imperial shackles, are they each to pursue their own self-assertive nationalisms unhindered? Are they each to be in a position to break international agreements, to hold the world to ransom if geography or raw material assets favour them, to oppress their own minorities (or majorities) if they so wish, to arm and threaten their neighbours?" Notice that this spiel is prompted by the 1956 crisis in which Nasser has the nerve to nationalise the Suez Canal! Strachey, in his book, was also wary of the Arabs who he claimed had an unquenchable thirst to "exterminate the Israelis", one which no British government of any stripe should permit.
Hinden et al are at this point advocating a new form of international order, and they look to institutions like the United Nations to complement the commonwealth. Surreptitiously, of course, there is a shift to America. Against the Bevanites and fellow-travellers, the Fabians began to assert Atlanticist dispensations, which is fitting. Anyone who consults Newsinger's book on the British empire, The Blood Never Dried, can see how important it was to the ruling class to adapt a state moulded around its imperial commitments to a new kind of warfare state, hanging onto the coat-tails of the Americans as the only power that could defend America's interests. They can alos see how radical the 1945 Labour government was in this respect, the speed with which they moved to align British policy with that of the Americans, the undemocratic way in which Britain was inserted into Nato and the nuclear club.
Humanitarian interventionism has always been utterly blind to the realities of empire, sentimentally attached to its power, racially arrogant, and reactionary in its attitude to the oppressed. Something to bear in mind.