Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

Caroline Elkins, “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” (2022) – The main thing with the British is how they’ve gotten away with it, all of it. The worst they’ve ever gotten in return for all the dirt they’ve done was some aerial bombing — by the one enemy they actually looked good next to, classic sociopath’s luck — and then spending a few decades looking a bit like a (prosperous, safe) joke-country. Defenders of the British empire like Niall Ferguson can not only acquire the kind of respectability it’d be impossible to acquire defending any other empire, but they can also pretend they’re somehow intellectual underdogs. They all act like “we already went through this,” “this” being any kind of meaningful reckoning with what empire meant, and you know that “this,” in substance, meant little Niall and undergrad Andy and hungover 10 AM history seminar (no 9s or 8s for Oxbridge boys I bet) Boris had to hear a couple of fellow students wax indignant once or twice. Man… what the Germans or the Russians wouldn’t give to have THAT have been, continue to be, their comeuppance!

Caroline Elkins pisses those people off like nobody’s business. While she builds on the work of and acknowledges many previous generations of anti-imperialists, she seems poised to be the one to lay the foundation for something like a real intellectual reckoning with what the British Empire meant. If, down the line, we flinch from Empire the way we flinch from Nazism or “actually existing Communism” — not intellectually get that it was bad, but flinch, have it built into our historical reflexes — Caroline Elkins, and this book, will probably have a lot to do with that. 

The subtitle here is “A History of the British Empire.” That is a large subject. This is a large book. Elkins, a professor at Harvard (and, I’m told, a Watertown resident! Caroline! Get at me! Let’s have beers and play keno at Mount Auburn Grill! Bring the wife and kids I learned about from the acknowledgments!), makes a number of choices here calculated to land this book with maximum impact. She tells the history of the empire through its dual experiments in violence: learning to use violence to maximum effect to maintain a world-spanning and profitable empire, and finding ways to legitimize that violence within a philosophy of liberal imperialism. 

Most of what Elkins writes about the nineteenth century lays groundwork. Liberal imperialism as a philosophy comes not handed down from a Marx figure, but as a kludge, assembled from the results of battles in parliament and the papers over what Britain’s empire meant in the nineteenth century. Edmund Burke may have led the charge against abuses by the East India Company, but his anti-imperialism wasn’t so stiff that his criticisms could not be absorbed into later iterations of imperial technique, especially once John Company had outlived its usefulness. Crises like the Great Mutiny of 1857 and the Boer Wars at the turn of the 20th century refined both the techniques and the ideologies of Empire — and later for how Elkins relates the two — into a reasonably coherent body that Elkins spends the bulk of the book examining- the British Empire of the twentieth century. 

Focusing as much as Elkins does on the twentieth century, and especially on post-WWII British imperialism, is a peculiar but considered choice. The owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk, one of the old Germans the British did their best to not think about informs us, and British imperialism took on its most articulate and fully fleshed out form as it was indisputably in decline, at the very least decline relative to other, younger global powers. More than that, focusing on twentieth century imperial conflicts forces the reader to stop thinking of the British empire as some weird old anachronism, something involving powdered wigs and wooden ships. Many of the worst crimes of the British Empire took place contemporaneously to the great ideologically-motivated crimes we are all taught to loathe, to organize our social orders around avoiding repeating. Some of them took place after a British judge sat on the bench at Nuremberg.

India, Ireland, Palestine, Kenya, Malaya… tied together more than being victimized by the same empire, but often by the same personnel. Black and Tans picked up stakes to suppress the Arab uprising against the British Mandate in Palestine, and often the Zionist revolt a decade and change later in the same place. Palestine veterans, in turn, made their way to Malaya to fight the Emergency and to Kenya to suppress the Mau Mau (the latter being the subject of Elkins’ first book). Plenty of them wound up back in Ireland to deal with The Troubles once they kicked off in the late sixties. Everywhere, these personnel, and the London-based imperial bureaucrats who deployed them, cross-pollinated techniques of repression: emergency suspension of civil liberties, economic denial often past the point of starvation, forced relocation, encouragement of ethnic and sectarian division, torture, kill squads. Everywhere, the same, shifting but essentially coherent, body of ideological techniques as well: the liberal civilizing mission and demonization of anti-imperial fighters, control of information in and out of the war zone, careful attention paid to public relations, appeals to sentimental victimhood (dead settlers, traumatized and betrayed veterans of hard wars) and erasure of the many, many more victims they themselves created. Often enough, the literal erasure, through bonfires of records when the Tommies bugged out from Nairobi, Kuala Lumpur, Delhi, Tel Aviv, of the records of what they had done.

Elkins tells it all, chapter and verse, not glosses like with the Mutiny and other nineteenth century episodes but gritty, granular examinations of the dirty wars of the fading twentieth century Empire. Just as Whigs and Tories bickered over management of the Empire at its heyday (even producing opposite condemnations, not that they ever picked up enough traction to really stop the train) but united in dedication to it, so too did Churchill’s Conservatives and Bevin’s Labour remain equally committed, for much longer than we normally associate with either party, to liberal imperialism. After all, they had to somehow recover their economic position after two devastating world wars. One of the reasons they held onto Malaya as hard as they did was that the colony’s tin and rubber production brought in dollars, the international currency that replaced the pound sterling.

But it’s not all dollars and cents (or pounds and pence or whatever made up Harry Potter ass words they use over there). And it’s not all ideology and nostalgia. One of Elkins’s strengths is the way she not only refuses to engage in boring “intentionalism vs structuralism” style debates- she treats them as though they weren’t even there, which, honestly, is one of the better ways of getting across the fundamental truth that interest and ideology mutually constitute each other. Add a third element in there, too- technique.

Let’s put cards on the table- for all the dirt they did, the British Empire didn’t do literal, Treblinka-style death camps. They routed almost the whole Kikuyu population and numerous other Kenyans besides into concentration camps, and thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands (it’s hard to say with all those torched records) died there, many of them tortured to death. But they weren’t sent there specifically to die (complete with special industrial mass murder machines), as part of a specific plan to eliminate the Kikuyu from the earth.

Well… the thing with the Holocaust is it actually got a few useful things into the thick heads of the whites. It’s a good thing we memetically associate many bad things — book burnings, open embrace of war and evil, fascism, etc. — with outsized horror and avoid them, to the degree that the lesson has really stuck. So you can see why we don’t want to “relativize” these things. And I don’t think we have to relativize the Holocaust in order to get the point across that there were, are, a lot of ways to be horrific, to be mass murderers on a historical scale, to commit crimes, as the Church fathers used to say, “that cry to heaven for vengeance” (well, the Church fathers including gay stuff in that category, which doesn’t make any sense, but it’s a good turn of phrase).

But what we probably should do is recouple existential horror to a wider range of crimes. After all, as historians have been carefully pointing out, much of the Holocaust itself didn’t take place in the six death camps, but in fields and alleys all across the German war zone- the “Holocaust by bullet” in places like Babi Yar, starvation and disease in the ghettos. These things look less like some expression of unique bureaucratic-Teutonic evil and a lot more like what other empires do. It looks a lot like what the Soviet Union did around the same time, what the US did to Native Americans, and, more to the point, what the British did — what the British were doing, what they would do again — to colonial subjects.

The point isn’t that Nazis were or weren’t worse or better than British imperialists. That’s a stupid and childish way to look at it. The Nazis had a situation, the British had a situation. They had ideologies and interests that constituted each other. I would say the Nazi ideology was, in most sense, dumber than the British one, but this book also shows up just how dumb these supposedly clever British imperialists could be. In the Nazi situation, both an interest in trying to carve a continental empire out of Europe, and ideologies that both preceded that project (but were partially generated from many of the same factors that led Germans to think their empire was workable- like a certain lack of opportunities in other parts of the world to work their will) and were radicalized by it, created the horror of the Holocaust. Other situations — mostly a situation of massive but fading and endangered international strength, and much more pliable ideologies than the Nazis usually had — generated the British horrors.

I say all this as someone who is not a pacifist, who is willing to fight, to countenance and, if needs be, do hard and dark things, for freedom and for the ability of the people to thrive. But the thing with all of these crimes is how arbitrary, how pointless they were to any end other than allowing some privileged gang to thrive. Sometimes it was big gangs — the great big gang of Anglo settler culture, they just needed their “elbow room” no matter how many people had to be killed or enslaved to do it — sometimes it was little gangs, some racial or political elite. But it was never really for freedom, except in the sense that some people got the “freedom” to do what they want at the expense of vast numbers of others. The biggest mass killings you got for that happened with decolonization- Haiti, Algeria, the actual revolutionary stages in places like France, Russia, and China before their mass killings turned into ways to consolidate the power of an elite.

Maybe you’re the sort of person who flinches from a bomb in a cafe or a guillotined aristocrat in a way you don’t from starving Bengalis or a round dozen, at least, nations of this Earth plunged into endless ethnic strife by imperial endgames. Sometimes that does seem like a pretty basic divide- those who can really make themselves feel sorry for Marie Antoinette in the tumbril, but can pass over however many French kids died of diptheria and hunger to buy her jewels (to say nothing of how many were enslaved in the Indies for the same end) with an “oh, dear,” and those who have the opposite reaction. And there’s those who feel bad about both, about neither, etc., I get that. But pathos-directionality divergence does seem pretty fundamental, almost pre-political. There’s patterns — we’ve made Sad Aristocrats the basic element of real pathos from Burke’s day to Sophia Coppola’s, you need to flash kids with bloated starvation bellies to wring a dime out of most Anglos for Sad Poors and even then we can change the channel — but it does seem some people are just more receptive to one or another type of pathos than others. It’s worrisome.

Well! We’ve gone far afield. Oh well. “Legacy of Violence” is an excellent book. It is not a perfect book. The writing is sometimes a little rushed-seeming. There’s stuff to nitpick, and one thing Tories can do is pick the shit out of nits. The effort involved to make us understand the Empire in the horror that it deserves, she has to a lot of lumping. This shows up most notably in the category of Liberal Imperialism, which she clearly is trying to punt into the category of Bad Ideologies To Be Scared Of, like Fascism and, for most people, Communism. I question whether we’re not operating in enemy terrain, here- that accepting their category schema doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their categories, and trying to modify the schema is doomed to failure. But then I think… well, nothing else has worked. And Elkins is trying, and there’s at least some evidence that hammering the point home, with a lack of interest in niceties that’s less pointed and more just sheer eagerness for getting an actual point across, is exactly what we need. *****

Review – Elkins, “Legacy of Violence”

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