Liberalism & Imperialism

By Windschuttle, Keith | New Criterion, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Liberalism & Imperialism


Windschuttle, Keith, New Criterion


To propose that Great Britain should voluntarily give up all authority over her colonies, and leave them to elect their own magistrates, to enact their own laws, and to make peace and war as they might think proper, would be to propose such a measure as never was, and never will be adopted, by any nation in the world.... If it was adapted, however, Great Britain would not only be immediately freed from the whole annual expense of the peace establishment of the colonies, but might settle with them such a treaty of commerce as could effectually secure to her a free trade, more advantageous to the great body of the people, though less so to the merchants, than the monopoly which she at present enjoys.... [I]nstead of turbulent and factious subjects, [they would] become our most faithful, affectionate, and generous allies; and the same sort of parental affection on the one side, and filial respect on the other, might revive between Great Britain and her colonies, which used to subsist between those of ancient Greece and the mother city from which they descended.

--Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

Western imperialism is widely regarded among liberal thinkers today as the most damning indictment of Western culture. As the process unfolded over the past five hundred years, it was accompanied, we are now frequently told, by unconscionable exploitation and in some cases the near total destruction of the indigenous inhabitants of the European colonies, together with widespread slavery and gross abuse of indentured labor, not to mention the rampant destruction of the environment. Moreover, rather than reproaches of this kind waning as the era of European colonialism in Asia and Africa recedes into distant memory, they appear to be increasing.

Today, few undergraduates of European ancestry can complete a degree in the humanities at any Western university without being made thoroughly ashamed of the imperial crimes of their forebears. In the past decade, the leading lights of the "post-colonial" movement in literary criticism, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, and Gayatri Spivak, have achieved celebrity status for their claims that Western culture is inherently and irrepressibly racist and imperialist. One result is that the old heroes of literary and popular culture, the men who won the West and who explored the wilderness, are now seen as the villains. Their places have been taken by those who fought imperial oppression, the Geronimos, the Gandhis, and the Mandelas. Among the signs of our times are the obligations now routinely assumed by presidents and prime ministers throughout the West to offer apologies and compensation to the descendants of the victims. A new book by a British writer even argues that its imperial record has cost Europe its claim to being civilized.

   Over five centuries Europeans, armed with a set of invincible stereotypes,
   devoured tribal society across four continents. The image of the bestial
   and pitiless savage which licensed this onslaught was never more a portrait
   of the Mexica, or the Inca, or the Nama, the Herero, the Tasmanians, or
   even the tigers of humankind, the Apache, than it was an image of Europe's
   own destructive capacity. It is a prevailing irony of this story that as
   the tide of European conquest engulfed tribal peoples, so the colonists'
   civilization succumbed to a savage whom they had so violently condemned.
   But the savage was within themselves.

This quotation is from Mark Cockers Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold (1998), which describes the European conquest of the tribal societies of North and Central America, Australia, and Southwest Africa as "one of the great acts of human destruction, comparable to the Nazi holocaust, or the Stalinist purges of the Soviet Union, or the mass slaughters of communist China." It follows another book on the same subject, by the Swedish author Sven Lindquist, called Exterminate All the Brutes (1996), a title derived from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which the author claims epitomizes what European imperialism was all about. …

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