Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Liberalism and Empire

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Liberalism and Empire

Article excerpt

C. A. Bayly, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire.

Gregory Claeys, Imperial Sceptics: British Critics of Empire, 1850-1920.

These two volumes, among only a scattered handful of others in the Ideas in Context series, examine the responses of varied thinkers to the moral and political issues posed by the existence of empire and the growth of modern imperialism. Bayly's, indeed, is the very first among the one hundred published volumes in the series to move beyond European reflections on empire and give pride of place instead to intellectuals from the colonized world. Together liberal ideals and imperial practice incontestably exist at the heart of the modern world. Why, then, have the writings of Indian and other non-Western intellectuals, not to mention European theorists and critics of empire, received such cursory treatment in such an influential set of volumes? It is not possible to answer that question here, but fortunately the rapid rise of scholarly interest in imperialism over the last few years has spurred much new and exciting work on the ideology of empire. This outpouring of studies has even generated a subfield called "the new imperial history" devoted to exploring the links joining colony and métropole.

The works under consideration here are at once complementary-the one focused on Indian political thought, the other on British-and comprehensive. Both volumes range very widely across time, and engage with an array of thinkers. Both authors also fulfill the mandate of the larger series by placing ideas firmly in the context in which they took shape, and ask how they participated in the intellectual discourse of their times. Bayly, in his first sentence, describes his task as examining "the ideas, projects and sensibilities of those Indian intellectuals . . . who broadly subscribed to the international liberal consensus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."1 Claeys, for his part, proposes to assess ". . . explanations of the origin of the British empire; justifications for its continuation; and criticisms of its consequences."2

Sir Christopher Bayly-the first historian of the British Empire, it might be noted, to be knighted since Sir John Seeley over one hundred years ago-has had a distinguished career as Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at Cambridge. Though he was never affiliated with any of the major historiographical schools of the last decades-the socalled Cambridge school of the 1970s, the Subaltern Studies Collective of the 1980s, or the postcolonial cultural "turn" of the 1990s-Bayly's wideranging publications across Indian and Imperial history have stimulated scholarship throughout the discipline and beyond, most notably among those many postgraduate students he has trained. So it is appropriate that Bayly should now add his own definitive account to the on-going scholarly discussion of the political theory of empire.

Indian liberals have been maligned ever since they came into existence as a visible group of English-educated young men in the 1840s and '50s. During the high colonial era of the late nineteenth century they were disparaged by the British as mere talkers, as self-interested job seekers, and as a minuscule coterie who sought to speak for a non-existent Indian "nation," but in fact represented no one but themselves. Nationalist writers and political leaders, from the 1890s onward, dismissed their liberal predecessors (and contemporaries) as ineffectual mendicants and bourgeois hangers-on of the Raj. By the Gandhian era, with two or three notable exceptions, among them Dadabhai Naoroji and G. K. Gokhale, India's Victorian liberals had disappeared altogether from the canon of the nation's heroes. Finally, in the postcolonial era, scholars such as Homi Bhabha derided them as inauthentic "mimic men" who tried to be, but could never truly be, English.3 Indian liberalism, unlike its British counterpart, was thus, as Bayly correctly argues, "embattled from the beginning by powerful ideologies that largely rejected it. …

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