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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Liberalism & Imperialism


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.