OPINION: Empires and Their Problems; Will We Ever Learn?

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
April 18th, 2016

Not Learning from Empires: saying Yes to imperial temptation

“Take up the White Man’s Burden…”                — Rudyard Kipling

“[G]overning India is the fulfillment of a mandate from God… the miracle of the world.”

 – Lord Curzon, British Viceroy in India

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”    — Percy B. Shelley, Ozymandias

By Charles Jeanes

History teaching Humanity?

Readers of this column will know of my preoccupation with the question of whether history teaches us lessons, whether humanity avoids mistakes today by knowing what errors were committed yesterday. I think the answer is No.

The fact that the abuses and oppressions forced upon urban working people in England during the first Industrial Revolution – military and police suppression of workers’ unions and democratic rights, heinously low wages and cruelly filthy housing, child labour, horrible factory conditions, degradation of the environment —  have been repeated over and over in nations as they have industrialized in Asia, Africa and Latin America, is the indisputable historical example that proves my general conclusion.

Today I write about another lesson history has for us that we refuse to learn.

A Lesson never learned

If ever there were a clear lesson from the record of the past, surely it ought to be this one: empires always decline and fail, no matter how long they have endured. I make this declaration with fair certainty no one can contradict it.

My next assertion is not true in the perspective of many, but here it is: Empires are not worth constructing. Imperial wars have killed billions over historical time. Empires decline, fail, and disappear. They are not worth the effort of the rulers and conquerors, not worth the deaths in the wars empires always entail.

A poet said it best: all empires eventually are “one with Nineveh and Tyre.” [Recessional, by Rudyard Kipling.] All empires are one empire. All are engines of power, used to dominate, subjugate, rule, exploit.

While one can admire the cultural arts of people living under empire, no one can prove such products demanded empire in order to exist.

All imperialists protest that they are uniquely meritorious. All assert they exist for reasons that are worthy, admirable, positive goals. When empires are gone, their benefits are celebrated, but what was lost by the conquering, and ruling over, the subjugated people, is lost forever; history that is never made, can never be known.

The might-have-been for people who lost their independence, who were ruled by empires governed by foreign people and cultures, is painful for the subjugated and an eternal mystery for any subject people who asks this question: “If the empire never took over our home, what would we [First Nations, Celts, Africans, etc.]  have been? What history would we have made?”

The Ancient Assyrian and Persian Empires

From the time of Sargon the Great, a Semite of the ancient city of Aggade/ Akkad, the kings who held Assur as supreme god and had their base in the mid- and north sections of the Tigris-Euphrates basin, built and ruled empires. Their ferocity was horrid; they boasted of the slaughters they made, and crucified enemies by thousands. Their imperial era stretched, with interruptions, from 2300 to 612 BCE, and when they fell for the last time under the armies of Babylon and Persia, the Assyrians were not mourned by any subjects.

Yet historians find things to admire in Assyrian imperialism: the efficient administration, the melting pot of cultures engaged in commerce, the flourishing new cities, flush toilets, paved highways. An empire is good because it increases social wealth. Whose wealth? It is always the empire’s elite who prosper so well.

Next, Persia’s empire. Persian imperialism had a reputation less fierce than Assyrians’. Still, its empire was typical of imperialism in its system of centralized rule, laying its subjects under one man’s lordship, whose power of command over his empire was ultimately the same as the Assyrians’: force.

Of course there was articulate ideology to justify Persian emperors’ conquests across an immense geography. The king of kings was servant of the Truth (Ahura Mazda), and he fought the Lie (Angra Mainyu). Persian religion during the period of empire “evolved” as a result of Zoroaster’s teaching of a progressive morality.  [Easily the most-readable historian recently writing in English about ancient Persian thought is Tom Holland, in Persian Fire.]

Had Persian imperialism made positive human interaction possible by bringing East and West into closer relationships? The contact between India and Greece that Persia enabled by conquest would have happened– more slowly but without a million war deaths — by the peaceful means of commerce and travel.

After 150 years of equilibrium, the Greeks were united under Macedonian military domination and then invaded Persia’s empire. Alexander of Macedon won every battle. Why did Persia fall so easily? Rebellions against Alexander to support the Persian emperor should have been formidable. The subject peoples did not fight on behalf of the emperor with any conviction.

Non-Persian subjects did not ask to be subjects; for example, Egypt resisted Persia as Greece did. Persia’s subject population, if it were enraged and aroused against the Greeks, would have fought hard to resist Alexander and his small invasion forces. Had Persian government persuaded its subjects to assimilate, to feel attachment to its rule, Alexander never could have made such swift conquests, but there were no problems of persistent rebellion or guerilla warfare against Greek imperialism in Asia, in Egypt, or even in the Iranian lands.

Greek and Roman Empires

Alexander “the Great” was an empire-builder many historians have held up for glorification. I do not; modern minds do not admire his type of history-making. His egomania, explained by personal belief in his divine superiority to the rest of humanity, is repellent; it was repellent in his own lifetime. Alexander was dead at 32. Waste no grief on the might-have-been “if only he’d lived longer…” His glory is a lie. His imperial drive was a pathology. May no one “succeed” as Alexander did, ever again – that’s a prayer most thoughtful people can endorse.

And now we come to Rome, most-beloved by Western historians; Rome was an empire which endured. Some would say it lasted to 1453 CE, or 2200 years (from its founding as a city in 753 BCE). Should we exalt Rome — for its law and order, its political stability, its economic unity — or for its preparation of the way for the wonderful “religion of love,” Christianity?

I would not hold Rome up for admiration despite its generally-successful government over extensive empire. Empire is not itself a worthy enterprise; empire has to prove its worth. Did Rome’s value weigh more than its liabilities?

It depends, of course, on one’s measurements and values. For myself, none of the accomplishments of its army, its legal institutions, its builders and engineers, its artists and writers, outweigh Rome’s inherent brutality. The language, legal codes, roads, literature: weighed in the balance with the millions killed by Roman power, during war and by executions, does the good outweigh the bad?

Rome crushed people. Its “Pax” was the peace of the paved-over parking lot. Without Rome, many peoples would have flourished and added their distinctive cultural voices to humanity’s record. With Rome, we have the conformity imposed by a domineering imperial culture. Persia suffered Roman aggressions but kept its independence. The people of Judea were not so fortunate, and were subjected to what some historians call an early attempt at genocide by Rome’s “totalitarian” empire. Roman decadence is not mere cliché, either, and the low quality of its rulers and its culture (e.g. gladiatorial combat, chariot races, massive use of slaves, cultic religions) became pandemic after Marcus Aurelius.

A convincing picture of Roman society is surprisingly well outlined by a writer on the life of Jesus, John D. Crossan. Tom Holland’s Rubicon deserves mention, and Frank McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius also, for vivid explanation of the Roman world. I feel personally less attracted to Roman culture than to Celtic.

Islam’s empires: Arabs and Turks, Mughals and Mongols

Medieval Christendom was pitifully primitive in material living-standards when compared to the Empire of the Arabs and the early Turks. Only Constantinople had a civilized life to rival Baghdad’s or Cordoba’s around the year 1000. The cultural heights attained by the peoples under rule of Islamic empires were impressive. There is no doubt of the wonders of Muslim arts and sciences.

From Baghdad, the regime of the Abbassid Caliphs united an empire stretching from India to Morocco. From Istanbul, the Ottoman Turkish Sultans ruled south-east Europe as well as nearer Asia. From Delhi, the Muslim Mughals set up an empire that ruled the subcontinent of India within a marvellously-plural form of civilization where Hindus and Sikhs also flourished. (Although one Mughal emperor did engage in anti-Hindu policies, generally their rule was tolerant of non-Muslims.)

The Mongols under Genghis Khan and his dynasty were not conquerors with religious motives, and created the largest land empire in history; Timur the Lame, a Mongol-Turkic emperor descended from Genghis, proclaimed Allah was his god and religion was his reason for conquests in the period 1375 to 1410. Smashing and flattening other Muslim peoples such as Othman Turks and Crimean Tatars, Timur was a destroyer, not a creator, mourned by none. But it was a great-grandson of Timur who created the Mughal Empire and its highly-regarded artistic results.

The empires of Islam had their origin quite simply in conquest, by force responding to the logic of force – where their armies were victorious, they annexed land to their empire. Where, and when, a Muslim army lost a battle (for example, when Byzantines or Franks won naval or military confrontations), there the march of empire was ended. So long as their armies won, the imperialist leaders of Islam pushed their borders as far as possible, annexing territories. Islamic imperialism was plainly empire-building by aggressive war. These peoples must be judged by the same standard as Romans. They ended a lot of human lives in the process of conquering empire, deaths not justified by any counterbalancing positive consequence of imperialism.

Does God/ do gods desire empire to convert infidels and heathen?

Bringing Islam to the conquered populations who did not know Allah and his Prophet seemed sufficient motive for Muslim armies of Arabs and Turks, and they in fact did not insist on conversion for conquered Jews and Christians.

Being sure one has the best religion, and that the mono-God must rule all humans, has “justified” war for imperialists as far back as Sargon; worshippers of Asshur spread the Assyrian empire to vast dimensions. Worshippers of YHWH were imperialist when the Hasmonean kings of Jerusalem had the military power to conquer the neighbours of Judah in the final century BCE. Worshippers of Christ were imperialist from the time of Emperor Constantine the Great and the fusion of Rome’s State with their Church, and employed that power to force conversions of pagans to Christianity.

People find it easy to believe God loves imperialism. God is called the King over all creation, and the conclusion was drawn that He wants a human to rule over all humans on earth. I am not at all persuaded by Karen Armstrong’s insistence that religion is not a primary cause of war, but only a façade over the “truer” reasons of material greed, power-seeking and clash of economies.

European Christian empires: Germany and Britain

Christian Europe grieved the fall of Rome, historians say. They say so because Christian clergy wrote a version of history expressing grief that unchristian barbarians had overrun the empire. Rome had not been Christian for the first three centuries after Christ, but Rome had become “Christendom” before it fell; once the emperors were gone, the clergy mourned the State which enforced the Church. The popes in Rome inherited the universal imperial dream of Rome. Where the secular empire had vanished, an empire of religious monopoly arose.

The Franks (a Germanic tribal confederacy along the Rhine and Channel) claimed the role of the West’s supreme military power, and conquered pagan Saxons and Avars in the name of Christ. The Frankish kings battled over three centuries to political and military paramountcy over the West. Thus the most-successful king of the barbarian Christians, Charlemagne of Francia, took over Rome’s empire long after that empire had collapsed in the north-west, and, naturally, was crowned the “holy emperor” by Pope Leo III in the year 800 CE.

The Holy Roman Empire, of the German Nation, was medieval Europe’s greatest power for two centuries, and the endemic dream among Germans of restoring that power led eventually to a German Kaiser (Caesar). The holy medieval empire of German kings was more idealized entity than realized state. It tried to hold together an extensive territory stretching from the North Sea and Denmark to south-east France, southward as far as Sicily, and well eastward into lands of Baltic pagans and Christian Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians. Eventually Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, eastern France and the Slavic territories would all evolve states outside the orbit of the German Empire’s boundaries. The Holy Empire would be exclusively German by the time of its dissolution at the hands of Napoleon in 1806. It had lasted, by one calculation – 800 to 1806 CE – for over a thousand years (explaining why Hitler made his boast of another Thousand Year Reich.)

The Christian ideology of a fused Church-State empire with a monopoly on God was toxic: it led to brutal Christian holy wars against Islam and pagans (e.g. Bulgars, Balts) and heretics (e.g. Cathars, Hussites) and atrocious treatment of Jews in medieval times. Christ-motivated imperialism has a long, ugly history.

For a favourable scholarly history of the holy empire of the Germans, one should consult Joachim Whaley, a Cambridge professor. Whaley goes against a long tradition of English historians who find that empire generally of small worth to its people and insignificant contributions to European political and cultural developments. Whaley argues this was an empire with remarkable assets and merits for the millions of subjects who lived in it over the centuries.

Britain: the greatest modern empire, the paradigm of imperial methods

The most-successful European empire after Rome was surely Britain’s — imposed by naval supremacy over the world’s oceans and by European military supremacy in weapons and training. This imperial construction encompassed  one-quarter of the world’s land surface and one-fifth of its population. Rule by the British was a wonderful thing: British imperialists said so.

Winston Churchill and Rudyard Kipling are well-known voices who praised the Empire as the best thing that ever happened to people who came under its sceptre. Irish, Indians, the Boers, Ashantis, Zulus, Maoris, are well-known examples of people who challenged this ideological, self-centred propaganda. Absurd racialist “science” was put in service to English chauvinism; the Nazis were actually merely an extreme on the spectrum of racists, not inventors of the dogma. Nazis copied concentration camps from British policy toward Boers.

The British Raj in India was a long time under construction, and originated as a strictly commercial enterprise as a Chartered company. But as Europe experienced the Western Enlightenment and proclaimed superiority for its secular, materialist values and for Reason over religion, India and its so-alien civilization lost the respect of the British. Racism replaced respect. By 1900, the British were ruling India as if Anglo-Saxons were a master race destined by Providence to bring civilization to “lesser Breeds without the Law.” (Kipling.)

The UK and the English people particularly failed miserably to bring effective, benevolent government and social justice to the oldest land under English imperial rule, Ireland. The English in Ireland exercised power and control since late-medieval times and never resolved major contradictions: between being an ethnically-dominant minority over the Celtic natives while claiming to be in Ireland as creators of civilization, progress, stability, peace, law, or prosperity, the English failed consistently as rulers of this closest imperial province.

Britain’s record in Asia and Africa as the champion of civilization, of law and order and parliamentary democracy, is variegated. It is grey, not black or white. In fact, as the British liked to say they had inherited the mantle of Rome, their empire was positive and negative in the same ambiguous way as the Roman Empire. I am a Canadian with WASP roots and reasons to think well of Britain, but I will not declare admiration for its empire the most-apt response.

Here is a simple summary of British imperial failure: “Famine, flood, starvation, crushing poverty, sickness, and sectarian violence beset the British Empire in India… The gulf between the tiny minority of wealthy Indians and the remainder of the population was enormous. In Ireland too the British were beset by challenges of poverty, violence, and inequality they could not meet… A succession of British prime  ministers, possessed of good intentions, faced but could not resolve the twin dilemmas of India and Ireland.” (Carlo D’Este, biographer of Winston Churchill.)

Britain’s was the first modern, industrial, capitalist empire, the model for the American empire which replaced it in 1945. It was the paradigm of the evil capitalist empire in the eyes of Soviet Russian and Red Chinese leaderships. Britain prospered mightily while it ruled an empire, and empire was a definite cause of British economic supremacy and geopolitical eminence by 1914; but again, subject peoples didn’t ask to be subjugated.

It is not apt to compliment the British Empire in many of its manifestations. One must consider how the empire looked to the people who were The Other. Indians, First Nations, Irish: they had, and have now, a perspective on the Empire one did not find in the history texts of Ontario schools that I attended. (That omission has changed now, I’m pleased to say.)

The British believed they gave their subjects better government than the ruled people could manage for themselves. The British were surprised when subjects did not agree that British rule was of such high quality that, whatever its flaws, there were more things right about it than wrong. Empires always think they do right for their subjects.

View from the Bottom: when you are an object, not agent, of empire

All conquered peoples suffering the indignity of foreigners ruling over them will ask that question I posed in my introduction: “If the empire never took over our home, what would we have been? What history would we have made?”

Historians as a profession dislike conjecture about what might have been; they want to be taken seriously for telling truths about the human condition. To me, telling truth about empire means calling it by honest adjectives. I have done my best to write such adjectives here, contradicting centuries-long pretences about the benevolence of empire. Beneficiaries of empire have praised themselves for their legacy and vision and expect to be believed by posterity. Posterity can challenge received “truths”  now better than ever before.

Conclusion: Why the Lesson is never Learned

An attempt at an even-handed appreciation of Western imperialism has been undertaken by Niall Ferguson in three books, Empire, Colussus, and Civilization. Ferguson is a conservative; leftist analyses of imperialism are well-represented by written works of I. Wallerstein, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, and H. Zinn. Lenin of course wrote the ur-text for a Marxian view of empires.

Canada’s own A. P. Thornton has studied and written about imperialism without noticeable political bias. His thoughtful book, Doctrines of Imperialism, is old but solid. He has the gift of empathy with widely differing perspectives.

The cause of empire is fairly concrete in every historical case. Someone, some few, some elite, always benefitted from empire. That is why nations and states are led by their ruling classes to expend their soldiers, their taxes, their material well-being, to build and maintain empires. We can say “crime does not pay” as much as we like; in all times in history when empires existed, someone was making empire rewarding to them personally.

Empires are not always as visible or material as the Roman or British; they may be well-hidden — but the facts of dominance will be there for serious investigators to discover. It might even be argued that organizations like the League of Nations, U.N., IMF, and World Bank, exert an imperial dominance for Western corporate capitalism over nations not within the club of rich nations. The people of Greece, for example, justifiably feel that the EU has exercised economic power over their nation in ways very like the effect of negative imperialist dominance. Economic and cultural imperialisms are not as overt as political but as real in their effect on the peoples who lose their autonomy and self-expression. Viewed from the bottom by the people who lose, empire is bad.

People are not content to be ruled by others who are not like themselves, and are not convinced that the rulers of empire know best for the subjects. But the imperialist mind does not grasp the simple fact that people want to choose for themselves, and that they have a right to make mistakes. Call it the right to be wrong, the privilege of trial and error.

The government of empire-building states today may be democratic in form or not, free-market-capitalist in economics or not, but always an imperial government exerts itself to convince the people at the centre of empire – the master nation — that the wars and expenses and losses of holding an empire are well worth it judged by its benefits. Convincing the people of this can be easy or difficult.

It gets harder to convince people to support the imperialism of their governments when the subjugated populations of empire fight harder against empire and the empire resorts to more violent repression. Then a tipping point is reached; the empire begins to decline, to withdraw into smaller borders, to dismantle itself, and finally, historians of the empire write various accounts of it. Historians are investigating imperialism when the exercise of it is long dead.

But the popular consumption of imperial history, the remembrance of empire known from movies, novels, comic books, easy poetry and pop music, will be versions that hold up empire as a positive experience in the life of the nation. Only a people who cease to believe in their nation’s peculiar, particular, unique and special qualities – no people that I ever heard of – will cease to believe in the positive aspects of the empire they created.

The next people tempted by their leaders to extend their power over other people, to dominate, to imperialize, will succumb to the temptation. Every people seems ready to believe they, and they alone, will rule their empire over other people so well that the subjected populations will be contented and never desire to govern themselves. How often do parents really feel the feeling of their children when the children say their parents are “too parental”?

To conclude, here’s a judgement about empires from the historical evidence, a judgement that includes a prescription for human behaviour in the future:

The imperial temptation has to be refused by humans when they believe they can rule others, or imperialism and domination shall go on. The lesson of the failures of empire will not be learned until human beings can forego using power and force to dominate other human beings.

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