The Folly of Empire
The Trouble With Rise-and-Fall Narratives
Most European empires may have unraveled in the twentieth century, but their legacies remain. When Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to call the February invasion of Ukraine a war, he was reading from an imperial script. In Putin’s view, Ukraine was never a true nation-state. It was a former piece of the Russian empire later absorbed into a rival imperial fold, one dominated by the United States and its western European allies. By labeling the invasion a “special military operation,” Putin was presenting the war as an act of imperial policing, not military aggression.
Putin’s actions and rhetoric raise some uncomfortable questions for the denizens of former empires. They may reasonably wonder whether any postimperial state can ever free itself from a history of riding roughshod over the political aspirations of less powerful peoples. One part of the answer lies in the degree to which bad conduct in empires was just a limited phase or something deeper, a structural tendency toward unjust, organized violence. Another lies in whether there was any meaningful difference between self-described liberal empires, with their good-on-paper claims about allegiance to the rule of law, and illiberal empires that condoned the arbitrary use of force and the impunity of state actors.
The sweeping new book by the historian Caroline Elkins, Legacy of Violence, suggests some surprising answers. For Elkins, the “liberal imperialism” of the British Empire is an oxymoron. The British government claimed that spreading good governance and equal protections under British law were explicit aims of its empire, but there was nothing genuinely liberal about an empire so steeped in the systematic, state-directed use of force. “Violence was not just the British Empire’s midwife, it was endemic to the structures and systems of British rule,” Elkins writes. Her chilling exposé of violence in the British Empire, from the expansion of the East India Company in eighteenth-century India to the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in twentieth-century Kenya, piles example on example of the grisly consequences of imperial rule.
Elkins shows how imperial law facilitated violence and how practices of repression circulated around the empire. But she is not a fan of nuance. In her eagerness to uncover the dark side of the empire, she pays little attention to the ways that the law also became a resource for vulnerable groups and a battleground for anti-imperial movements. Elkins also depicts the British Empire as more ideologically consistent and politically coherent than it was. The book offers a useful corrective to the view, championed by the Scottish historian Niall Ferguson and the theologian Nigel Biggar, that the legacy of the British Empire was overwhelmingly positive. But Elkins’s unsatisfying alternative is to represent the empire as a consistently malevolent force. The choice is a false one, and it creates unhappy distortions. In particular, it leads to a dubious comparison between the so-called liberal imperialism of the British Empire and the fascism of Nazi Germany, overstating the power of an ideology that was never as clear as Elkins wants it to be.
Elkins takes readers on a world tour of British atrocities. The set pieces of modern British imperial scandal are all here. She explores the invention of concentration camps in 1900 during the Boer War, when the British herded about 200,000 Black Africans and Afrikaners, including thousands of noncombatants, into murderous camps in what is now South Africa. The years that followed saw brutal acts of reprisal in Ireland. The 1916 Easter Rising was met with stiff repression: British forces operating under martial law executed 15 Irishmen by firing squad and interned at least 1,500 civilians. Also covered is the massacre at the Indian city of Amritsar in 1919, when British forces fired on unarmed civilian protesters, killing at least 400 and wounding some 1,500. Around the same time, the British were refining violent police tactics in Palestine, leading to the full-scale suppression of the Arab revolt of the 1930s. Techniques honed around the empire were then brought to bear with devastating effect in the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya during the 1950s, when the British clamped down on the movement with a ruthless campaign of arrests, detention, and torture. Imperial authorities killed, maimed, or tortured about 90,000 Kenyans and drove some 160,000 into concentration camps.
The relentless recitation of such acts makes for grim reading. But the book amounts to more than a mere catalog of atrocities. Far from representing anomalies, Elkins asserts, episodes of official violence were planned and coordinated by a grasping state apparatus bent on surveillance, repression, and militarism. The movement of men and ideas carried these practices around the empire, and policies of violent subjugation served to unify politically and culturally disparate colonies. Martial law and other emergency measures, meanwhile, defined the violence of the state as necessary and validated it.
Imperial law facilitated violence and repression around the British Empire.
Elkins is particularly effective in tracing how officials moved across the empire, bringing new tactics of repression with them. Major General Henry Tudor, for instance, recruited veterans of the Boer War to set up a paramilitary force in Ireland in 1920 before applying his terrible expertise in Palestine. Charles Tegart suppressed Indian nationalism as the commissioner of police in Kolkata in the 1920s before overseeing the construction of an archipelago of fortified police stations and a frontier fence in the British mandate of Palestine. General Gerald Templer brought methods of torture and repression from Palestine to Malaya, and Colonel Arthur Young refined policing tactics in Malaya before applying what he learned in Kenya. The military intelligence officer Frank Kitson “hopscotched his way through Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus, Oman, and Aden,” Elkins writes, before rising to the rank of general in Northern Ireland.
One signal achievement of the book is its insistence on treating Ireland as an integral part of the empire. Ireland held an “ambiguous status,” Elkins observes, as a place formally inside the United Kingdom but outside it when “it came to the question of rule of law and civil liberties.” She shows that Ireland served as both a testing ground of new methods of imperial violence and a place for applying the brutal techniques developed elsewhere.
Harsh practices used to control imperial hot spots also surfaced back home. Wartime emergency powers applied in the empire were adapted in the United Kingdom to repress dissent, as when legislation passed in 1939 authorized detention without trial for British citizens accused of posing a threat to national security. Postwar efforts by the United Kingdom to position itself in the new international order galvanized exclusionary domestic policies on migration and citizenship. Parliamentary legislation in 1962 and 1971 reflected surging racism in British society and altered the citizenship status of people living in colonies and former colonies with nonwhite majorities.
Particularly engaging is the account toward the end of the book of recent British government efforts to hide the record of imperial violence. In 2009, five Kenyans imprisoned and tortured in the wake of the Mau Mau revolt brought a case against the British government for their suffering in detention. In 2011, the British government made the shocking announcement that as colony after colony gained independence in the twentieth century, it had spirited away reams of documents detailing the horrors of state-directed violence in Kenya and in other parts of the empire. Although Elkins was criticized for supposedly exaggerating the harsh methods used by the British in her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, she can be forgiven for dwelling on her own role as an expert witness in the case. The unearthed secret documents proved her right.
The 2012 decision of the court in favor of the plaintiffs in the Mau Mau case marks a rare moment in the book when British law operates as something other than a cover for violent state repression. The book emphasizes the way the law functioned to legitimize imperial power. Repeatedly, Elkins illustrates, martial law and other emergency measures allowed for the suspension of fundamental protections, such as the writ of habeas corpus, for imperial subjects.
Other historians, including several Elkins cites, have previously traced the way martial law opened the floodgates of violent repression in the British Empire. Yet these histories have also revealed that declarations of martial law prompted extensive debates about the imperial constitution. Critics of empire repeatedly urged restrictions on how the law could be used to advance the interests of colonial elites and unleash arbitrary power. Elkins pushes aside this well-documented history of controversy about law and justice in the empire in favor of a simplistic account of the periodic suspension of rights.
She offers the term “legalized lawlessness” to capture the phenomenon of “exceptional state-directed violence.” Elkins here echoes the views of the German jurist Carl Schmitt, a critic of liberalism and member of the Nazi Party, and the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The latter developed the idea that “states of exception” unleash raw state power and then gradually become the norm. Elkins applies this idea in analyzing “exceptional” moments or “crises of legitimacy” during which the law sanctioned extreme violence in the empire and then made that violence appear routine.
The label “legalized lawlessness” is unlikely to stick—and not just because it is a mouthful. In highlighting exceptional violence, Elkins manages to work against her core argument that violence in the British Empire was routine and systemic. At times, she seems aware of the tension. She recognizes that declarations of martial law belonged to a wider pattern in which legal authority in the empire was delegated to local officials, colonial elites, and military commanders. This structure extended beyond exceptional moments and multiplied opportunities for extreme violence. Yet Elkins returns again and again to the language of exceptionalism.
Missing from this approach is the wider legal history of the empire. Historians such as Rohit De, Lisa Ford, Richard Roberts, and Robert Travers have tracked the extensive use of the law and legal language by ordinary men and women in the empire to protect their rights and promote their own visions of justice. Colonial subjects petitioned or sued to defend property, and they fought to extend the remit of common law procedures, such as trial by jury. Ex-convicts in penal colonies maneuvered to restore their legal rights. Indigenous witnesses and defendants who were not permitted to testify in colonial courts found ways to enter evidence. Locals became notaries and lawyers. And colonial elites adapted the language of liberalism to seek to hold the government to its promise of constitutional protections. The use of the law and liberal rhetoric to challenge or alter imperial rule may fall outside the scope of this book, but without acknowledgment of this context, “legalized lawlessness” becomes a slogan—and an awkward one at that.
The problems are compounded when Elkins tries to take the measure of the global influence of liberal imperialism. Although the term appears throughout the book, Elkins does not define it with precision. She refers to the claims advanced by many liberals that the empire was a civilizing force devoted to good governance. She notes, too, that whereas classic liberalism centered on the idea of the consent of the governed, the British Empire came together through conquest or other means that created rule without consent. And she contrasts the liberal ideal of government as a check on violence with the reality of violence as official government policy in the empire.
In pursuing her uncompromising attack on liberalism in the empire, Elkins has to suppress the complexity of its history. She begins with the late-eighteenth-century impeachment and acquittal of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal, for corruption in India. The conservative politician Edmund Burke led the prosecution, and he emerges in Elkins’s account as a defeated champion of imperial accountability. Yet Burke was no reformer. An odd poster child for imperial restraint, he wanted to rein in the power of the East India Company by subordinating it more firmly to Parliament and, specifically, to the House of Lords. Elkins also omits a key aspect of Hastings’s defense: his efforts in India to recognize Hindu and Muslim law and limit the jurisdiction of the East India Company. The weakness of Elkins’s treatment of the Hastings trial is not that she gets the roles of villain and hero wrong. It is that such assignments oversimplify these legal battles and overlook ambiguities in the relation between liberalism and empire.
The empire’s violence was not a totalizing force, nor was its liberalism a complete sham.
Elkins is forced to veer from a straightforward story of liberal complicity in imperial violence when she traces debates about the constitutionality of repression in Jamaica following the Morant Bay revolt in 1865. Governor Edward Eyre ordered the arrest of George William Gordon, a prominent critic of the colonial government. Gordon was apprehended in a part of the island that was not under martial law and then transported to Morant Bay, where he was tried by a military court, convicted, and hanged. In London, John Stuart Mill and other liberals struggled to reconcile the unequal and uneven justice of the empire with their vision of a government dedicated to the protection of all its citizens and subjects. Elkins pauses here to observe the tensions between liberalism and imperialism.
But that is all the nuance readers can expect. For Elkins, liberalism never offered an effective guide to the restraint of power. It worked only to drape imperial violence in the clothing of reform. By the time liberal imperialism reached a state of “maturity” in Palestine, she writes, the imperial state was in reality operating “under a rule-of-law fig leaf.”
The portrait of the imperial state that emerges is one of irresistible and total force. This characterization stumbles when the story reaches the end of empire, as Elkins gives no compelling reason for the empire’s demise. She traces anti-imperial movements across the empire in the postwar decades, emphasizing violent campaigns over nonviolent ones, but their effects pale in significance when compared with the overwhelming force of British repression. In the end, she writes, the British Empire folded in on itself when “the repressive center could not hold.”
The inconsistencies in her account ultimately expose the shortcomings
of the concept of “liberal imperialism” as Elkins deploys it. The empire was a site of conflict in which liberalism played an inconsistent role. Official violence, meanwhile, was increasingly coordinated but also less than perfectly effective in tamping down opposition and revolt. As the history of successful anti-imperial movements shows, the empire’s violence was not a totalizing force, nor was its liberalism a complete sham.
Elkins’s portrait of liberal imperialism as a juggernaut brings her very close to calling the British Empire fascist. Elkins repeatedly quotes contemporary observers who have compared British imperialists to Nazis. There are so many of these quotes—I counted 15—and some are so lightly contextualized that they appear to stand in for historical description. This methodology, if one can call it that, obscures the fact that critics of the empire drew the comparison because it would shock a postwar British public still suffering the consequences of the war with Nazi Germany.
Elkins goes further by hinting at unspecified, direct connections between liberal imperialism and Nazism. In an end note, she writes, “As we shall see, similarities between the British Empire and totalitarian regimes were partly due to Nazi officials borrowing from British imperial laws and practices.” I looked hard for this evidence. Besides a selective reading of Mein Kampf that highlights Adolf Hitler’s envy of empires, the evidence appears to consist mainly of Elkins’s claim that Germany’s imperial expansion to the east represented an adaptation of liberal imperialism because it obliterated the sovereignty of conquered polities.
Elkins cites the historian Mark Mazower, who has argued persuasively that Germany was an imperial state. But unlike Mazower, Elkins applies the label of empire without analyzing the specific institutions and practices of Nazi Germany. The difference is palpable. She brings little evidence to support her claims that Germany was repurposing British imperial tactics in “gobbling up sovereign states into the Nazi empire and unleashing genocidal practices.”
At points, Elkins backs away from equating liberal imperialism and Nazism, noting, for example, with enormous understatement, that “there was nothing reformist about Nazi imperial ambitions.” She allows, too, that in Nazism, “racial domination was an end unto itself.” But the parallel lingers. Nazi Germany, she reports, “rolled through eastern Europe . . . much as Britain and France had claimed large swaths of Africa.” In some ways, liberal imperialism emerges as a more lasting, more broadly corrosive force than fascism. Liberal imperialism was, Elkins asserts, better than Nazism at shape shifting to adapt to new political conditions—so good, in fact, that critiques of imperial violence rarely stuck. Liberal imperialism had “an ideological elasticity that was absent in Nazi fascism.”
Such statements replace history with innuendo. The well-supported main point that lawful, state-directed violence was systematic in the twentieth-century British Empire gets lost as Elkins focuses on elevating liberal imperialism’s place in the pantheon of evil. The agenda is provocative, but it fails as a careful assessment of empire and its legacy. That project would require surveying the broader institutional effects of British imperialism and analyzing a centuries-long global order in which empires were dominant political entities.
Official violence in the British Empire deserves close study, and Elkins makes an important contribution to exposing its hidden history. Yet the lens of liberal imperialism can also be distorting. As Germany showed in the 1940s and as Russia demonstrates again today, aspiring empires may embrace the worst kinds of violence without any pretense of commitment to the rule of law. Liberal visions of empire both cultivated and critiqued imperial violence. They do not hold a unique key to understanding state-directed atrocities.
Readers should certainly follow Elkins’s call to uncover the logic and patterns of violence in imperial history. They should also follow her impulse to ask how imperial violence was and continues to be “systematized, enacted, and understood.” But they should follow her no further.