Empire as a practice of power: empire as ideology and as technique


Ayça Çubukçu: Considering the impressive common ground shared by what you differentiate as liberal and antiliberal ideologies of empire, why would it be incorrect to interpret what you name an anti-liberal ideology of empire as an articulation internal to liberal imperialism? What are your criteria for distinguishing between liberal and antiliberal ideologies of empire on the one hand, and “techniques” and “ideologies” of imperial practice, on the other?

Partha Chatterjee: I think the distinction between ideology and technique is important in order not to dismiss or misunderstand the very real debates that took place within the field of imperial policy. The fights, for instance, between Gladstonian liberals and conservatives like Stephen and Maine in late nineteenth-century Britain were very serious, affecting domestic party politics, the pace of institutional changes in the colonies as well as debates and alliances among anti-colonial nationalists. For a historian, it would be a bad mistake to simply ignore the distinction by saying that they are two sides of the same coin. What the distinction between technique and ideology achieves is the separation between actual practices and their justification. By the nineteenth century, imperial policies had to be justified before several publics. The grounds were often ideological, since they became entangled with party politics and international diplomatic alliances, even though every side tried to find “scientific” arguments based on empirical knowledge in the various disciplines. But even when the justifications differed, the techniques were from a repertoire available to all. It is interesting to note (as I do in the book) that even though the Indian nationalist leaders at the time of independence in 1947 were fervent anti-imperialists, that did not stop them from using some of the same techniques of power used by the British, such as, for instance, in the integration of the princely states into the new nation-state, even using armed force in the case of Hyderabad and Kashmir. This is an important finding, but it only confuses things if one simply concludes that the Indian nationalists were every bit as imperialist as the British.

Çubukçu: Are you suggesting that in forcing Hyderabad and Kashmir into the domestic realm of their new nation-state, Indian nationalists were acting as imperialists technically, but not ideologically? I ask this question of clarification in reference, once again, to your distinction between imperial “techniques” and “ideologies” on the one hand, and your definitional assertion that the “domestic” politics of states cannot be considered colonial-imperial, on the other.

Chatterjee: Yes, the distinction would allow for an accurate but nevertheless critical evaluation of the Indian government’s actions. At the level of technique, the Indian nationalist leadership was simply following the tradition the British had established of making treaties with Indian rulers as though they were equal members of the family of nations but subsequently regarding them as subordinate powers, not fully sovereign, and therefore subject to British policy rather than international law. The new Indian state took over the idea that international law did not apply to the various Indian princes who were under British protection. Hence, when the ruler of Kashmir asked for Indian military assistance when raiders from Pakistan attacked his state, the Indian government insisted that he first sign the agreement of accession to India before Indian troops and planes would be sent. Thus, the Indian state’s position would be that it was taking action to protect a part of India’s sovereign territory. And when the ruler of Hyderabad refused for more than a year to join India, Indian forces simply moved in and took over the territory.

But from these facts it would be a mistake to conclude that the post-colonial Indian state was imperialist in the same way that the British had been. (This is a trap into which even Perry Anderson has fallen in his recent review essays in the London Review of Books.) The justifications for its actions were completely different. First, it would say that the Indian princes were remnants of an old monarchical order propped up by the British for their own purposes; they had no place in the new republican order of post-colonial India. Second, it would say that organized popular movements within the princely states were against the old monarchies and in favour of joining the larger political space of the Indian nation. This was factually true for some of the princely states, though not all. In Hyderabad, the most powerful mass movement was led by the Communists in Telangana. After the Indian army occupied Hyderabad, the Communists suspended the movement, surrendered arms and joined parliamentary politics. In Kashmir, the popular National Conference led by Sheikh Abdullah was in favour of joining India in 1947. So I have made the point in my book that while many of the techniques of power adopted by the post-colonial state were the same techniques developed in the colonial period, the ideological ground of justification was now anti-imperialist. I might add that the Indian government used full-throated anti-imperialist arguments in 1960 to take over the Portuguese colony of Goa by force, claiming that international law and treaties had no validity in this case.

Çubukçu: Upon reviewing various theories of imperialism, you propose that “what most of these theories of imperialism seem to have underestimated was the ability of the emerging capitalist global order to adjust to political resistances and to modify accordingly its own governmental structures and policies.” If so, should we think of the official espousal and adoption of the right to national self-determination during the League of Nations era—by figures ranging from Wilson to Lenin—as part of such an adjustment at the global level? Given your critique of the historical role played by international law and its conceptual apparatus in advancing European imperialism, how should national sovereignty as a legal artefact that maintains the appearance of sovereign equality be evaluated?

Chatterjee: There is no doubt that the acknowledgement of national self-determination in the League of Nations was made in the face of growing nationalist movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Left to themselves, the European imperial powers might have made the necessary adjustments without conceding the ideologically grounded principle of national self-determination. But Wilson pushed the principle down their throats. And even though he was thinking only of the European parts of the Austrian and Ottoman empires, the principle acquired a life of its own. Wilson admirers see in this his role as a visionary leader imagining continued Western dominance in a world after empires. Others see an unintended consequence in what came after. I think the League of Nations did provide a skeletal framework for a global order in which equal sovereignty of nation-states would be the basic form but in which British hegemony would be superseded by a collective dominance of Western powers led by the economic dominance of the United States. Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is an instructive lesson in the underlying changes that were taking place in the inter-war years in the global system.

Once again, continuing my analogy with equal citizenship within the nation-state, I will say that the recognition of the principle of formal equality of national sovereignty was a great historical advance achieved by the anti-colonial struggles of the twentieth century. But just as formally equal citizenship in the nation-state does not eliminate real differences in civil society, so does formally equal sovereignty not erase the continued possibility of declaring the colonial exception. We see this every day. Equal sovereignty remains a powerful criterion in evaluating international action, whether diplomatic or military, even though it might not be the only one and even though the specific conditions of its application might be disputed.

Çubukçu: Finally, if I could turn the conversation away from imperial pedagogies of violence and culture to anti-imperial ones: what should provide, in your judgement, a foundation for anti-imperialism today? Are we to repeat what you identify as “the old logic of protecting the sovereign sphere of national power” and “the old rhetoric of anti-imperialism”? What could be the political grounds, if anything, of an anti-nationalist anti-imperialism that does not fall into the imperial traps of a righteous politics “for the happiness of mankind”?

Chatterjee: I must be careful in answering this question because I know you are trying to trap me. Let me first restate what I just said in answer to your previous question. The principle of formal equal sovereignty was a great historical victory won through the anti-imperialist struggles of colonial peoples all over the world. I believe it would be a great loss to give up that principle and return to some form of colonial good governance (the Americans call it nation-building, as in Iraq and Afghanistan). But I would be the first person to argue that formal equal sovereignty of nation-states always leaves open the room for declaring the colonial exception. How does one get out of the bind?

Theoretically, it would mean nothing less than grounding the forms of self-government in something other than the sovereign nation-state. But that is more easily said than done (although in some countries it cannot even be said very easily). Not only that, merely challenging the principle of national sovereignty without simultaneously working out a credible alternative form of collective government is, under present circumstances, only to invite the declaration of the colonial exception. So my opinion is that small steps must be taken and the results tested before proposing any grand alternative visions. The grandest experiment made so far to surmount national sovereignty–the European Union–seems to be falling apart. I would suggest that the place to experiment might be with minorities who straddle international borders, such as Kashmiris or Kurds. Could neighbour states be pressured to relax the stringency of borders so as to allow greater freedom of movement, and hence a greater degree of autonomy, to such people, outside the rigid framework of national sovereignty–creating zones of regional autonomy across international borders, that is to say? That would be a great start. But I have to say that the signs are not hopeful. I know, for instance, that the border between India and Nepal has been largely open, with relatively free mobility and settlement of people on both sides. The reactionary monarchy of Nepal was not too bothered about this. But the revolutionary Maoists who have come to power there recently are acutely sensitive to loopholes in national sovereignty and will, I think, try to police their borders more rigorously. So a genuinely progressive domestic change still seems to call for a deepening of national sovereignty. My sense is that the history of nationalism has not been played out yet. I know that many of my readers, including you, will find this view pessimistic. But I can’t help it.


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