Teaching another group of level eights today I received the astonishing statement that ‘All Empires are Evil’. I suppose this is the level of sophistication offered by many modern textbooks, but seeing we were discussing the Roman Empire (which had a level of civilisation for its period second to none, and has possibly left a legacy for future societies second to none), I felt compelled to dig a bit deeper.
Why are Empires necessarily evil? I asked.
I am going to assume that the stunned silence that followed was because the students had never had a teacher question their parroting of politically correct sounding shibboleths before, rather than the students were actually dumb.
After a little more pressure I got an even more stunning simplification… “Well Imperialism is done by kings and emperors, and we know they are bad…”
I did not have time in that session to delve deeper into the question of why the constitutional monarchies of Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands; and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc (let me see, have I already named most of the richest, longest term, and most stable states in the OECD?), would count as ‘bad’. I am going to assume this is more of the stupidly simplistic propaganda of the pro-Republican movement and move on.
But it did lead me to think about the relationship between Imperialism and Democracy.
It would probably be fair to say that all the Imperialism that pre-dated the invention of democracy was not inspired by democracy. I will grant that. But I am by no means convinced that the majority of Imperialism since the invention of democracy has not been inspired, or at least expanded, by democratic pressure.
Let us start with the founders of democracy, the Athenians. Most adequate historians would probably accept that the great expansion of Athenian imperialism was during the period of fifth century BC democracy. The more honest amongst them would even note that seeing the poorer citizens had the best opportunities in the navy and the imperial/colonial civil service, there may have been a vested interest in the ‘common’ voters pursuing imperialism for their own gain (an interesting example of bread and circuses don’t you think?). The brutally honest might note that it was the Athenian democracy that voted to execute or enslave all the citizens of cities which refused to bow to their will (a concept almost unprecedented in Greek history).
Sp I think we could safely suggest that the founders of democracy found that it lead directly to imperialism. Fancy!
Let us move on to the next great Republic, the Romans. We all know that they finished as an empire, but the question is was that made almost inevitable by being a Republic? I would probably suggest that the answer is yes.
The Roman Republic repeatedly voted for expansion throughout Italy and the Mediterranean. In fact they voted for punitive campaigns that eventually undermined their democracy by breaking the independent small farmer citizens on the wheel of overseas military service. The resulting class of tenant citizens found future opportunities for wealth accumulation fairly tightly tied to following successful generals on successful campaigns. Which led inevitably to emperors who ran campaigns to satisfy the greed of the troops whose loyalties they needed.
It may not have been an inevitable progression, but I think you could safely say it was an extremely likely one for such a republic.
Let us move on to the Venetian ‘Republic’, which lasted a thousand years until closed down by Napoleon. Did Venice develop imperial ambitions? Did Venice ruthlessly manipulate crusaders and others into doing their political dirty work for them? Was Venice an archetypical limited franchise republic? Ticks in all boxes I think.
The next bit of history gets a bit more confused, but it would certainly be possible to argue that the Dutch and English ‘republics’ were at least as imperial minded as the Spanish and Portugese monarchies that the Pope had ordered to convert the world’s heathens. It might be difficult to make a case that they were more imperialistic than the monarchies, but it would be impossible to argue that they were less. (Certainly it would be interesting to trace the influence of democratic pressures in Britain on such later minor issues as the Crimean War and the ‘Scramble for Africa’.)
How about the United States? A republic with two founding goals - allowing the south to continue unfettered slavery, and allowing the Northern States to expand into the Indian territories protected by British treaties. The next couple of centuries saw repeated attacks on the Indians, the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Hawiians, the Spanish, the Central Americans, and other Pacific Islanders, apparently in the name of ‘spreading democracy’. (As long as you are not Indian, Mexican, Canadian, Japanese, etc.) Any sign of a monarch running things?
Next comes the French series of ‘republics’. Anyone remember how the first one ended? Napoleon ring a bell? How about he second? Napoleon III? What about the third? Oh, that would have seen the conquest of most of Africa and large parts of Asia wouldn’t it? The fourth? Anyone heard of the Vietnam war? The Algerian war? At least the Fifth republic hasn’t been particularly imperial… but then who has in the last 50 years?
Oh sorry, forgot the Socialist Republics. They have had a fairly good run of imperialism recently. Ask the East Europeans, Tibetans, Afghans, Chechnyians and the rest. Whoops, did I say Chechnya? Wasn’t that attacked by the new 'democratic' Russian republic? I am sorry.
What about more recent imperialism? Indonesia has had a good run in places. Several Middle Eastern states have had a good go. Africa has seen many attempts. What do all these states have in common? Let me think, oh yes, they are all republics… if not particularly democratic ones. (I am trying to remember if any absolute monarchies in these areas have headed down the imperialism path? Were Jordan or Saudi Arabia ever trying to establish conquered states under their control when they got into wars?)
Then there is the most recent efforts by the good old US of A. Iraq, Afghanistan… Maybe they don’t want to run the places long term, but they certainly fit the old ‘imperial interest’ models.
Now I will point out that some of the states that have supported these things are not republics. Constitutional Monarchies like Britain and Australia have been quite keen to go along with some of this. But I would ask whether these constitutional monarchies are more or less influenced by their democratic elements now than they would have been 50 years ago? Australia joined the First and Second World Wars to save the world from people like Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler because we were part of an international monarchy called the Commonwealth and Empire. Good on us. I think history will bear us out there. Australia joined the campaigns in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as a very loudly independent democracy. Will history be so kind about those decisions?
Just to jump back to Kaiser Wilhelm a bit. The man led Germany into the Great War certainly, but how much of that was the effect of democracy rather than absolute monarchy? Go and have a look at the populist navy leagues and nationalist associations dominating German electoral politics in the decades before the Great War, and work out for yourself whether Germany would actually have been less imperialistic had it not been trying to develop some sort of constitutional monarchy? Personally I think that it may well have been more aggressively imperialistic if the voters had had their way. (It might even have become as bad as the Americans!)
Need we note that Adolf Hitler was elected to power by the people, and that they specifically wanted him to re-establish Germany’s greatness. Shall we mention Mussolini in passing, since elected leaders who become imperialistic dictators is such a beautiful tradition from Julius Caesar through Napoleon III, to… well you fill in the boxes in modern Middle East, Asia and Africa.
I am not going to bother to attempt to prove that democracies and republics are more likely to be imperialistic than monarchies. Frankly that would be granting monarchies the same idealised status that dumb students seem to be granting republics. (Am I maligning the students? Are they just saying what they know their teachers want to hear? Discuss.)
But it is ridiculous to try and suggest that republics or democracies are morally superior creations, and it is blinkered fantasy to pretend that they are not at lest as prone to imperialism as any other system of government.
I wish I had had time to discuss this with the level eights. It would have been interesting to see if they actually defended their ludicrous statements, or were just spouting what they thought they had to… Hurray for democracy!
Whether imperialism is necessarily a bad thing I will leave to another time.