Book: Small Wars, Faraway Places, by Michael Burleigh (2013)

In short: this is a dreadful book.

There is, of course, no such thing as an unbiased work of history, and the most biased authors are generally those who think they’re unbiased but are instead just blind to their own preconceptions. Burleigh, despite (or because of) his claim to have ‘little ideological and even less nostalgic investment in the events described’, displays a deep-seated antipathy for anyone who could remotely be described as left-wing. While it’s true that he’s not outright defending imperialism, those who opposed imperialism are, in his portrayal, either pathetic figures worthy of nothing but contempt, or comic-book villains worthy of both contempt and demonization.

His usual method, it seems, is to describe atrocities committed by both sides in the hope that this constitutes balance. It does not: those perpetrated by imperialists, and by the right in general, are described dispassionately, while those committed by the left are always presented in more emotive terms. Thus he reports calmly that thousands of South Korean police, assisted by US forces, rounded up and murdered suspected Communists in Pyongyang; but the reverse is committed by the North Korean ‘secret police’ (a term never used of equivalent bodies in democracies). Stalin becomes, inexplicably, ‘Generalissimo Stalin’, although his military rank was never (so far as I’m aware) more than honorary (in the same way as Queen Elizabeth is commander-in-chief of the British armed forces); presumably it’s mere oversight that stops him according Eisenhower (an actual general) the same title. He talks with disdain of the “mindless nationalism” that is supposedly unique to China and North Korea, a claim so stupid it’s hardly worth pointing out the counterexamples. Mere paragraphs after reporting that women suspected of being nationalist supporters in Algeria were routinely raped by interrogators, he complains that “the liberal press ignored [Algerian] nationalist barbarity”; French nationalists in Algeria killed 14,000 people in a single year, 80% of whom were Muslim, but it’s the Algerian independence movement whom he describes as having ‘death squads’.

Coinciding with these double standards is a constant assumption of bad faith on the part of any and every left-wing movement. He disparages the Americans for their supposed monolithic view of Communism; yet he suffers from the same weakness, continually contrasting “nationalists” with genuine desire for independence with “communists” who always have some ulterior motive. Reporting on the Viet Minh’s literacy campaign, for example, he suggests that the reason behind it is that “one needed to read to understand their propaganda.” Indeed, on the occasions when it does become impossible to accuse a left-wing revolution of being incited by Moscow (or perhaps Beijing), Burleigh is shocked that they are able to think for themselves. This cognitive dissonance extends to being able to cite the CIA’s finding that 80% of South Vietnamese citizens would have voted for Ho Chi Minh, that the Viet Cong won support “through a genuine understanding of their concerns and by simple but effective measures”, and yet still consider them brutal terrorists and support for them as fundamentally inexplicable. Americans in the Philippines apparently simultaneously wanted to prevent electoral fraud and ‘ensure a favourable outcome’ (using $500,000 of CIA funds). In Iran, Mossadeq is presented as a comic figure (with vaguely racist undertones), but more concerningly, one who brought about his own demise by failing to abandon the policies that upset British and American oil interests (MI6 and CIA interference is, presumably, a force of nature in these circumstances, which can’t be avoided except by doing what they want).

It was clear within a few chapters that I wasn’t going to agree with the author’s politics, but it soon became impossible to even trust it as a factual description of events, since he’s incapable of separating fact from opinion; for example, when discussing the post-war British economy, it’s stated without question that full employment was ‘suffocating’ and unhealthy, as if this were no more controversial a claim than stating that the earth is round and that gravity makes things fall downwards. On the contrary: it’s nothing if not a political claim, and Burleigh is either ignorant or intentionally misleading.

As the book progresses he makes even less effort to hide his politics: British ‘Special Branch’ police are ‘heroes’, both in Malaya and in Northern Ireland (a conflict which is otherwise outside of the scope of this book); he classifies French colonists in Algeria as being unfairly demonized by the black-and-white thinking of the left, along with (among others) the apartheid regime in South Africa. By this point he’s ceased to pretend to be apolitical: all his political complaints are specifically directed at straw leftists (yet, without a trace of irony, dismisses as ‘ahistorical advocacy’ works that might suggest that imperialism was bad, or that imperialists can be blamed for it).

I only read as far as I did out of sheer annoyance, and even that got boring towards the end. I skimmed the last few chapters; Castro, like Mao, is presented as a comic-book villain who apparently had no motivation except for a desire for power; in Mao’s case, this interpretation is based on the flimsiest of sources, whereas by the time the book reached Castro I’d long lost faith that the book could be trusted.

Don’t bother reading this book. Try Odd Arne Westad instead, who can at least make criticisms of the USSR grounded in something like reality.

Addendum: I got so caught up in addressing the content of the book that I completely overlooked the failings of form. Burleigh is attempting to address a period of 20 years, over most of the world, involving multiple empires each fighting multiple overlapping colonial wars. As he rightly points out, this presents a problem in terms of structuring the book in order to be readable. Unfortunately, I don’t think his solution succeeds. He attempts to address each conflict in more-or-less individual chapters, and then orders the chapters roughly chronologically; however, this doesn’t avoid the significant overlap  between chapters, such that we encounter individual participants late in their career towards the end of one chapter, and then a few chapters later they’re introduced at an earlier stage of their career. He also tries to make some sort of point in the introduction about a geographic logic to the structure; I don’t see it. This is, perhaps, not really Burleigh’s fault, but a natural result of the source material. A stricter chronological ordering would have meant confusing leaps back and forth between multiple theatres; a stronger geographical focus would have meant even greater confusion of the chronology. Either way, the result is a confusing structure.

Book: Capitalism & Slavery, by Eric Williams (1944)

This has been on my “to read” list for a couple of years now, ever since coming across it in a British Empire seminar, and I finally picked it up for my dissertation.

It’s pretty much a seminal, though not uncontroversial, work on the history of the slave trade and industrial revolution, and how the latter built upon the former; and, in particular, how the abolition of the slave trade was not purely humanitarian but itself economically motivated.

He covers the slave trade and slave-labour-dependent industries right back to the seventeenth century, detailing the economic reasoning behind it at each stage; why certain industries found slave labour profitable (generally those which were both labour-intensive and land-intensive, like sugar and cotton), and why, as industrial and geopolitical developments occurred over the course of the eighteenth century, the political power of the West Indian plantation owners was reduced. I was particularly interested in some of the ideological motivations, both for the development of slavery itself and for the abolition, and how these hid the material reasons behind both of these processes.

At the beginning of the slave trade he details how the concept of racism (other authors might argue, even the concept of race) was secondary to economic concerns; racism only developed as a justification when it became clear that the African slave trade was a profitable source of labour. Towards its end, he gives many examples of double standards applied against British versus non-British slave labour; campaigns against slave-produced sugar, for example, were not (in most cases, at least until decades later) accompanied by those against slave-produced cotton. On another level, he also discusses the contempt many anti-slavery campaigners had for the working class (and, conversely, the contempt some working-class activists had for Africans) — ‘Saint’ William Wilberforce, he says, ‘was familiar with everything that went on in the hold of a slave ship, but ignored what went on at the bottom of a mineshaft’.

He doesn’t go into much, if any, detail about the period after abolition; I’ve heard the claim that ex-slaveowners used the capital (or the compensation) to invest in developing industry in Britain, but there’s little here to support or refute that, nor much about ongoing British dependence on slavery post-1833.

An interesting, though disappointing, aspect was the section on slaves’ own struggles against slavery. This was mostly detailed in the final chapter, an addition to the thesis which formed the original basis for the work, but failed to go into much depth; other books are likely to be better on the topic (C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins comes to mind).

An aside: a little while ago I spotted, on Goodreads, a new edition re-titled “British Capitalism and British Slavery”, with the claim that this “more aptly captures Williams’s work”. This seemed suspicious from the outset: an attempt to limit the scope and thus absolve non-British capitalism of complicity in slavery. Capitalism even by the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a global phenomenon, and British industry depended on (and defended) slavery in America decades after it was abolished in the Empire. The conclusion confirms this feeling, explicitly arguing against titling the book “British Capitalism”. This is expanded on in the introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, which quotes from letters between Williams and the (American) publisher in which he specifically opposes any title that would limit its scope to Britain and the British West Indies. Retitling the book posthumously, against the author’s explicit wishes, seems deceitful; giving the book a title which the text of the book itself argues against just seems incompetent.

Book: Empire of Cotton, by Sven Beckert (2014)

I got the impression, when reading this, that Beckert may have simply wanted to write a history of capitalism; on the other hand, perhaps cotton really was the original subject, and the sheer scale of its impact on capitalism came later. Either way, this really is about more than just cotton, and gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism developed from simple trade networks into an all-encompassing system of production and control; it also gives an insight into the ways in which capitalism and imperialism grew up together, intertwined, and how commercial interests influenced national policy. Globalization, and corporate lobbying, are far from new phenomena.

I read this as part of my research for a dissertation on the nineteenth-century British cotton industry, so I tended to skim over the sections on manufacturing in other countries, as well as the final chapters past 1900. Nevertheless, the British cotton industry and its relation to cotton farming in India, America, and Egypt are a major theme of this book, as well as the ways in which industrial capitalism really depended on violence and slavery (what Beckert calls “war capitalism” and Marx called primitive accumulation).

It’s extremely well-referenced, covering a wide range of academic literature and primary sources on the nineteenth century (at least), one of the things which made it so useful. I may have picked this up in a normal bookshop but it’s really an academic work; despite that, it’s pretty readable by the standards of mainstream non-fiction. As for the reviews on Goodreads that accuse it of Marxist bias — I see no sign of it. If you think that a history of capitalism is going to be entirely positive about capitalism, then, of course, the truth seems like bias. (Indeed, if anything, the author might have benefitted from more Marxism, not less; it would have simplified the analysis a little, and avoided reinventing categories like “war capitalism”.)