This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A satirical cartoon of Lord Macartney kneeling before Emperor Qianlong and presenting his “gifts.”CreditCourtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From calling neocons imperialists to the fear of a black France, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Yes, We Should Call Them Imperialists

Paul Gottfried
American Conservative

Recently while reading a book by an Israeli scholar named Yoram Hazony with the provocative title The Virtue of Nationalism, I encountered a distinction drawn by the late Charles Krauthammer between empire building and American global democratic hegemony. Like the editors of the Weekly Standard, for which he periodically wrote, Krauthammer believed it was unfair to describe what he wanted to see done, which was having the U.S. actively spread its own form of government throughout the world, as “imperialism.” After all, Krauthammer said, he and those who think like him “do not hunger for new territory,” which makes it wrong to accuse them of “imperialism.”

Hazony responds with the obvious answer that control can be imposed on the unwilling even if the empire builders are not overtly annexing territory. Meanwhile, other neoconservatives have given the game away by pushing their imperialist position a bit further than Krauthammer’s. Max Boot, for example, has been quite open in demanding “an American empire” built on ideological and military control even without outright annexation.  The question that occurred to me while reading Krauthammer’s proposal and Hazony’s response (which I suspect would have been more devastating had Hazony not been afraid of losing neoconservative friends and sponsors) is this one: how is this not imperialism? [continue reading]

The Opium War and the Humiliation of China

Ian Morris
New York Times

A century before its finest hour, the British Empire went through what may have been its darkest. After China declared a war on drugs in 1839, confiscating well over 1,000 tons of opium from dealers — mostly British — in Canton (modern Guangzhou), the cartels pressured their government back in London into demanding that Beijing repay them the full street value of their narcotics. When the emperor refused, a squadron of Britain’s most up-to-date warships arrived in 1840 to brush aside the Celestial Empire’s junks and blast its coastal towns into ruins. British troops slaughtered civilians up and down China’s coast. “Many most barbarous things occurred disgraceful to our men,” one officer confessed. Critics compared the opium trade to the recently banned slave trade. The London government almost fell. In China, the Opium War gradually came to be seen as the beginning of a century of humiliations at Western hands.

As the West’s entanglement with China has deepened since the 1990s, so too has fascination with the Opium War, and every China-watcher will want to read Stephen R. Platt’s fascinating and beautifully constructed new book. It is a worthy prequel to “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom,” his fine account of the Taiping Rebellion, which claimed an estimated 20 million Chinese lives between 1850 and 1864. [continue reading]

Labor and Liberation: An Interview with Margaret Stevens

Public Archive
Verso Books

A proud product of New Jersey public schools, historian Margaret Stevens went to Newark’s University High School and Rutgers College in New Brunswick before completing her doctoral work in the Department of American Civilization at Brown University. She is the author of the path-breaking study Red International and Black Caribbean: Communists in New York City, Mexico, and the West Indies, 1919-1939published by Pluto Press. Red International and Black Caribbean is a provocative and deeply researched account of the transnational connections of Black radicals during the turbulent interwar years. It demonstrates the importance of the greater Caribbean to global revolutionary struggle while providing capsule biographies of many un- or lesser-known Black and Brown communists in Haiti, Harlem, Cuba, and Mexico. A contributor to the volume Communist Histories, Volume 1 (LeftWord, 2016), Stevens is Professor in the Department of History at Essex County College in Newark.

Can you say something about the kinds of archives you used and what you found in them? What role did the radical press and journals from Negro Champion to Machete to African Nationalism have in the history you recount?

Well a few basic points. First, even though I made a serious effort to get to and conduct research in as many of the Caribbean regions in this study as possible, I did not make it to all of them. So most of the research comes from DC — the National Archives surveillance reports and the Library of Congress reels. Some material was found in Puerto Rico and Jamaica that was critical, especially Jamaica. But part of the nature of imperialism is such that the archives in Haiti (as I witnessed) and Mexico (as I’ve been told), i.e. less “developed” countries, are way less organized. It is essentially a room full of stacked papers with a vague guide to what is where but nowhere near the organization and differentiation in the US. So it just requires way more time, patience and money — since you have to stay there longer. I’m hoping that for future projects I will be able to dig deeper in such archives. [continue reading]

Claude Lanzmann: A Critical Appraisal

Enzo Traverso

The interminable list of eulogies celebrating Claude Lanzmann since his death — among which we find a significant number of conservative statesmen, intellectuals, and former culture ministers — raises some justified warnings about the life and work of this great filmmaker. Indeed, his canonization was already complete more than thirty years ago, when his masterpiece Shoah was released, and he spent the following decades managing his iconic image in the era of commemorations and the triumphant rhetoric of human rights. His work powerfully contributed to this historical turn which rescued the victims of the Holocaust from the numbness of oblivion and transformed them into the true heroes of the twentieth century. But it is difficult to imagine a personality as far from an innocent victim as Claude Lanzmann.

He was a fighter who strongly defended his convictions and devoted his impressive energies to multiple — not all of them very noble — causes. His arrogance, narcissism, and megalomania, as well as his intolerance and contempt for his critics were notorious, as was his passion for life. Some obituaries depict him as “a man of boundless, Balzac-like appetites” (New York Times), and “Gargantuan” (Libération). “I am neither indifferent to, nor weary of, this world; had I a hundred lives, I know I would not tire of it,” he wrote in The Patagonian Hare (2009), his autobiography. He “made a novel out of his life,” the obituarist of Le Monde pertinently writes, and there is no doubt that he lived intensely. [continue reading]

Fear of a Black France

Grégory Peirrot
Africa is a Country

I was born in the late 70s of a mother from Martinique and a father from Lorraine region in Eastern continental France: I was always aware that, for good and bad, France was more than white, more than Europe, more than what most thought and took for granted. I looked to history to make sense of the very existence of my family, and the history I found was a history of exploitation, slavery, abuse ignored by most French people.

Growing up in the 1980s, there were few places where French flags were acceptable: government buildings, sporting events, right-wing and fascist meetings. And that was about it. For lefties like me, waving the flag was an act of political aggression. For a Frenchman of West Indian descent like me, waving the flag was also source of special ire, because I’d grown to know that no matter how French I actually was, no matter how well I knew French history, how well I spoke or wrote, how beholden to French values of liberté, égalité, fraternité, how connected to culture I was, there would be Frenchmen to fly the Drapeau tricolore in my face as a reminder that for them, against all aforementioned values, my skin alone was proof that I would never quite be French. All of this was both sublimated and exacerbated in football games where black and brown people were especially visible and worshipped by fans who would just as soon spit racial slurs at them. [continue reading]