H-Diplo Roundtable XXIV-4: Duncan Bell,  Dreamworlds of Race

Duncan Bell.  Dreamworlds of Race: Empire and the Utopian Destiny of Anglo-America.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780691194011 (hardcover, 2020).

Cross-posted from H-Diplo / 23 September 2022 | https://hdiplo.org/to/RT24-4

Introduction by Georgios Giannakopoulos, City, University of London, and Marc-William Palen, University of Exeter

Duncan Bell’s Dreamworlds of Race is a timely intervention in the field of imperial and international thought. In many ways this book continues Bell’s earlier studies on the Anglo-American discourses of imperial federation and on the theoretical underpinnings of liberal imperial ideology. It completes a trilogy dissecting what the author calls “the metropolitan settler imaginary” (3).[1] Utopian ideas about racial unity were a key feature of the Anglo-American metropolitan settler imaginary of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bell dissects this timely pattern of thinking by focusing on individual and varied case-studies that include industrialists (Andrew Carnegie), imperialists (Cecil Rhodes), journalists (W.T. Stead) and, finally, utopian writers (H.G. Wells). But Dreamworlds of Race is also about much more. Bell takes on the late Victorian genre of science fiction and argues for its importance in propagating ideas of racial utopianism. He is also interested in how racial utopias of an Anglo-American union—a peaceful Anglo-American imperial order, or Anglotopia—framed wider debates on war, peace, and citizenship. While Amanda Behm, Sam Klug, Ryoko Nakano, and Neil Suchak provide wide-ranging reviews of Bell’s book, all agree that Dreamworlds of Race is a timely and compelling intervention.

Amanda Behm situates Bell’s work in dialogue with the work of James Belich, Marilyn Lake, and Henry Reynolds.[1] She applauds the critical eye that Dreamworlds of Race casts on Anglo-American visions of international order, and the history of Anglo-American relations more widely. Behm focuses particularly on Bell’s reading of H.G. Wells and traces an ambiguity that frames the book revolving around the function of racial thinking in Wells’s thought.  Sam Klug discusses Bell’s discussion on citizenship and patriotism. Klug applauds Bell’s dissection of racialized forms of citizenship proposed by those invested in the political project of Anglo-American union. He argues that Bell could have integrated more systematically in his analysis the political “challenges to the authority and coherence of whiteness” and as an example he mentions the American debates on immigration. Ryoko Nakano analyses the book’s analysis on late twentieth century neo-Victorian fiction and the discussion of “Afro-modern perspectives.” Nakano argues that an exploration of alternative non-western utopian imaginaries linked with the ideologies of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism could be a fruitful way of expanding and developing further some of Bell’s key insights on the making of racialized anti-imperial imaginaries. Neil Suchak, finally, highlights Bell’s complex analysis of the problem of peace and the links between peace theories and racialized Anglo-Saxon utopias. He argues that “the integration of this racialized and utopian definition of peace into the study of the wider scene of peace activism warrants further scholarship.”

In his substantive response, Bell addresses the points of all of the reviewers. He agrees with their suggestions for further exploration, including the American South, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, pan-Asianism, pan-Islamism, and utopian “dream” language. Bell also expands upon the racialized contradictions that Behm observes within the work of Wells. Bell agrees with Klug that more work could be done on the connections between Anglo-Saxonism, immigration, and white supremacy, while highlighting where Dreamworlds does engage with these issues. Bell next acknowledges Nakano’s points about further developing pan-isms (e.g., Pan-Asianism, Pan-Africanism) to incorporate spatial imaginaries beyond the “West-centric world order.” He concludes by responding to Suchak, including his suggestion that Bell perhaps underplayed the resonance of his book’s findings for interdisciplinary peace studies, such as democratic peace theory, the women’s peace movement, and international arbitration. The richness of this roundtable discussion illustrates the importance of Bell’s book, as well as how it opens the door for further investigation.

Participants:

Duncan Bell is Professor of Political Thought and International Relations at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ’s College. He is Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Political Thought. His research focuses on visions of world order in Britain and the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dreamworlds of Race (Princeton, 2020) is his most recent book. His current work explores how the future of humanity has been imagined – by philosophers, scientists, and fiction writers – since the late nineteenth century.

Georgios Giannakopoulos is Lecturer in Modern History at City University of London and a visiting research fellow at King’s College, London. His publications include “Britain, European Civilization and the Idea of Liberty,” in the edited special issue History of European Ideas 46/5 (2020), “A World Safe for Empires? A.J. Toynbee and Internationalization of Self-Determination in the East (1912-1922), Global Intellectual History 6:4 (2021). He is currently completing a monograph on British international thought and imperial order in southeastern Europe (1870-1930) with Manchester University Press.  

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. His publications include “Empire by Imitation? US Economic Imperialism in a British World System,” in Martin Thomas and Andrew Thompson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (Oxford, 2018) and The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge, 2016). His current book project with Princeton University Press explores the left-wing fight for globalism, anti-imperialism, and peace since the mid-nineteenth century.

Amanda Behm is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York. Her first book, Imperial History and the Global Politics of Exclusion: Britain, 1880-1940, appeared with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. She is working on two current projects: “Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939” (organized with Professor David Thackeray at the University of Exeter), and a study of British visions of the North American Pacific Coast after 1846 as they shaped imperial culture and politics.

Sam Klug is an incoming postdoctoral fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University. He is working on a monograph provisionally titled “The Internal Colony: Black Internationalism, Development, and the Politics of Colonial Comparison in the United States.” His work has appeared in Journal of the History of International LawModern Intellectual History, and the volume Globalizing the U.S. Presidency: Postcolonial Views of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury, 2020).

Ryoko Nakano is Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Law at Kanazawa University, Japan. For more than a decade, she has engaged in the study of Japanese political thought in pre- and post-war eras and has published extensively on Yanaihara Tadao (1893-1961), the chair of colonial studies at Tokyo Imperial University. Her areas of interests comprise memory of war, identity politics, and the role of ideas in international relations. Nakano has served as a guest editor for International Journal of Asian Studies, and her recent work explores UNESCO, cultural heritage, and memory politics in East Asia.

Neil Suchak is a D.Phil. Student at the University Oxford where he researches the imperial dimensions of the nineteenth century American peace movement.

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Call for proposals: Parliamentary Empire workshop

Settler Colonialism and Parliamentary Democracy: Histories and Legacies, 1867 to the Present (History of Parliament, London, 12 Apr 2023- participants are welcome to present papers in-person or via Zoom)

Over recent years, growing attention has been paid to how histories of settler colonialism have shaped people’s engagement with parliaments and parliamentary culture across and beyond the former British Empire. Calls for improved representation by and for peoples of colour, such as the Australian campaign for a greater ‘indigenous voice’ to parliament, have responded to historical imbalances in power and built on historical struggles to define the political nation. We wish to facilitate discussion across disciplines from scholars interested in the histories and legacies of parliamentary culture, settler colonialism, and resistance. This will lead to a special issue of Parliamentary History to be published in 2025.

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Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939

Crowd outside meeting of Te Kotahitanga (the kupapa Maori parliament) at Papawai, 1897. Richard Seddon, Prime Minister of New Zealand is front row, third from left

David Thackeray (Exeter) and Amanda Behm (York) have been awarded a Research Project Grant by the Leverhulme Trust for their project ‘Parliamentary Empire: British Democracy and Settler Colonialism, c.1867-1939’, which will run from 2021-24. We will shortly be advertising two funded PhD studentships and will be holding a conference at Westminster, which is planned to lead to a special issue of Parliamentary History. The project team are interested from hearing from colleagues working on topics in this field.

Our project examines the role of parliament and the parliamentary idea in civic life in the UK and the British settler colonial world. While we might take for granted constitutional history as the bedrock of historical and civic education across imperial countries from the mid-nineteenth century until 1945, our project proposes a more daunting problem. At the heart of constitutional history lay a reverence for parliament, which found its most celebrated expression in Walter Bagehot’s 1867 description of the Commons as a ‘mirror’ of the British nation, expressing the popular will, educating the people politically, hearing grievances, and legislating.

Yet for all its studied neutrality, parliamentarianism emerged and remained as a cipher at the heart of British imperial politics. In that ‘golden age’ of constitutional history writing, there simmered widespread anxieties about the ability of parliament to mediate the body politic while confronting questions of an expanding electorate and votes for women. Equally significant was the ferment pitting settler colonial groups against the legislative and moral claims of their fellow imperial subjects across a vast transoceanic space.

By exploring how a range of constituencies through and beyond the settler colonies appealed to values of British parliamentarianism, we shed new light on the connected debates about democratic governance and political inclusion that characterised the emergence of nations within a fractious British Empire. The late nineteenth century witnessed a flourishing of local parliaments, parliamentary debating societies, petitions to parliament, and women’s parliaments. This culture was not confined to ‘overseas’ Britons and masculine settler colonists. Maori parliamentary movements, in particular, indicate how indigenous peoples could adopt and adapt the practices of British parliamentary culture to seek redress and assert notions of sovereignty. Women’s mock parliaments, which spread across Britain and the settler colonies, satirised transimperial parliamentary culture and highlighted women’s exclusion from national bodies.

We look forward to exploring how being ‘parliamentary’ was central to diverse claimants’ appeals for political inclusion and authority as they contested  ‘British’ values and appealed particularly to those supposedly on the fringes of the political nation, such as working men, women, indigenous peoples, and foreign and intra-imperial migrants. Our focus is on how ideas of ‘British’ parliamentarianism were performedand contested: how some forms of popular parliamentarianism such as debating societies could promote reverence for the Westminster model while others rejected parliament as an adequate ‘mirror’ of nation and empire. These challenges to, and alternative models of, parliament’s role in public life shine new light on the transnational flow of ideas and networks which continue to connect and divide the British Empire through its tumultuous redrawing.

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