A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France by Jennifer Pitts

| March 2007
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A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France, Jennifer Pitts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 400 pp., $24.95 paper.

A Turn to Empire contributes to a project among liberals in recent years to dust off liberalism’s historical complexities. In an elegant, impressively documented, and rigorously argued narrative, Jennifer Pitts asserts that imperialism was not essential to the liberal project, as is so often alleged by its critics, most recently and systematically by Uday Singh Mehta in his important study Liberalism and Empire (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

The late-eighteenth-century liberal heroes of Pitts’s story—Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham (and later, Benjamin Constant)—were critical of European imperial expansion not only for its devastating domestic consequences but also for its moral hypocrisy and the misery it wreaked on its conquered subjects. Pitts demonstrates with rich textual evidence that late-eighteenth-century liberal anti-imperialism was anchored in a generous view of the capacities of non-Europeans, a generosity Pitts characterizes throughout as a “strikingly nonjudgmental” and “open-minded” sort of “moral respect” for cultural difference, autonomy, and self-determination. By the 1830s, however, this skepticism toward empire seemed to dissipate, giving way to an imperialist variant of liberalism that was driven by a profound sense of national self-confidence and European cultural superiority, exemplified in the thought of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Pitts begins her story with the overlapping critiques by Smith and Burke of Britain’s imperial vision and the cultural chauvinism that nurtured it. She then identifies a liberal “turn to empire” among nineteenth-century British utilitarians, from Bentham’s anti-imperialist call for emancipation to Mill’s legitimation of colonial despotism, demonstrating through this shift that empire was not endemic to the utilitarian project, as is widely assumed. The narrative moves on to examine the recitation of this “volte-face” in France, beginning with the “distrust of empire” that Benjamin Constant inherited from the Enlightenment philosophes, pivoting around Condorcet’s influential thesis that progress entailed the eradication of backwardness, and culminating in the 1830s with Tocqueville’s “colonial vision.” In essence, Pitts’s book is about liberal heroes and the villains who “turned to empire” against their better judgment.

Pitts deploys familiar binaries in contemporary political theory to weave together the textual strands of her history—binaries such as universal/particular, judgmental/nonjudgmental, self-critical/presumptuous, and inclusion/exclusion. She invokes the language of pluralism, cultural diversity, commensurability, and cross-cultural judgment. Situated in these current modes, Pitts’s liberal anti-imperialists come alive with insights that resonate with multicultural impulses in political theory today.

In Part I of her book, Pitts probes Adam Smith’s complex moral rejoinder to Europe’s civilizing mission, which is often obscured by his conjectural history. We learn that Smith, like the Scots in general, was profoundly sensitive to variations in cultural practices and the problems of bias and partiality in moral judgment. He also asserted that practices, including European ones, are most often rational accommodations to circumstance, which meant that European progress along the famous Scottish four-stage conjecture was hardly an index of moral superiority justifying Britain’s pejorative assessment of “backward” societies. Pitts’s sensitive interpretation of Smith reveals how he managed to navigate a course between his particularism and his universalist tendencies when confronting “injustice” and “inhumanity,” bringing him directly into current debates about moral foundations. Burke is Pitts’s second liberal hero—a prickly hero no doubt, despite Pitts’s requisite disclaimers about his disturbing elitism and authoritarianism in domestic affairs. Burke’s anti-imperialism, we learn, issued not from a conservative instinct to protect traditional societies, as is often alleged, but from a distinctively liberal commitment to the moral equality of all human beings and a rejection of the “arbitrary and unaccountable power” colonizers had over their subjects (p. 63).

In Part II, we discover that Jeremy Bentham called for emancipating the colonial possessions of Britain, France, and Spain along both pragmatic, interest-based lines and moral ones.  A student of Smith, he rejected the idea that colonies improved the metropole economically and politically. He further vetoed Mill’s argument that “backward” cultures are improved and civilized through colonization. For Bentham, subjects were best positioned to know their own interests (Pitts characterizes this as “respect” at p. 109), and it was unjust and ultimately futile for Europeans to attempt to “improve” the world from above through forceful intrusion and dictatorial rule. Similarly, Pitts presents Benjamin Constant in Part III of her book as exemplary among France’s early-nineteenth-century liberals who bucked the rising imperialist tide, echoing in virtually every way the cultural respectfulness of those anti-imperialists who preceded him, but adding a distinctive emphasis on the liberty that a democratic nation loses when it holds colonial subjects abroad.

Pitts is a political theorist, and one can sense readily from these thumbnail accounts the extent to which her history of liberal anti-imperialism is driven by questions that exercise contemporary political theorists. Her protagonists may not always have recognized themselves as participants in the binary languages she uses to classify their thought, and this anachronism might bother some cultural and intellectual historians who would wish for a more contextual frame. What Pitts denominates as Smith’s “moral respect” for distant others, for example, may in fact have been a sort of moral disinterest, even indifference, stemming from his primary concern with metropolitan order and his relative disinterest in the world at large. Nevertheless, as a political theorist, I am attracted to histories of ideas driven by theoretical concerns—and Pitts executes this one remarkably well.  Her book is a model of its kind.  By framing her narrative with familiar concepts and categories, she provokes her readers to reflect on contemporary manifestations of the correlations she demonstrates historically, without the preachiness and grandstanding that repel historians in so many ideologically motivated projects.

A Turn to Empire should engage many audiences.  Arguably, we have never in history struggled so intensely with the fallout from the “turn to empire” Pitts describes. In addition to theorists, historians, and international relations scholars, practitioners involved in the exportation of Western democracy stand to learn something important here about the lineage of some of their assumptions. Many liberals will find comfort in Pitts’s resuscitation of neglected anti-imperialist strands within the liberal tradition. And critics of the liberal universalist project of exporting European civilization, then and now, should enjoy the lashing received by Mill and Tocqueville; but they might also learn something unexpected about resources for cross-cultural openness and understanding in eighteenth-century European liberal thought.

—Fonna Forman-Barzilai, University of California, San Diego

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Category: Book Review, Issue 21.2

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