Open Essay

Do Empires Manage Diversity Better Than Nation States?

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His latest book is India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45
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The imperium of the mind


Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World | Krishan Kumar | Princeton University Press

IN HIS 1967 novel, The Mimic Men, VS Naipaul wrote, ‘The empires of our time were short-lived, but they have altered the world forever; their passing away is their least significant feature.’ This was a prescient observation. At that time, rapid decolonisation and the emergence of independent nation-states seemed the most salient and remarkable developments in world politics. The age of decolonisation was also accompanied by the rise of nationalist historiographies in the Third World—a body of work that regarded the demise of European empires as historically and morally desirable. Five decades on, though, historians are not only emphasising the lasting imprint left by the old empires, but also questioning the inevitability and desirability of a world of nation-states.

This body of writing is strongly shaped by concerns about the rise of ethnic violence in the postcolonial world, especially since the 1990s. It has impelled historians to look closely at alternatives to nation-states that were considered but discarded: such as schemes of federation in Africa or the Cabinet Mission Plan for India that sought to avert Partition. The rejection of such ideas is then presented as an argument against the inevitability or desirability of the nation-states that actually came out of decolonisation. This historiography is shot through with problems—not least in its idealisation of the alternatives that were on offer. In some cases, it also engenders a twinge of nostalgia for empire among scholars who are by no means unaware of the problematic history of empires.

Krishan Kumar’s Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton University Press, 2017) sits squarely in this historiographical trend. As he writes in the concluding paragraph of his sweeping survey: ‘Empires in their historic forms, may have had their day; but it is not at all clear that the desirable alternative is today’s system of two hundred or so nation-states all claiming sovereignty and tending towards ethnic uniformity. That seems a recipe for unending conflict, both within and between states. Empires, for all their faults, show us another way, a way of managing the diversity and differences that are now the inescapable fate of practically all so-called nation-states.’ However, the book offers no clear argument about the relevance of the older imperial models to our times. Indeed, it evades the central problem posed by the notions of hierarchy embedded in all imperial ideologies to contemporary sensibilities about citizenship and democracy. Fortunately, this grand claim is not central to Kumar’s intellectual enterprise.

The basis of Ottoman power lay in their ability to draw different communities into the imperial project

The main purpose of the book, he writes, is ‘to show how empires were ruled, how in particular their ruling peoples conceived their task in running these vast, rambling and diverse enterprises that we call empire’. The book attempts a comparative study of the ideas and ideologies held by the elites that ran empires as well as the manner in which their own identities were shaped by their imperial projects. Kumar focuses on the Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian/Soviet, British and French empires—a choice that he admits is ‘arbitrary’. Not only does he leave out the Portuguese and Dutch empires, but he also neglects all non-European empires. Equally problematic is the comparison between early modern and modern empires. Again, he concedes that ‘the difference of historical time is critical … [it] does not prevent comparison but sets limits to what can be gained by it’. But these problems and limitations are never set out in his lengthy account. The idea of modernity makes only a passing appearance in the book—and capitalism is never discussed.

Kumar is an accomplished sociologist, but he has no specialist historical knowledge of any of the empires about which he writes. He is forced to rely on the work of other scholars and on synthetic accounts of various imperial histories—a bit like brewing tea from used tea bags. In consequence, the book lacks the freshness and insight of works like John Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World or Dominic Lieven’s comparative history of the Russian empire and its rivals. More surprising is the absence of any conceptual framework and a sustained comparative method. Although the focus is on ideas and ideologies, Kumar attempts no systematic discussion of texts. Ideas are often read off institutions and policies as though the latter are purely products of the former. All the same, the book does offer a lucidly written account of the ruling ideologies and practices in some major European empires.

Like other recent surveys of empires, Kumar begins with an account of changing meanings of the term ‘empire’ from Rome onwards. After examining several definitions offered by scholars, he settles on one that echoes Michael Doyle: ‘Empire is rule over a multitude of peoples. Imperialism and colonialism are the attitudes and practices that relate to empire.’ This raises at least two questions. First, doesn’t this definition exclude ‘informal empire’, power and influence without annexation of territory? Kumar contends that the notion of ‘informal empire’ stretches the concept of empire rather wide. But historians of empire have shown it to be too pervasive a form of imperial control to be dismissed out of hand. In any case, it is also of a piece with Kumar’s unwillingness to confront the relationship between modern imperialism and capitalism.

The second question is whether large nation-states with diverse populations are to be subsumed under this definition of empire. Kumar observes that empires ‘exhibit principles antithetical to those of nations. They are multiethnic or multinational. Far from having or seeking a common culture, they stress the heterogeneity of cultures’. They also aspire to ‘universalism not particularism’. Notwithstanding these caveats, the dichotomy of empires and nations is not watertight. Many empires, especially the overseas ones, have had a metropolitan centre with a strong sense of nationality. Kumar himself comes up with a category of ‘imperial nationalism’: ‘Like nationalists in relation to their nation, imperialists feel that there is something special or unique about their empire. It has a mission or purpose in the world.’ This has usually taken the form of a ‘civilising mission’, whether driven by religion or secular ideology.

The Habsburg army was a key imperial institution in managing diversity. As historian Istvan Deak has argued, the multi-ethnic Habsburg army was the ‘guardian of the multinational monarchy’

The core of the book is a series of chapters that offer brief accounts of the empires chosen by the author and their ruling ideologies. Thus, in discussing the Ottoman Empire, he considers Paul Wittek’s influential argument that the Ottomans were a community of ghazis—Muslim holy warriors committed to a struggle against infidels in their neighbourhood. Subsequent scholarship has challenged this thesis and pointed to the ‘fluidity of identities’ in the early Ottoman Empire. For instance, in the 14th and early 15th centuries, conversion to Islam was not necessary to gain entry into the ruling elite of the empire. Indeed, the basis of Ottoman power lay in their ability to draw different communities into the imperial project. The emergence of the Ottomans as an Islamic dynasty actually dates to the early 16th century following the conquest of the Arab heartlands of the Muslim world.

Kumar provides a fluent account of the institutions that enabled the Ottomans to keep an enormously diverse empire together. The devshirme system—a periodic levy of Christian youth from the Balkans who were required to convert to Islam—provided many of the senior administrators and soldiers of the empire. The millet system, a set of mostly local arrangements that varied with time and place, allowed non-Muslim religious communities a considerable degree of autonomy in their internal affairs. The Ottoman rulers also qualified the Islamic character of the state by instituting a code of sultanic or secular law known as kanun, which paralleled and often prevailed over the holy law, sharia. The latter was also circumscribed by other institutions such as the wakf— grant of land or other source of revenue—and temlik, the royal grant of property rights.

The Habsburg Empire was a yet more complex realm. The Spanish Habsburgs not only ruled large parts of western Europe, but also had enormous territorial possessions in the Americas. ‘This monarchy of Spain,’ wrote the Calabrian Friar Tommaso Campanella in 1607, ‘which embraces all nations and encircles the world, is that of the Messiah, and thus shows itself to be the heir of the universe.’ Historians, however, have wondered whether it makes sense to speak of a ‘Spanish empire’. Kumar argues that this is a semantic debate, though his own analysis of this early modern empire is not particularly illuminating. The author is on surer ground in tackling the Austrian Habsburg Empire. In The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil famously described the ‘national struggles’ within this extraordinary multinational entity: ‘They were so violent that they several times a year caused the machinery of State to jam and come to a dead stop. But between whiles, in the breathing spaces between government and government, everyone got on excellently with everyone else and behaved as if nothing had ever been the matter. Nor had anything real ever been the matter.’

Not surprisingly, the Austrian Habsburgs also made systematic attempts at providing an ideological glaze to the empire. At the behest of Foreign Minister Metternich, Friedrich Schlegel provided the first systematic exposition of the Austrian idea in 1810. The Habsburgs, he claimed, had stood for civilisation as a whole, bringing together eastern and western, northern and southern Europe. They had fought for Christendom against the common enemy, the Turks, and had sought to unite the European powers in a common purpose. During the 1848 revolutions that wracked the Habsburg Empire, Czech historian Frantisek Palacky claimed that the empire ‘by nature and history is designed to be the bulwark and guardian of Europe against Asiatic elements of every kind’. To promote an Austrian imperial patriotism, the ruling family the 20-volume Austrian Plutarch —aptly labelled by the writer Claudio Magris as ‘an authentic patriotic almanac … a source of edification and emulation’.

The Soviet leadership embarked on a strategy aimed at ensuring equality of all national groups. Stalin acknowledged the need for a ‘national culture’

To a greater extent than in the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg army was a key imperial institution in managing diversity. As historian Istvan Deak has argued the multi- ethnic, multi-confessional and multinational Habsburg army was the ‘guardian of the multinational monarchy’. The officer corps was open to gentlemen of all nationalities and religions, including Jews who were otherwise faced much anti-Semitism from the upper classes.

Such was the centrality of the national question to the empire that even Austrian Marxists were forced to accord it importance. Orthodox Marxists paid little attention to the phenomenon of nationalism, deeming it a hindrance to the real interests that united the working classes of the world and the emergence of a socialist state. ‘Austro-Marxists’ such as Karl Renner and Otto Bauer not only accepted the legitimacy of the nation as historical and cultural entity but also regarded the Habsburg Empire as best placed to protect the smaller nations within the empire—entities that might otherwise be swallowed up large neighbouring powers like Germany and Russia. They sought to reorganise the empire as a multinational state and a democratic federation of national communities.

Debates on nationalities also played out in the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Despite periodic bouts of Russification, the Czars and their ministers were all too aware of the multi-ethnic and multinational character of the empire. Indeed, the ruling elite itself remained resolutely multinational to the end. Neither race nor religion presented an insuperable barrier in absorbing local elites into imperial structures. From the 1880s, however, there was an attempt to associate the monarchy more closely with the Russian people. The divide between ‘Slavophiles’ and ‘Westernisers’ was most pronounced in this period and the ideas of the former gained more traction. Kumar rightly observes that the tropes and themes of the Slavophiles provided the elements for the construction of a different imperial—not a truly nationalist—ideology.

In the aftermath of the revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks managed to recover nearly all the territory of the deposed Russian Empire. The Soviet Union was ideologically committed to the attainment of world socialism. But its leaders had distinctive ideas about the national question. Lenin had declared that ‘the aim of socialism is not only to abolish the division of mankind into small states and all segregation of nations, not only to draw the nations together, but to merge them.’ The Soviet leadership embarked on a strategy of social engineering aimed at ensuring equality of all national groups within the USSR as a first step towards their eventual merger in a common Soviet identity. Stalin acknowledged the need for development of ‘national culture’ alongside a ‘proletarian culture’: ‘Proletarian culture does not abolish national culture, it gives it content. On the other hand, national culture does not abolish proletarian culture, it gives it form.’

As commissar of nationalities from 1917 to 1924, and as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin gave effect to these ideas to a remarkable degree. In the 1920s and 30s, there was a deliberate policy of supporting native languages, culture and education and of appointing local people to state and party institutions. In the republics of the Union, the language of the nationality became the official language. From the late 1930s, there was a move towards promoting ‘Sovietisation’, especially by making Russian mandatory in all schools. Eventually, the Soviet Union was done in not by nationalism of the smaller nationalities but that of the Russian nationalists.

In discussing the Ottoman and Habsburg, Russian and Soviet as well as the British and French empires, Kumar also focuses on the role of ideologies in times of imperial decline. While these are undoubtedly important to study, it is not clear that the ability of any empire to stave off or prolong its decline had much to do with the quality of the ruling elites’ ideas. Far more important was the geopolitical context in which these empires functioned. Take the case of the Austrian Habsburgs. Contemporaries debated the impending demise of the empire long before it actually occurred. These debates resulted in a remarkable body of literature, but the collapse of the empire was fundamentally owing to its position as the weakest and most vulnerable of the European great powers. The concerns that flowed from this fact led Vienna to regard the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914 as an intolerable affront to its imperial position and so embark on a suicidal war. Geopolitics was equally important in determining the fate of the other European empires that crumbled in the course of the 20th century.

A peculiar combination of geography and power also underpinned the extraordinary dominance of the United States. Kumar is unsure whether the US qualifies as an empire. The acquisition of continental territories and the accompanying ideology of ‘manifest destiny’ settles the question for the 19th century. The fact that the US pattern of global domination since 1945 differs in important respects from the older European empires is undeniable. Yet Kumar’s refusal to deal with ‘informal’ empires leaves him ill prepared to see important similarities between the US and other imperial states. Whether the ‘vision of empire’ that enabled this unexampled enterprise is now under challenge from American nationalism is one of the key questions of our times. Krishan Kumar’s book is useful reminder of how elites in other empires grappled with this tension.

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