Imperialism, it seems, is back in fashion. Once in danger of gathering dust on library shelves, or being trivialised through media nostalgia, imperialism, spurred on by multiculturalism and goaded by Edward Said's Orientalism, has regained an academic respectability one might have thought had gone for ever. Empire is no longer arcane - or just plain embarrassing. And yet the study of empire is at a crossroads. Should it stress the exceptionality of the imperial experience and the "otherness", as Said would have it, of western perceptions of other places and other races? Or should we, as Victor Kiernan maintains in this volume of his collected essays, see colonised peoples as sharing experiences of class control and state repression common to the citizens of Europe?
Ironically, the editor of these essays, Harvey J. Kaye, seeks to introduce Kiernan's writing on imperialism to a new and wider international audience by hailing him as a kind of precursor of Said. Although most of the essays were written before the orientalist revolution, in 1986 Kiernan was clearly sceptical about the kind of writing that sweepingly condemned European travellers, explorers and scholars and others sympathetic towards those orientalists who "initiated fruitful studies I introduced nations to their own past, and taught them to think of their future". Indeed, central to these essays is the belief that there should be a balance sheet of empire, not simply an indictment for war crimes and genocide. The brutality of imperial rule was real enough but bears, in Kiernan's view, comparison with what Europeans did to each other, and what Africans and Asians not infrequently did to each other. Empire had no monopoly of terror - nor of exploitation. Kiernan rejects the view that the looting of Bengal in the 1750s contributed more than a fraction to Britain's industrialisation, if only because the rise of industrial capitalism was about far more than the random accumulation of overseas plunder.
On the positive side, British rule in India, as elsewhere (though it is striking how frequently India, where Kiernan lived between 1938 and 1946, is a central reference point in these essays, even when speaking of African armies or post-imperial Britain) helped create an industrial and commercial infrastructure and laid the basis for a national identity. Kiernan is deeply indebted to Marx's views on British India, the belief that capitalism was a uniquely European achievement, and that it was the historical function of the British in India to sweep away the old order and replace it with a newly dynamic economy.
Imperialism for Kiernan was, therefore, a necessary - painful, but ultimately beneficial - stage in the journey towards a more advanced and equitable society. "Conquest and occupation were grievous experiences," Kiernan writes; "whatever beneficial results might ensue, the cure was at best a harsh one, like old-style surgery without anaesthetics".
Sadly, such views seem somewhat shopsoiled in the mid-1990s. Few scholars of South Asia now accept such a negative view of the state of the pre-British Indian economy, or would readily accept his strictures on Indian banking and commerce. Indeed, one of the blights afflicting these essays is the lack of recognition of the past 20 years of intensive scholarship on subjects such as these.
On the other hand, one could argue that the publication of these essays is timely, reminding us of the need for a more balanced assessment of empire and questioning the uniformity of the orientalist credo. Perhaps it is time to re-explore the contradictions of imperialism and re-examine the benefits of "old-style surgery".
David Arnold is professor of South Asian history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Imperialism and Its Contradictions
Author - V. G. Kiernan
ISBN - 0 415 90797 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £11.99
Pages - 218pp