The Imperial Controversy: Challenging the Empire Apologists by Andrew Murray. Manifesto Press (UK), 2009 Softcover, 152 pp., $21 plus shipping

Andrew Murray, chairman of the Stop the War Coalition in the U.K., has written an important book about the efforts of a select group of contemporary Western historians, pundits and politicians to rehabilitate colonialism, to “prettify” it, if you will.

The aim of this rehabilitation, he argues, is to facilitate greater popular acquiescence to — if not outright support for — imperialist occupations like the ones we are witnessing today in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

Unfortunately, the arguments of these pro-imperialist intellectuals have had a significant and deleterious impact, including on the political left in the United States. The consequences have been deadly, as Murray and the author of the book’s preface, British parliamentarian George Galloway, make passionately clear.

Debates over the merits of so-called humanitarian interventionism are “far from academic,” Murray writes. “They have helped frame and justify decisions which have led to perhaps a million deaths over the last eight years. Until they are rooted out of political life, the possibility that they will contribute to still worse disasters in the future remains a real one.”

Murray opens with a survey of some of the leading exponents of the new colonialism, people who, in effect, say that Empire wasn’t all that bad. They include a number of British and U.S. pundits who wrote articles about Yugoslavia and Haiti in the early 1990s, people like the British journalist Paul Johnson, Hoover Institute fellow Angelo Codevilla and Wall Street Journal columnist David Brooks, who is now ensconced at The New York Times.

Brooks wrote in 1993, for example, that “if Americans do believe that all people are endowed by their creator with democratic rights and abilities, and if they are right, then a form of colonialism may be sustainable – one that goes into some of the places where authority has broken down and imposes order long enough to let the locals govern themselves.”

Veteran readers of the literature of imperialism will recognize this as a variation of the “white man’s burden” argument of Rudyard Kipling back in 1899. But it was easily dusted off and used to facilitate the carving up of Yugoslavia — and the placement of U.S. and NATO occupation troops there — in the 1990s.

Such arguments surged in popularity after the demise of the USSR, when the re-colonization of Eastern Europe was high on the agenda of policy makers in Washington and their backers on Wall Street. Yugoslavia was one of the first victims, but by no means the last. The arguments for imperialist intervention really blossomed after 9/11.

Among historians who have made the case for a new colonialism, Murray says, Niall Ferguson of the U.K. stands out. “I am fundamentally in favor of empire,” Ferguson wrote in the shadow of 9/11. “Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the 21st century than before.”

But going along with this neo-colonialist program requires a form of “historical amnesia,” Murray says.

Aiming to rescue some of that forgotten history, he then proceeds to vividly recount some of the atrocities of British colonialism (and to a lesser extent, the crimes of U.S. and other Western imperialist nations) in Asia, Africa and the Middle East – wars of aggression, massacres, deliberately provoked famines and more – and observes that the nature of these crimes share much in common with the atrocities of Hitler fascism.

“If we take the main charges levied by history against Hitler and Nazism – waging aggressive war, racism taken to the point of genocide, the suppression of democracy and the imposition of rule by force, the barbarous treatment of civilian populations, the establishment of concentration camps, medical experiments on prisoners, the disregard of treaties and law, ethnic cleansing, even hypocrisy and manipulation by means of deceitful propaganda – we can see that in each and every respect the former built on the example already set by British imperialism and the other colonial powers,” he writes.

Murray is quick to acknowledge the unique horrors of Nazism, notably “the systematic extermination of the great majority of Europe’s Jews in a period of little more than three years.” But he says that “Nazism is essentially imperialism with the brakes taken off.”

A substantial section of the book is devoted to British and U.S. efforts to control the Middle East and its vast oil reserves. From the British colonization of Palestine to the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran to the invasion of Iraq, Western imperialism has been unrelenting in its pursuit of unimpeded access to the region’s resources.

The final chapter of the book focuses on the so-called pro-war left, “Dick Cheney’s liberals.” Among the most notorious of these is Christopher Hitchens, a former member of the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party in the U.K.), who spectacularly abandoned his former left-wing views and enthusiastically embraced George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The tack taken by Hitchens and others like him (including many liberals in the U.S.) was essentially this: the invasion of Iraq was justified because it was necessary to free the Iraqi people and the world from Saddam Hussein, and that “to oppose the war was to collude in Saddam remaining in power.”

Murray meticulously pulls this and related arguments apart, showing how the imperialist powers, in the persons of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in the first place, systematically lied about their motives for invading Iraq (e.g. their claims about weapons of mass destruction), employed rank sophistry to skirt international law, and used racist Islamophobia to speed up their march to Baghdad.

Referring to the economic basis of the “imperialist urge” in the world today, Murray promises to give us a more detailed account of how this urge operates in a forthcoming book. Given his well-documented, scrupulous approach to detail in this volume, we can only welcome the next.

Among its other attributes, “The Imperialist Controversy” is an extremely valuable contribution to the anti-war movement. It was published by Manifesto Press, a relatively new publishing house in the U.K. that can be visited at The press can easily fulfill orders to almost any address in the world.

It belongs on the bookshelf of everyone who wants to become a more effective fighter against imperialism and war.

December 8, 2010