Krishan Kumar, who teaches sociology at the University of Virginia, is a child of empire. His parents lived in Lahore (then India) prior to the end of British rule and the subsequent partition that created the modern state of Pakistan. Kumar was himself born in Trinidad and Tobago, then part of the British Empire, and was educated in England at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics.
Visions of Empire, he writes, “is an examination of the ideas and ideologies that governed the thinking and at least to some extent the policies of imperial rulers.” This is very much a sociological study and comparison of certain empires, but to his credit Kumar for the most part avoids academic jargon and strained categorization, and instead lets the facts speak for themselves. His goal is to compare
a large and diverse group of empires in order to bring out the common features of ideologies and identities—the identities especially of the ruling peoples, how they got their sense of themselves from their role in empire.
Kumar focuses on five empires: Ottoman, Habsburg, Russian/Soviet, British, and French, but he begins the book by examining what he calls the “parent of Empire”—that of classical Rome, including its eastern half in Byzantium, an example of which, he believes, shaped all of those that came after it. Its imperial legacy included a “civilizing mission”, the spread of a state religion (Christianity), an enlightened approach to non-Romans within the empire, and its claim to universality. “In one way or another,” Kumar writes, “modern imperialism evolved in dialogue with Rome.” All of the empires he examines shared most elements of Rome’s imperial legacy.
Indeed, Kumar notes that in each, intellectuals and ruling elites looked back to Rome for inspiration and guidance. It was the Ottomans that captured Constantinople and brought the Eastern Roman Empire to its end. Ottoman rulers thereafter often took titles that suggested they saw themselves as the heirs to Rome. The Habsburgs repeatedly claimed the title of Holy Roman Emperor. Russian Tsars called Moscow the “Third Rome”. Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Macaulay, James Bryce and other British writers also popularized the British Empire as the “new Rome”. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte compared himself to Caesar.
Throughout his examination of these five empires, Kumar accentuates the positive. He lauds Ottoman sultans for enabling different peoples to peacefully coexist within the empire. He views the Habsburgs as a stabilizing force in Central Europe and its lands as home to great cultural achievements. The British and French empires, Kumar notes, spread the ideas of liberty and equality, and in many instances their colonial subjects responded favorably to imperial rule. He downplays the brutality of Russian/Soviet imperial rule.
Kumar is quite open about his favorable treatment of these empires and the benefits of empire generally. As he notes, “there are plenty of works lambasting empires, ferociously portraying their dark and often brutal side.” He is right about that. “I have tried to show them in a different light,” he explains. His emphasis is on how these empires at times successfully dealt with and managed the problems of nationalism, ethnic diversity, and inequality—problems, he believes, that many nation-states don’t handle particularly well. “Empire,” he writes,
… can be the prism through which to examine many of the pressing problems of the contemporary world—perhaps even the birth pangs of a new world order.
Along the way, Kumar questions and casts doubt on the conventional histories that claim that the decline and fall of these empires was inevitable; that most of the empire’s subjects felt alienated from their rulers; that elites in these empires grew tired of and wished to abandon imperial rule; that nationalism was the force that led to their undoing. Instead, these empires fell, he believes, because of war (Habsburg, Ottoman, Russian), the economic and psychological exhaustion caused by war (Britain and France), and lengthy, straining competition with a competing power (the Soviet Union). He agrees with the British historian Paul Johnson that “there are no inevitabilities in history”.
The author admits that his selection of empires was arbitrary, reflecting his own interests and knowledge base. That is one of the book’s shortcomings. Kumar acknowledges that his study’s usefulness would have benefitted from discussing the Portuguese and Dutch empires, the Aztecs and Incas, the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic empires and, perhaps, the “American Empire” of the United States. Of course, that would mean writing a multi-volume book of Toynbeean proportions. Sadly, there is not much of a contemporary market for such books. A book that included examinations of the Chinese and American Empires would be particularly relevant to today’s geopolitics.
There is, nevertheless, a Toynbeean quality to this book that is refreshing. It is a grand view and analysis of how the rulers of five great powers envisioned their empires across centuries of history. We can still learn and benefit from Toynbee’s massive A Study of History, which sought to find common elements in the birth, rise, decline, and death of civilizations. We can similarly learn and benefit from Kumar’s less ambitious study of empire.