the lords of human kind

Victor Kiernan’s The Lords of Human Kind is a classic dissection of the racist pretensions of European imperialism, argues Dominic Alexander


Victor Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age, foreword by John Trumpbour, tribute by Eric Hobsbawm (Zed Books 2015), xxxviii, 354pp.

In recent years there have been determined efforts by figures of the right, such as Niall Ferguson or Andrew Roberts, to re-habilitate the British Empire in historical memory. Rather than a blood-soaked exercise in global plundering to feed capitalist expansion, we are to return to the Victorian era’s claim that there was something progressive or civilising about the whole project. These kind of tendentious arguments have received more currency than they merit due to the context of the War on Terror, in which the notion of the West as the defender of humanist values has to be continually re-inflated in order to obscure the paramountcy of imperialist agendas.

This makes it all the more timely for there to be a new edition of a classic examination of the racism of imperialist thinking, Victor Kiernan’s The Lords of Human Kind. Kiernan was of the same generation of that group of British Marxist historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, whose appreciation of Kiernan prefaces this new edition, Christopher Hill, and E.P. Thompson, to name a few of the best known. Published originally in 1969, the book is a comprehensive survey of the attitudes which both sustained and were produced by European imperialism across every region of the world.

While the book’s remit lies in ideology and cultural notions, it manages to give a fair overview of imperialist history itself. Other more recent books, such as John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (Bookmarks 2000), provide the crucial chapter and verse on various episodes of invasion and atrocity committed by European empires. Nonetheless, Kiernan’s book remains very valuable, not least as it eviscerates pro-empire arguments essentially from out of the mouths of the imperialists themselves.

Imperialism breeds racism

A notable effect of the practice of imperialism is to produce racist ideas in the minds of the aggressor nation. French culture, in the guise of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers, was capable of admiring aspects of Asian cultures in the era when in ‘material achievement Europe was not yet vastly ahead of the most advanced countries of Asia’ (p.21). What these largely aristocratic thinkers ‘were predisposed to look for and to admire was something resembling themselves, a class of men of enlarged minds and sympathies benevolently guiding ordinary mankind’. Such a class could be seen in China by the French, and similarly in England there was a parallel admiration for the Brahmins. However, as colonial rule spread, ‘familiarity breed contempt’, and, soon the English in India ‘were no longer in a humour to admire anything Indian’ (p.22).

It is a short step from this hardening of attitudes to finding other cultures to be repugnant, and to exhibit barbaric practices which justify imperial intervention. The bad faith involved in the logic of this type of argument is revealed by its historical ubiquity:

‘The Incas are said to have justified their conquests by denouncing the barbarous customs of the tribes they subdued, and the Spaniards made a great deal of the human sacrifices they found in Mexico – as the Romans did long before of those of Carthage’ (p.37).

The ideological cast of imperialism as civilising mission developed quickly, and so began the notion that people could be freed by (humanitarian?) invasion; Winwood Reade wrote in 1872 that the entire non-European world ‘will never begin to advance … until they enjoy the rights of man; and these they will never obtain except by means of European conquest’ (p.24).

In this context, it is not a new pose for the West to claim that it is championing the good of women. It was obvious enough to find suttee or foot-binding abhorrent, but imperialist condemnation of the practices of cultures it was bent on subjugating was, at best, a displacement of other anxieties:

‘It was part of the psychology of the situation that Westerners with qualms of conscience about how they were treating the Chinese should deplore the way Chinese men treated women, just as they deplored the treatment of the masses by the mandarins’ (p.168).

Neither in the eighteenth nor the twenty-first century are appeals to the treatment of women anything other than imperialist rhetoric. Certainly, the cause of women’s liberation has never been advanced by the military interventions of the West anywhere in the world, but it is unlikely that this particular trope will be forgotten, so long as imperialism remains an active force in world affairs.

The whole notion of the civilising mission, which can be re-packaged according to the preferences and pieties of the era, is always available to revive discredited arguments for empire. Thus, a frequent gambit for those who wish to defend Empire is to divide imperialists and imperialisms into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ varieties. Kiernan punctures this sort of argument with a range of examples of the ‘good’ imperialists, whose patronisingly racist attitudes reveal the rotten heart at the foundation of the whole enterprise.

James Brooke, who ruled over Sarawak under the Sultan of Borneo, argued that when ‘we desire to improve and elevate a people, we must not begin by treating them as an inferior race; and yet this is too generally the style of our Indian rulers’ (p.90). Yet if Brooke thought people should be approached ‘as equals’, assuming he really did to any degree, that was only possible because he was effectively operating as an individual, separately from ‘the juggernaut of Empire’. Yet clearly, he was only in the position in which he found himself because of that wider system. Moreover, he came to his authority over Sarawak with the racist assumption that the people there needed him ‘to improve and elevate’ them. Other such examples include the enthusiast for Japanese culture, Ernest Satow, who nevertheless was concerned to get around ‘the bad faith which is the usual refuge of Asiatics in a difficult position’ (p.184).

Capitalism and racism

The mix of attitudes on display by Europeans in their interactions with the rest of the world always depended upon the particular power relations involved in any given situation. They do, however, achieve a kind of unity around the consistency of the motive involved; profit. Hence, the ‘ideal of assimilation soon wilted under contact with the realities of colonial profit-making’ (p.98). So while the French suppressed ‘formal slavery’ in Indo-China in the nineteenth century, ‘there were many informal shades of servitude … and inevitably European enterprise took advantage of this, fitting its own greeds into a ready-made mould’ (p.98). Kiernan does not make a systematic case about imperialism and slavery (for the British case, see another classic, Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery), but there are indicative examples throughout that slavery was only ever opposed when it was in the material interests of European powers to do so.

The interests of class exploitation repeatedly appear at the roots of colonial practice. Ideologically, the notion of the civilising mission was necessary to justify colonial domination in itself, but the exigencies of forcing people to labour for profit moulded attitudes everywhere. Some colonialists were surprised that First Nations peoples in the Americas showed ‘no inclination to become civilised’. Indeed, they shed their European clothes to flee back into forests at the first opportunity, according to one English explorer. Kiernan comments that this ‘need not have surprised Waterton so much, considering that what white men offered the Indian as civilisation was hard labour on their estates for their profit’ (p.309).

Where class systems were further developed, imperial practice was precisely to preserve ‘the old parasitic ruling classes’, and so to throw out any notion of importing European ideas of the rights of man: ‘Voltaire did not talk atheism before his servants, for fear of having his spoons stolen; the [French] Third Republic was vigorously anti-clerical at home, but very willing to employ its clerical opponents in the colonies, as a sop and also for the sake of their soothing influence there’ (p.99).

Even if some participants in the imperial project harboured some liberal or progressive intentions, actual practice was always filtered through the reality of power relations and exploitation. Railways are often pointed out as an example of the practical benefits imperial government and investment could bring, but some more clear sighted participants saw the problematic side of such projects. E.G. Browne, commenting upon the situation in what was then Persia,

‘thought it quite understandable that common people objected to the railway and tramway contracts which would enrich only the ministers who gave them and the foreigners who got them. Europeans tended to suppose “that the interests of the Shah and of his subjects are identical, when they are in fact generally diametrically opposed”’ (p.130).

Closely similar problems could be found in recent years in neoliberal models of Western investment in developing countries. The capital structure of the classical imperial age has not changed that much, even if the political structures have been remodelled.

In those regions where there were social hierarchies of varying sorts, but not often fully developed class relations, as in Africa, Europeans were habitually ‘likely to magnify any analogous divisions’ or ‘to imagine them’ (p.224). The contemporary problems of many African countries with acute socio-ethnic divides are the direct result of deliberate colonial manipulations, and those who seek to deny European responsibility for this need to acknowledge history, not ignore it. The frustrations of Europeans with African societies not primarily geared towards exploitation of labour informed the nature of racism. Colonial officers thought Africans ‘were improvident because they were “lazy”, and they were lazy because they lacked “a strong protecting government” … [what was] meant was a strong coercive government’ (p.224). Conversely, one administrator admitted that Africans ‘think we are lazy dogs, but very clever at making the black man do our work’ (p.222).

Attitudes towards non-Europeans dovetailed with views of the lower class in Europe, such that racist attitudes transferred over to domestic inequalities:

‘When Robert Blatchford [writing in 1899] and his friends inspected a workhouse school in England and the children crowded round them, fascinated by their clothes and watch-chains, “It made me think of what I had read about savages crowding round white men who have landed on their shores.” Higher up the scale the relative positions, the social intervals, were the same’ (p.330).

These kinds of parallels indicate how racial and class structures interlocked and reproduced each other across the history of European Empires, at home and abroad. The behaviours and attitudes of imperial elites towards the colonised have always been prone to being imported back to the metropole. Thus the racist ‘talk about the barbarism or darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe’s mission to rout, was a transmuted fear of the masses at home’ (p.330). This in itself also helps to explain why some of the most vitriolic of European attitudes were not directed at the most ‘backward’ elements of colonised countries, but in fact at the most ‘advanced’, as in Persia again:

‘Increasingly empire men found common ground with both feudal potentates and with hill-folk and desert-dwellers, as against the townsman who had got more education than was good for him’ (p.134).

Those imperialists who criticised non-European ruling classes nevertheless did not approve of any popular resistance to existing injustices; ‘for them to rise against their tormentors would make things worse … a revolutionary was quite literally a degenerate, a creature without human instincts’ (p.135).

Russian imperialism and revolution

While this is not a systematic study of European imperialism in practice, it does cover in a relatively compact way all the affected regions of the world, including Persia and China, as well as those more directly affected by colonialism itself. There are also many interesting reflections on less well-known areas, such as the somewhat distinct impact Russian imperialism had on Asia. While nomads like the Kazakhs were forced off the land, as others elsewhere were also, and there ‘was a chauvinism of the ordinary Russian’, there were other dynamics at work:

‘In some districts the immigrants formed an urban working class surrounded by a native peasantry. Yet a possibility of fraternization remained, stronger than in any settlement areas of other empires. There was more mingling in the same jobs, at the same standard of living … If political consciousness touched him, the thought of brotherhood with the colonial masses, an abstract one to Western socialists, in a place like the Baku oil-field could be felt as a living reality’ (p.107).

It would be possible here to object that in many other places, not least the United States for example, the possibility of workers uniting against racial and ethnic hierarchies and class exploitation was far from abstract. Nonetheless, the point remains that where this could occur, the greatest threat to capitalism was to be found, as was proven to be the case in the Russian Empire in 1917.

The Lords of Humankind remains an important resource for the history of racism and empire, and is a finely written book, with a frequently sardonic tone at the expense of self-revealing imperialists. Nonetheless, an odd note is sometimes struck, as when Kiernan refers to the slave trade as ‘acts of historical necessity, given the line of social and economic advance to which Europe was committed’ (p.333). Now, at a certain level, this is probably true, but the formulation hints at an underlying adherence to a deterministic analysis of history. This gives an occasional impression that, while imperialism was never morally justified, there was a certain historical inevitability to a technologically superior West carrying out this process.

Even his argument about the relationship of Russian imperialism to the revolution seems to imply that particular conditions made that experience largely singular. Yet there were certainly, in the history of the new world for example, moments when the structures of race and class became vulnerable to the possibility of popular solidarities. This would imply that imperialism generally produces the contradictions that can destroy it, if only those with ‘political consciousness’ are intent on seeking these out. The lacuna here in Kiernan’s thinking remains implicit only, and perhaps does not represent an essential element in his analysis. Certainly, the book remains a valuably detailed and scathing indictment of European attitudes, not least in the example of one British gentleman imperialist, who ‘knew everything about the East, except perhaps that he knew nothing about ordinary men anywhere’ (p.123).

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).