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H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Albion@h-net.msu.edu (June 2005) Bernard Porter. _The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain_. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxii + 475 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-1982-0854-5. Reviewed for H-Albion by Dane Kennedy, Department of History, George Washington University Are Imperialists Zealots? Historians do not normally make it their business to downplay the importance of what they study, but in some sense that is Bernard Porter's aim in this engaging and learned, if rather flawed, book. The author of _The Lion's Share_, a highly successful survey of modern British imperialism (now in its third edition), as well as other works in the field, Porter challenges the proposition recently advanced by proponents of the "new imperial history" (myself included) that the empire had a significant impact on British society and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. John Seeley's famous dictum that the British acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind supplies the title and thematic lodestone for Porter, who argues that the empire was never much on the minds of most Britons. How do you determine how much attention the British gave to the empire? Porter insists that "context is all" (p. 93), and he sees class as that context's crucial variable. Different classes, he argues, responded to empire in different ways. Its greatest enthusiasts were the upper classes, which eagerly exercised their well-honed sense of patriarchal authority on overseas possessions. For most members of the middle classes, empire had appeal only insofar as it could be made compatible to their ingrained faith in individual freedom, which meant that colonies were problematic unless their inhabitants could be cast as dependents incapable of governing themselves (though that wasn't very hard, as it turns out). And the working classes were scarcely even aware of the empire, both because it offered them few if any material rewards (even colonial immigration was usually seen as the last resort of the desperate) and because their social superiors deliberately kept them ignorant of and uninvolved in imperial affairs. Porter acknowledges that conditions changed in the late nineteenth century, when the international competition for trade and colonies and the domestic expansion of the franchise gave elites new incentives to encourage imperial patriotism among the masses. But he questions whether this campaign to generate popular support for empire had much success. If it had, he asks, then why did the loss of empire produce so little political trauma in Britain? Class, of course, can be parsed in various ways. While Porter generally uses the plural when he refers to upper, middle, and working classes, he presents them as fairly homogeneous, readily differentiated groups in their responses to empire. The cross-class merger of landed and financial families that Peter Cain and Anthony Hopkins characterized as the "gentlemanly capitalists" who really ran the empire scarcely appears in Porter's sociology, which refers in passing to a broadly analogous "upper-middle class" as a subset of the upper classes. Nor does Porter show much interest in the ways that working-class attitudes toward empire might have varied in response to the role it played in the livelihoods of different occupational groups. It is likely, for example, that Lancashire cotton operatives and Dundee jute mill workers had a keener awareness of the empire than Durham coal miners or Suffolk farm laborers. Porter, however, effectively divorces his discussion of classes from the economic forces that shaped where they stood in society and what they gained from empire (or sacrificed for it). He concentrates instead on cultural expressions of class interests, examining education, the print media, and the arts for evidence of imperial enthusiasm among the largely undifferentiated class audiences to whom they catered. This line of inquiry is intended to refute the claims made by Edward Said and others that the empire suffused British culture, even infiltrating such unlikely material as the novels of Jane Austen. Porter brings a combative spirit and a mountain of evidence to his task. He examines a wide range of print sources, including countless school textbooks, mass circulation newspapers, working class memoirs, and parliamentary debates. He hunts for references to imperial topics and themes in "high" and "low" literature, songs and shows, art and architecture. He digs ups some surprising nuggets of information, finding, for instance, that "only five" of the 80 statues erected in London before 1880 "are of obvious 'imperialists'" (p. 147). More than a hundred pages of densely packed endnotes testify to the range and depth of Porter's research. This wealth of documentation is a testament to the heuristic value of "by the sweat of your brow" historical empiricism. It also is a challenge to those who have "merely poked about for the occasional imperial shard, real or imagined" (p. 224), a pointed jab at literary critics and cultural theorists whose sweeping generalizations often derive from only a few texts. No amount of evidence, however, is sufficient in and of itself to determine what sort of influence the empire had on Britain. The reason for this, Porter acknowledges, is that the debate is in some sense semantic in nature: where one stands on the issue depends on what one means by "imperialism"--and, more to the point, by "imperialist." So what does Porter mean when he uses these terms? Here is where he runs into trouble. He declares at the start that there is no "right" definition of imperialism, which consists of a "complex mixture of various factors" that eludes any simple explanation (p. 10). By the same token, he seems to suggest that people can support empire--that is, be imperialists--for a range of reasons. It soon becomes clear, however, that Porter considers some reasons less genuinely imperialistic than others. He concludes that most of the middle classes who turned to imperialism did so "for basically non-imperialistic reasons" (p. 311). They were actually motivated by capitalism, liberalism, socialism, Christian evangelism, or some other "ism" that imperialism piggybacked on in opportunistic fashion. Even when enthusiasm for empire appeared to be at its height among the British public in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Porter insists that it was for most people merely a means to other ends, whether these were the opening of new markets, the expansion of social services, or a school holiday. The only genuine imperialists, he declares, were a small, perennially pessimistic band of "zealots," comprised of members of the upper classes and certain vocal "outsiders" (p. 228). Who were these "outsiders"? Among others, Joseph Chamberlain, Alfred Milner, Lord Meath, R. B. Haldane, and Leo Amery! (Chamberlain gets banished to "outsider" status because he betrayed his radical middle class roots, the middle three because they received some part of their educations in Germany, Amery because he was born in India and "indoctrinated" (p. 232) by Milner in South Africa.) Moreover, they were "zealots" because they believed in empire as an end in itself, whatever that means (surely they had their reasons too). In the index to the book, the entry for "imperialists" tells readers to "_see_ zealots" (p. 467). Porter has finally shown his cards, and it turns out that he has been playing by different rules than those he laid out at the beginning of the book. Far from accepting the premise that people can be imperialists for many reasons, he actually believes that anyone who has a reason cannot really be an imperialist. By identifying imperialists as "zealots" (and "outsiders" to boot), he had built his case for the empire's limited influence at home on a tautology, one that automatically excludes most Britons, who are almost by definition sensible, pragmatic insiders. I should add that I sympathize with the dilemma that drew Porter to this problematic conclusion. At one point in his examination of British attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Porter concedes: "Everyone connived in the empire ... there was no _non_-imperial choice for Britain." Even critics of imperialist wars of aggression like J. A. Hobson "were unwilling to countenance" freedom for the colonies (p. 243). The obvious implication--that most Britons were in fact imperialists--is understandably unpalatable to Porter. Writing as an American in the early twenty-first century, I am acutely aware that much the same charge can be turned in my direction. I would like to believe that America's imperialists are a small band of neocon "zealots," egged on by a few frenetic cheerleaders like Niall Ferguson. I would like to believe that most Americans are not complicit in their country's projection of imperial power across the globe. I would like to believe that it is possible as an American to adopt an uncompromising anti-imperialist stance. And yet ...? Note . P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, _British Imperialism, 1688-2000_. 2nd ed (London: Longman, 2001). Copyright (c) 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses contact the Reviews editorial staff: email@example.com.