15 MAY 1964, Page 18

A Question of Semantics

Iinperialism : The Story and Significances of a Political Word, 1840-1960. By R. KOebner and H. D. Schmidt. (C.U.P., 63s.) `Itvrenals,Lism,' like 'Liberalism,' is a word which began its effective political career when it was taken into the English language from abroad about the middle of the nineteenth century. In the next fifty years it underwent several changes of meaning before settling down from about 1900, at a time when it was ceasing to be mainly an English word and was launching out on its international career, as a term of abuse con- noting the possession of or the search for unjust power beyond a nation's natural or historical frontiers. In this book Mr. Schmidt has utilised the researches of the late Professor Koebner to give us an analysis of the history of the word in these fifty years of transition and has added three chapters on the international phase of that history in the twentieth century up to 1960. - In some ways it is a more satisfactory book than Professor Koebner's earlier work entitled Empire. In its effort to trace changes in the concept of empire, that book ranged from the fall of the Roman Republic through the whole length and variety of medieval aud early modern times before grappling with the semantic prob- lems of the period which saw the rise of the British Empire, the American and the French Revolutions and the career of the first Napoleon. It was inevitable—and one may say this without casting doubt on the value of the semantic approach in historical studies—that so extensive a treatment of such a difficult question incor- porated several debatable conclusions. This new book contains fewer uncertainties, and is more of a unity, because it deals with a more restricted field.. In addition to confining itself to the past hundred years, it directs its attention to only one aspect of the problem dealt with in the earlier book by choosing to, present the history of the word 'imperialism' rather than to continue

the analysis of changes in the concept of empire.

Until about 1900 the word was scarcely current except in English or as a foreign word used only in reference to the phenomenon of the British Empire. This fact explains why, after 1900, there was so strong a tendency to think that the rule of foreign peoples beyond the seas was imperialist, but that the oppression of foreign peoples inhabiting the same land-mass as the oppressor was not. It is all the more ironical and significant, in view of this later tendency, that the word was imported into the English language from France in order to describe the character of the regime of the first Napoleon which Louis Napoleon was judged to be at- tempting to restore there; and that it retained this connotation of Caesarism in domestic policies even after it was first transferred from use in con- nection with foreign domestic rule to use as a slogan in British politics.

As Mr. Schmidt points out, the ward could hardly have connoted a type of domestic rule for so long if there had been any co-ordinated and comprehensive concept of the British Em- pire itself at this time. Such a concept was so slow to arise, indeed, that it was not until the 1880s that the word was firmly and exclusively associated with the question of what ought to be the aims of the British in relation to their own possessions overseas. At that time, losing temporarily its earlier pejorative sense, becoming 'a good thing,' imperialism' meant first the aim and policy of seeking to establish closer ties be- tween the British and their kinsmen in the over- seas settlements, and then, especially in the 1890s, it came to connote both this and the equally approved mission of educating colonial races in Africa and Asia. But with the Boer War, again in the course of British domestic disputes, it again became a term of abuse, used primarily now to depict British activities overseas as unjust and capitalistic exploitation.

There is some danger of distortion in at- tempting to break up this period of transition too rigidly into separate phases. Further con- fusion can arise if one concentrates too ex- clusively upon tracing the development of the word 'imperialism' in isolation from the activities and sentiments which it came at different times to subsume. Mr. Schmidt has not been entirely successful in avoiding these pitfalls. Thus, while dating the attachment of the word to the problem of the British Empire in the 1880s, he has to note that as early as 1868 the Spectator was using the phrase 'imperialism in its best sense' to mean the opposite of the policy of getting rid of colonies and letting the white settlements become entirely independent of the United Kingdom. Thus again, to illustrate the second of these dangers, the fact that Imperialisnf came to incorporate the idea of 'the white man's burden' only after the 1880s can too easily be interpreted to mean that this idea itself was neither current nor potent before then—which would be a grave mistake. But these difficulties are to some extent inherent in the semantic approach; and though they make Mr. Schmidt's book difficult to unravel in places, it remains the case that he has produced a revealing and valuable, if somewhat specialist, analysis in this history of a political word.