Empire and literature

Issue: 127

Gareth Jenkins

A review of Jonah Raskin, The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (Monthly Review Press, 2009), £15.95

It seems strange to review a book that was first published nearly 40 years ago. Yet we are once again in a period of imperialist war and resistance. Back then, it was the war in Vietnam that triggered revolt. By 1971 (the date of the book’s original publication) a generation of young students was inspired by the resistance of the Vietnamese people, by national liberation struggles more generally and by the fight for black liberation at home. The ruling elite of the US appeared no longer invincible; its ideology (the “anti-communist” ideology of the “American way of life”) was open to challenge for the first time since McCarthyism had closed down the left in the early 1950s.

Raskin’s introduction to the new edition captures something of the anger that he and other like-minded students felt. They were no longer prepared to reverence either the literary canon (that list of “great English writers” said to embody the “liberal” values in the name of which imperialist war was being justified) or the English and US literary critics that endorsed the traditional canon. They longed for “a red-hot furnace to begin to thaw the Cold War thinking that had been taken up by academics”.1 And the bellows for this furnace lay outside mainstream US society in Third World revolt overseas and by black people and, more vaguely, the young at home.2

Raskin rejects the pretence that literature is politically neutral (a neutrality seen as deeply complicit with defence of the status quo). Raskin makes clear his own open commitment to the struggles of the oppressed colonial peoples by prefacing his book with long quotations from Fidel Castro and from the great Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet.

Raskin focuses on fiction written at the zenith of British imperial power, particularly the novels and short stories of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. This fiction faces the challenge of imperialist barbarism in a way that the 19th century literature of a safe and settled society did not.

Even more crucially, so does the critic. Raskin attacks the eminent, establishment critics of his day—in particular TS Eliot, EM Forster, FR Leavis and Lionel Trilling, whom he flays for being the “gangsters, conspirators and terrorists of the literary page”. He rounds on them for having imprisoned, bought off and killed culture and for having ignored the new voices of the oppressed and the marginalised: the new literature of liberation. Time, says Raskin, “to drop out, leave behind us tradition, art for art’s sake, the values of stability, order, continuity, the politics of liberalism, the feelings of pessimism, boredom, defeatism, egotism, alienation”.3

What is Raskin’s central argument? It is not just that a new subject matter emerged at the end of the 19th century—one that for the first time extended the range of fiction beyond metropolitan life to life in the colonies or semi-colonies (with novels set in India, the East Indies, South America or Africa). It is also that it shattered past forms of fiction. The reality of empire “came crashing through the walls of the nineteenth-century novel” and so forced novels and short stories to be written in different ways.4 The settled novel form of the 19th century would no longer do—new forms of narrative and new types of character had to emerge if justice was to be done to a changed reality.

The key writer to rise to this challenge was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), and Raskin devotes more attention to his fiction than to any other writer of the period. Raskin uses Conrad’s near contemporary, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), as a foil. Both were in some sense outsiders. Neither was born in Britain; both spent their formative years in different empires: Conrad in Russian-dominated Poland, Kipling in India. But only one produced really valuable work. Conrad was primarily a critic of empire while Kipling was primarily an apologist for it. Conrad effected a revolution in the novel; Kipling did not. Conrad “leveled the old house of nineteenth-century fiction” and “ripped asunder the imperial house of modern fiction”, which Kipling had constructed. “Kipling’s walls hide the truth of imperialism. Conrad broke them down. He dragged the colonial world onto stage center of English fiction”.5

The antithesis Raskin establishes between Conrad and Kipling might sound crude. But he is generally responsive to the contradictions at work in both novelists. In practice, though his theoretical framework does not help him (as we shall see), he avoids a crude reductionism that would make a piece of literature only as good as its political message. He is aware that the literature of imperialism may contain both a complicity with, as well as an implicit questioning of, imperialism.

Raskin shows, for example, that, for all its open support for empire and belief in racial hierarchy, Kipling’s fiction betrays ambiguities. There is contempt for the imperial bureaucrat and those who live in arrogant ignorance of the people over whom they govern. Nor can his fiction ever quite deny either the attractively teeming liveliness of the empire’s non-white subjects or the estranging and brutalising effect of empire on the very people who govern it. These ripples beneath the ideological surface disturb and complicate his work, giving it an interest, even appeal, which it would not otherwise have. In this respect, Raskin develops (even where he radically disagrees with) the insights of George Orwell’s 1942 essay on Kipling and anticipates the critique developed by Edward Said, who recognised the value of Raskin’s pioneering analysis in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism.

Raskin’s analytic strength is even more evident when he turns to Conrad’s celebrated novella Heart of Darkness (1899). His approach is very different from the scholarly 1963 Norton edition, reprinted the same year as Raskin’s book appeared, the preface of which manages to avoid any mention of “colonialism” or “empire”. The significance of the story for the Norton editor was that it moves away from Conrad’s earlier objective style into the psychological and the symbolic. Thus the “darkness” of the title floats free of any connection with imperialism to become an asocial characteristic of the human condition.6

Raskin does not ignore the symbolic dimension of “darkness”. But the human condition he sees being explored is one rooted in imperialism’s reversal of all the old moral certainties: the light of civilisation has become the darkness of barbarism, progress a descent into hell, enlightened thought the rationale for slaughter, the intrepid individual adventurer the bearer of destructive exploitation on a mass scale. Thus Raskin draws attention to the chilling contradiction Conrad pointedly makes between the noble sentiments of the report that the anti-hero Kurtz writes for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and Kurtz’s scrawled comments at the end: “Exterminate all the brutes”.7

Raskin’s analysis of what is probably Conrad’s finest novel, Nostromo (1904), is also stimulating. Again, what is clear is Raskin’s sensitivity to the aesthetic complexity of this novel (particularly its characterisation and plot) but also his ability to embed this in an acute sense of Conrad’s awareness of the way imperialism was transforming and undermining a whole society. Yet there is also, for Raskin, a limitation to Conrad’s vision: the novelist is unable to see any kind of alternative to the world of imperialism and so settles for making do with a space within it.

Raskin gives us two Conrads to help explain this—the Polish Conrad rooted in a culture of aristocratic resistance to Russian imperialism, and the English Conrad who settled down as a loyal subject of his adopted country. This contradictory combination explains for Raskin the deep conflicts that give Conrad’s imagination and writing such power and which lift him above Kipling. He may reject any challenge to the social order, but he is gripped by the horror of imperialism and recognises—particularly in Nostromo—that it inexorably breeds resistance: the “Conrad paradox is that he detests both Empire and revolution”.8

The rest of the book turns its attention to other writers. EM Forster’s Howards End is treated dismissively (“a sappy, sentimental book…reactionary, counterrevolutionary in content and form”).9 Forster’s A Passage to India, on the other hand, is analysed with greater respect. Though he is unsympathetic in general terms, Raskin recognises the dilemma of the novelist caught between his philosophy of personal relationships and his recognition that larger social conflicts cannot be dissolved in the warmth of individual friendship. One such conflict, unavoidable by virtue of the novel’s being set in India, is that of national liberation. Raskin finds the last scene in the novel, in which Aziz, probably the first rounded black character in English fiction, parts from his English friend, “flat”.10 He seems to be missing some of the tensions here. Forster may be unsympathetic to Indian nationalism and ambiguous about the forces preventing friendship (is it something about the physical nature of India itself, rather than the social conditions bred by empire?). But Raskin misses out on how much their friendship is a rebuke to the racism of Empire and therefore a pointer to the future possibility of genuine equality.11

So, whereas setting Conrad against Kipling works well on the whole, it is difficult to say the same about Raskin’s pairing of DH Lawrence with EM Forster. He is far too keen to endorse Lawrence as a radical critic of modern civilisation (Women in Love is “totally revolutionary—a new book for a new age”),12 even if he recognises that there is a problem with Lawrence’s tendency to seek refuge from the crisis of the modern world through elitist utopias. This enthusiasm for Lawrence is perhaps due to his uncritical (and very 1960s) elevation of Lawrence into a prophet of sexual liberation (with only a passing acknowledgement that Lawrence could be a male chauvinist) as inspirational as a Third World rebel.13 And Raskin’s analysis of minor novelists like Joyce Cary and LH Myers (virtually unread today) feels lightweight, making the end of the book an anticlimax.

The revolt of the 1970s against the cultural status quo is what gives his book its vitality. The same cannot be said of that other inheritance from 1970s radicalism: a semi-Maoist, semi-Guevarist guerrillaism that frames his general understanding of culture. Mostly this produces minor, if irritating, blemishes in his analysis of the literature—the references to Mao, Che and Fidel are more decorative than organic.14 But there is a more general problem, which is that Raskin’s stark opposition between the 19th and 20th century novel comes close to a dismissal of all past culture as “non-revolutionary”. This idea can be traced back to the Futurist and Proletkult movements around the time of the Russian Revolution and, more pertinently, to Maoist notions of “cultural revolution”.15

Close—but without going the whole hog. For this is, after all, a book that deals with “high” culture, not with “black culture, the art and literature of Third World people, the literature of liberation”, which Raskin attacks Trilling for ignoring.16 Conrad can be rescued as a kind of revolutionary manqué, a white man siding with black liberation.17 This, frankly, is wishful thinking—a projection, one is tempted to say, of Raskin’s self-image as revolutionary critic.

So there is a certain inconsistency at work here. His best analysis is at odds with his general theory. What would resolve this would be a better concept of culture—one closer to the classical Marxist tradition. Two points need to be made in this respect.

The first is that classical Marxist theory distinguishes between what a cultural practitioner may believe and what his or her work reveals. The French 19th century novelist Balzac was no revolutionary (he believed in Throne and Religion), but his fiction could not help but be a revolutionary critique of the way capitalist development was undermining society.

The reverse is also true. The fact that a writer is a revolutionary does not necessarily mean that he or she produces good literature with critical insights. Such literature may simply be mediocre propaganda (mediocre in the sense of aesthetically poor). This was the basis of Trotsky’s argument against the claims made for proletarian literature in Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

So there is no need to strain to fit Conrad into a revolutionary mould. His life experience and command of literary technique allowed him a greater degree of independence from the prevailing cultural norms than his contemporaries. Thus his best work contains aesthetically compelling insights into the barbaric ways in which imperialism works—even though running through it is an ideological strand that defends the system, if partially and unconvincingly.18

The second point relates to class—the altogether missing element in Raskin’s book. No class agent of change appears in his discussion of liberation from imperialism, nor is it present in any discussion about the nature of culture. It is as if revolutionaries can substitute themselves for class forces and the writer as a revolutionary can create a culture worthy of the name.

Raskin fails to look deeper. Historically, of course, culture has always been shaped by ruling class interests—in that sense, culture, however refined, is always a culture used alongside exploitation and oppression to ensure subordination. Simultaneously, however, it is something more than this. Culture has also grown out of human beings’ “struggle with nature for existence, for the improvement of their conditions of life, for the enlargement of their power”.19 In other words, culture is central to our self-emancipation. In addition, culture reflects this contradiction in different ways. A rising class struggling to overthrow or displace a ruling class whose mode of production is decaying is likely to produce a culture that, while asserting its own interests, can also produce critical insights of importance to the process of humanity’s self-emancipation.

Thus, the culture of the 19th century (in particular, the 19th century novel) cannot be dismissed as “unrevolutionary” in comparison with the culture Raskin sees born of the challenge to imperialism. George Eliot is not a lesser writer than DH Lawrence because the former is supposedly locked into a genteel world whereas the latter is supposedly blowing it apart. Raskin can see a dynamic at work in Conrad. But he seems blind to the dynamic at work in George Eliot’s greatest novels, in particular, the conflict inherent in bourgeois society’s simultaneous promise and denial of individual self-fulfilment. This is a conflict that produces both comedy as individual egotism is punctured, and tragedy as individual aspiration is cut short. As if conscious that there is a problem here, Raskin suddenly and inconsistently changes tack. Having damned Eliot with faint praise, she then becomes, together with Emily Brontë and Dickens, one of the “arch-rebels” (like Conrad and DH Lawrence!) and part of the “history of cultural revolution…of anti-novelists”.20 Thus she is transformed from mild reformist into one of the good guys.

Finally, there is the semi-recanting of his revolutionary views in the afterword. Raskin says “it is not a revolution we most need, but a kind of restoration that sets back the clock… Perhaps we can reverse the imperial impulse and go back to the ideals of American democracy.” It is sad that Raskin now feels that the only way to destroy imperialism is by appeal to its spiritual essence—those “ideals” the US ruling class uses to justify invasion and occupation. The earlier Raskin could see through such lofty sentiments, as Conrad did in Heart of Darkness. Nevertheless, there is plenty in this splendidly pugnacious book for us to learn from.


1: Raskin, 2009, p17.

2: Are workers part of this revolt? Raskin doesn’t refer to them-indeed his frame of reference doesn’t mention class. Perhaps like many other radicals of the period, he assumes that the bulk of the working class has been bought off by imperialism’s super-profits. Raskin hints at this when he later analyses the way the working class in Conrad’s novel Nostromo is depicted.

3: Raskin, 2009, p40. Even the socialist critic Raymond Williams, though not part of this list of thieves and murderers, is later criticised for his inability to “tangle with imperialism”-p44.

4: Raskin, 2009, p43.

5: Raskin, 2009, p43.

6: Ignoring imperialism is not the worst sin. At the viva for my PhD on Conrad in 1973, one examiner claimed, based on his army experience, that the n-word was a nickname like any other; the other told me, quite without embarrassment, that “they do lie, you know”.

7: Quoted in Raskin, 2009, p154. This passage alone should make Heart of Darkness required reading for today’s believers in humanitarian interventionism.

8: Raskin, 2009, p172.

9: Raskin, 2009, p221; 229.

10: Raskin, 2009, p241.

11: There is, of course, a strong gay subtext at work in the novel, which turns love between the two men into an implicit revolt against the then status quo. This is something Raskin totally fails to see.

12: Raskin, 2009, p230.

13: Timothy Leary and Eldridge Cleaver (p42) are mentioned as two exiles Raskin visited in Algiers when finishing the book. Together with Lawrence, this makes sex, drugs and revolution an interconnected inspiration.

14: To give one example. The potentially interesting point about the role played by the character Martin Decoud, the alienated intellectual in Nostromo, in the struggle for independence is spoilt by Raskin’s somewhat forced comparison with Regis Debray, the admirer of and participant in the Cuban Revolution-”Decoud is destroyed by his past. Debray destroys his past and is reborn a revolutionary with the guerrillas in the mountains.” (p174)

15: Raskin says in his introduction: “Out of revolution comes culture; the new culture will flow out of the era of armed struggle; and armed struggle is born out of the cultural revolution”. Raskin, 2009, p41.

16: Raskin, 2009, p40.

17: “Conrad ended up thinking of himself as one of the Congo’s ‘white slaves’, in common bondage with Black slaves-bound to the imperial machine. The agent of colonialism, the victimiser, becomes conscious of his victimisation, his own oppression, and becomes a rebel.”-Raskin, 2009, p153.

18: Though they differ in their readings of Conrad, this acknowledgement is among the strengths of the approaches of both Edward Said and Terry Eagleton.

19: Trotsky, 1970, p84.

20: Raskin, 2009, p191.


Eagleton, Terry, 2005, The English Novel: An Introduction (Blackwell).

Orwell, George, 1942, “Rudyard Kipling”, Horizon (February), http://orwell.ru/library/reviews/kipling/english/e_rkip

Said, Edward, 1993, Culture and Imperialism (Chatto and Windus).

Trotsky, Leon, 1970, On Literature and Art (Pathfinder).