Abstract: Arthur James Balfour is remembered today as the British Foreign Secretary who signed a letter, dated November2, 1917, to Baron Rothschild. Generally known as the Balfour declaration, this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’ and added the qualification ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. In Chapter One of Orientalism, Edward Said examines another, somewhat earlier and less familiar declaration, this time in the course of a speech on June 13, 1910 to the House of Commons. Here Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’1
At a time when what many of us know about Balfour and other historical figures is largely derived from secondary sources, I argue that, while it might seem unexceptional, Said’s insistence on what they have actually said operates as a salutary form of criticism.
Edward Said begins ‘Knowing the Oriental’, the first chapter of his Orientalism by commenting on a speech to the British House of Commons, 13 June 1910, by Arthur James Balfour, a former Conservative Prime Minister and still a senior figure in the Party. Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we [the British Government] have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’.2 Rather than cite problems that arise from the difference in size between Egypt and these parts of Britain or in their distance from London, Balfour focuses on the fact, as he sees it, that in the history of the East,
you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries – and they have been very great [unlike, we might add, Yorkshire and the Isle of White] – have been passed under despotisms, under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation – and they have been very great – have been made under that form of government….[T]he working government which we have taken upon ourselves in Egypt and elsewhere is not a work worthy of a philosopher… it is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour3
Balfour insists that the Egyptians have benefited from British rule
Experience shows that they have got under [our rule] far better government than… they have ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilised West.
Balfour says nothing about how far the Egyptians appreciate what British rule has done for them. On this point, Said notes, it does not occur to him to let the Egyptians speak for themselves, since presumably any Egyptians who speak out are more likely to be agitators who wish “to raise difficulties” than good natives prepared to overlook the ‘”difficulties” of foreign domination’ (p.33)
Following this opening discussion, Balfour’s name does not appear much in the text, except in a few references to ‘the Balfour declaration’. So, we might ask, why would Said start his book with Lord Balfour? One possible answer is that Balfour’s name would already be known to many of Said’s readers as that of the British Foreign Secretary who signed an infamous letter, dated 2 November, 1917, to Baron Rothschild, a prominent member of the British Jewish community who was expected to forward the letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It was, in effect, a letter to British and thence to international Zionism. Generally known as the Balfour Declaration,4 this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. The letter adds a qualificatio: ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’.
Balfour’s earlier speech to the British Parliament about British rule in Egypt, with its striking declarative quality, was written only a few years before its more famous counterpart. Said’s examination of this speech gives his readers who know of Balfour only as signatory of his eponymous Declaration an important clue about how he may have understood the rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. It was clear to Balfour that, like most other peoples of the East and unlike those of Yorkshire and other parts of Britain, they had no understanding of self-government. Except for a few agitators, they would not know what to do with self-government if it were offered to them. What their rights and their interests are is not a matter to be decided by people who have no understanding of what might be involved in governing themselves.
On this reading, Said’s discussion of Bafour’s 1910 speech performs an important critical function by informing his readers what Balfour seems to have thought about the people who were likely to be displaced by the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It reminds us that little weight should be put on Balfour’s qualification concerning the rights of the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.
We can take this critical point a little further by recalling that, unusually for leaders of the British Conservative Party, Balfour was something of an intellectual who, a year or so before issuing his famous declaration, had published a critical Preface to the English translation of Heinrich von Treitschke’s Politics, a selection of his political lectures. Here, Balfour identifies himself as a liberal, unlike Tretschke, who had once been a member of the National Liberal Party but had abandoned his early liberalism long before the publication of this book,. Liberalism, Balfour says in a footnote, ‘is a name for principles of constitutional liberty and representative Government which have long been the common property of all parties throughout the English-speaking portions of the world.’ (p.ix). ‘All parties’ here naturally includes the British Tories, of which Balfour was a leading light. Since there is no reason to think that Balfour’s 1916 commitment to liberal principles was a recent development in his thought, we see here, and not for the first time, that influential liberal thinkers do not treat their principles as applying to the government of Orientals, to peoples of the East.
Balfour was a senior figure in the British Conservative Party. So, Balfour is a liberal, by his own assessment, and he is also a conservative. This raises the question of who we identify as liberal. One option, which I follow for the most part in this paper, is to say, as political theorists tend to do, that liberals are those who profess something like the principles that Balfour sets out in the footnote cited earlier. Other options are, first, to identify liberalism with a concern for economy in government, as Foucault sometimes appears to do5 and, second, like many historians, to describe as liberal anyone who belongs to a party or movement with the term ‘liberal’ in its name.6 Tony Abbott, Liberal Prime Minister of Australia at the time of writing, would be liberal in this last sense while Malcolm Turnbull, a senior figure in the Australian Liberal Party, would be liberal in all three senses.
I take Said’s insistence on what significant historical figures, like Balfour, have actually said to be a salutary form of criticism. I should qualify this immediately by adding that he would not want to copy out every word that Balfour may have said and nor would we want him to. There has to be an element of strategic calculation, a calculation that determines what is worth focusing on. In Said’s case, this is clearly a political calculation. This focus on what people say may not seem to be anything special, I will devote the remainder of this paper to indicating why I think it is important.
First, I can imagine some of my readers thinking: isn’t this just a standard feature of academic scholarship; isn’t it what we all do? Well, No, I don’t think we do, and for two reasons: first, we all know colleagues who will do anything to avoid critical engagement and, second, careful reading of familiar texts is the last thing that many academics now do. I say this, not because I see them as lazy – most, in my experience, work extremely hard – but for other reasons.
At one level, the reasons for this are fairly straightforward – I’ll add a few complications a little later. Even in areas, like literary criticism, political theory/history of political thought, and parts of cultural studies, most of us already know, from our own training, what the big names – Kant, Hume, Mill, Fanon, Said – have said. So, under pressure of time and rather than challenge the received wisdom, we find it easier to trot out the familiar quotations. Consider, as an example, the familiar principle of individual liberty stated in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty:
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good… is not a sufficient warrant (1977 , p.223, emphasis added)
This sounds nice and we’ve all seen it before, but the qualification, ‘member of a civilized community’ is disturbing. While the quoted passage taken as a whole could be read as identifying one of the distinguishing features of a civilised community, Mill’s qualification tells us that the principle need not apply to large sections of humanity, that is, to anyone who is not a member of a civilized society. We can see the consequences of this point in Mill’s next book Considerations on Representative Government, published only a couple of years after On Liberty. He describes representative government as
the ideal type of the most perfect polity, for which, in consequence, any portion of mankind are better adapted in proportion to their degree of general improvement. As they range lower and lower in development, that form of government will be, generally speaking, less suitable to them (1977 , p.413)
There are … conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization (1977 , p.567)
Earlier in the same book, Mill gives an example of the kind of vigorous despotism he has in mind:
Even personal slavery, by giving a commencement to industrial life, and enforcing it as an exclusive occupation of the most numerous portion of the community, may accelerate the transition to a better freedom than that of fighting and rapine (1977 , pp.394-5)
So much for the principle of individual liberty. Like many liberals of his time, Mill hated slavery. He invokes it here to make the point that it may be acceptable to sacrifice individuals but only under certain conditions – only, that is, if they belong to societies that range ‘lower and lower in development’, societies that, in other words, are not civilized.
Not only do many of our colleagues appear not to have read Representative Government carefully but, without wishing to name names,I have even heard people in conferences and seminars insist that Mill could not possibly have said anything like what I have just quoted him as saying – essentially because of his commitment to individual liberty and his well-known antipathy to slavery.
How can one respond to such comments: ‘Take yourself off to a good library and don’t leave until you’ve read the bloody text?’ One might say something similar to those philosophers who seem reluctant to acknowledge the racist assertions of Hume and Kant.7
My point is simply that the careful reading of texts is not as common amongst political theorists or historians of political thought as one might wish and that, as a result, misleading accounts of the views of significant figures and thus of the doctrines – such as liberalism – they are said to have espoused are widely accepted. This is one reason why a careful, critical reading of these historical figures have actually said can be politically important.
I promised earlier to complicate this straightforward story. The problem is that, in the absence of extensive serious critical engagement with their work, blandly conventional views of significant historical figures are still widely accepted and promulgated, giving us an anemic version of, in this case, liberal political thought. (Of course, Kant and Mill are not the only figures I could have picked on to make this point.) Something similar could be said about significant historical events but I need not go into that issue here.
What are we to make of all this? One complication worth noting here is that the publication of Uday Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire in 1999 provoked the emergence of a minor industry in the history of political thought concerned to explore whatever relationships there might be between liberal political thought and imperialism. Mehta had noted (pp.6-7) that most British political theorists in the nineteenth century were deeply involved with the empire in their writings but the historians’ debate has focused on the narrower issue of whether or not liberals supported imperialism (Bell, 2007). (It turns out, not surprisingly, that some did and others did not.) Some historians (eg Muthu 2003) confuse liberal criticism of colonial practices in particular cases, which, as Mehta notes (pp2-3), was not uncommon, with criticism of imperialism in general.8
Mehta argued that liberalism is centred on an inflexible epistemological stance in which the unfamiliar is forced into familiar schema and that this results in liberals being insensitive to difference. Encounters with others therefore involve subordination, not a conversation between equals. In this respect, Mehta argues, to adopt the liberal stance towards others is to rely on the backing of imperial power. His point here is not so much that liberalism favours empire but rather the reverse, that imperial power favours liberalism. Thus, the focus of the historians of political thought on whether or not liberals supported imperialism evades the point of Mehta’s argument. The major problem with Mehta’s argument, missed by the historian’s response, is that his focus on epistemology lets liberals of the hook too easily – suggesting that what is seriously objectionable about liberalism’s take on empire is not so much its politics as its theory of knowledge.
Leaving the historians’ response to one side, am I suggesting that there is a conspiracy among liberal political theorists to misrepresent liberalism’s past? Well, Yes. Conspiracy theories are not always wrong and there are real conspiracies out there, some of which involve people who identify as liberal: the Liberty Fund, for example, and several competing varieties of Straussian (see the revealing discussion in Jaffa, 2013). Liberals who teach political theory or the conventional ‘ideologies’ or ‘-isms’ courses in politics departments generally aim to present a positive image of their own doctrine.
Another part of the story is that prominent liberals have seemed uncertain about the ramifications of their imperial responsibilities. When J. S. Mill, who, like his father, spent much of his adult life as a senior officer with the British East India Company, discusses in his Autobiography (1873) the different influences on his thinking, it reads as if his work for the Company – in effect, his work in imperial administration – had no real impact on the development of his political thought. Zastoupil’s careful discussion (1994) clearly undermines this congenial fantasy. More to the point, Mill’s reflections on his experience at the London Office of the Company show up in the closing chapters of Representative Government.
Like other imperial administrators in London or Paris around his time, Mill tried to distance himself from the more unsavoury practices of the Company’s subordinates in the field. In his remarks on the people of British India towards the end of Representative Government, Mill observes that, in marked contrast to the enlightened views of the colonial government itself – that is, of Mill himself and his London colleagues – administrators on the ground will often be tempted to ‘think the people of the country mere dirt under their feet’ (p. 571) and to treat them accordingly. He adds that it will always be extremely difficult for the colonial government itself to eradicate these feelings. This observation, and the more general discussion of imperial rule in which it appears, is revealing in a number of respects: first and most obviously it displays Mill’s recognition that practices which he regarded as distinctly unsavoury were an unavoidable part of the Company’s rule over its Indian subjects; and second, in the suggestion that he and his colleagues in the London office would not themselves have condoned such practices, it also serves to convey a corresponding sense of Mill’s own degree of civilisation. Balfour’s reference, in a passage quoted by Said, to ‘the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour’9 convey’s a similar sense of Balfour’s own refinement. He does this ‘dirty work’ because it has to be done, not because he enjoys it.
Balfour’s speech brings us back to my starting point. Balfour had been challenged by the Liberal – in the sense of Party member – MP, J. M Robertson, ‘What right have you to take up these airs of superiority with regard to people you call Oriental’10
His reply begins, “I take up no attitude of superiority…” – and this from a man who goes on to say that Egyptians, unlike Britons, cannot be trusted to govern themselves. ‘That is the fact’, he insists. ‘It is not a question of superiority and inferiority.’
Some years earlier, while he was Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1887-91, Balfour had directly linked the issues of the superiority of some people and the relative inferiority of others with their capacities for self-government. His New York Times obituary (20 March 1930) reports him as saying that ‘in many respects they [the Irish] are our superiors. But in one respect they are our inferiors and no amount of Gladstonian rhetoric can make them otherwise. They are politically incapable of self-government.’11
In some of his later writing, Said insists on reminding his readers of what he clearly sees as the chaacteristic hypocrisy of many liberals. For example his Oxford Amnesty lecture refers us to Aimé Césaire’s view (1972) that ‘unpleasant European practices against people of colour’ were routinely covered by ‘a façade of appeals to the greater civilisational levels attained by the white race (Said 1992:184, emphasis added). Said goes on to say that powerful imperial governments ‘ babble on about how really moral they are as they do some particularly gangsterish thing.’ How, he asks, is there any ‘appeal for liberals in such rhetoric’? (190).
It is tempting to see this example just as Said presents it, that is, as yet another instance of liberal hypocrisy, as showing that, like the rest of us, liberals have acquired the habit of saying one thing and doing something else and of varying both what they say and what they do according to context. Yet, this perception would be neither interesting nor informative. Hypocrisy is a common enough feature of public life and pointing out that liberals engage in its practice would not distinguish them from anybody else. Much better, I think, to pay close attention to what liberals say or write and to the internal, if not particularly logical, ‘logic’ that connects its conflicting elements and thereby serves to generate the familiar hypocrisy: we should pay attention, for example, to Mill’s principle of individual liberty, which I quoted earlier. As Mill presents it, the principle applies to some people, who are members of civilized societies, but not to those who are not members of such societies. In these terms, the ‘hypocritical’, differential treatment of the English and their colonial subjects makes some kind of sense. Or when Balfour tells us that governing the people of Britain is not like governing Egyptians, his point, as he understands it, is simply that Egyptians require a more authoritarian kind of government – ‘its what they understand’, he might well have said, ‘what they are used to’ – than the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight or Yorkshire, not that one group is inferior and the other superior. We have seen that this last is exactly what he does think but it is not the point he tries to make in this speech:here are two kinds of people in the world – those who do and who do not belong to civilized societies – and they have to be governed differently.
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