Canon, to the right of them

Colonialism and Modern Social Theory

Gurminder K Bhambra & John Holmwood, Polity, 2021, 257 pp, £16

LESLIE JONES is unconvinced by a clever piece of ‘decolonizing’ advocacy

The toxic legacy of European colonialism and imperialism underpins the ‘populist ressentiment and rejection of multiculturalism’ of the white working class in Europe and the USA [i], according to Bhambra and Holmwood. Assumptions of racial superiority drive ‘populism and zenophobic hostility to minorities and immigrants.’ [ii] The authors dismiss the notion of a threat to European identity, which they attribute to ‘the loss of an advantage over people who were previously excluded and dominated.’ [iii] In short, ‘white privilege’ is key to understanding contemporary politics. Indicatively, Black Lives Matter is described herein as ‘…the self-organisation of African-American communities and the necessary protection of their lives.’ [iv] And Alexis de Tocqueville is credited for acknowledging, in Democracy in America, that whites were more prejudiced about blacks in states which had never known slavery.

Race, Bhambra and Holmwood contend, has been neglected by social theory, witness the exclusion until recently of W. E. B. Du Bois from the sociological canon. The authors, accordingly, undertake an immanent critique of the latter, in particular of Marx’s analysis of capitalist society. His predictions of immiseration, proletarianization and social boulversement, as they remind us, were confounded by the construction, pioneered by Bismarck, of national welfare states. Certain citizens, to wit, the indigenous populations, benefitted from the distribution of a ‘colonial patrimony.’ Racialised hierarchies emerged, contingent on the latter. A ‘caste-like relation’ was thereby superimposed on the supposedly universal class relations posited by Marx – witness the stark contrast between nominally free labour in Europe and the various forms of slave labour in the colonies and empires.

Colonialism and Modern Social Theory is evidently influenced by Lenin’s theory that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. Lenin maintained that a ‘privileged stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries [the so-called “aristocracy of labour”] lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions of members of uncivilised nations.’ [v] J A Hobson, likewise, in Imperialism (1902), emphasised the ‘economic parasitism’ that had enriched the bourgeoisie of the imperialist great powers and which enabled them to ‘to bribe its lower classes into acquiescence.[vi] European colonialism and imperialism were based on ‘conquest and extraction,’ assert Bhambra and Holmwood, in similar vein. Native populations were subjugated because according to the stadial theory of social evolution, they were less civilised.

The gravamen of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory is that sociology’s emergence ‘coincided with the high point of western imperialism[vii] and was profoundly influenced by this historical context. This contention is applicable, to some degree, to Max Weber, whose life and career broadly coincided with the rise and fall of the German Empire and for whom ‘the development of a national [German] identity… and German national greatness[viii] were fundamental.

Whereas Weber insisted that the sociologist be rigorously objective, he believed that the choice of subject matter or goals of any enquiry would and should be informed by values. Thus, in his 1895 inaugural lecture as Professor of Political Economy at Freiburg, subsequently published as ‘The Nation State and Economic Policy’, Weber adopted ‘a German policy and a German standard.[ix] Joachim Radkau considers the Freiburg address ‘one of the earliest high-profile signals’ that Germany should strive to become a world power by securing overseas territories.[x] Weber viewed international affairs à la Darwinism, as an ‘eternal struggle’ between nation states.

The basis of Weber’s Freiburg address was his empirical study of agricultural workers east of the Elbe, where German peasants were being displaced by Poles. Weber considered the very presence of the latter as ‘problematic for the development of national identity.’ He advocated building up small holdings for native Germans in the East, as a bulwark against the Slavs. Polish peasants and casual labourers were allegedly prepared to work at lower rates on the large estates of the Junkers. Indeed, Weber claimed that the ‘small Polish peasant…[is] prepared to eat grass.’ And he noted that whereas the Polish peasants in the east were Catholics, the more enterprising and progressive local German population was mainly Protestant. Here we have the germ of Weber’s idea of ‘cultural deficits associated with race or religion,’ and of an ‘inner compulsion to work,’ as elaborated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[xi]

To paraphrase Talcott Parsons, who now reads Marx? Marx’s reputation, like that of Durkheim, is in sharp decline whereas Weber’s goes from strength to strength. It will doubtless withstand this admirably written and researched attempt to decolonize the canon.[xii]

[i] Colonialism and Modern Social Theory pvii
[ii] Ibid., p22
[iii] Ibid., pix
[iv] Ibid., pix
[v]  V I Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism
[vi]  Hobson, quoted in Imperialism and the Split in Socialism
[vii] Colonialism…, p5
[viii] Weber, quoted in Ibid. p117
[ix] Weber, quoted in Ibid., p116
[x] Joachim Radkau, Max Weber; a Biography, p128. And see ‘Minimising Max,’ Leslie Jones, Quarterly Review, Summer 2010
[xi] Colonialism… p119. What precisely turns peasants or slaves into reliable wage earners? See ‘Max Weber and the Souls of Black Folk,’ Christopher McAuley, Church Life, February 2020
[xii] So will that of Herbert Spencer, Bhambra and Holmwood’s negative comments (p15) notwithstanding

Fear of frying

Visitors to Yadegar Asisi’s ‘Dresden 1945’ installation at the Panometer in Dresden in January 2015

Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, Sinclair McKay, Viking, 2020

LESLIE JONES revisits the Dresden raid of February 1945

“Man is at bottom a savage, horrible beast” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Historian James Holland, a ubiquitous presence on television programmes about World War 2 these days, featured in Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany. In the undated footage in question, a group of Jews are being deported from Dresden. Holland confides that he had always considered the city “an innocent place”, bombed needlessly in February 1945. But having watched this amateur film, he reminds us that it was also a rail hub with over 140 factories producing war material. For example, from 1942 the Zeiss Ikon camera plant produced precision instruments and optical technology for the military. It employed slave labour, including Jewish women. In this “hotbed of Nazism”, Holland maintains, the Jews were dealt with as brutally as anywhere in Germany. He acknowledges, however, that the Dresden firestorm was “horrendous”, something of an understatement.

In Greatest Events of World War 2 – Dresden Firestorm, Holland returned to this contentious subject. He referred to the German air raids on England, notably those on London and Coventry but conceded that in all of these attacks, ‘only’ 40,000 people were killed. Dresden suffered more losses between the 13th and 15th of February. Holland blames the Nazi authorities in Dresden, notably the Gauleiter of Saxony, Martin Mutschmann (‘King Mu’), for failing to build air raid shelters for the civilian population (but not for himself).

In his review of David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963), Harold Nicolson, like Holland, conflates the Dresden raid and the Shoah, calling the former “…the single greatest holocaust caused by the war”. In Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, in similar vein, Sinclair McKay notes that bomber crew survivors were proud of their service, as they considered Nazism “a tumour…[that] could not be cut out without damage to the surrounding flesh”. Or, put otherwise, they were “simply doing what they were told”.

Apropos the morality of incinerating 25,000 virtually defenceless civilians (there were no anti-aircraft guns or searchlights in Dresden by this time) McKay contends that the concept of a “war crime” implies “intentionality and rational decision-making”. He suggests, accordingly, that “these city bombings were not vengeful or consciously merciless” but “desperate reflexive attacks launched to make the other side simply stopWar, he avers, creates its own momentum, its own desperate logic.

McKay evidently sympathises with Air Chief Marshal Harris’ contention that the Nazis were a fanatical enemy that “could be vanquished only by the trauma of complete, civic obliteration…” (McKay, p 20). He concedes, however, that Harris hated the Germans and was indifferent to the fate of German civilians. His sole concern was the heavy losses of airmen in Bomber Command. Four out of every ten bomber airmen were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Any distinction between military and civilian targets was superseded by the concept of total war, as espoused by Harris, Churchill and his scientific adviser Lord Cherwell.

Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is replete with graphic and compelling details about the raid. The author tells us that at the zoo, “the elephants bellowed and the gibbons chattered in wild distress”; that people’s shoes melted and their clothes self-combusted; that bodies of pregnant women were torn open to reveal unborn children; that in the Great Garden, body parts hung from trees but that elsewhere, they were sent skywards; and that after the raid, “distressed ownerless dogs” kept people awake at night.

The author endeavours to contextualise or relativise the effects of carpet/area bombing (or “worker de-housing”) by dwelling on the undoubted fear experienced by bomber air crews and on the persecution of the Jews. But German historian Sönke Neitzel is correct when he asserts that the objective of terror attacks, like the one on Dresden commencing on the night of February 13, was to kill as many civilians as possible in order to hinder troop movements and to paralyse infrastructure and industry.

In the British press, the Dresden raid was presented as an attempt to help Marshal Ivan Konev’s advancing forces. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin’s commanders had asked the Anglo-Americans to target Dresden, a transport hub. But, in the event, the Germans did not buckle. Stories of rape and mutilation by the advancing Red Armies were rife and encouraged German soldiers to fight on. A PR disaster in the neutral press, the destruction of Dresden enabled Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to momentarily occupy the moral high ground.

Equivocation and jesuitry aside, Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is unquestionably well written. The memoirs and diaries of those who survived the ordeal, notably the diary of Victor Klemperer, the former Professor of Philology and Romance Studies at the Technical University of Dresden, enliven the narrative. McKay evidently understands why the “German Florence”, with its fine art and architecture, was so treasured by its citizens. As he remarks, “To each and every Dresdener, the city had a unique and perhaps sacred beauty”. And, in due course, every citizen of Dresden also understood “the terrible fragility of historic beauty” (McKay, ‘Why the Dresden bombers weren’t war criminals’, The Telegraph, 13th February 2020).