The Course of the Empire

In an article in the Observer on Sunday, June 3rd, the elderly Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawn, asks “Who controls the world now that the age of empire is dead?” 

He notes that whilst no state that was once an empire has any hope of restoration of that empire, yet they tend “to look back on the times of past greatness with pride and nostalgia”.  More importantly these states continue to believe that they are morally superior to those countries they conquered.  The fond memories of colonisers are at odds with the history of the creation of the new states that emerged as colonies disintegrated.  Here the memory of the empire is, says Hobsbawn, nearly always dominated by a history which tends to take the form of a foundation of struggle and liberation and which tends to exaggerate the independent role of the forces of liberation and to oversimplify the relationship between an empire and its subject population.

“The relation between empires and their subjects is complex.  Brief periods of foreign occupation may rest essentially on military power and willingness to use coercion and terror, but these alone cannot guarantee durable foreign rule, especially when that rule is exercised by a tiny number of foreigners, such as the few thousand British civilians governing India.  Historically, empires may have been conquered by military force, but if they wanted to last, they had to rely on two main instruments: co-operation with local interests and the legitimacy of effective power while also exploiting the disunity of their adversaries and their subjects.”

These instruments are no longer effective since most states have access to weapons sufficiently powerful to hold strong states at bay.  The presence of a few troops is no longer enough to maintain local regimes.

“In these circumstances, there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, let alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony, unprecedented in history, by a single state, however great its military force.  Nothing has been more clearly established in the past five years than the preordained failure of a singlehanded world hegemony by the USA.  The age of empire is dead. We shall have to find another way of organising the globalised world of the 21st century.  And so far we have not found it.”

Eric Hobshawm celebrates his 90th birthday this week.  A profile of him written four years ago can be found here:,12241,791760,00.html