In his celebrated “Letter from Birmingham jail”, written in 1963 while in prison for having taken part in a banned march against segregation, Martin Luther King Jr describes receiving a letter from a “white brother in Texas” who had told him that “all Christians know that the coloured people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry”. “Such an attitude”, King wrote, “stems from a tragic misconception of time”, from “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills”.
I was reminded of that line as I read Priya Satia’s Time’s Monster. For it’s the same “irrational notion” about “the flow of time” against which Satia, professor of international history at Stanford University, argues.
Time’s Monster is a book about history and empire. Not a straightforward history, but an account of how the discipline of history has itself enabled the process of colonisation, “making it ethically thinkable”.
Satia’s story begins with the Enlightenment, when the traditional idea of time as cyclical unwound into a linear vision of history, which came to be seen as “something that moves irresistibly forward”. History became something that humans made but also that made humans. Humans and history were both seen as possessing agency. This allowed “history to exercise the power of moral judgment”. Morality was defined in terms of the progress brought about by the unfolding of history. History revealed the institutions and the peoples that had “become obsolete”. Obsolescence, novelist Amitav Ghosh has observed, is “modernity’s equivalent of perdition and hellfire”. The “most potent words of damnation” in the modern world, Ghosh has noted, “is the malediction of being on the ‘wrong side of history’”.
The Enlightenment’s obsession with progress, combined with an unshakable attachment to moral universalism, Satia suggests, helped “normalise the violence of imperial conquest”. Colonialism came to be seen as morally just, a means of bringing progress to non-European peoples, freeing them from their own barbarism.
Liberal imperialism was inherently contradictory, both demanding and denying freedoms and liberties. So John Stuart Mill, in his classic book On Liberty, could argue that “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement”. Those who had not sufficiently progressed along the path of history should not be treated like fully “civilised” peoples. “The historian’s craft”, Satia suggests, “proved essential to smoothing over” such contradictions, allowing the sheer brutality of the British empire to be glossed over as the “collateral damage” of necessary progress.
Satia wants to ditch a linear view and 'reconsider history as cyclical, if not aimless'
Time’s Monster is a coruscating and important reworking of the relationship between history, historians and empire. It is also a frustrating account. The thread running through Time’s Monster is the need to understand the catastrophic consequences of rooting ethical claims in particular historical narratives. Satia castigates historians – Thomas Macaulay, James Mill and John Robert Seeley, among others – for having acted as handmaidens to imperial power. In the final chapter, though, she worries that historians have in recent decades become sidelined by political leaders and that new kinds of experts – economists and political scientists – have taken their place, experts who seem even more willing to be bag carriers for the powerful.
Historians who are critical of imperialism must, Satia insists, “assert their expertise on policy matters against the monopolistic claims of social scientists”, to help shape contemporary foreign policy. Many historians were, she observes, opposed to the Iraq war, but were too far removed from the sources of power to have any influence. She even calls on historians to “reprise” the Enlightenment project of “arriving at (new) judgments of value through history”. Today’s historians, in other words, should continue the practice of using history as a means of deriving moral norms, but with different norms, a morality that supports the powerless rather than the powerful. It’s a demand that might seem obvious, but it’s also one that cuts against the grain of much of the argument in previous chapters which has condemned the very act of using the lessons of history to craft moral norms.
Satia wants also to ditch a linear view of history and to “reconsider history as cyclical, if not aimless”. The “fatal flaw” with Enlightenment-derived notions of history, she argues, is that they place humans rather than “biology, geology and astronomy” at its centre. In fact, the idea of humans making history, rather than simply being made by history, was one of the great leaps in Enlightenment thinking. The problem was that history also came to be seen as something that automatically progresses, that there was, in King’s words of criticism, “something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills”. This was a vision of history that allowed certain peoples and nations to be damned as backward or obsolete and provided moral justification for colonialism. Yet replacing it with a conception of history as “circular”, which by definition abjures the possibilities of permanent change, a notion of history that is defined more by “biology, geology and astronomy” than by human activity, would not, it seems to me, be much of a gain.
Time’s Monster helps lay bare the discipline of history’s “collusion in empire”. It also reveals, however, perhaps unwittingly, what remains valuable in Enlightenment ideas of history and of humanity.
• Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia is published by Allen Lane (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply