>Imperialism and anti-imperialism in the small hours


It’s early morning but I’m wide awake and I can’t sleep, so I go downstairs to read. I finish off a couple of books I was reading, and almost got through, over the holiday. I always to try and read couple of non-academic books wholly unrelated to Eastern Europe, usually an impulse buy when I’m Christmas shopping or an impulse borrow from the local library. This year’s selections are a biography, Tim Jeal’s Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, and Stefan Aust’s recently reissued book about The Baader-Meinhof Complex about the far left terrorism of the Red Army F(r)action in 1970s West Germany.
Henry Morton Stanley turned out to be neither the pillar of the British upper classes nor the go-getting America newspaperman I had variously imagined (although he played both roles) but someone born poor and illegitimate in provincial Wales. Abandoned in a workhouse for most his childhood, he made his way, emotionally withdrawn but very determined – through the

the expanding late Victorian world and ended up in the USA, where he reinvents himself as Henry M. Stanley (assumed names, but later backed by a concocted story of adoption by a wealthy cotton planter); had a series picaresque not to say bizarre series of adventures as trader, gold prospector, deserterfrom both sides in the US Civil War before finally making it at the age of 30 as journalist and heading off to Africa for he journalistic scoop of the century: ‘discovering’ missionary and explorer David Livingstone, whom his best selling book subsequently mythologizes as a saintly figure.

He then turned explorer himself making two epic journeys (in opposite directions) between Zanzibar and the mouth of the Congo, sorting out the true source of the Nile and opening up central Africa for European colonialism. His candour and exaggeration of his ruthlessness in his books, says Jeal, left him with a reputation for brutality, argues, was basically undeserved. Despite laying the some of the foundations of King Leopold’s Congo Free State, he can’t, says Jeal reckons, be held directly responsible for the atrocities of Belgian colonialism in Congo, which later transpired, but was guilty of some political misjudgements.

This thoroughly documented shades-of-grey interpretation and mildly revisionist agenda came across as basically plausibe, although left the question of how (and if) we should judge Stanley, – as well as much of the psychology that drove him – hanging in the air. Most interesting (if underplayed in the book) was the political and social context of the time that emerges: public and political attitudes to Africa is far from the gung-ho imperialist racism overlaid by a patina of religiosity that we perhaps imagined. Indeed, what is striking is how strong altruistic, humanitarian and liberal impulses seem to have be, albeit it mixed with Realpolitik and economic self-interest. Uncomfortably, recasting some of the politically incorrect language of the time, Stanley (in Jeal’s account, at least) and others emerge as a worrying modern figures concerned to deliver failed and/or underdeveloped states on the global periphery from local warlords, bringing them the benefits of development (‘civilization’), open and global markets and combating mass people trafficking (abolition of East African slave trade).

Anti-imperialism in West Europe, this time in the form of protest against and outrage about the Vietnam War and depredation of the Third World were also a driving force the story of the Baader-Meinhof group and the radical left in 1970s West Germany, as told in Aust’s reworked The Baader-Meinhof Complex, now, of course, a glossy and violent new film. Unlike Jeal’s biography which loses a bit of readability by dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, Aust’s book has fragmented episodic structure, making for a fast and compelling read . It’s easy to see why it was filmed as blockbusting political thriller-cum crime story-cum reconstruction of the 1970s.

Aust clearly knows his stuff, however, having been personally acquainted with some the leading dramais personnae and obsessively followed up the RAF story through the three decades worth of research and interviews with cops and terrorists alike. Without being too didactic, the book debunks much of the (self-)mythologization of and violent chic of the RAF as misguided but pure martyrs, showing them as a strong on verbiage, low on ideology and strategy, high on brutality (emotional and physical) and at key moments sustained by East European secret services and factions of the PLO.

There are gaps in Aust’s vividly but briefly sketched account of the West German radical and ultra-radical left of the 1960s and 1970s . However with forty years’ hindsight the sociological and ideological sources of the RAF seem clear enough: orthodox Leninist vanguardism, Maoist voluntarism; anarchist ‘propaganda of the deed’ and New Left notions of radical political engagement as a form of personal therapy; the moral ambiguity of incompletely de-Nazified West Germany and the German Social Democrats’ coming to terms with it (many RAF members were briefly members of the SPD youth); and the New Left project of students, lumpenproletariat and Third World as a substitute for the Western working class’s definitive failure to show up (again) for its appointed historical role of revolutionary vanguard.

The psychology and background key RAF personalities, however, remain as much of a cipher that of the compulsively driven Stanley and his fellow explorers/adventurers, although both seem to share a self-destructive urge and strangely toxic mix of overblown moral certainty and callous brutality. However, I couldn’t help the rather odd feeling that world of the Baader-Meinhof Complex was utlimately more distant and unfamiliar – perhaps the word I am looking for is irrelevant – than of that Stanley and late Victorian imperialism/globalization in the making.

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