Book Review, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire by Priya Satia.

Published in The Toynbee Prize Foundation, June 2021.

In February 2021, the British government announced the appointment of a “free-speech champion” for higher education, a new role aimed to guarantee the right of people to express their views on campus without fearing censorship or other sanctions. In an increasingly tense atmosphere of culture war, this move was taken as a sign of the government’s turn against ‘woke’ calls for re-evaluation of British heritage, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical assessment of Britain’s imprial past. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Oliver Dowden, the culture minister, thought it was necessary to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

As I was reading Priya Satia’s magisterial Time’s Monster, I could not but wonder how Dowden would have reacted to it. Satia’s well-argued book seeks to show how the study of history generated the moral and political scaffoldings that held up the British Empire. Historians provided the imperial enterprise with conceptions of “progress” and “civilization” that served to justify the conquest and domination of vast overseas territories and peoples. While Satia concedes that historians did not always have direct impact on politicians, she shows their long-lasting influence on British society, where contemporary scholars like Nigel Biggar and Niall Ferguson can still depict the British Empire as a vehicle of global positive change. The mere legitimacy of this position in Britain’s public debate today confirms the relevance and importance of Satia’s argument about the political and ethical implications of Britain’s understanding of its past.

For Satia, a professor of international history at Stanford University, since the eighteenth century British historians have developed a conception of a linear and progressive time that served to consolidate imperial rule in Africa, the Middle East, India and the Caribbean and to justify Britain’s brutality and violence. In an ambitious narrative that starts with the Enlightenment and ends with Brexit, Satia weaves together the ideas of a vast range of thinkers, mostly white British male, into a persuasive argument about the capacity of history-writing to shape collective conscience. In this sense, ideas about history create the mental landscapes that define and delimit human behaviour.

The main target of the book is the idea of progress, intended as a teleological temporal move towards a better future. Historians played a decisive role in describing time as linear, and, by consequence, in setting a universal standard of progress that all societies should be measured by. Satia’s strength is in showcasing the intellectual evolution of this idea in the hands of British historians over the past three hundred years. She draws on the writings of Macaulay and Seeley, Burke and Mill, outlining the modes of thinking that justified imperialism as an expression of Britain’s world-historical mission for progress. These historians’ role in creating and transforming Britain’s imperial consciousness has already been scrutinized by Jeanne Morefield, Duncan Bell and Stefan Collini, among others. Here, Satia situates them in a long durée narrative that effectively demonstrates the persistence of their ideas over time. As she shows in chapter 5, even their anticolonial opponents ended up accepting the same categories of progress and development that emerged from the imperialist historical narrative they sought to reject.

Time’s Monster is a useful read in today’s political climate, where historical narratives serve as weapons of exclusion and revolution. History has always been an educational tool at the hands of the state, but now, when the historical curriculum and heritage industry face constant challenging by those who see themselves excluded or silenced, the re-evaluation of the historians’ role in the public sphere seems more timely than ever. Intentionally or now, historians hold a significant power in forging society’s identity by recounting its past. Yet, as Satia argues in conclusion, history-writing is an ongoing process. While some see ‘re-writing history’ as a national offence, Satia reminds the readers that the quest for historical truth is never-ending. Looking forward, Satia invites her readers to question the imperial, linear and oppressive conception of history and to develop alternative, less linear and more complex histories.

The book’s rich and erudite narrative generates many reflections, but here I would like to focus on two wider questions that arise from it. From the perspective of international history, I wonder if this is a story about Britain, or about empires more generally. Did Britain develop a unique perception of its past that generated an urge for empire in a distinct way from other European empires, such as the French, Portuguese, German or Italian? Or, in alternative, is the temporal linearity of the historical narrative of progress an inherent aspect of all imperial ideologies? Non-British empires, including fascist Italy, were also motivated by visions of historical lineage, continuity and duty, relying on a mythologised Roman Empire, famously thought the notion of ‘Romanità’. The imagined conception of the Orient also did work to justify colonial invasion and rule. Should we therefore see Britain’s case as distinct, or is historical consciousness at the root of all modern empires?

This leads me to the second question. As a historian, Satia’s book seemed to me as a call for action. On the whole, historians come out of her narrative as powerful ideologues. Intentionally or not, they seem to hold the power to shape political ideas and transform the world (sometimes for the worse). While she acknowledges that historians do not always succeed in ‘speaking truth to power’ because politicians don’t like their advice or because they ignore it, she still seems to argue that they set the conceptual foundation for political action. Looking at the future, I would be interested to know more about the kinds of non-linear, non-oppressive histories that she envisages to reform the imperial mindset and offer new perspectives on Britain’s role in the world. Historians have already published damning accounts of Britain’s imperial past, many of which appear in the book’s notes, but do not seem to settle the debates on the Empire’s moral and political worth. Would a new conception of history succeed in transforming the historical perception of empire, where so many other critical histories have, apparently, failed?

Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci


The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.





Review of The Companion to Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron, 1966
Raymond Aron, 1966



Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Volume 15 of the Journal, Issue 1, February 2017.

The Companion to Raymond Aron by  Jose Colen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut (eds). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

The Companion to Raymond Aron seeks to provide an overview of the works and ideas of the French sociologist, political thinker and commentator Raymond Aron (1905-1983). The main aim of the book is to ‘aid in the study of Aron’s political, sociological and philosophical thought and writings’ (1). It is especially directed at the English-reading audience, where Aron’s ideas remain less known and studied, often due to lack of good English translations of his works. The volume is divided into three parts, representing the main themes of Aron’s work: international relations, philosophy, and the history of ideas. The long list of contributors include French and international scholars of Aron’s thought, such as Serge Audier, Pierre Hessner, Perrine Simon-Nahum, Joel Mouric, Iain Stewart, Daniel J. Mahoney and Giulio de Ligio. The essays seek to shed light on Aron’s versatile and diverse intellectual production, ranging from historical analysis, political commentary and philosophical studies. Each part includes numerous essays on various aspects of Aron’s thought, from totalitarianism to the Cold War, from the philosophy of history to theory of democracy, from Machiavelli to Marx. Furthermore, the volume includes an essay by Aron’s biographer, Nicolas Baverez, and a detailed bibliography of his works by Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut.

The volume provides valuable studies of Aron’s thought. The essays succeed in contextualising Aron in the intellectual horizon of the twentieth century and in shedding light on the nuances of his thought. The essays share a commitment to depicting Aron as an original liberal thinker who made a lasting, if sometimes under-appreciated, contribution to western liberal thought. Thus, the volume presents a complex, intriguing portrait of an important liberal thinker that goes beyond his stereotypical reputation as a ‘cold warrior’ and anti-communist. One of the underlying aims of many of the essays is to emphasise Aron’s relevance to contemporary thought, and to highlight his importance as ‘the greatest figure in French liberalism of the twentieth century’(3). It is doubtlessly true that, as the contributors to this volume ceaselessly argue, Aron’s impressive and original political analysis deserves a greater attention than it had so far received. Yet sometimes the reader is left with a feeling that a more critical rather than celebratory attitude would have helped some of the essays to do his work justice. Nonetheless, the volume makes an important and welcome contribution to the English-language literature on Raymond Aron.