Aristocrats and imperialists have had a raw deal from historians, or so Dominic Lieven believes. The grand historical narratives constructed over the past century have given us the dauntless entrepreneur (now making something of a comeback), the intrepid scientist and explorer, the heroic proletarian and even, in neo-Fabian vein, the valiant, modernising bureaucrat. Above all, the multiple varieties of "history from below" have presented many variants on the theme of the rebel as hero: rebels against capitalism or patriarchy, against states and empires, against every form of oppression. Landowners, nobles and imperial proconsuls, by contrast, are usually either villainous or tragi-comic figures. Meanwhile, the twin ideals of popular democracy and national self-determination enjoy a seemingly undisputed global dominance. By their measure, neither empire nor aristocracy, as a political system, has any legitimacy or moral credit.
Lieven's provocative, sweepingly ambitious history of empires offers a challenge to that particular structure of narrative and belief. The great modern empires about which he writes - the British, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and even the Ottoman - had virtues that have been too readily forgotten. They provided stability, security and legal order for their subjects. They constrained and, at their best, strived to transcend the potentially savage ethnic or religious antagonisms among their peoples. And the aristocracies that ruled most of them were often far more liberal, humane and cosmopolitan than their supposedly more democratic successors.
The rivers of blood undammed by each empire's fall, from the partition of India to the present plight of Chechnya, should make us think again about the alleged virtues of "national democracy", in whose name so many atrocities are sanctified. In particular, Lieven argues that the record of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, often caricatured as the "prison-house of nations", should be revalued as a precocious effort at multicultural and multinational harmonisation, strikingly akin to today's European Union.
Empire may sound like a crude political polemic, or a thinly disguised apologia for Lieven's own ancestors - who came from the summit of the tsarist nobility on one side, the Anglo-Irish Establishment on the other - but such an impression is false. The book repeatedly draws contemporary poli-tical lessons, sometimes percipient, sometimes jarringly intrusive. It manifests, too, considerable pride in those ancestors, while insisting that they were as much victims as children of empire. But Empire is chiefly a work of great scholarship, a formidable, if uneven, exercise in comparative history on a grand scale, based on enviably wide reading and hard thought.
The most impressive chapters are those dealing with Russia and its empire - as one would expect, given that this has been Lieven's academic specialism. His sections on other imperial systems, especially the British, are more liable to criticism from specialists. But this is a risk run by anyone who attempts such a wide-ranging study - and, as Lieven argues, it is a risk worth taking.
Lieven mounts an intriguing argument on the entrenched academic division between history and what some insist on calling "political science". He is critical of social scientists' paucity of historical awareness, and their excessive love of conceptual model-building, which leads to a spurious kind of analytical clarity, false to the complex muddle and murk of real history. His complaints about conceptual fetishism are justified - but, even so, one can't help feeling that a fuller discussion of broad concepts and trends would have been more helpful to his enterprise.
For a start, there is too little about the relationships between empire and economics. In imperial systems such as the British empire, there was a great gulf in economic and technological development between the conquering peoples and their subjects. In others - the Russian and Ottoman, for example - the gap was fairly small. Racial ideologies became central to British colonial rule, at least in its later stages, but this is far less clearly the case for Russian or Turkish colonisers. There is also a crucial historical division between seaborne, "long-distance" empires (such as the British, French or Spanish empires) and those where the colonising country expanded directly outward from its own borders (such as the Russian, Chinese, Ottoman and Austro- Hungarian empires).
Lieven is alert to these issues, but gives them less attention than they deserve. There is something unfinished about the intellectual architecture of Empire, a sense of an argument not followed all the way through. But that may not be entirely the author's fault. He complains that he had to rush to meet publication deadlines imposed by the British university system's Research Assessment Exercise. If the book hadn't been published in 2000, his department at the London School of Economics would have lost government funding. Thus corners had to be cut. The admission is at once admirably honest and a deserved rebuke of the silly demands that the RAE imposes on academic writers. The upshot is that what could have been a great book is, instead, only a very good one.
Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture (OUP, £25)