________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 7 . . . . November 24, 2006


Empire. (Groundwork Guides).

James Laxer.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, 2006.
144 pp., pbk. & cl., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-707-8 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-706-X (cl.).

Subject Headings:           
United States-Foreign relations-2001-.
United States-Military policy.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters & Raymond Sokalski.

*** /4


Empires have existed for thousands of years. Indeed, the first empires came into being at the very dawn of civilization. The imperial form of political and social organization has been one of the most persistent ways to govern societies, and continues to be extremely important in our world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Because empires take many different forms, a simple working definition is needed at the outset.

An empire exists when one nation, tribe or society exercises long-term domination over one or more external nations, tribes or societies. Through that domination the imperial power, or empire, is able to determine many of the key political, social, economic and cultural outcomes in the dominated society or societies. And that is the critical point – the ability of the empire to determine what happens, the outcomes in the societies under its control, is what distinguishes an empire from other forms of political organization. Those who hold power at the center of an empire typically derive economic benefits, access to important resources, control of militarily strategic territory and other forms of power as a consequence of imperial arrangements.


Say the word “empire” and two nations readily come to mind: the Romans and the British. At the height of their powers, each exerted hegemony over nations far from Rome and England.  However, we are quickly reminded of other imperial regimes –Ancient Egypt, the Han of China, the Spanish and French mercantile empires – before Laxer introduces the reader to his provocative thesis that the United States of America is the latest major imperial power. A professor of political science at Toronto’s York University, Laxer is a well-known leftist, and any college or university student of the 1960’s and 1970’s would remember being tagged as an “imperialist” regime by Laxer’s political contemporaries.  

     Following his definition of an empire, Laxer describes the different types of empires (peasant or slave empires, mercantile empires such as Venice and Spain, capitalist empires,) and finally, in the twentieth century, the “global” empires of the two post-war super-powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. Americans have often been described as the “New Romans,” and Laxer devotes the greatest part of his book to an examination of this current empire: The Pillars of the American Empire, How the American Empire Works, American Intervention (as well as its isolationism, at times), and The Bush Doctrine. However, as history has shown time and again, empires fall and new empires rise, and thus, Laxer concludes with content describing “Cracks in the American Imperial Armor,” “Resistance to the Empire,” and speculation as to who might overtake American imperialism.

     Lacking both formal study of and teaching experience in the area of political science, again, I asked my colleague Raymond Sokalski, a teacher of the Grade 12 World Issues course, to read and comment on the book and assist me with this review. As with the other “Groundwork Guide,” we reviewed (Being Muslim), this short and concise (144 pages) text contains a clear table of contents, a well-documented “Notes” pages, and a list of  items “For Further Reading.” Although we both believed that younger students (i.e. age 14) might not have the background to make the historical connections within Laxer’s overview of past empires, his descriptions are concise enough to make them useful to older high school students. Raymond commented that “Laxer’s thesis that the U.S. is a valid contemporary version of empire is amply demonstrated. In one particularly compelling highlighted item, he summarizes the breadth and depth of U.S. military involvement around the world – a half million military personnel; over 700 bases beyond the country’s own borders – and he offers numerous examples of U.S. influence in its own hemisphere and beyond.”  

     I have mentioned that Laxer’s political stance is well-known, and at times, I found myself wondering if his power as rhetorician overwhelmed my ability to detect bias. Raymond remarked that “bias is not entirely avoidable, but Laxer’s treatment of empires avoids aggressive bombast.

     Still, the author could have given more space to an analysis of the Soviet Empire as an example of left-wing hegemony. Laxer could have also provided more direct comparisons between the contemporary American reign of power and those of its historic predecessors. For example, if President Bush’s “Air Force One” is revealed in all of its splendour as an example of the trappings of imperial power, it would have been fascinating to compare this, even briefly, with the satraps and silks of the Chinese emperors, or the crystal and caviar of the Russian tsars, and later, Communist apparatchiks, in order to bolster his contention that America is an empire.”

     One area that bothered both of us was the visual content of the book. Raymond, who has a real interest in cartography and how maps influence our perception of the world, commented that “the maps provided are a disappointment. In an age where even the venerable National Geographic Society has recognized (over a decade ago) that the use of a Mercator projection of the world map is an archaic eccentricity, in this work, Greenland appears larger than Africa or China. And the use of cartoon-like caricatures of Uzis to symbolize American military bases would almost be humorous if it were not so excessive.” As well, students often understand concepts through such visual means as timelines; in this book, the timeline depicting the lifespan of various empires was poorly done: “Egypt’s empire –the smallest of those described – is given the better part of a two-page spread with very few events attached, whereas the American empire – the one with the largest sphere of influence in twentieth-century history and the object of the greatest scrutiny in this book – is squeezed awkwardly into a 3-centimetre section of the page. This is confusing.”

     Overall, Empire provides an accessible overview of the imperial concept and is particularly useful in its description of American hegemony. Students in Grades 10 through 12, teachers of World Issues and American History courses (nearly half the book is devoted to an examination of contemporary U. S. history), will find it helpful, and it certainly has a place in high school library collections. 


Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB where Raymond Sokalski is also a teacher.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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