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Making Colonialism Great Again

French troops attacking an Arab encampment, The Illustrated London News, 1846 (MePri-Coll.)

In case you haven’t heard, Third World Quarterly recently published a “Case for Colonialism,” political scientist Bruce Gilley’s adamantly ill-informed argument that doctrinaire anti-colonial ideology prevents us from accepting the redemptive promise of colonial systems.

Gilley echoes earlier attempts to rehabilitate colonialism, like Marine Le Pen’s insistence that French rule was good for Algeria and the suggestion that Haiti relinquish itself to Canadian imperial rule (Gilley himself actually lists Haiti as a country without a significant colonial history–take that, Toussaint!).

So far, my favorite response has come from Nathan Robinson, in Current Affairs. Robinson offers a quick and dirty crash course in colonialism-in-practice as an effective antidote to Gilley’s wishful thinking. While I, of course, appreciate any attempt to bring the actual historical record to bear on such arguments, I am particularly won over by Robinson’s explicit strategy to oppose Gilley on this ground.

I suppose to those unfamiliar with the history, Gilley’s argument could appear superficially persuasive. But a moment’s examination of the record reveals why the case he makes is abhorrent. Gilley says he is simply asking for an unbiased assessment of the facts, that he just wants us to take off our ideological blinders and examine colonialism from an empirical perspective. But this is not what he has done. Instead, in his presentation of colonialism’s record, Gilley has deliberately excluded mention of every single atrocity committed by a colonial power. Instead of evaluating the colonial record empirically, he has distorted that record, concealing evidence of gross crimes against humanity. The result is not only unscholarly, but is morally tantamount to Holocaust denial.

if you say you are performing a cost-benefit analysis of colonialism, and you ignore colonial atrocities, you are fabricating history. Gilley says that anti-colonialism is just leftist ideology, that it doesn’t take account of the facts, but it’s his article that depicts a factually false version of colonial history, one in which colonists acted out of benevolent and civilizing motives, and primarily devoted themselves to opening schools and hospitals, and imposing efficient government. The worst he will say about colonialism is that it was “not an unalloyed good.”

Robinson insists that we need a reasoned and fact-based take-down of work like Gilley’s:

This article does not read as if it is attempting to be taken seriously. Its tone toward critics of colonialism is polemical and mocking (these scholars have a “metropolitan flaneur culture of attitude and performance”). Gilley must intend to provoke people to rage: postcolonial countries should be like Britain, which “embraced and celebrated its colonisers”; anticolonial thought was about “advocacy” rather than “accuracy”; colonialism was not just legitimate but “highly legitimate”; and we should “build new Western colonies from scratch” and “colonial states should be paid for their services” by the colonized.

I expect Gilley wants the following to happen: people will be outraged. They will call for the article to be retracted. Then, Gilley will complain of censorship, and argue that lefties don’t care about the facts, and that his points has been proved by the fact that they’d rather try to have his article purged than have to refute its claims.

So, go read Gilley. Then do some (more) research into colonization and find all of the ways in which he is simply, factually, wrong. Point to the continent-sized holes in his argument and fill them with rigorous scholarship and human knowledge.

Me, I was already stymied by Gilley’s opening assertion that “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name.” In 1917, in the midst of the First World War, colonialism was thriving–even ascendant. The aftermath of the war brought vast, previously Ottoman, territories under the imperial control of Britain and France. Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations reinforced the principle of imperial rule for “peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” Certainly, WWI was a key moment in the formation of anti-colonial movements, but it took decades, another World War, and quite a few anti-imperial conflicts for the system to be dismantled. Even through the 1960s, plenty of Western powers were promoting the benefits and successes–the good name–of their colonial policies.

This rhetorical defensiveness is a familiar strategy: purporting to reveal the hidden truths of an unpopular position, like saying that colonialism has been unfairly maligned for a full century. Insofar as we refuse to allow a retelling of the past that erases colonial atrocity, we must also insist on the overwhelming power and ubiquitous force of imperial systems. The goal here is not to reduce the colonized to their victimhood–indeed we should take the opportunity to emphasize the strength, agency, and persistence of those who succeeded against such long odds. But we must categorically deny the mantle of victimhood to those seeking to claim it for the colonizers.

There is a larger pattern here of willful historical revisionism. Imperial nostalgia is the intimate partner of Confederate nationalism and other paeans to supposedly glorious pasts steeped in racist coercion and white supremacism. Coverage of Charlottesville reinvigorated conversations in Britain and France about public memorials to colonialism and slavery. Likewise, we in the US need to recognize not only the imperial context for our own history, but also the part we play in a global reckoning with the consequences of systemic racial violence.

There is a wealth of excellent scholarship on the consequences of colonialism–we need to push to keep actual history firmly in the public consciousness.

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