Decolonization: A Postcolonial Perspective
Prasenjit Duara of the University of Chicago explores decolonization in the twentieth century
Published: Wednesday, February 02, 1994
Decolonization was among the most significant phenomena of the twentieth century. Indeed, it helped shape the history of the past century, and in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, affected the lives of nearly everyone, all across the globe. In its shape and duration, decolonization varied from place to place. Furthermore, it has been evaluated in many different ways. But in any case, its importance is beyond question.
In a talk on January 30 sponsored by the International Institute’s Comparative and Interdisciplinary Research on Asia (CIRA) program, Prasenjit Duara (professor of History and of East Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago) sought to interpret decolonization without reducing its variety and contingency. In the process, Professor Duara grappled with many of the fundamental questions of decolonization which continue to exercise scholars. In what ways was the promise of decolonization fulfilled? How can we understand new forms of global domination in relation to this movement? Which strains and problems of decolonization continue to manifest themselves today? Why is it important to look at the historical moment of decolonization? How did nationalist, anti-colonial elites relate to the metropole and to their own people?
Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then
Professor Duara’s point of departure was his edited reader Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then (Routledge, 2003) The website of Routledge, the publisher, describes in the book in this way:
"Decolonization brings together the most cutting edge thinking by major historians of decolonization, including previously unpublished essays, and writings by leaders of decolonizing countries, including Ho Chi-minh and Jawaharlal Nehru. The chapters in this volume present a move away from Western analysis of decolonization, towards the angle of vision of the former colonies. This is a groundbreaking study of a subject central to recent global history."
The impetus for the volume is simple. Professor Duara explained that many of the ideas that motivated decolonization in the interwar period, and in the postwar period up to the 1980, “are beginning to disappear.” Thus, “it is important to capture” those ideas.
What are those ideas? It a word, much more than a change in political regime. “Decolonization,” Professor Duara argued, “represented not only the transference of legal sovereignty but a movement for moral justice and political solidarity against imperialism.” Thus decolonization involved both the anti-imperialist political movement and an “emancipatory ideology which sought ... to liberate the nation and humanity itself.”
“Until World War I, historical writing had been the work of the European conquerors.” Europeans viewed the peoples outside Europe as “without the kind of history capable of shaping the world. The process of decolonization which began towards the end of World War I was accompanied by the appearance of national historical consciousness” in regions outside Europe. This directly contributed to the birth of a literature by the colonized that dissected imperialism and decolonization. It is this literature that allows us -- who live in the West, in the former colonial powers -- to witness the process from the other side, so to speak. It also has “enabled us to see how happenings in one region, no matter how peripheral . . . were often linked to processes and events in other parts [of the globe].” In other words, despite the variety of colonialisms and decolonizations, the history of decolonization in the twentieth century presents a coherent, interconnected phenomenon.
Nevertheless, Professor Duara argued, we must recognize that within the movement for decolonization, there was considerable variability from place to place. This makes it difficult, if not pointless, to try to pass judgment on all of decolonization, to decide once and for all if it succeeded in achieving its goals. Indeed, the recent debates surrounding post-colonialism have raised the question of the extent or thoroughness of decolonization when “independence from colonial powers meant the establishment of nation-states closely modeled on the very states that undertook imperialism.” While this question may be relevant for some places, it may hardly be the most important question to ask about movements in other places. What Professor Duara has attempted to do in Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then is to represent the variation in the experience of decolonization “without loosing sight of the core historical character of the process.”
Imperialism and Colonization
The event that symbolized the beginning of the movement was the victory of Japan over Czarist Russia in 1905, “which was widely hailed as the victory of the dominated peoples against the imperialist powers.” The event symbolizing the culmination of this movement was the Bandung Conference, in Indonesia in 1955, a meeting of representatives of 29 new nations of Asia and Africa. The conference “aimed to express solidarity against imperialism and racism and promote economic and cultural cooperation among these nations.” The conference led to the nonaligned movement, which encompassed countries that nominally or in reality chose to remain neutral in the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. With the end of the cold war in 1989, the nonalignment movement became irrelevant.
The imperialism that Professor Duara is concerned with is the imperialism of the Western powers, and later Japan, that began roughly in the late 1870s. It was characterized by, in Professor Duara’s words, “brutal and dehumanizing conditions” that were imposed on the colonized peoples in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific islands. In addition, “as Karl Marx noted, this imperialism represented an incorporation of these regions into the modern capitalist system.” Thus the building of colonial empires in the late nineteenth and early twentiethh century -- by the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands -- became “an integral part of the competition for control of global resources and markets.” The ideology that accompanied this struggle was Social Darwinism: “an evolutionary view of the world that applied Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest to races and nations and justified imperialist domination in terms of an understanding that a race or nation that did not dominate would instead be dominated.”
From the perspective of the colonized, this incorporation “inevitably involved the erosion of existing communities as they experienced the deepening impact of capitalism and alien cultural values.” Often colonies became bifurcated, with a relatively developed coastal sector with close ties to the metropole, and a vast hinterland where historical “forms of social life and economic organization” continued to exist. But they did not continue to exist unchanged. Instead, the long fingers of capitalism reached far into the hinterland, to extract value (crops, minerals, labor, and so on) and to market "modern," finished products. “This is,” Professor Duara stated, “the phenomenon . . . known as the articulation of the modes of production, whereby modern capitalism utilizes non-capitalist modes of production and exploitation for the production of capitalist value.”
The gap between the relatively modern costal areas and the relatively traditional hinterland involved “different types of incorporation into the capitalist system.” This gap often came to “shape and bedevil the decolonization process.”
Anti-imperialist nationalism typically emerged in the urban, costal sectors, “where modern capitalist forms of knowledge, technology, capital, and organization had spread more widely.” It was also in the urban, coastal areas that the colonized peoples most directly and personally experienced “constant denial and humiliation because of their color or origins. But they were also people who, like Gandhi for instance, clearly recognized the contradictions these actions presented to Western doctrines of humanism and rationality.” Finally, they were the people “who understood the modern world well enough to know how to mobilize resources to topple colonial domination.”
Mass Movements of Decolonization
By far the most important resource to resist colonialism, and eventually to overthrow it, was the people of the colonized nations. How could the urban, modern nationalist elite reformers mobilize the people of the hinterlands and the lower classes of their society? While such mobilization was key to the success of decolonization, the answer to this question was never easy or obvious. On the contrary, the elite reformers increasingly found their compatriots in the hinterlands “living in a world that was. . . alien and distasteful.” The masses, for their part hand, found that “the modern programs of secular society -- national education, the nuclear family, and so on -- were quite inimical to their concept of a good society.”
The task for the nationalist reformers was not merely to bridge this gap, but “to remake hinterland society in their own image. This image derived both from their conception of humanistic reform as well as the need to create a sleek national body capable of surviving and succeeding in a world of competitive capitalism.” The decolonization movement was thus confronted by two tasks: “to fulfill the promise of its humanistic ideals and modern citizenship and, [at the same time,] to create the conditions for international competitiveness.”
Different nationalist movements used different methods of force or violence combined with education and persuasion. Nevertheless, in every case success seemed to hinge on the creation of nationalism. To the extent the elite reformers succeeded in generating a sense of national awakening that appealed to virtually all people, the leaders believed they had won the right to make the transformations -- such a land reform -- that they believed to be essential to the survival of the nation.
Professor Duara noted that many of the former colonies were not bereft of “indigenous foundations of modernity.” In this regard, he mentioned the “discovery” by “nationalist scholars” of, for instance, “the spouts of capitalism” in traditional China. But the problem with these findings are that they are “located within an evolutionary paradigm containing the implicit, and sometimes explicit, argument that these developments would have ultimately led to modern capitalism and nationalism. This is an instance of how nationalists adopted the basic assumptions of the evolutionism of their colonial masters.” In Professor Duara’s view the way that decolonization unfolded had more to do with “more immediate conditions and circumstances.”
The Role of Socialist Ideas & Women’s Movements
Professor Duara identified the spread of socialist ideas as a key to the decolonization movement. However, socialist ideas of equality and cooperation often collided with the demands of nationalism. For example, the Soviet Union supposed anti-imperialist, anticolonial movements, but under the domination of Stalin it adopted policies that often put the particular interests of the Soviet Union before the interests of foreign revolutionary movements.
Similarly, nationalists often co-opted and distorted the struggle for women’s rights. Colonial powers often gasped upon women’s rights as a way of reinforcing their rule. Thus they championed the liberation of women. Nationalists typically placed the needs of the nation first. Thus they often viewed the role of women as helping to make the nation strong by rearing healthy children. This was not a merely reproduction of traditional patriarchal thinking, since nationalists believed women should educated and fully incorporated in the modern nation. But in any case “they were to be the mothers of the nation, protecting and cherishing its inner values, especially in the home.” Thus we have “not a traditional patriarchy but a national patriarchy.”
In large part, the nationalist resistance to labor movements and women’s movements was based on a notion that nation had deep, historical, even primordial roots. This sort of thinking allowed nationalists to challenge the imperialist contention that the civilized world was limited to the West. This “led to a sense of psychological liberation in the colonized world.”
Indeed, many intellectuals in the colonized world came to view Western civilization as bankrupt. Hence modernity could only be saved by the new nations, which would harmonize or synthesize the values of the West (rationality, materialism, competitive, etc.) with those of the precolonial world. This sort of thinking appeared early in the struggle against imperialism, and appeared in the 1960s, in what Professor Duara described as the effort to resist “Occidentosis.”
Most leaders of decolonization movements combined “the appeal to an egalitarian ideal deriving from socialism with an appeal to unique civilizational traditions, whether it is timeless Indian or Chinese practices hidden among ordinary people or pan-African communitarianism which Kwame Nkrumah should to identify with authentic socialism.”
Prasenjit Duara is professor of History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Culture, Power and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942, which won both the Fairbank Prize of the American Historical Association and the Levenson Prize of the Association for Asian Studies. He is also the author of Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (1995) and most recently, Sovereignty and Authenticity: Manchukuo and the East Asian Modern (2003).