Do we understand Colonialism?

Colonialism has been one of the most significant phenomena in the history of humankind in the last three hundred years or so. Its importance can hardly be overstated. Yet, as many have said before, it has not been adequately theorized. There is of course a great deal of material on the histories, the effects, and the political resistances to colonialism. Reading them, however, merely increases the puzzlement about colonialism: though it seems to be at the root of all the ills of the modern world, what is not clear is how or why that is the case. Perhaps, that has to do with an implicit consensus shared by many: everyone appears to know what it is and most agree about its immoral nature. Colonialism emerges as a self-clarifying and a self-explaining phenomenon. If it is self-luminescent and so manifest an evil, why did many people in the Metropolis argue both about the nature of the phenomenon and its moral status for centuries on end?

This question becomes even more complex, if we look at the participants in this debate. Liberal theorists like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and revolutionaries like Karl Marx found colonialism a positive event in world history; among those who opposed it, there were conservative political thinkers like Edmund Burke. Today, however, there is a reconfiguration of this constellation: liberals, leftists and radicals are unanimous in condemning colonialism; those who dare speak about its ‘positive’ aspects are the conservatives and those from the extreme right. One cannot explain this state of affairs by drawing attention to the shifting nature of political labels like the ‘left’ and the ‘right’. If a political theory that criticizes Fascism does a volte-face a century later to celebrate it as a ‘liberation movement’, such a situation does not say much about the shifting nature of political labels as it throws doubt on our understanding of Fascism.

Consequently, on what grounds can one determine whether the ethical and political stance one assumes with respect to colonialism is adequate? We believe that both the refusal of the Marxist theories to assume an ethical position and the nature of moral criticisms that exist today are symptomatic of our lack of clarity about the nature of the phenomenon. Often, criticisms of a colonizer’s specific action replace an ethical criticism of colonialism. Ethical objections to the role of either the British Crown or the activities of the British East India Company do not allow for an automatic extension. That is, such arguments are not criticisms of the project of colonialism in general or of the colonization of India, unless one can show what is unethical about the project itself. What is unethical about a project that, among other things, industrialized the colonies, established courts of Law, laid railroads, and introduced scientific education, modern medicine and parliamentary democracy there? As long as we do not address this issue properly, there are no obvious reasons to assume that the earlier generations of thinkers were wrong. Today, it is not clear how or why colonialism is an evil or from where it draws its evil strength. In other words, we lack an adequate understanding of colonialism. At least, that is partly what we want to suggest in this paper.

How does one show that something (in our case, substantial knowledge about colonialism) is absent? Based on what we know about colonialism, if we could reasonably expect the absence of a phenomenon and yet notice evidence for its presence, we would be justified in claiming that we do not know much about colonialism. We believe we do have such a candidate: colonial consciousness.

Colonialism generated a particular way of looking at the world in both the Metropolis and the colonies. For now, using the word ‘colonial consciousness’ to indicate this particular way of looking at the world, we would like to raise the following issue. If colonialism were to belong to the past, then we would expect colonial consciousness to be absent from the descriptions of the modern day world. If we find indications of its presence, clearly, we need to rethink the claim that colonialism is a phenomenon in the past.

From Balagangadhara, S.N.; Bloch, Esther, De Roover, Jakob (2008), “Rethinking Colonialism and Colonial Consciousness: The Case of Modern India.” in S. Raval (Ed.), Rethinking Forms of Knowledge in India. Delhi: Pencraft International, pp. 179–212.

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