Introduction: The decolonization of Asia and Africa in the twentieth century

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Prasenjit Duara, “Introduction: The decolonization of Asia and Africa in the twentieth century” in, ed., Decolonization - Perspectives from Now and Then. 2003: Taylor & Francis.
From a historian’s perspective, decolonization was one of the most important political developments of the twentieth century because it turned the world into the stage of history. Until World War I, historical writing had been the work of the European conquerors that, in the words of Oswald Spengler, had made the world appear to ‘revolve around the pole of this little part-world’ that is Europe. With few exceptions, the regions outside Europe were seen to be inhabited by people without the kind of history capable of shaping the world. The process of decolonizaton, which began towards the end of World War I, was accompanied by the appearance of national historical consciousness in these regions, that is, the history, not of dynasties or the work of God/gods, but of a people as a whole. To be sure, historical writing continues to be filtered through national preoccupations, but the rapid spread of modern historical writing to most of the world also enabled us to see how happenings in one region – no matter how peripheral or advanced – were often linked to processes and events in other parts. It became possible to grasp, as did the leaders of decolonization, the entire globe as an interconnected entity for understanding and action.
There are remarkably few historical studies of decolonization as a whole, despite the importance of the subject. This is not entirely surprising because it is neither a coherent event such as the Russian Revolution, nor a well defined phenomenon like fascism. The timing and patterns of decolonization were extremely varied, and the goals of the movement in different countries were not always consistent with each other. Indeed, we have had to exclude from our consideration the pre-twentieth century independence movements in the Americas from European powers, as well as the later decolonization of the Pacific islands from powers such as New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the Netherlands starting in the 1960s. In both cases, the circumstances of decolonization were very different from the core period and region of our consideration: Asia and Africa from the early years of the twentieth century until the 1960s.
Within this approximate time and region, decolonization refers to the process whereby colonial powers transferred institutional and legal control over their territories and dependencies to indigenously based, formally sovereign, nation-states. The political search for independence often began during the inter-war years and fructified within fifteen years of the end of World War II in 1945. It should be noted that there were many formally independent countries, such as Iran and China, whose leaders considered themselves to have been informally and quasi-legally subordinated to colonial powers, and who viewed their efforts for autonomy as part of the anti-imperialist movement (see Chapters 2 and 6 by Sun Yat-sen and Jalal Al-i Ahmad respectively). Therefore decolonization represented not only the transference of legal sovereignty, but a movement for moral justice and political solidarity against imperialism. It thus refers both to the anti-imperialist political movement and to an emancipatory ideology which sought or claimed to liberate the nation and humanity itself.
Even within these specifications, decolonization varied sufficiently from country to country, and often within the same country, to make generalizations quite risky. Take for instance, the case of China. Here was a vigorous anti-imperialist movement directed against the Western powers and Japan, based largely on an ethic of socialist emancipation. Yet there was no felt need to critique the West culturally – to ideologically decolonize in the manner of a Frantz Fanon or Mahatma Gandhi – since it had been only partially and informally colonized, and was occupied by an Asian power, Japan. Additionally, the meaning of decolonization as a process has itself been differently evaluated over time. Our historiographical understanding of decolonization during the period when political independence from imperialist powers was taking place was shaped considerably by the writings of nationalist statesmen and historians, as well as a generation of Western historians who were optimistic or sympathetic to the process. More recently, the debates around post-colonialism have questioned the extent or thoroughness of ‘decolonization’ when independence from colonial powers meant the establishment of nation-states closely modelled upon the very states that undertook imperialism. Here again, the post-colonial critique has found more or less sympathy in different places according to the historical experiences of the people there. The volume will try to represent this variation without losing sight of the core historical character of the process.
If we can pinpoint a particular event to symbolize the beginnings of this movement, it would be the victory of Japan over Czarist Russia in the war of 1905, which was widely hailed as the first victory of the dominated peoples against an imperial power. Sun Yat-sen, the father of Chinese nationalism, reminisced about this event in a speech he made in Japan in 1925. He was on a ship crossing the Suez Canal soon after news of the Japanese victory became known. When the ship was docked in the canal, a group of Arabs mistook him for a Japanese and enthusiastically flocked around him. Even upon discovering their mistake, they continued to celebrate their solidarity with him against the imperialist powers. In the speech, Sun developed the theme of a racial or colour war against the white race for whom ‘blood is thicker than water’ and urged the oppressed Asians of common colour and culture to unify and resist imperialism.
Similarly, the event symbolizing the culmination of this movement was the Bandung Conference, a meeting of the representatives of twentynine new nations of Asia and Africa, held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, fifty years after the Russo-Japanese war. The conference aimed to express solidarity against imperialism and racism and promote economic and cultural cooperation among these nations. China, India and Indonesia were key players in the meeting. The conference finally led to the non-aligned movement in 1961, a wider Third World force in which participants avowed their distance from the two superpowers – aligning themselves neither with the United States or Soviet Union – during the Cold War. However, conflicts developed among these non-aligned nations – for instance between India and China in 1962 – which eroded the solidarity of the Bandung spirit. With the dissolution of the socialist bloc and the end of the Cold War in 1989, the non-aligned movement – this in reality had included both truly neutral countries and those that were aligned with one or the other superpower – became irrelevant.
The imperialism we are concerned with in this volume was the imperialism of Western nation-states and later Japan that spread from roughly the mid-eighteenth century to Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean and Pacific islands. The brutal and dehumanizing conditions it imposed upon these places have been well documented, most graphically by the independence movements themselves. At the same time, as Karl Marx noted, this imperialism represented an incorporation of these regions into the modern capitalist system. As we shall see in the historiographical survey of imperialism conducted by Patrick Wolfe in Chapter 9 this volume, debates continue about the purposes and nature of this incorporation, but we may make a few general comments about it. First, the colonial projects of capitalist nation-states such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, and later Germany, Italy, the US and Japan, among others, were an integral part of the competition for control of global resources and markets. The ideology accompanying the intensification of competition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was Social Darwinism. This was 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. Imperialist competition for a greater share of world resources, particularly on the part of late-comer nation-states such as Germany and Japan, was an important factor behind the two world wars of the twentieth century. Ironically, however, both wars accelerated decolonization considerably.
Second, 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. The extent to which these communities were able to adapt to the new circumstances depended upon the historical resources they were able to muster, as well as their position and role in the imperialist incorporation process. Thus it was not uncommon to find a dualistic type of society in the colonies: on the one hand, an adaptive and relatively modern, coastal, urban sector, integrated under however unequal terms, with metropolitan society. On the other hand, a vast hinterland where historical forms of social life, economic organization and exploitation continued to exist, but hardly as pristine ‘tradition’. This is the phenomenon known in dependency theory as ‘the articulation of modes of production’, whereby modern capitalism utilizes non-capitalist modes of production and exploitation for the production of capitalist value. Whether responding to global prices or a plantation economy, these regions also serviced the modern capitalist sector of the metropolitan economy, but, typically, they received few of its benefits. In other words, the gap ought not to be seen merely as the difference between a traditional and a modern sector, but as different kinds of incorporation into the capitalist system. The gap between these two sectors and ways of life would often shape and bedevil the decolonization process.
Anti-imperialist nationalism emerged historically from the urban, coastal sector where modern, capitalist forms of knowledge, technology, capital and organization had spread more widely. Although there had been several major expressions of resistance to colonial powers organized around older, indigenous political patterns – such as the mid-nineteenth century Taiping Rebellion or the late-nineteenth century Boxer Uprising in China, the 1857 Rebellion in India, and the Senussi Uprising in Tunisia – as discussed by Geoffrey Barraclough in Part II, the successful movements of decolonization were almost invariably led by Westernized leaders from the modernized sectors of society. These were the would-be administrators and entrepreneurs who felt a very concrete ceiling over their heads, and educated Chinese who bristled at the signs declaring ‘Dogs and Chinese not allowed’ posted in public places in the foreign settlements in Shanghai and elsewhere. These were people who experienced constant denial and humiliation because of their colour or origins, but they were also people who, like Mahatma Gandhi, clearly recognized the contradictions these actions presented to the Western doctrines of humanism and rationality. Finally, they were the people who understood the modern world well enough to know how to mobilize the resources to topple colonial domination.
How did these modern nationalists and reformers mobilize the hinterlands and the lower classes of their society which were negatively affected by the modern incorporation and barely touched by modern ideas? For many in these communities, loyalty to the nation-state was an abstraction quite removed from their everyday consciousness, and modern programmes of secular society, national education or the nuclear family were quite inimical to their conceptions of a good society – which involved regional, linguistic, religious, caste, tribal and lineage solidarity – and religious life. On the other side, for the modernizing elites, the peasants and the ‘people’ lived in a world that was increasingly alien and distasteful to them, and the new language of modernity, historical progress, citizenship and the like increased the gap between the two still further.
To be sure, the process of transforming the hinterlands of Western nation-states in the nineteenth century was no less a forceful project of state- and nation-building. In the case of France, Eugen Weber has dubbed the process as the conversion of ‘peasants into Frenchmen’. But there were also significant differences between the two areas. The process in Europe grew out of historical conditions within those regions, and was not so sharp and wrenching as the process in the colonies. Second, colonies were disadvantaged by the unfavourable circumstances of imperialist domination absent in the European case; and finally, the prior development of capitalism in Western societies led to accelerated rates of growth and development that made it harder and harder for the disadvantaged societies to catch up and extend growth to the hinterlands.
The great challenge faced by the decolonizers was not simply to bridge the gap between these rapidly diverging worlds, but to re-make 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 always faced with two tasks which were often in tension with each other: to fulfil the promise of its humanistic ideals and modern citizenship and to create the conditions for international competitiveness. To the extent that these conditions required the production of a homogenized people, there was also often a violent transformation of the lives and world-views of people who were forced to adapt to a world in which the benefits to them were not always clear. The various nationalist movements combined different strategies or methods of force and violence with education and peaceful mobilization to achieve their goals. Thus leaders like Nkrumah and Gandhi were able to achieve rural mass mobilization relatively peacefully, but in the absence of significant land reform or economic integration, the gap persisted. Revolutionary nationalists like Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh succeeded in restructuring the inequities of rural society, but often at the cost of massive violence. Other nationalist movements, like that led by Sukarno in Indonesia, were prevented by the structure of Dutch colonial control from achieving any significant rural mobilization.
Nationalists in the colonies – as in earlier nationalisms of the West – often justified the process of mobilization and transformation of the people by narratives of national belonging, or belonging to what Benedict Anderson has called the ‘imagined community of the nation’. The imagined community refers to the sense that people who are differentiated by distance, language, class and culture are enabled by modern means of communication (from print to screen) to imagine themselves as part of a single community or family. These nationalists posited an ancient, even primordial unity of the nation that had gone into a long era of forgetfulness or slumber during the middle period between the ancient and the modern. The alleged ancient unity of the nation granted nationalists and the nation-state the right to make these transformations, and they described the nationalism they were seeking to foster as a national ‘awakening’.
To be sure, this is not to say that there are no indigenous foundations of modernity. Nationalist historians and others have discovered the ‘sprouts of capitalism’ and ‘alternative modernities’ not only in China, but in India, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Research on the Indian Ocean and East Asia from various different perspectives – Japan, India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Arabian peninsula – reveals a dynamic and cosmopolitan world of commerce and cultural flows that long preceded the Western arrival. However, the problem with the nationalist understanding is not that the research findings are wrong, but that these findings 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. One of the challenges of thinking historically about the problem of decolonization is to evaluate the importance of these historical developments without subscribing to the misguided evolutionary framework.
These long-term, often no longer extant, conditions must be separated from the more immediate conditions and circumstances which permitted decolonization or situated a society to quickly build a modern nationstate. Different societies were differently advantaged and disadvantaged with regard to this latter problem. Thus Japan’s ability to rapidly build a modern nation-state in the Meiji Restoration (1868) had much to do with the presence of strong political and merchant elites. But it was also lucky in being relatively neglected by the imperialist powers; to be the last country to suffer the unequal treaties, and to be threatened by America, an emergent power with a rather different imperialist vision of the world. Indeed, after World War I, the circumstances for decolonization were generated as much from the international situation as any other. First, the Soviet Union and the United States of America emerged as new powers with little stake in the old international order based upon the European balance of power, and were indeed, opposed to formal imperialism. Then there was the intensification of imperialist rivalries occasioned by the nose-thumbing, new imperialism of Germany and Japan, which often caused the colonizers to grant concessions in their colonies or promote opposition in others. These circumstances did much to undermine the facade of unity so critical to colonial control and superiority.
World War II made conditions still more unfavourable for colonialism. The spectacle of the old colonial powers being overrun by the Axis forces in North Africa and particularly by Japan in Southeast Asia (and threatening British India), the establishment of formally independent states in Southeast Asia under the rhetoric of pan-Asianism, the prominence of leaders like Sukarno and the Burmese leader U Nu who would lead nationalist movements against the returning colonial powers in the Japanese-dominated wartime governments, and the further rise of the United States and Soviet Union, made eventual decolonization a matter of time in most parts of the world. Thus while the chapters in this volume focus on the domestic or regional factors behind decolonization, this larger international perspective has to be borne in mind.
The leadership of the modernizing nationalists implied as well that independence would not involve a return to the pre-modern ideals of the dynastic, imperial, religious, feudal or tribal systems. To be sure, as Frederick Cooper suggests in Chapter 16, national independence was not always the goal of the decolonizing movement. In the Japanese and French empires, there were efforts on the part of both colonizers and colonized to create ideals of ‘imperial citizenship’ where equality would prevail in a multinational community (of the ex-empire), but ingrained colonial attitudes and escalating demands for autonomy (and defeat in the Japanese case) nullified these political experiments. Thus it turned out that the decolonizing movements sought to fashion themselves in certain basic ways as modern nation-states in the manner of their imperialist oppressors. To what extent this would involve taking on some characteristics of the imperialist states themselves – acquiring neighbouring territories, exploiting the resources of peripheral regions within the nation – especially as they joined the competitive system of global capitalism, was yet to become clear. But what was clear to the nationalists is that they denounced imperialism and were determined to launch a new era of justice and equality both within their nations and in the world.
As we shall see in the essays by the decolonizing leaders in Part I, the ideals of decolonization and the anti-imperialist movement were built upon two pillars: socialism and the discourse of alternative civilizations, or what I call the new discourse of civilization. These two aspects were much more closely and deeply intertwined in the twentieth century than we have customarily believed. By socialism, I refer specifically to the Leninist programme of anti-imperialism and socialist equality, as well as state and party command over society. Some societies like China, Vietnam, North Korea and Tanzania adopted the socialist programme more completely, but most other decolonizing societies also reflected more or less the socialist ideals of equality, market restrictions and state re-distribution programmes as the alternative to the imperialist capitalism under which they had suffered. Here we encounter these ideas among non-communists such as Sun Yat-sen and his successors in Republican China (1911–49), Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jalal Al-i Ahmad, an influential intellectual in Iran under the Shah.
One of the more important debates in the Third Communist International or Comintern, convened after the Russian Revolution, concerned the possibilities of developing socialist revolutions in the colonized world. In other words, they debated whether it was possible for decolonization to be accompanied by the birth not of a capitalist nationstate, but rather of an egalitarian socialist society. This debate became more serious as the tide of revolution began to ebb in Europe, and in a reversal of the Marxist doctrine, European communists and the Russian revolutionary leaders in particular, began to consider the possibility that the road to revolution would not emerge from Paris and London, the centres of capitalism, but rather from Shanghai and Calcutta at the peripheries of the world capitalist system. After all, even the Russian Revolution had taken place in one of the weakest countries of the capitalist world. Nonetheless, the communists recognized that the industrial working class or the proletariat in these countries often represented a tiny minority of the population, and the debate turned upon the extent to which communists ought to support the nationalist movements of ‘progressive bourgeois nationalism’ represented by leaders like Sun and Nehru. Ronald Suny has captured the essence of this debate in Chapter 14, and we need not elaborate it here except to note that while rhetorically, the Soviet Union and the Comintern backed the decolonization movement, practically, the interests of the Soviet state under Stalin often determined which anti-imperialist movements it would support.
The impact of socialist ideas and the support of the Soviet Union – even if it was only moral support sometimes – upon the independence movements in the different colonies and informal colonies was, of course, widely welcomed by a range of leaders including Ho Chi Minh, Nehru and Sun. At the same time, however, socialist ideas and support also produced serious tensions within the nationalist movements. In his essay on African working-class movements, Frederic Cooper analyses how this movement became subordinated to the nationalist forces and was steered away from purely socialist agendas. But decolonizing leaders continued to inject at least a modicum of socialist egalitarianism into the nationalist ideology and programme. This was also the case in many other countries, such as India, which under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s and 1960s, experimented with a ‘mixed economy’, combining state ownership of many economic enterprises with regulated private property. Even the KMT regime in Taiwan, which came firmly under US hegemony after it lost the mainland to the communists in 1949, retained the strong state control over the economy and society that it had developed from Nazi and Soviet models in the 1930s, until as late as the 1960s.
Conversely, in societies where socialist forces became dominant in the movement against imperialism, the leaders of the movement who based their organizational strength upon some combination of working-class movements and the land hunger of an impoverished peasantry, frequently had to appeal to a broader national coalition that included several elite and intermediate classes who were usually outside the scope of a purely socialist movement. The best example of this kind of ‘united front’ thinking was to be found in the Chinese communist movement, which increased its power relative to the Nationalist Kuomintang party of Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek, during the anti-Japanese war in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, the Chinese communists were successful in riding to power on a massive revolution significantly because they combined their organizational techniques and reform projects with a call for national salvation, not merely class war. In 1940, Mao Zedong wrote On New Democracy, in which he declared ‘The Chinese democratic republic which we now desire to establish can only be a democratic republic under the joint dictatorship of all the anti-imper ialist and anti-feudal people’, and included in this common front, the proletariat, the peasantry, the intellectuals, the petty bourgeoisie and even sections of the capitalist bourgeoisie opposed to imperialism (Mao 2002:89). Not long after achieving power in 1949, however, Mao became increasingly intolerant of anyone who did not abide by his particular vision of communism. In the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he demoralized an entire generation by destroying the very party that had been painstakingly built since the 1920s.
Just as socialism and workers’ issues became inseparable from nationalism, so too did women’s issues and women’s rights movements. The relationship between the women’s movement and the national movement is a complex and recently much debated topic that we can only introduce here. Two chapters deal with gender issues in this volume: one by the Algerian psychiatrist and thinker Frantz Fanon (Chapter 5) and another by a contemporary scholar Jiweon Shin, who has written about Korean women under Japanese colonialism in Chapter 17. Together the pieces convey many of the problems associated with the role of women and gender in the nationalist movements of decolonization. Fanon is widely regarded as among the most intellectually penetrating critic of colonialism, but he has also been taken to task for his understanding of women’s roles, particularly in Islamic societies dominated by colonialism. The rights of native women were frequently championed by colonial powers and colonial reformers. Fanon grasps the ways in which colonial power seeks to invade the domestic realm of the colonized society by advocating the liberation of women and seeking to enlist their support for the colonial state, thus dividing the men and women of the nation. At the same time, feminists believe that this kind of critique of imperialism, which is by no means confined to Islamic society, but applies to nationalist movements in most other colonial societies in Africa, India, and East and Southeast Asia, tends at the same time to keep women within the structures of patriarchal domination.
To be sure, decolonizing nationalism did not envision a mere return to traditional patriarchy. The new woman was to be educated so that she could contribute to making the nation strong by rearing healthy children. Many women were also expected to be involved in the freedom struggle. But ideally, they were to be mothers of the nation, protecting and cherishing its inner values especially within the home, and not centrally involved in the public sphere. As such, women’s questions, particularly relating to changes in gender relationships or to their desire to undertake roles equal or similar to men’s, were subordinated to the overall needs of the nation as perceived by men. The new patriarchy, as Partha Chatterjee has observed for India, was not a traditional patriarchy, but a nationalist patriarchy. Of course, we can scarcely expect to find the same conceptions of gender in every anti-imperialist movement, and we also need to recognize that for many women the enhanced role of motherhood may have been deeply satisfying. Nonetheless, the idea that women’s status and issues became the object of contestation between imperialists and male nationalists can be found across the territory of our inquiry, from Algeria to Korea.
The priority given to the nation – or should we say, to the dominant conception of the nation – over the agenda of workers, feminists, ethnic groups or others was of course achieved, in part, by the appeal to present a unified resistance to imperialism. Still more important was the assumption that the nation was founded upon historically deep traditions or an ancient civilization whose timeless values could not be easily challenged or changed. Resistance to any radical transformation of gender conceptions, in particular, was often grounded in such claims. The new discourse of civilization appeared and spread around the world at the end of World War I. The war threw European imperialism into an ideological crisis because its scale and brutality seemed, in the eyes of the colonized and many Western intellectuals, to expose European claims of civilizational superiority and ‘the civilizing mission’ as utterly hollow. As Michael Adas shows in Chapter 8, this sense of the failure of the West led to a psychological liberation for many intellectuals in the colonized world, and John Voll in Chapter 15 reveals a similar pattern for intellectuals in Islamic societies during a later period. At the heart of the critique of civilization launched by Western and non-Western intellectuals after the Great War, was the universalizing promise of the ‘civilizing mission’ – a mission which exemplified the desire not (simply) to conquer the Other, but to be desired by the Other. In this critique, Western civilization had forfeited the right to represent the highest goals or ultimate values of humanity, and was no longer worthy of being desired, or even recognized, by the Other. As the famous quip attributed to Mahatma Gandhi goes:
Journalist What do you think of Western civilization?
Gandhi I think it would be a good idea.
In some ways, the idea that there were other civilizations had been around in the West for a long time. Yet by the nineteenth century, European civilization based on Enlightenment ideas of progress came to displace the idea that other civilizations mattered. Indeed, the absence of such an idea of civilization in a society was sufficient reason to justify colonization. The war, the changed balance of power in the world, and the critique of European civilization restored the idea that other civilizations were just as (or nearly as) legitimate, and decolonizing thinkers associated civilization with claims to sovereignty, thus reversing the terms of the European assertion that denied sovereignty because of the lack of civilization. The new discourse of civilization was a truly global intellectual product. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, written just before World War I, and the postwar writings of Arnold Toynbee, converged with those of many Asian, and later, African, thinkers and writers. Among them were Okakura Tenshin and Okawa Shumei from Japan, Gu Hongming, Liang Qichao and Liang Shuming in the Chinese speaking world, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi in India, and Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire and others of the Négritude movement.
The view that emerged from this discourse was the world could be saved from materialist greed and technological destructiveness by combining the spiritual and moral qualities of other – such as Islamic, Hindu, African, Buddhist or Confucian – civilizations. The validity of these civilizations was often established through three, sometimes combined, approaches. One was to find elements similar to European civilization within these societies: Confucian rationality, Buddhist humanism, Hindu logic, etc. Another found the opposite of the West in alternative civilizations which are ‘peaceful’ as opposed to ‘warlike’, ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ‘material’, ‘ethical’ as opposed to ‘decadent’, ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘rational’, ‘timeless’ as opposed to ‘temporal’, communal as opposed to competitive, and so on. Finally, these new nations would synthesize or harmonize these binaries and Western materialism would be balanced by Eastern spirituality and modernity redeemed.
In such ways, the discourse of multiple and alternative civilizations gave considerable authority and confidence to the critique of the Social Darwinist ideology that had fuelled imperialism and the imperialist idea of the civilizing mission. In each of the chapters of Part I, the reader will note how the nationalist leaders or intellectuals appeal not only to an egalitarian ideal deriving from the socialist tradition, but combine it with an appeal to unique civilizational traditions, whether these be pan-African communitarianism, timeless Indian or Chinese practices hidden among the ordinary people, or Islamic historical greatness. The mobilizational value of this rhetoric of civilization made it an empowering and enabling force in the battle against imperialism. By the same token, however, it also subordinated other claims for justice and equality to the nation as the representative of a civilization.
The ideals of egalitarianism, humanitarianism (or universalism) and the moral and spiritual values represented by the twin pillars of socialism and civilization discourse were frequently in tension with the programme of nation-making that decolonizing societies had to inevitably undertake. We have already alluded to several problems faced by modernizing nationalists, namely those connected with a hinterland society suspicious of modernizing projects, and with groups such as workers and women seeking greater rights. Added to these was a range of territorial and ethnic conflicts produced by the need to create a unified nation-state. Territorial maximization and the homogenization of the population were seen as necessary conditions for a strong nation-state capable of mobilizing its natural resources and population for the tasks of global competition. These goals would have been largely foreign to pre-colonial historical empires or other polities in these regions. With respect to ethnicity, several historical empires, such as the Ottoman, the Chinese or the Mughal, had fashioned strategies for the co-existence of different ethnic communities, although local conflicts and violence were scarcely absent. Moreover, the frontier and peripheral zones of these empires and polities were typically regarded as no-man’s lands: dark, forbidding wildernesses inhabited by barbarian peoples. Political control over these areas was at best informal and frequently multiple and changing: different neighbouring polities might make claims to them if and when they could or cared to. Many communities in these regions remained largely untouched by state power.
During the period of colonial empires, several developments took place that were to leave a different heritage for decolonizing nations. First, as a modern state, the colonial state was built upon the imperative that all global resources be controlled by territorially sovereign polities, whether nations or empires. This logic transformed the fuzzy frontier zones of the historical empires into the militarized boundaries of the modern state. The rulers of modern empires, such as the British, the French or the Japanese, were often obsessed by the need to maximize their territories and militarize their boundaries, often in remote, unprofitable regions. Their actions provided the impetus for emergent nation-states like China, India, Nigeria, Iraq or Indonesia to maximize and militarize their own territories. Modern states have tended to incorporate contiguous, alien territories and peoples wherever possible, thereby blurring the practical distinction between imperialism and nationalism in these areas. This drive led not only to border conflicts among the new states, but also often meant the rapid deterioration of the environment – especially forests – and the elimination of the means of livelihood and cultures of indigenous peoples. In other places it often led to the alienation of larger populations, such as Kashmiri Muslims, the Tibetans, the Kurds or the East Timorese.
Second, the problem of ethnicity was frequently created and certainly compounded during the colonial period. Colonial states often created new categories of people – and even reified such categories as caste or tribe – for purposes of governance and to establish their power through a policy of divide and rule. In Africa, European colonialists reified a certain image of the tribe in order to co-opt chieftains whose power they had recently enlarged. The British in India favoured certain ‘martial classes’ from the north, such as Sikhs or Gurkhas, in opposition to the ‘effeminate’ and politically restive Bengali intellectuals. More consequential for the South Asian subcontinent was the division of electoral constituencies in the twentieth century along religious lines, which had the effect of exacerbating and deepening tensions between majority Hindus and Muslim elites who felt they would be dominated in a new Indian nation. Colonial policies encouraged and facilitated large-scale immigration from China, India and elsewhere to work on plantations and mines in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Colonial powers frequently used these immigrant communities as ‘docile labour’ or as junior partners of imperial rule – as merchants, intermediaries and functionaries – thus fomenting much ethnic strife between the local and diasporic communities, a strife that continues to the present.
Just as important as the policies of colonial states was the broader discourse of national rights that emanated from the Americas and the French Revolution, intensified in nineteenth-century Europe, and was circulating globally by the early twentieth century. This discourse held that a people or nationality which could be shown to have had a long history (and civilization) had a right to a territory and a state of its own. This is a discourse that we have, of course, assumed all along to have lain at the base of the decolonization movement. But while the discourse certainly enabled decolonization, it also divided the movement as it exacerbated ethnic tensions and led ethnic groups to demand nationality rights and a territorial nation-state for themselves. The long drawn-out and violent decolonization of the French colony of Indochina was, as Stein Tønnesson has shown below, due not only to the tenacity of the French colonial rulers, the subsequent American support of the French, and collaboration by large groups of the colonized, it was also a consequence of the rivalry between different nationalists both within Vietnam and between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians and Laotians. In general, partitions of empire through the twentieth century in the Middle East, East Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia were a result as much of colonial desire to divide up spheres of influence (which continued under the Cold War empires) or to extricate the colonizers from increasingly sticky situations, as they were of ethno-national aspirations. As Radha Kumar shows in Chapter 13, rapidly devised colonial departure strategies of ‘divide and quit’ exacerbated many of the world’s ethnic conflicts, and today represent a major legacy of the colonial period.
In the end, the principal tension between the ideals of the new nations and their practical projects arose from the demands made by the very system which they sought to join. This was the Westphalian/Vatellian system of states which had once been a club of exclusive – and imperialist – nations, but which after World War I was in the process of transforming itself into a ‘family of nations’, originally through the League of Nations, and after World War II, the United Nations. The United Nations crystallizes many of the ideals of the decolonizing era – a vision of global civilization, championing the rights of the oppressed, as well as the right of national self-determination. The United Nations also represented a means to address the conflicts and problems among nation-states. That such conflict persists between and within nation-states is perhaps testimony to the driving power of competitiveness that is the underlying reason for the very existence of the system. It was, after all, the competition between nations for a greater share of the world’s resources that had led to the world wars of the twentieth century. A good deal of the resource-maximizing and mobilization strategies of new nations derived from this imperative as well.
Within the tensions of this larger context, how are we to interpret the decolonization movement of the twentieth century? In this volume itself we are able to trace several interpretive threads which should help us think our way. Geoffrey Barraclough’s essay from the 1960s (Chapter 10) represents a sympathetic account of the movement. He recognizes the problems within the movements, but he is sensitive to the injustices and psychological injuries of colonialism. In a way, we might say, his piece is morally – if not always intellectually – continuous with the writings of the nationalist leaders themselves. Like many of them, for him, decolonization represents a new beginning of development and fulfilment of the individual and citizen. The chapters by John Kelly and Martha Kaplan and by Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson (Chapters 11 and 12) present a different view emerging from a global perspective. For Louis and Robinson, European – especially British – imperialism hardly disappeared after World War II. It transmuted into a neo-imperialism led by the United States of America with Britain as junior partner. They dominated the Cold War world by effectively controlling many formally sovereign nation-states through new forms of military and financial dependency. Kelly and Kaplan spell out the wider implications of this view, in which most of the decolonizing nations have become part of the ‘Third World’, formally sovereign in the nation-state system, but trapped by debt, alien institutions and cultural dependency in a world where many argue that the conditions for the great mass of people are not significantly better than in colonial times. They argue that decolonization mostly represented entry into a new world order dominated by the US, ‘already tooled for purposes at best different than the aims of the anti-colonial movements, and at times, clearly obstructive of them’.
There is yet another interpretive thread. The East Asian countries have done notably better in developmental terms than the rest of the Southern World. We might say that they have been able to utilize certain institutional and historical advantages to mobilize the nation and prise themselves out of a peripheral and dominated status to become competitive players in the system, much as Japan had been able to do more than a century ago. In his comparative essay on Japanese colonialism (Chapter 19), Bruce Cumings reveals that in contrast to European colonies in the same region, such as Vietnam, the Japanese colonial state built a strong institutional and developmental infrastructure in Korea and Taiwan in the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, the recent growth of China, which did not see the same kind of development under Japanese occupation, suggests that Japanese colonialism was at best just one factor, and others, especially the dynamics of regional economic integration, have been just as important.
It may also be argued that East Asian development represented a new or emergent moment in imperialist ideology when, in response to rising nationalism and intensifying economic competition, the relationship with the colony was re-thought. The colony was to be viewed less as an object of exploitation than as a partner – a dependent partner for sure – that could be economically strengthened through investments and infrastructure-building and mobilized in the global competition for wealth and power. Certainly Hong Kong, the last – and fabulously successful – British colony decolonized in 1997, represents this transformation, as Britain came to see it less as a symbol of empire than a critical piece of its strategy to remain a global power after World War II. The economic development of the Japanese colonial empire also took place principally from the 1930s, after the establishment of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in northeast China signalled an economic strategy of alliance and investment in these dependent states so that they could be more useful to the Japanese military’s pursuit of world power.
While we may think of the East Asian case as a sign of possibilities and hope, it is also important to remember that these nations participate in a system that is becoming increasingly volatile, both economically and politically. The late-1990s economic crisis in Asia and the longer-term decline of Japan is a sharp reminder that capitalist competition produces risks and uncertainties that may be even less controllable now than they were in the twentieth century, when several global empires were brought to the ground.
For decolonized nations, we have seen that the Cold War often meant new forms of dependence upon either the dominant capitalist powers or the Soviet Union. Non-alignment in any absolute sense was a chimera. Still, many new nations were able to play off the competition between the two superpowers to some advantage. The relatively restricted power of multinational capital allowed the nation-state to regulate relationships between national society and global society, although this varied from nation to nation. Moreover, domestically, the nation-state form as an unprecedentedly strong interventionist and mobilizational agency was often able to achieve a measure of social justice and development. The higher ideals of justice, morality and equality that emerged in the course of the anti-imperialist movement still played an important role as regulatory or directive goals.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist bloc and socialist ideology as a counter-weight to capitalism have produced a different scenario for these nations. They are confronted by a world dominated much more powerfully by multinational corporations, and they complain that these corporations and unfair trading practices in the mature capitalist economies continue to disadvantage their growth and competitiveness. Politically, they are more dependent on the US as hegemon and protector of the nation-state system which shows a dangerous tendency to exempt itself from the authority of the system. While it is arguable that some kind of equilibrium has developed between interdependence and hegemony within the nation-state system, discontent with the system is increasingly expressing itself from the interstices and the spaces between territorially bounded national units. Such movements of discontent, we have seen, are expressed in transnational ideologies with allegiance to the civilizational narratives and goals that were fostered in the encounter of imperialism and nationalism. The era of decolonization may be over, but the pains of that transition have found their way into the new era of globalization.
This volume has been organized into three parts of six chapters each. An introduction to each part discusses the relationship of each chapter with other chapters and with the wider themes of the book itself. Part I, ‘In their own words’, presents essays by the decolonizing leaders and thinkers. These represent a mixture of well known and relatively obscure pieces which discuss the ideals of the movement, the critique of colonial ideology, and the difficulties encountered in practical mobilization of the people. The chapters in Part II, ‘Imperialism and nationalism’, by contemporary scholars, discuss the role of imperialism and nationalism in the decolonization movement as global phenomena. The authors ask questions about the emergence of the movement in the changing role and understanding of imperialism and its ideology, such as the ‘civilizing mission’, about the role of peasant mobilization, ethno-nationalisms, and partitions, and finally, about the new nation-states and neo-imperialism or the imperialism of the ‘new world order’. Part III, ‘Regions and themes’, also contains pieces by contemporary scholars which are thematically related to the rest of the book; but they address these problems from the viewpoint of a particular region. The relationship between decolonization and socialism is viewed from its point of emergence in the Soviet Union; the changing status of the West in the Middle East the tensions between the working-class movement and decolonization in Africa; the gender question in Korea; a comparison of the colonial experiences of East Asia and Vietnam; and the extended nature of decolonization in Vietnam, or the history of the Vietnam war are all discussed in this part.

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