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third world world quarterly should not retract “the case for colonialism”

Third World Quarterly recently published an article by Bruce Gilley called “The Case for Colonialism (TCfC)” The article makes a few related claims, but it boils down to:

  1. Many anti-colonial movements were horrible.  (see pp. 5-6)
  2. Colonialism rests on “cosmopolitanism” and this is a a good thing. (see p. 8)
  3. Thus, when you properly consider the costs and benefits, you should rethink the value of colonialism.

I’ll address these claims below, but I first wanted to address the movement to retract TCfC – see here. Basically, the retraction advocates think the article is offensive and appalling. It may be, but that doesn’t mean it should be retracted.

The job of a journal editor is to select articles that they think advances their field and raise interesting issues. If they think “The Case for Colonialism” does so, they should not retract the article. It represents an argument they think should be debated. Retraction should not be done simply because the article is bad or offensive. Retraction should only happen if the article turns out to be fraudulent. Otherwise, if an editor thinks the article has value, let it be. Critics can write their own response. Or, if they think the level of scholarship is horrid, they can stop reading it and ask the library to drop it.

Now, what about the argument? Does colonialism get a bad rap? Let’s start with what I think is correct. I believe it to be true that many anti-colonial movements and post-colonial governments were horrible. For every leader like Ghandi, we get other leaders who, simply put, were savage killers, from the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seku of Congo to the Marxist movements of Ethiopia and North Korea, which brought mass death. So yes, the reflexive praise of anti-colonial movements often overlooks the grotesque outcomes

Here is what I disagree with. Analyses like Gilley’s often overlook the massive death brought by Western colonizers. Let’s take just one example – the colonial government in the Belgian Congo is thought to have killed 10 million people. This is murder on Hitlerian and Stalinist proportions. Belgian Congo is not an isolated case. Mass murder accompanied Western colonization in many places. Even if Gilley is correct in that colonial governments may have brought some values, it is hard to believe how they would balance out this massive loss of humanity.

Let me end on a constructive note. As written, Gilley’s article is an intellectual failure. But we can extract a valuable insight. Colonialism wasn’t about bringing the best of the West to the world. It brought the worst of the West to the world. Western culture has produced amazing things – the belief in human rights and equality and modern science. But that is not what was brought to the people of the world. If Western governments had truly prioritized the best of Western culture, then Gilley might have a point. Similarly, the critics might be right if anti-colonialists had rejected the worst of the West and brought the best of the West. Instead, many anti-colonial movements retreated into Marxism, Maoism and other ideologies that killed and impoverished millions. They should have espoused tolerance, liberal culture and markets.

Bottom line: Debate, don’t retract. And in terms of colonialism, it deserves its reputation. it was horrible. In opposing repression, we can do better than what happened in the post-colonial era.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 20, 2017 at 4:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. J. Otto Pohl

    September 20, 2017 at 6:38 am

  2. Since when has an ideology killed people?

    Like

    simnew

    September 20, 2017 at 12:41 pm

  3. “Gandhi”

    Liked by 1 person

    rpmusgra

    September 21, 2017 at 2:31 pm

  4. George Obama agrees with certain parts of this article, which raises interesting questions worthy of debate. The article should be discussed, not deleted.

    Like

    Ed Vidal

    September 22, 2017 at 7:48 pm

  5. WRT the Belgian Congo: Leopold got hold of by himself and ran a perfect horror. After twenty years, the Belgian government/people took it away from him and, according to them, ran it better.
    Where in this time line do the ten million dead fit and is there a difference?

    Like

    Richard Aubrey

    September 24, 2017 at 9:33 pm

  6. The editors of Third World Quarterly didn’t call for the piece’s recall because of its content, the piece wasn’t peer reviewed.

    Like

    Alexandre White

    October 3, 2017 at 4:51 pm

  7. …if only the West would have brought its best to the world, then colonialism would be all good. give me a break.

    Like

    anon

    October 4, 2017 at 3:41 pm


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