Comment | Anti-Imperialism: A Short Guide in 7 Steps

From Syria to Yemen, there is no one-size-fits-all party line or formula for being anti-imperialist, argues Priyamvada Gopal.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2016 10:16 - 4 Comments


People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Sheikh Fares neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 1, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

People inspect a damaged site after airstrikes on the rebel held Sheikh Fares neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria October 1, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

  • Yes, your Western country probably was implicated historically in decades of imperial endeavour. A lot of people of colour suffered from that process. Your Western country may still be involved, probably is, in some form of imperial endeavour.
  • Your Western country was, however, probably not the only major power involved in imperialism. And it still isn’t. You see, Russia also spent much of the 19th century –and not a small part of the 20th–embroiled in its own imperial projects. And India and China, to name but two, are busy in a second little scramble for African resources.
  • There are, amazingly enough, some not very nice black and brown people. These brown and black people like to break the necks of other black and brown people, in addition to collaborating with not very nice white people.
  • Anti-colonialists in colonised countries often found themselves with two sets of enemies: the white colonizer and the black, brown or yellow exploiter whose heels were as capable of crushing them as the pinko-gray man. So, they argued, anti-colonialism was a multi-pronged project, one of opposing and undermining power at various levels, local/national as well as global/imperial. This wasn’t always easy, but it had to be done, even and especially when the local exploiter called for unity against the white man with the pith helmet (with whom he often collaborated)
  • Now, there are two ways of being ‘centric’ about your own culture. One is the old-fashioned way, the one we all like to condemn, the one where you think your own culture/community/nation/civilisation are uniquely good, superior to all others and therefore, only the actions of your people matter. The other way is where you invert that: where you think that your own culture/community/nation/civilisation are uniquely bad and, therefore, erm, only the actions of your people matter. What unites these two positions, ostensibly mirror opposites is that in both cases, only your people, i.e. (usually white men) and their actions matter. Once again, ironically, only Westerners are the prime movers of history. It doesn’t make sense to look at the first kind as racist and the second kind as radical.
  • This is a problem. Especially for formerly colonised people and their resistances (because they do resist, you know, when faced with oppression. Just like you). Because then, what happens to the brown/black/yellow crusher-of-lives who is operating with the help of an imperialist power, maybe yours, maybe another one? Do we just sit back and let him do his thing, and call it anti-colonialism? Or do we, perhaps, just perhaps, try to figure out how to create alliances with those who are being crushed and are fighting it? (Anticolonialists of another era called that ‘internationalism.’) And if so, how do we go about it? This is a tough project and there are no simple answers. But, hey, if anticolonalism–and internationalism– were simple, we’d be actually living in a properly postcolonial world. But we aren’t. So, what is to be done?
  • Finally, there is no one-size-fits-all party line or formula for being anti-imperialist. You can’t redress past wrong-headed interventions by insisting that there can’t any international interventions ever; postcolonial karma doesn’t work like that. As many Africans and people like C.L.R. James noted in the wake of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, where other Western nations simply stood by and watched, doing nothing. Suddenly it became clear: black lives really didn’t matter to Europe and its allies. Do we really want a repeat of this?
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    Priyamvada Gopal

    Priyamvada.Gopal is an academic and writer based in Cambridge -- and sidekick to Manny SC (pictured). Her new book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonialism and British Dissent' is out with Verso next autumn. She tweets at @PriyamvadaGopal.


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    Ivan Hansen
    Oct 18, 2016 8:37

    So Your point is? Should we stop all western intervention south of the Mediterranean? And then just let them slaughter each other in the Middle East?

    Kester Ratcliff
    Oct 18, 2016 15:58

    @Ivan, I think Priyam’s conclusion from these very general observations would be the opposite, but the point was the general observations about different ways of doing ‘anti-imperialism’.

    The pseudo-anti-imperialist or inverted cultural imperialism which we’re seeing a conflict with now could perhaps be more simply and relatively more neutrally termed ‘counter-imperialism’ rather than ‘anti-imperialism’. Counter- meaning opposing an imperialism with another imperialism, and anti- meaning seeking to resolve and remove the agenda of imperialism or reduce the incidence and prevalence of imperialist behaviours and attitudes.

    The difference really depends on your view of whether ‘realpolitik’ is really realistic, or whether it has too narrow a view of global events to even be realistic nowadays. (I guess it’s obvious from my characterisation of the problem that I think realpolitik, as currently understood at least, is actually unrealistic.)

    Ivan Hansen
    Oct 18, 2016 18:59

    @Kester, thank You for the reply, you have managed to break the lix level of my cerebral capacity. I do not understand your point, but it is probably something very sophisticated and deep piece of thought.

    Do we wish another Ethiopia 1935 again? no i do not think so. But should the western powers fare war against Russia in Syria? i dont think so either. I think the middle east has tought us that democracy is not a suitable model for every single country in the world, it takes a lot of blood and education to reach having an informed public with access to free media – and there might even be some countries that do not wish to have that, ever, maybe living according to religious beliefs are okay?

    As with regards to realpolitik. Big powers will always want more power, you simply cannot have a world without some form of colonialism being it capitalism, religious or cultural. The real “realpolitk” thus must be to balance the colonial powers, via trade, multilateralism, intergovernmental orgs etc
    Otto Von Bismarck was a realpolitiker who understood that giving concessions meant uniting Germany.

    Rethinking Syria and the claptrap of anti-imperialism – Splintered Eye
    Nov 2, 2016 9:00

    […] the dissonance of Eastern-bloc fetishism, Cambridge professor Priyamvada Gopal’s ‘Anti-Imperialism: A Short Guide in 7 Steps‘, succinctly dismantles simplistic binaries and unresolved eurocentrisms, while Electronic […]

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