Labour History and the Case against Colonialism
This blog accompanies the International Review of Social History virtual special issue Labour History and the Case against Colonialism.
In September 2017, Third World Quarterly published an article by University of Portland scholar Bruce Gilley, entitled “The case for colonialism”. The controversial piece argued that an “objective cost/benefit analysis” of colonialism’s legacy would reveal that Western-style colonialism had made an overall positive contribution to the development of the countries subjected to it. Going even further, it advocated selective recolonization as a means to overcome the problems faced by most post-colonial states, positively referring to Belgian Congo as an example for the article’s case. The blatant pro-colonialism of Gilley’s article, combined with the shoddy scholarship and uncontrolled bias underlying its claims, led to an academic uproar that saw the resignation of nearly half the editorial board of Third World Quarterly. In the end, the article itself was retracted, according to Gilley and his publishers as a result of personal threats. However, Gilley’s article did not stand on its own. In France in 2005, a law proposed to Parliament stipulated a positive tone in education about the French colonial past, which lead to a tempestuous public debate. Authors such as Nigel Biggar in the UK, Niall Ferguson in the USA, and Pieter Emmer in the Netherlands, have all published revisionist claims about colonialism, arguing that post-colonial guilt and political correctness blind the majority of their colleagues to the positive impact of the colonial project. Even in Brazil, itself a former colony, a positive reappraisal of the role of Portuguese colonialism has received widespread attention, including endorsement by the newly elected right-wing president Bolsonaro.
The public influence attained internationally by such revisionism requires historians to expose the deep methodological flaws, misreading of historical facts, and misrepresentations of prior scholarship that it entails. It is for this reason that the editorial board of the International Review of Social History (IRSH) has decided to devote its first ever Virtual Special Issue to labour history’s case against colonialism. The Virtual Special Issue is IRSH’s format of a well-tested means for long-running academic journals to highlight past contributions around a coherent theme. Its aim is to bring together a selection of articles from the journal’s catalogue of back issues that often were not initially produced to be read in the thematic conjunction they are presented in here. This serves a dual purpose. First, it allows journals to rescue older contributions from getting lost in the vagaries of online search algorithms that pile ever growing amounts of new output on top of them. Second, the format is well-suited for tracing the history of scholarly debate, and thereby for re-injecting previously gained scientific insights into the stream of current controversy.
Creating a new thematic context for articles that were originally produced as stand-alone pieces or as part of special issues on other, connected themes, is itself a creative process. It is a way to think anew about the paths and connections that led to the present state of debate. The latter function is of special significance in the current controversy on colonialism. As the new article-length introduction to this Virtual Special Issue argues, the revisionists’ case partly rests on a fantasy of their own creation: the notion of a monolithic trajectory of the field, in which left-wing political correctness since the 1970s has supposedly led historians to an obsession with proving that “colonialism was bad”, suppressing dissenting (conservative) voices and preventing balanced analysis of colonialism’s alleged positive achievements. After presenting an extensive critique of the philosophical, moral and methodological assumptions on which Gilley, Biggar, Ferguson, Emmer and others base their attacks, the introduction to this Virtual Special Issue sketches the wider developments in the field of labour history in which the contributions to the IRSH should be placed.
The Virtual Special Issue contains twelve articles, published between 1995 and 2016. Together, these contributions illustrate the largely irrelevant nature of the “was colonialism good or bad?” debate that the revisionists aim to push to the center of the discussion. Indeed, all the authors start from a position that is implicitly or explicitly critical of colonialism. However, none of them are primarily concerned with the question of moral judgement as such. The topics discussed range from the inherent paradoxes around the idea of free labour when applied to the colonial world, to the persistence of coercive modes of labour extraction; from the attempts by colonial regimes to deploy customary forms of labour regulation, to the innovation of new forms of remuneration and labour control; from the uneven spread of global capitalism into colonial settings, to the relationship between labour movements and anti-colonial struggle. A diversity of experiences is relayed through these studies of power and resistance in colonial contexts. Contrary to the canard spread by Gilley and others, the effect of this focus on domination and resistance is not the reduction of colonialism to a monolithic, undifferentiated force, but the very opposite. The forced extraction of goods and the organization of the labour necessary to obtain them were among the colonial powers’ primary aims. Labour history therefore is particularly well-situated to study the tensions between colonial states’ modernization discourse and developmental claims, and their persistence in the application of large-scale coercion in social organization. It can situate colonialism within longer trajectories in the evolution of labour relations, which include pre- and postcolonial society. It can help to clarify why, in certain phases of their existence, colonial states were more capable of affecting structural change in their subject societies than in others, and why precolonial traditions were sometimes resilient in the face of the colonial onslaught. Finally, by natural inclination, it highlights the role of labour movements as prominent actors in the process of decolonization.
However, the aim of the Virtual Special Issue is not just to highlight the achievements of labour history in studying colonial societies. As the introduction self-critically explains, labour history was slow to begin the decolonization of its perspective. During the 1970s, when according to the revisionists entire historical schools collapsed into post-colonial guilt, 122 out of the 143 original research articles published in the International Review of Social History dealt with Western Europe, and an absolute majority of all the articles dealt with Britain alone. This geographical bias only started to shift with the journal’s turn towards Global Labour History in the early 1990s. The positive results of this shift are therefore a relatively recent gain, and the process of freeing labour history from its traditional Eurocentric assumptions is still far from completed. The continued advance of labour history in general, and colonial labour history in particular, therefore rests not only on rejecting the scholarly retreat presented by Gilley and others. It also requires extending the insights gained by labour history’s global turn. As the introduction concludes: “The only way that a thriving field can defend itself against such a multi-levelled attack on scholarship is by showing, in practice, the vitality of its approaches, the diversity of voices and agendas that it promotes, and the many ways in which it contributes to our understanding of the present and the roads that led towards it.”
Main Image: From Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk’s article, “Grammar of Difference? The Dutch Colonial State, Labour Policies, and Social Norms on Work and Gender, c.1800–1940”, International Review of Social History, 61:SI24 Conquerors, Employers and Arbiters: States and Shifts in Labour Relations, 1500–2000, p. 158, and the caption reads: Figure 3. Women picking tea leaves for the Tjimoelang tea company at Buitenzorg. Collections KITLV. Used with permission.