M.A.R. Habib

Since the complex phenomenon of Apostcolonialism @is rooted in the history of imperialism, it is worth briefly looking at this history. The word imperialism derives from the Latin imperium which has numerous meanings including power, authority, command, dominion, realm and empire . Though imperialism is usually understood as a strategy whereby a state aims to extend its control forcibly beyond its own borders over other states and peoples, it should be remembered that such control is usually not just military but economic and cultural. A ruling state will often impose not only its own terms of trade, but its own political ideals, its own cultural values, and often its own language, upon a subject state.

The term imperialism as we know it dates back to the last half of the nineteenth century. But the concept and practice is as old as civilization itself. Both the Western world and the Eastern world have seen a series of vast empires which have extended over vast territories often in the name of bringing the blessings of their civilization to the subject peoples who were regarded as barbarians. These include the Chinese empires extending from the eleventh century B.C. to the tenth century after Christ; the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Assyrian and Persian empires; the empires of the Greeks, which reached a climax with the conquests of Alexander the Great; the Roman Empire , the Byzantine empire , and the various empires of Islam which lasted until the early twentieth century.

In modern times, there have been at least three major phases of imperialism. Between  1492 and the mid-eighteenth century, Spain and Portugal ,England ,France and the Netherlands , established colonies and empires in the Americas , the East Indies and  India . Then, between the mid-nineteenth century and the First World War, there was an immense scramble for imperialistic power between Britain ,France ,Germany ,Italy and other nations. By the end of the nineteenth century, more than one fifth the land area of the world and a quarter of its population had been brought under the British Empire :India ,Canada ,Australia ,New Zealand ,South Africa ,Burma and the Sudan . The next largest colonial power was France , whose possessions included Algeria ,French West Africa , Equatorial Africa and Indochina .Germany , Italy and Japan also entered the race for colonies. In 1855 Belgium established the Belgian Congo in the heart of Africa , a colonization whose horrors were expressed in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Finally, the periods during and after the Second World War saw a struggle involving both the countries just mentioned as well as a conflict between America and the Communist Soviet Union for extended control, power and influence. Needless to say, these imperialistic endeavors have survived into the present day in altered forms and with new antagonists.

What concerns us is not only the history of imperialism itself but the various narratives of imperialism. The motives behind imperialism have usually been economic (though liberal economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo were sceptical of imperialism =s economic benefits, arguing that it only benefited a small group but never the nation as a whole). Marxists, especially Lenin and Bukharin, saw imperialism as a late stage of capitalism, in which monopolistic home markets were forced to subjugate foreign markets to accommodate their overproduction and surplus capital. A second and related  motive has been (and still is) the security of the home state. A third  motive is related to various versions of Social Darwinism. Figures such as Machiavelli, Bacon, Hitler and Mussolini saw imperialism as part of the natural struggle for survival. Like individuals, nations are in competition, and those endowed with superior strength and gifts are able and fit to subjugate the weaker nations. Karl Pearson =s “arguments” belong to this category. The final motive, propounded by figures such as Rudyard Kipling (in poems such as “The White Man’s Burden”) and questioned by writers such as Conrad, rests on moral grounds: imperialism is a means of bringing to a subject people the blessings of a superior civilization, and liberating them from their benighted ignorance. Clearly, much of this rationale rests on Western Enlightenment notions of civilization and progress.

After the end of the second world war in 1945 there occurred a large scale process of decolonization of the territories subjugated by most of the imperial powers (Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium), with the significant exception of the Soviet Union and the United States, beginning with the independence of India in 1947. The collapse of the Communist regimes in 1991 left America as the only major remaining colonial power (though America itself had of course held the status of a colony). Indeed, colonial struggle is hardly dead: it has continued until very recently  in East Timor , and still persists bitterly in Tibet ,Taiwan ,Kashmir and the Middle East .[1]

Postcolonial literature and criticism arose both during and after the struggles of many nations  in Africa ,Asia ,Latin America (now referred to as the “tricontinent” rather than the “third world”) and elsewhere for independence from colonial rule. 1950 saw the publication of  seminal texts of postcolonialism: Aime Cesaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme , and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks . And in 1958 Chinua Achebe published his novel Things Fall Apart . George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile appeared in 1960 and Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth followed in 1961. According to Robert Young, the “founding moment” of postcolonial theory was the journal the Tricontinental , launched by the Havan Tricontinetal of 1966, which “inititiated the first global alliance of the peoples of the three continents against imperialism” (Young, 5). Edward Said’s landmark work Orientalism appeared in 1978.  More recent work includes The Empire Writes Back (1989) by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin , Gayatri Spivak’s The Post-Colonial Critic (1990), as well as important work by Abdul JanMohamed, Homi Bhabha, Benita Parry and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Robert Young sees postcolonialism as continuing to derive its inspiration from the anti-colonial struggles of the colonial era. Anti-colonialism had many of the characteristics commonly associated with postcolonialism such as “diaspora, transnational migration and internationalism” (Young, 2). Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin also use the term postcolonial in a comprehensive sense, “to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day,” on account of the “continuity of preoccupations” between the colonial and postcolonial periods. [2]

Postcolonial criticism has embraced a number of aims: most fundamentally, to re-examine the history of colonialism from the perspective of the colonized; to determine the economic, political and cultural impact of colonialism on both the colonized peoples and the colonizing powers; to analyze the process of decolonization; and above all, to participate in the goals of political liberation, which includes equal access to material resources, the contestation of forms of domination and the articulation of political and cultural identities (Young, 11). Early voices of anti-imperialism stressed the need to develop or return to indigenous literary traditions so as to exorcize their cultural heritage of the specters of imperial domination. Other voices advocated an adaptation of Western ideals toward their own political and cultural ends. The fundamental framework of postcolonial thought has been furnished by the Marxist critique of colonialism and imperialism, which has been adapted to their localized contexts by thinkers from Frantz Fanon to Gayatri Spivak.

This struggle of postcolonial discourse extends over the domains of gender, race, ethnicity and class. Indeed, we should avoid the danger of treating either the “West” or the “tricontinent” as homogenous entities which can somehow be mutually opposed. Such a rigid opposition overlooks the fact that class divisions and gender oppression operate in both the West and in colonized nations. Many commentators have observed that exploitation of workers occurred as much in Western countries as in the areas that they subjugated. Equally, colonization benefitted primarily a tiny portion of the population of imperial nations. In this sense, colonialism is a phenomenon internal to imperial nations as well as extending beyond their frontiers (Young, 8-9). Hence, postcolonial discourse potentially embraces, and is intimately linked with, a broad range of dialogues within the colonizing powers, addressing various forms of “internal colonization” as treated by minority studies of various kinds such as African-American, Native American, Latin American and Women’s Studies. All of these discourses have challenged the main streams of Western philosophy, literature and ideology. In this sense, the work of African-American critics such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., of African-American female novelists and poets, of commentators on Islam, and even of theorists such as Fredric Jameson, is vitally linked to the multifarious projects of postcolonialism.

One of these projects, or rather, one point of convergence of various postcolonial projects has been the questioning and revaluation of the literary and cultural canon in Western institutions, through what is loosely called “multiculturalism.” In explaining the rise of multiculturalism, Paul Berman suggests that a new Apostmodern @generation of activists from the sixties came into power in American universities. The year 1968 saw left-wing uprisings against the elements of liberal humanism: Western democracy, rationalism, objectivity, individual autonomy. These were all considered to be slogans which concealed the society =s actual oppression of blacks, working class people, gays, women, as well as the imperialistic exploitation of Third World countries. These oppressive ideas, according to radicals, were embodied and reproduced in the conventional canons of literature and philosophy which we offer to our students: the literary tradition from Homer to T.S. Eliot and the philosophical spectrum from Plato to Logical Positivism. Berman suggests that this reaction against the Western mainstream tradition was fostered largely by the rise of French literary theory, which insisted that the text was an indirect expression and often a justification of the prevailing power structure. This structure was inevitably a hierarchy in which the voices of minorities, women and the working classes were suppressed. These voices now had to be heard.

The central conservative argument against multiculturalism was advanced by Allan Bloom, Arthur Schlesinger and others. It assumed, firstly, that in the past there existed a period of consensus with regard to the aims of education, political ideals and moral values; secondly, that this consensus, which underlies the national identity of America , is threatened by the cacophonic irreconcilable voices of multiculturalism. Multiculturalists respond that this past consensus is imaginary: the educational curricula adopted at various stages both in the U.S. and elsewhere have been the products of conflicting political attitudes. In late nineteenth century America, conservatives, who desired a curriculum that would foster religious conformism and discipline, were opposed by those, like the pragmatist John Dewey, who wished to stress liberal arts, utility and advanced research. In 1869, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard initiated a program of curricular reform, amid much controversy. Disciplines such as History, Sociology and English itself struggled to gain admission into various liberal arts curricula. In 1890 the MLA witnessed a heated debate over the relative merits of the Classics and the moderns. And the 1920s and 1930s saw a struggle to make American literature part of the English program.

A third assumption of conservatives is that great literature somehow conveys “timeless truths”; Schlesinger states that history should be conducted as “disinterested intellectual inquiry,” not as therapy; William Bennett, Lynne V. Cheney, and the NAS have all appealed to the notion of timeless truths. But, to speak in such language is to dismiss the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism, existentialism, historicism, hermeneutic theory and psychoanalysis which have attempted to situate the notion of truth in historical, economic and political contexts. Various theorists have responded that, in fact, the appeal to “timeless truths” has always subserved a political function. The growth of English literature was from the beginning imbued with ideological motives. Arnold and subsequent professors at Oxford saw poetry as the sole salvation for a mechanical civilization. The timeless truths of literature were intended as a bulwark against rationalist and ideological dogma. Literature was to “promote sympathy and fellow feeling among all classes,” to educate citizens as to their duties, to inculcate national pride and moral values. And English was a pivotal part of the imperialist effort. In 1834 Macaulay argued the merits of English as the medium of instruction in India , stating: “I have never found one…who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia …”  We can refrain from commenting on this except to add Macaulay’s own subsequent statement that “I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic.” Such statements reveal the depth to which constructions of Europe ‘s self-image, resting on the Enlightenment project of rationality, progress, civilization and  moral agency were premised on the positing of various forms of  alterity or “otherness,” founded on polarized images such as supersititiouness, backwardness, barbarism, moral incapacity and intellectual impoverishment. In many areas of the globe — including the United States, where the study of English literature often overbalances that of American writers — the English literary tradition continues to act as a foundation and norm of value, with texts from other traditions often being “incorporated” and viewed through analytical perspectives intrinsic to the English heritage. In India , where English replaced Persian (the language of the former rulers, the Mughals) as the official state language in 1835, English continues to exert a pervasive influence on language, literature and legal and political thought. It is in profound recognition of this integral relationship between the literary canon and cultural values that writers such as the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have written essays with such titles as “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1968), and important texts such as Decolonizing the Mind (1986). Many writers, notably Chinua Achebe, have struggled with the dilemma of expressing themselves in their own dialect, to achieve an authentic rendering of their cultural situation and experience, or in English, to reach a far wider audience. It should be noted also that what conventionally passes as “English” is Southern Standard English, spoken by the middle classes in London and the South of England. This model of English has effectively peripheralized the English spoken not only in other parts of England but in other areas of the world. Today, there are innumerable varieties of English spoken in many countries, and only recently has their expression in literature been institutionally acknowledged.  These various debates can now be examined in some of the major figures who have made contributions to postcolonial criticism and theory.

[1] .Several points in this account are taken from the excellent chapter “Colonialism and the Politics of Postcolonial Critique,” in Robert Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001).

[2] .Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 2. Hereafter cited as EWB.