Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 20 13:19:29 MST 2003

LRB | Vol. 25 No. 6 dated 20 March 2003

Always on Top
Edward Said
Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 
1830-67 by Catherine Hall | Polity, 556 pp, £60.00

A generation ago the influence of Fanon's typology of empire ensured 
that one could only be either very much for or very much against the 
great imperial structures that disappeared piece by piece after the 
Second World War; now, after years of degeneration following the white 
man's departure, the empires that ruled Africa and Asia don't seem quite 
as bad. The perplexingly affirmative work of Niall Ferguson and David 
Armitage scants, if it doesn't actually trivialise, the suffering and 
dispossession brought by empire to its victims. More is said now about 
the modernising advantages the empires brought, and about the security 
and order they maintained. There is far less tolerance for the disorder 
and tyranny that people like Nkrumah, Lumumba and Nasser instigated in 
the name of anti-colonialism. A crucial tactic of this revisionism is to 
read present-day American imperial power as enlightened and even 
altruistic, and to project that enlightenment back into the past.

I am being impressionistic, of course. But I don't think there's any 
doubt that the mood that produced public excoriations of classical 
imperialism - including the disastrous American adventure in Indochina - 
has largely disappeared. Attacking Soviet imperialism is a livelier 
sport, as is 'realistic' reappraisal of previous enthusiasm for the 
cause of anti-imperialism. How else to explain the astonishing reversal 
of Conor Cruise O'Brien, who wrote the first really devastating critique 
of Camus as an accomplice of French colonialism in Algeria, and then a 
few years later enlisted as a defender of Menachem Begin's Israel, 
Ulster Unionism and South African apartheid? Gérard Chaliand performed a 
similar about-face in Paris. Then there are the many American 
intellectuals who followed Norman Podhoretz from the ranks of the 
liberal Left into reactionary self-bowdlerisation. For them American 
power is sacrosanct.

In the 1960s V.S. Naipaul began, disquietingly, to systematise the 
revisionist view of empire. A disciple and wilful misreader of Conrad, 
he gave Third Worldism, as it came to be known in France and elsewhere, 
a bad name. He didn't deny that terrible things had happened in such 
places as the Congo, but, he said, there was idealism of effort, too 
(remember Father Huisman in A Bend in the River); and monstrous 
post-colonial abuse had followed. He didn't actually say that King 
Leopold, bad though he was, was probably not much worse than Mobutu, or 
Idi Amin, or Mugabe, but he allowed one to think it. And when he sought 
to expose what he called 'the great lie' about colonialism by 
emphasising the miscegenation and transgressive sex (buggery, most of 
the time) associated with guerrillas and so-called freedom fighters, it 
didn't seem entirely out of character. In his opinion it was principally 
Islam that plumbed the truly ghastly depths to which the 'liberated' 
peoples of Africa and Asia would sink. Not surprisingly, the Iranian 
Revolution and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie consolidated 
anti-anti-colonial feeling in the 1980s and 1990s, making it easy to see 
the Taliban as a natural consequence of native intransigence and 
misplaced Western liberalism.

Naipaul's was only the most virulent example of colonial reassessment 
that emerged in the post-1960s, post-Vietnam atmosphere. The soft-core 
version included Raj revivalism, the cult of Merchant Ivory and 
interminable documentaries, coffee-table books, fashion accessories. By 
now Fanon and Aimé Césaire were reread as ambivalent Lacanian theorists 
caught up in all sorts of mirror games and secret flirtations with the 
white man. Nationalism, which had earlier mobilised vast numbers of 
people in the name of liberation, was now reconfigured as 'imagined 
community', a kind of naivety combined with fictional self-presentation 
borrowed from Europe itself. Its reputation gradually declined, not 
because it was too severe about the past but because it wasn't severe 
enough. Nationalism's bastard child was nativism, which was accused of 
papering over such local abuses as slavery, genital mutilation, 
home-grown despotism and racism. 'We don't have any problems with the 
blacks,' an Afrikaner said to me out of the blue as I was standing in 
line in a cafeteria in South Africa in 1991, 'it's they who have 
problems with each other.' Whenever nationalism brought about what 
seemed to be a successful revolution, as in India, questions remained 
about the inherent deficiencies of non-Western peoples, including their 
incapacity for truly civilised behaviour.



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