When we think of the struggle against colonial rule, many of us think of the mid-20th century and the great male figureheads of independence movements—the most recognizable of which is the bald shining temple of Mahatma Gandhi. But as the British scholar Priyamvada Gopal narrates in her new book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, they were only high points in a story that began long before (and which hasn’t yet ended). From the moment of conquest, she writes, colonized people have resisted foreign occupation, in ways both dramatic—burning courthouses, shooting British officers—and everyday, in their living rooms and at the mosque. “People need to hear more about the hidden intellectual histories of anti-colonialism,” Gopal told me. Rebellious thinkers in the colonies didn’t just raise support among their own people; they also affected how people in imperial centers thought about those in the colonies—no longer subjects to be saved (first from themselves, then from the West) but political actors in their own right. Revolutionaries, intellectuals, and travelers from the colonized world: These were the people building the base for a transnational movement against empire.
Though she’s a scholar of English literature by training and by department, Insurgent Empire takes on this history, whose forgetting doesn’t always seem accidental. “I found myself having to participate in public debates, taking public positions that historians, for a lot of reasons, were not taking,” she says. She’s confronted well-known names of British history (Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson) about their racism and in the process staked out her own presence online (or “achieved notoriety,” as some others have put it). She talked to The Nation about her book, the state of history in Britain, and empire today.
Nawal Arjini: You write that dissidence to empire shaped Britain, and its relationship to its colonies, as much as empire did. Would you elaborate on that?
Priyamvada Gopal: Resistance is always part of a dialogue. Decolonization was not the result of imperial initiative, which in Britain is still a very beloved idea. Although we must value the dissidence at the heart of empire, we must also look at how that was shaped by the practical resistance of the colonized, as well as the way the colonized theorized their resistance.
NA: What are the stakes of looking at how colonial dissidence shaped imperial thought instead of, say, how colonial dissidence in one colony affected others, or the effect of resistance within the imperial center?
PG: People have written about anticolonial resistance and resistance in metropolitan Britain. I wanted to talk about resistance across contexts. I wanted to challenge the pernicious idea that ideas about freedom or emancipation or justice or human rights go from Europe into the colonies. There was influence in two directions, and one of the ways we see that influence is [as it affects] critics of empire in the metropole, in Britain.
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NA: In fact, a lot of the activists and thinkers you discuss literally move from the colonies to London.
PG: Freedom of speech was to some extent protected in London, but did not exist in the colonies. The irony is the same people who would be punished in the colonies were able to exercise a degree of freedom in London, which allowed a certain kind of anticolonial sentiment to coalesce in London in a way that was impossible in the colonies themselves.
NA: You emphasize a difference between “sympathy” from the British and solidarity with the colonized. What does this distinction reveal?
PG: [English traveler Wilfred] Blunt compares Prime Minister [William] Gladstone’s sympathy with the colonized to putting on blackface. His point is that there’s an invocation of Eastern peoples as noble and worthy of freedom, but in practice, when they do demand freedom and resist oppression, they are met with weapons and bloodshed. In theory, liberals in Britain believed in the right of people to self-determination and sovereignty, they believed in a universal urge to freedom. In practice—particularly because it was racialized and put into civilizational terms—and as we see today, the people who talk about human rights are not particularly committed to them when the oppressed actually demand freedom or justice.
The key distinction is between paternalism or charity, and solidarity. Solidarity is a relationship of reciprocity: equals learning from each other. Paternalism is the idea that you would uplift the wretched colonized or free the enslaved. What we see when we look at these figures and events is we see much more of an emphasis on unlearning paternalism and learning solidarity, as opposed to a disposition of benevolence, which is the way the establishment in Britain likes to think about independence.
NA: It’s strange how, in that understanding, benevolence is the foundation for both colonization and its dissolution.
PG: Absolutely. And I’m saying that’s not possible. In Britain, when you bring up slavery, people say things like, “Oh, Britain might have enslaved, but it was also the nation that abolished slavery.” That’s a weird connection to be making, that the same impulse that enslaved people also abolished slavery. A weird narrative.
NA: It’s given contemporary tyrants in the formerly colonized world an easy out—they can cynically use this history of false benevolence to dismiss claims for justice in their countries as originating with meddling neocolonial forces.
PG: The history of resistance teaches us that there’s nothing necessarily Western about demanding rights. People will always demand that they not be unfree, that they not be deprived of land, that they not be deprived of food, shelter, and basic forms of dignity. As Blunt realized, engaging with Muslim reformers in Cairo in the mid-19th century, there’s a long Islamic tradition of talking about rights, reason, justice, freedom, sovereignty. The West does not have a copyright on these notions.
Obama’s attempt to suggest that people in Tahrir Square simply wanted to be like Western kids was an appalling appropriation and distortion of what was happening—which was that people who understood their situation as one of being constrained and oppressed were pushing back against it. That’s a story of a universalizable impulse rather than about the triumph of Western values.
NA: The language of universalism, like the language of human rights, also carries colonial baggage.
PG: A certain kind of false universalism was used by colonizers, but that’s not the only form available to us. Universalism manifests in the particular, and most obviously manifests in resistance.
NA: Many of the revolutionaries you describe were self-described Marxists—and also highly educated, from privileged backgrounds, who traveled in circles of similar people. What was the connection between these elite groups and the international working class that they were trying to mobilize?
PG: After 1917, you can’t organize against colonialism without awareness of the Russian Revolution and the political imaginings and theories of revolution it released. Whatever your views on the Soviet Union might be, the Russian revolution has consequences for any anticolonial nation formation. I picked people who had critical sympathy or adherence to communism, but were very aware of the weaknesses of western Marxism, particularly in relation to race and empire.
The relationship I talk about between the insurgents and the colonies is not one of a vanguard trying to mobilize. Figures like George Padmore, [Shapurji] Saklatvala, C.L.R. James—these are people who were radicalized by working-class resistance. They’re theorizing mobilization and labor resistance, but the insurgencies on the ground, whether in the West Indies or India, are very driven from below.
NA: Figures like Gandhi and Nehru make only brief appearances in your book. Could you compare the way the imperial center felt about people like Gandhi with how it felt about, for example, the militant defendants in the Meerut Trials [labor organizers arrested for “conspiring to deprive the King of His Sovereignty of British India”]? Or another one of your characters, Shapurji Saklatvala, a communist member of the British Parliament?
PG: I struggled with leaving out Gandhi and Nehru. I don’t want to be reductive, but broadly speaking, they were received in the way that Martin Luther King was received: as prophets of peace, and, eventually, as people whom the elites of Britain could parlay with. Nehru or Gandhi both have very complicated trajectories and legacies, but at the end of the day, they were not threatening to capital, to hierarchies that colonialism had put into place.
Certainly Saklatvala is less quote-unquote influential than Gandhi in bringing about independence. But he represents a resistance to empire often set aside in favor of talking about peaceful transition and negotiating the relationship between capital and state. People who were more confrontational, who saw a link between capitalism and empire, were marginalized in favor of people putting forward a more emollient narrative. Gandhi and Nehru fit better into that narrative, whatever their own truths.
NA: Could you say that narrative of Gandhi was a helpful way for the British to triangulate between the pressure to cede sovereignty and their antipathy to the actual decolonization demanded by more militant figures?
PG: The Indian case has been very misleading. It’s dominated by Gandhi and Nehru, when in fact the Indian national movement included a lot of people who were a lot more radical. There was a lot more debate and dissent. And the dominant version of the Indian case has distorted the larger story of decolonization. It’s not how decolonization happened in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya. We don’t hear about labor revolts in the Caribbean and the extent to which those revolts were very destabilizing, both to capital and to British empire. The story of decolonization has been sanitized into a peaceful handing over of power from one set of elites to another.
NA: Right—one of your focuses is on the Mau Mau rebellion, when the Kenya Land Freedom Army fought against colonial rule, which ended in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Today, invoking Mau Mau communicates vicious, violent suppression of rebellion, but as you write, in Britain at the time it meant the violent rebellion itself.
PG: It still does in Britain, to an extent that might shock you. When people say Mau Mau now, the dominant image is still of poor white villagers being hacked to death. Now there’s a little awareness of the fact that the repression was brutal, because survivors have successfully brought a case in the British courts against torture. But at the time there was a lot of self-pitying talk about the British being the victims of Mau Mau and not the other way around.
NA: To what extent does that idea of colonizers as victims survive across generations?
PG: Young people are by and large very willing to undo those mythologies, but the mythologies themselves have been handed down. There’s very little engagement in British school system even now about the brutalities of empire. What happened during Mau Mau—most young people know absolutely nothing about it. C.L.R. James says, they tear down the myth, patch it up, and hang it up again. They keep passing it on, as though it was never challenged.
NA: You mentioned that historians in the UK are shy about talking about postcolonial resistance. What purchase do the narratives of people like Niall Ferguson have on the British public?
PG: Niall Ferguson is only the latest purveyor of the myth of benevolent empire. You can see versions of Ferguson’s mythology spouted by the rabid far-right theorists of Brexit, because that is very explicitly theorized as empire 2.0, as recovering imperial greatness by pushing away from Europe and turning again to Asia and Africa. It’s absolutely vital in order to understand the support for Brexit. You cannot have a conversation with a Brexiteer without someone invoking the greatness of empire and the need to return to it.
But the idea of change coming from above, whether that takes the form of the colonizer bestowing freedom on the colonized or upper classes handing change down to ordinary people, I think the idea that change comes from above is still quite beloved in the British establishment. Liberal historians repeatedly repudiate ideas that resistance from below is vital to transformation, or that resistance, and not acquiescence, is the mortar of history. There’s sometimes explicit sneering at those ideas.
NA: What’s something that could upset the hold of that narrative?
PG: When certain mythologies are entrenched, they’re not shifted by reality. But it’s very important to keep histories of resistance in the frame, to not allow something like Tahrir Square or the Tunisian Rebellion to be co-opted into histories of Western civilization or the triumph of capital, or the bizarre ways they’ve been presented as Facebook or Twitter revolutions. It’s important to make central again the role of resistance in making change.
NA: How does resistance in Tahrir Square affect people in Britain and America when they don’t feel responsible for those conditions? When there’s less of a direct relationship between empire and its subjects, or when it’s less clear how that relationship operates?
PG: You can see some of the older patterns [of the Western response to resistance] about how repeat themselves. Once again, the right-wing and the liberal establishment sees this as about the desire for capitalism, for consumer choice, to wear the same things and listen to the same music as we do in the West. But as Tahrir Square happened—and as we see in Kashmir and the resistance of the Kurds in Syria—there’s a move to think about how dissent works and how solidarities form.
The dynamic of colonialism has gone well beyond the West. Formerly colonized states are now themselves colonizing populations. You’re seeing a global resurgence of the colonial impulse of racism, of majoritarianism, of chauvinism. You’re seeing a globalization of the colonizing impulse, but also the globalization of solidarity. People trying to work through—and it’s incredibly difficult—how we construct solidarity across national and racial borders, especially when divide and rule is in play. How do we create solidarity between people in the labor movement in London today with people in India or Egypt or Syria? We are, as people in the late 19th century were, in the position of grappling with how we might confront global solidarities, given that in several places we are up against the same phenomenon.
NA: It does seem like it might have been easier when, as you mention, class solidarity was a gateway for people in the West to understand people outside of it.
PG: I think it only looks easy in retrospect. Even in the heyday of socialism, from the 1920s through the ’40s, it was not an easy case to make. Solidarities were not necessarily easily constructed, as black radicals found out when they confronted racism or civilizational thinking in the labor movement. I take your point to be, how do we make the case for solidarities now that we’re on the other side of the Soviet empire?
NA: And in the face of the Soviet Union becoming an empire.
PG: It might be harder, and we need to articulate a new kind of socialism that’s not in legacy to the Soviet Union. But socialism is having somewhat of a comeback in the languages of change now. People might not call themselves socialists—they certainly don’t call themselves communists—but the idea of capital as an oppressive, global force that requires some form of resistance, that case is being made surprisingly frequently. People are in a position to start seeing connections. It’s not easy, but I’m not sure it was particularly easy in the 1920s either. That narrative is very telescoped for us. I’m struck by the similarities in the challenges faced by anticolonial campaigners in that period and the case that people are making today for a progressive alliances within and across nations.
NA: How did you choose to write Insurgent Empire in a more historical way?
PG: Historians were not responding directly to right-wing histories of empire. But also I found myself teaching my students about empire in order to contextualize their readings. We need to hear much more about the hidden intellectual histories of anticolonialism that we don’t know much about.
NA: What do you think is the reason people who study literature and postcolonial studies attracts about each other?
PG: People who teach literature are people who study cultural formations. As we know from Edward Said, culture in Britain and Europe can’t be understood without thinking about empire. Literary critics aren’t able to think about the literature of the 16, 17th, 18th, 19th century without thinking about empire, in a way that perhaps mainstream historians were able to evade.
As a literary critic, I was freer to jump from decade to decade and context to context in a way that historians are perhaps more rightly cautious about. Literary critics thinking about empire—historically it’s been at the expense of thinking about the material, about resistance, of historical understanding. I’m not sitting here saying literary critics are better at talking about empire than historians, but that history needs to grapple with narrative a lot more and literary critics need to grapple with history much more, and that’s what I set out to do.