Foreign Rule and Colonial Fictions

In her lead essay for this month, Sahar Khan addresses Professor Bruce Gilley’s controversial recent paper “The Case for Colonialism” in which he argues that “Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found,” and so it should be “recovered” today “by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas, and by creating new Western colonies from scratch” (Gilley 2017, 1). Khan argues that libertarianism is ideally situated to rebut such pro-colonial arguments as its “principles of freedom from foreign rule, free markets, and individual liberty” directly oppose colonialism. She concludes that the debates that were generated by Gilley’s article provide libertarians with an opportunity to show that they are “champions of military restraint and emancipation,” and that the backlash against his article highlight the value of “sound empirical information” as well as “the need to ensure that misinformation does not become the norm.”


Libertarianism and Foreign Rule

There is much to praise in Khan’s paper, and little to criticize. But there is one claim that she makes that can be challenged: the claim that one of the principles of libertarianism is that persons have “freedom from foreign rule.” Rather than being concerned with whether persons are subject to domestic or foreign rule, libertarianism is concerned only that they be subject to the rule of law. Libertarianism is concerned that persons be subject to publicly announced laws that protect the rights of, and bind, all members of the polity equally independently of their social position. If the laws that the members of a polity are subject to meet these conditions then a government that enforces and enacts them could be considered legitimate. Hence, as Michael Hechter observes in his book Alien Rule (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013) the mark of a legitimate government would be that “its rules are considered rightful by both dominant and subordinate members of society” (Hechter 2013, 16). Since this is so in theory it would be possible for a colonial (i.e., foreign) government that restricts itself to enforcing the rule of law to be legitimate. And if this colonial government favored free trade (rather than mercantilism) and the protection of individual liberty (instead of engaging in the “gross violation of human rights”) then a case could be made for its legitimacy on libertarian grounds—especially if the only alternative was a domestic despot.


The Fiction of Colonial Legitimacy

It might appear that this response paper will now move to defend Gilley’s case for western colonialism on the grounds that he is right that it could be both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate.” This appearance might be reinforced by the recognition that the account of government legitimacy offered above is that of Michael Hechter’s, whose book Alien Rule was cited approvingly by Gilley as showing that “alien rule has often been legitimate in world history” (Gilley, 4). But this appearance is misleading—as is Gilley’s use of Hechter’s work to support his position.

As Khan rightly notes “[e]vidence is key for scholarship and policy both: poor empirics lead to weak scholarship and bad policies”. So, does Hechter’s work support Gilley’s claim that “alien rule” has “often been legitimate in world history” as Gilley claims?

It emphatically does not. In discussing alien rule—which he defines as being that by an authority “in a given collectivity, who are themselves not members of that collectivity” (Hechter, 2)—Hechter holds that “a government is legitimate to the extent that its rules are considered rightful by both dominant and subordinate members of society” (Hechter 2013, 16). After (rightly) noting that “this is an exceedingly demanding condition to meet” (Hechter 2013, 16) Hecther nonetheless observes that “when aliens are confronted by incentives to rule fairly and efficiently, they can gain legitimacy” (Hechter 2013, 24). To illustrate this possibility Hechter provides the examples of the rule by the podesteria in the thirteenth-century Republic of Genoa (Hechter 32 – 35), the rule of the principally British Chinese Maritime Customs Service that occurred under the purview of successive Chinese governments from 1854 to 1950 (Hechter 2013, 35 – 38), and the British rule of Hong Kong at the time of its handover to China (Hechter 2013, 44). These were, Hechter claims, all examples of legitimate alien rule.

But that Hechter provides only three examples of arguably legitimate alien rule that occurred anywhere in the world for a period of time ranging from the thirteenth century to the late twentieth century hardly supports Gilley’s claim that his work shows that “alien rule has often been legitimate in world history” (emphasis added). Indeed—and contra Gilley’s citing of his work to support colonialism—Hechter takes pains to emphasize that he “does not attempt to make the case that alien rule is superior to native rule” (Hechter 2013, 140). He expressly notes that “[a]lien rule typically is disastrous” (Hechter 2013, 141) and that “in the case of classical colonialism” incentives to rule well “are usually weak, if not altogether absent” (Hechter 2013, 44). The correct conclusion to draw from Hechter’s work is thus that that colonial rule is almost always illegitimate, not that it is “often” legitimate.


Gilley Moves Further into Error

But Hechter’s is not the only work that Gilley misuses to support his claims. Khan has already documented Gilley’s misuse of the work of Berny Sèbe, as well as that of Alexander De Juan and Jan Henryk Pierskalla. Gilley also misrepresents the position of Patrice Lumumba, the mid-century Congolese politician, to support his view that colonial rule was regarded as legitimate by those subject to it. Gilley cites Lumumba’s autobiographical praise of Belgian rule for “restoring our human dignity and turning us into free, happy, vigorous, and civilized men,” noting that Lumumba “became an anti-colonial agitator only very late” (Gilley 2017, 4). Gilley gives the impression that Lumumba’s status as an “anti-colonial agitator” was rather minor (perhaps the Congolese equivalent of a “community organizer”) and that Lumumba adhered to his colonial sympathies for many years, abandoning them “only very late.” But these impressions are misleading. The autobiography from which Gilley quotes was written between 1956 and 1957. It was posthumously published in 1962, and there is considerable doubt as to whether it represents Lumumba’s true views. In 1960 Lumumba publicly condemned Belgian colonial rule, describing it as “humiliating slavery” in a famous speech on the occasion of Congo’s independence. He went on to condemn in no uncertain terms the “ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes,” the seizure of lands from Congolese “in the name of allegedly legal laws which in fact recognized only that might is right,” and the fact “that the law was not the same for a white and for a black, accommodating for the first, cruel and inhuman for the other.” For Gilley to refer to Lumumba as a defender of Belgian colonialism is thus utterly bizarre. And rather than being merely an “agitator” Lumumba was the first President of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo—in which capacity he condemned Belgian colonial abuses.



While Khan is mistaken to hold that in theory one of the principles of libertarianism is that persons should be free from foreign rule, even the evidence that Gilley himself cites shows that she is correct to note that in practice colonial rule is “fundamentally exploitative” of the colonized. Moreover, as Gilley’s misuse of the work of Hechter, Sèbe, De Juan and Pierskalla, and Lumumba shows, Khan is also correct to remind us that we should be constantly vigilant for attempts to re-write history in ways that do not comport with the facts. And while this vigilance should obviously include checking the accuracy of claims, it should also lead us to ensure that even mistaken and misleading views (such as Gilley’s views on colonialism) are not excised from the historical record. Such views should be rebutted—not retracted.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sahar Khan argues that classical liberal and libertarian political commitments weigh heavily against the supposed case for colonialism. No matter what affinity we may have for startup societies, colonialism as a historical phenomenon was a gross violation of individual rights. From mercantilism to outright genocide, the various aspects of the colonial project are not worth emulating or reconstructing in the modern world. Rather, we should re-emphasize the case against military intervention abroad in all its forms.

Response Essays

  • Berny Sèbe reviews a few of the key points of the ongoing historical debate about colonialism, from Bartolomé de las Casas through Frantz Fanon. The intellectual case for colonialism has never been strong, he concludes, but there is yet another reason to reject colonialist ideology today: It would be impossible to replicate institutions that were the products of historical conditions we no longer experience. Colonialism is best left in the past for this and a host of other reasons.

  • James Stacey Taylor disagrees with Sahar Khan on only one point - foreign rule, he says, can sometimes be legitimate, though he stresses that in practice it almost never is. He then explains what was really wrong with Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism - not that it gave offense, but that it misused sources. He cites several examples of sources whose words and actions do not bear out the claims that were made of them, including Michael Hechter, Jan Henryk Pierskalla, and Patrice Lumumba - who was Congo’s first president and a staunch anti-colonialist.