October 2017

In a now-retracted article that appeared in the journal Third World Quarterly, Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University suggested that the history of colonialism has been misrepresented, and that colonialism might even be due for a revival. The article prompted multiple denunciations, a retraction, the resignation of the editorial board, and threats of violence.

What, though, should classical liberals and libertarians think about these issues? Traditionally postcolonial studies has been a bastion of various left-wing ideologies that we would certainly be inclined to oppose. Yet colonialism itself is not a promising cause with which to align. In a fitting essay for Columbus Day, lead essayist Sahar Khan takes a look at colonialism from a classical liberal perspective and examines why the enemy of an enemy isn’t necessarily a friend. Responding to her will be Professors Berny Sèbe of the University of Birmingham and James Stacey Taylor of the College of New Jersey. Conversation will continue through the end of the month, and readers are invited to comment throughout the month as well.

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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.

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Essays by Berny Sèbe and James Stacey Taylor. Conversation to continue throughout the month.