Completing the World Anti-Colonial Movement: A Task For Our Times

By Jahanzaib Choudhry.

The heroic history of the largest movement in the world for the elevation of humanity is hidden from young people. The ideas of the West through academia and the media unconsciously shape much of the discourse among young activists who wish to work for a more just world. Ideas such as democracy often serve as the guidepost for activism but without much reflection on what this term means. Generally, democracy is taken to mean Western liberal democracy. Though activists may criticize this or that aspect of Western democracy, it is generally held up as both the standard by which to judge the rest of the world and the lodestar of their political vision. Even those who advocate for socialism in our times are careful to make sure they are speaking of “democratic” socialism, as opposed to the authoritarian socialism of the nonwhite world.

Despite this confusion, we see that the past 500 years of world history have been defined by the violence of the West. The world we live in, and especially the worst problems plaguing it, is shaped by Western civilization. The Western civilization as we know it was inaugurated with the transatlantic slave trade and the colonization of non-European lands. These crimes give the lie to any Western notion of democracy for the peoples victimized by the West. The Western left has been at best an ineffective resistor and at worst an active collaborator in these crimes.

Yet recounting this to many of today’s activists provokes a nihilism, as if to criticize Western civilization means to accept that “there is no alternative.” This is only indicative of the deep racism that has become normalized in our times. In the face of it, we must propose that there is an alternative. This alternative is based on the humanistic traditions of Asian and African civilizations, the highest strivings of the colonized and enslaved, and a firm belief in moral progress. This is captured in modern times in that movement for freedom known as the world anti-colonial movement.

Black Reconstruction and the Anti-Colonial Struggle

The freeing of the black worker in the United States and their attempt to construct a true democracy in southern black-majority states is an experiment that is little known but of immense importance. In his book Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois argues that Reconstruction, a political project from 1865-1877, was an effort by black people to radically transform the United States and achieve true democracy. It came out of the successful struggle to abolish slavery, eliminate racism, and redistribute political power and social rights. Du Bois reveals how white historians obscured this experiment in democracy and used racist myths and stereotypes to show that the failure of Reconstruction was actually because African Americans were unfit for governance. 

Like abolition, Reconstruction was a project led by the black masses. The slaves’ decision to abandon their plantations tipped the balance of the Civil War and led to the destruction of the Planter class. Du Bois described this action as a general strike saying:

“This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.”

In alliance with the victorious federal government, the freed black masses desired literacy, education, land, and political power. The effects of this were to further democracy within the United States, which meant the furthering of a project of racial equality, social welfare, and political participation in the form of the right to vote, the election of ex-slaves to high offices, the redistribution of land, public education, the creation of autonomous black colleges, among other progressive results. Du Bois would call this endeavor in South Carolina “The Dictatorship of the Black Proletariat”, where the will of the mass of black labor dictated the form and methods of government. This was done with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau which Du Bois called “The most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that America had ever attempted”. Du Bois shows that Northern finance undertook a “counter-revolution of property” which tried to push black labor back towards slavery and towards a condition of unlimited exploitation. He also shows how racist historians covered up this counterrevolution by painting the failure of Reconstruction as due to the corruption, inefficiency, or laziness of the freed blacks in government. This fascinating story of the struggle for freedom, the attempt at Reconstruction and the counter-revolt of property accompanied by the propaganda of history provides a fitting analogy for the fate of the anti-colonial struggle in the 20th century.

The anticolonial movement of the 20th century was a radical attempt to build democracy on a global scale. In our times of ideological confusion in which the West has rewritten history, the concept of democracy is confused with the practice of political elections. The antithesis of democracy is seen as authoritarianism. However, the Du Boisian conception of democracy was radically different. He considered the great enemy of democracy to be poverty. In a speech entitled “Revelations of Saint Orgne the Damned” he proposed:

“Let us then examine anew the basic thesis of democracy. It does not really mean to say that all men are equal; but it does assert that every individual who is a part of the state must have his experience and his necessities regarded by that state if the state survive…But this is not the main end of democracy. It is not only that the complaints of all should be heard, or the hurts of the humblest healed; it is for the vastly larger object of loosing the possibilities of mankind for the development of a higher and broader and more varied human culture. Democracy then forms not merely a reservoir of complaint but of ability, hidden otherwise in poverty and ignorance.”

Thus Du Bois held that the form of political and economic organization which could lead to true democracy was a matter of scientific study and human experiment. The anti-colonial struggle, this great movement of movements, redistributed thousands of acres of land, made millions literate, brought unparalleled economic growth and immense increases in the dignity of the mass of humanity. It not only educated a vast mass of people, it sought to bring the contribution of their culture and civilization to the world. It did this under constant assault as every attempt was made to suppress the emerging countries through political assassinations, engineered coups, unfair trade treaties, war and propaganda. Thus it was a radical experiment in democracy that took place primarily in Asia and Africa. In our times, there is a similar myth about the corruption and inefficiency of formerly colonized countries which is propagated to obscure the true reasons why the anticolonial struggle remains unfinished. 

20th Century and the Crisis of Imperialism

To understand the incompleteness of the anti-colonial struggle, we have to understand the history of imperialism in the 20th century. Colonial imperialism had been established as a system in the 19th century with the complete colonization of India and the partition of Africa. The 20th century brought about the crisis of this system. 

The First World War demonstrated the irreconcilable contradictions of an inhumane system committed to the rule of white supremacy and profit making. This war was an intra-imperial conflict for control over the colonies. Du Bois theorized that the first world war had “African roots” and was fundamentally for control over and division of Africa. Similarly, Lenin theorized that the war represented the stage of capitalism which would break at its weakest link. Imperialism was broken at its weakest link in Russia by the triumph of the Russian Revolution. This was followed by a renewed anti-colonial movement marked by mass movements in India, China, Egypt and beyond. The return of the imperialist financial crisis and the attempt by Hitler to expand the imperial reach of Germany led to the Second World War. The war marked a new height of industrial slaughter and the victory of Russian socialism. The anti-colonial forces seized on this moment to initiate into freedom the masses of people in India and China, the first such experiment since the American Civil War and in the earlier tradition of the Haitian revolution. The victory of the anti-colonial movements in India and China inaugurated a new era in the modern world, in which large numbers of colored peoples would have independent governments.

The anti-colonial movement came out of the struggle for political independence for the mass of humanity that was made by yellow, black, and brown labor. The first stage of this was formal decolonization, the expulsion of white viceroys and governors from Asian and African lands, the raising up of new flags, and the formal right to equality among the world’s recognized states. The next stage involved the material and spiritual uplifting of the people. This meant the struggle for education: literacy, the training of needed professionals, and knowledge of the suppressed cultural heritage of colonized peoples. This stage also meant the struggle against poverty which meant fair prices for natural resources, decent jobs, housing, and health. The newly independent countries employed different strategies with different names but many independent peoples lived under various forms of socialism whether they called it Marxism-Leninism or Arab, African, and Nehruvian socialism. What they all shared was a commitment to transform the lives of their people, the world’s majority, and achieved immensely important results. They were united in this experiment for the reconstruction of their societies and the construction of a true democracy in their nations. 

The period of the second half of the 20th century saw the unparalleled growth and regaining of cultural self-confidence of the darker nations. The case of India is a paradigmatic example. As Shashi Tharoor recently pointed out, “When the British left India in 1947, 90% of the population was living below the poverty line, literacy rate was below 17%, and life expectancy was 27”. Today life expectancy is 69 and the literacy rate is 74%. Similar stories exist in countries for many countries in Asia and Africa. The vast improvement in human life that has happened in the second half of the 20th century has been almost entirely because of the efforts of the anti-colonial struggles and in spite of the west.

Indeed these principles were enshrined in the founding documents of the newly liberated anti-colonial countries. A few examples illustrate the point. The directive principles of the Indian Constitution asked “that the ownership and control of the material resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good”. The Indian state declared it the duty of every citizen to “to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture”. In international policy, they asked “The State shall endeavour to—(a) promote international peace and security; (b) maintain just and honourable relations between nations.” The Algerian Constitution of 1963 declared the construction of a “a social policy for the benefit of the masses to raise the standard of living of the workers, to accelerate the emancipation of women in order that they may take part in the direction of public affairs and in the development of the country, to do away with illiteracy, to develop the national culture, and to improve dwellings and the health situation”. Moreover it called for “an international policy based upon national independence, international co-operation, the anti-imperialist struggle”. The Libyan Green Book declared socialism to be the solution of the economic problems of the world. It said “Land is the private property of none” and called housing to be an essential need. It called for popular conferences and people’s committees to meet the needs of the people.

The brutal experience of colonialism made the newly independent countries seek to put legal sanction on fundamental economic rights. Along with this, the newly independent countries served to develop and sustain a national culture based on civilizational roots of their respective countries. There emerged great art and music in this period with social relevance and profound vision for the future. This was a cultural period characterized, for instance, by Indian poets admiring and honoring the Vietnamese and the Congolese, or Egyptian poets admiring the Algerians. 

Thus this era was marked with cooperation between the developing countries. India organized an Inter-Asian Relations conference in 1947. The Asian African conference in Bandung in 1955 marked the first conference where Asian and African governments came together. A spirit of Bandung emerged dedicated to using state power to free the rest of colored humanity, initiate reforms to lift the globally deprived out of poverty, and eliminate the scourge of modern warfare. With the victory of more and more liberation movements, a Non-Aligned Movement of independent states grew to cover the majority of humanity and strove to fulfil the spirit of Bandung. The spirit of Bandung also warned that freedom did not come merely from political independence, but that colonialism continued in the form of economic, cultural and physical exploitation of western powers. The attempt to constitute economic democracy in the world reached its zenith under the attempt to create a New International Economic Order (NIEO) in 1974. The NIEO called for principles including the right of developing nations to choose their own social systems without coercion, full permanent sovereignty of states over their natural resources including the right to nationalization, the right to just and equitable prices for raw materials and primary commodities, the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge from the developed to the developing nations, and the right to assistance against colonialism and neocolonialism. The NIEO called for an upturning of the white supremacist world order in favor of a just democracy between nations.

The Global Counterrevolution

The West opposed any attempt by liberated nations to secure national control over their resources and international democracy. It went to war in Korea, Vietnam and Egypt when any such attempt was made. There were assassinations of leaders and coups ranging from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, to Mehdi Ben Barka in Morocco and Sukarno in Indonesia. 

Throughout the twentieth century, the process of national reconstruction was aided and supported by the Soviet Union and opposed by the United States of America at each step. This is why the collapse of Eastern European and Russian socialism in 1989 served as the completion of the counter-revolt of imperialism and an attempt to push Asia and Africa back to slavery. International organizations, some older ones like North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and some new like the World Trade Organization (WTO) were used to form a world-wide system of imperial control. Others like the United Nations were rendered completely ineffective.

Western intellectuals propagated the mythology that Asian and African countries were poor because of corruption, inefficiency and their adoption of socialism. These countries were asked to open up their economy to foreign capital and be ideologically subservient to the west. In this brief period, the anti-colonial struggle was demonified and forgotten. No complete attempt was made to fully appreciate its achievements. Statistics were hard to find and comparisons between countries were difficult to make. India went through a period of neoliberal economic reforms which increased its economic growth in terms of GDP but greatly increased the economic inequality in the country. The share of the top 1% in national income in India was 6.1% in 1982 and was 21.3% in 2015. The Libyan average national income, adjusted for inflation, was $149,000 in 1980. After the Western backed regime change, today it is $13,000.

A half century or more of renewed Western terrorism against the liberated peoples has shaped the horrors of our present moment. An act of suicide by the leadership of the socialist bloc led to a total capitulation to the West and to the era of the unipolar world. Many of the formerly colonized countries suffered because their economies were coupled to the Soviet economy, which was devastated by the counter-revolt of imperialism. 

This counter-revolution was combined with the propaganda of history which was a reformulation of the old racial thesis. It said that Asian and African countries were poorer because they were inferior and their salvation lay in imitating the West and “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. Any deviation from this thesis was punished by economic sanctions, outright war and intense ideological propaganda. In a complete inversion of actual historical truth, the West declared itself triumphant and the leader of human rights and democracy around the world. 

Conclusion: A Revolution in Potentiality

This narrative was destined to be short-lived and its demise began in the 2008 financial crisis. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the advent of the 2016 political crisis, the excessive hubris of western elites lay bare for the world to see. Today, Western nations find themselves in a state of collapse and the thesis that the west offers the only model of government which others must imitate lies in shambles. Western democracy, unable to even promise any uplift of the people, finds itself at a dead end. On the international front, twenty five years after supposed triumph of imperialism, we see the Chinese giant awakening with insurmountable economic muscle, the Russian bear rising out of its generation-long slumber, the Arab peoples rallying around their remaining independent states, and a new unrest in the heart of empire.

The West seeks out new enemies and senseless war to defend the rule of white supremacy all over the world. US State Department Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner described competition with China as “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology.” Skinner said it was the first time the U.S. had faced a “great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” Sections of the western left seek to convert the United States into a good white country, along the lines of Scandinavian countries seeking redistribution at home while maintaining silence on the source of wealth of the empire. The US military having taken root in nearly every African nation aims to sow chaos and fragmentation in Africa and suppress a rising Asia. The morally bankrupt West asks that we condemn every other leader in the world as “authoritarian” rather than recognize that people are capable of determining their own destiny, and that their different models of political and economic organization are experiments in democracy which may turn out to be more or less successful.

Remembering the history of the anti-colonial movement shows us that this strategy is not new and that the central task is principled unity against the West. The Western version of history has been taught to at the expense of the true history of humanity. Youth who are restless for a more just world are confused as to what to pursue in their vision for social change. We must not mince words in asserting that Western liberal democracy has nothing to offer and that the completion of the anti-colonial movement, the unleashing of potential of the dark masses of humanity, must be our singular task. From within the United States, this means to follow in the footsteps of the great Black Freedom Struggle, the only movement that sought friendship and understanding with the world anti-colonial struggle. We must challenge the false narratives of the inability non-white minds to have a vision for the construction of a more humane world order. We must join the renewed struggle of darker humanity against Western domination and work towards a world of positive peace.

Further Readings

  • Black Reconstruction In America, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • “Revelations of Saint Orgne the Damned” in The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques 1906-1960, W.E.B. Du Bois

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