Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Truth About Western “Colonialism”

How the misuse of a term legitimizes the jihadist myth of Western guilt.

by Bruce S. Thornton // Defining Ideas

Photo via Front Page Magazine

Photo via Front Page Magazine

Language is the first casualty of wars over foreign policy. To paraphrase Thucydides, during ideological conflict, words have to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which is now given them.

One word that has been central to our foreign policy for over a century is “colonialism.” Rather than describing a historical phenomenon––with all the complexity, mixture of good and evil, and conflicting motives found on every page of history––“colonialism” is now an ideological artifact that functions as a crude epithet. As a result, our foreign policy decisions are deformed by self-loathing and guilt eagerly exploited by our adversaries.

The great scholar of Soviet terror, Robert Conquest, noted this linguistic corruption decades ago. Historical terms like “imperialism” and “colonialism,” Conquest wrote, now refer to “a malign force with no program but the subjugation and exploitation of innocent people.” As such, these terms are verbal “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” which serve “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” Particularly in the Middle East, “colonialism” has been used to obscure the factual history that accounts for that region’s chronic dysfunctions, and has legitimized policies doomed to fail because they are founded on distortions of that history.

The simplistic discrediting of colonialism and its evil twin imperialism became prominent in the early twentieth century. In 1902 J.A. Hobson’s influential Imperialism: A Study reduced colonialism to a malign economic phenomenon, the instrument of capitalism’s “economic parasites,” as Hobson called them, who sought resources, markets, and profits abroad. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, faced with the failure of classical Marxism’s historical predictions of the proletarian revolution, in 1917 built on Hobson’s ideas in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Now the indigenous colonized peoples would perform the historical role of destroying capitalism that the European proletariat had failed to fulfill.

These ideas influenced the anti-colonial movements after World War II. John-Paul Sartre, in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s anti-colonial screed The Wretched of the Earth, wrote, “Natives of the underdeveloped countries unite!” substituting the Third World for classic Marxism’s “workers of the world.” This leftist idealization of the colonial Third World and its demonization of the capitalist West have survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Marxism, and have become received wisdom both in academe and popular culture. It has underwritten the reflexive guilt of the West, the idea that “every Westerner is presumed guilty until proven innocent,” as French philosopher Pascal Bruckner writes, for the West contains an “essential evil that must be atoned for,” colonialism and imperialism.

This leftist interpretation of words like colonialism and imperialism transforms them into ideologically loaded terms that ultimately distort the tragic truths of history. They imply that Europe’s explorations and conquests constituted a new order of evil. In reality, the movements of peoples in search of resources, as well as the destruction of those already in possession of them, is the perennial dynamic of history.

Whether it was the Romans in Gaul, the Arabs throughout the Mediterranean and Southern Asia, the Huns in Eastern Europe, the Mongols in China, the Turks in the Middle East and the Balkans, the Bantu in southern Africa, the Khmer in East Asia, the Aztecs in Mexico, the Iroquois in the Northeast, or the Sioux throughout the Great Plains, human history has been stained by man’s continual use of brutal violence to acquire land and resources and destroy or replace those possessing them. Scholars may find subtle nuances of evil in the European version of this ubiquitous aggression, but for the victims such fine discriminations are irrelevant.

Yet this ideologically loaded and historically challenged use of words like “colonial” and “colonialist” remains rife in analyses of the century-long disorder in the Middle East. Both Islamists and Arab nationalists, with sympathy from the Western left, have blamed the European “colonialists” for the lack of development, political thuggery, and endemic violence whose roots lie mainly in tribal culture, illiberal shari’a law, and sectarian conflicts.

Moreover, it is blatant hypocrisy for Arab Muslims to complain about imperialism and colonialism. As Middle East historian Efraim Karsh documents in Islamic Imperialism, “The Arab conquerors acted in a typically imperialist fashion from the start, subjugating indigenous populations, colonizing their lands, and expropriating their wealth, resources, and labor.” Indeed, if one wants to find a culture defined by imperialist ambitions, Islam fits the bill much better than do Europeans and Americans, latecomers to the great game of imperial domination that Muslims successfully played for a thousand years.

“From the first Arab-Islamic empire of the mid-seventh century to the Ottomans, the last great Muslim empire,” Karsh writes, “the story of Islam has been the story of the rise and fall of universal empires and, no less important, of imperialist dreams.”

A recent example of this confusion caused by careless language can be found in commentary about the on-going dissolution of Iraq caused by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. There is a growing consensus that the creation of new nations in the region after World War I sowed the seeds of the current disorder. Ignoring those ethnic and sectarian differences, the British fashioned the nation of Iraq out of three Ottoman provinces that had roughly concentrated Kurds, Sunni, and Shi’a in individual provinces.

There is much of value to be learned from this history, but even intelligent commentators obscure that value with misleading words like “colonial.” Wall Street Journal writer Jaroslav Trofimov, for example, recently writing about the creation of the Middle Eastern nations, described France and England as “colonial powers.” Similarly, columnist Charles Krauthammer on the same topic used the phrase “colonial borders.” In both instances, the adjectives are historically misleading.

France and England, of course, were “colonial powers,” but their colonies were not in the Middle East. The region had for centuries been under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Thus Western “colonialism” was not responsible for the region’s dysfunctions. Rather, it was the incompetent policies and imperialist fantasies of the Ottoman leadership during the century before World War I, which culminated in the disastrous decision to enter the war on the side of Germany, that bear much of the responsibility for the chaos that followed the defeat of the Central Powers.

Another important factor was the questionable desire of the British to create an Arab national homeland in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and to gratify the imperial pretensions of their ally the Hashemite clan, who shrewdly convinced the British that their self-serving and marginal actions during the war had been important in fighting the Turks.

Obviously, the European powers wanted to influence these new nations in order to protect their geopolitical and economic interests, but they had no desire to colonize them. Idealists may decry that interference, or see it as unjust, but it is not “colonialism” rightly understood.

No more accurate is Krauthammer’s use of “colonial borders” to describe the region’s nations. Like all combatants in a great struggle, in anticipation of the defeat of the Central Powers, the British and French began planning the settlement of the region in 1916 in a meeting that produced the Sykes-Picot agreement later that year. But there is nothing unexceptional or untoward in this. In February 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in Yalta to negotiate their spheres of influence in Germany and Eastern Europe after the war. It would be strange if the Entente powers had notlaid out their plans for the territories of the defeated enemy.

Thus as part of the peace treaties and conferences after World War I, the French and British were given, under the authority of negotiated treaties and the supervision of the League of Nations, the “mandates” over the former Ottoman territories lying between Egypt and Turkey. In 1924 the goal of the mandates was spelled out in Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant: “Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

Thus the nations created in the old Ottoman territory were sanctioned by international law as the legitimate prerogative of the victorious Entente powers. There was nothing “colonial” about the borders of the new nations.

One can legitimately challenge the true motives of the mandatory powers, doubt their sincerity in protesting their concern for the region’s peoples, or criticize their borders for serving European interests rather than those of the peoples living there. But whatever their designs, colonizing was not one of them. Indeed, by 1924 colonialism had long been coming into question for many in the West, and at the time of the post-war settlement the reigning ideal was not colonialism, but ethnic self-determination as embodied in the nation-state, as Woodrow Wilson had called for in February 1918: “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” The Anglo-French Declaration issued a few days before the war ended on November 11, 1918 agreed, stating that their aims in the former Ottoman territories were “the establishment of National Governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.”

Again, one can question the wisdom of trying to create Western nation-states and political orders in a region still intensely tribal, with a religion in which the secular nation is an alien import. That incompatibility continues to be an ongoing problem nearly a century later, as we watch the failure of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hopes of the Arab Spring dashed in the violence and disorder of the Arab Winter.

But whatever the sins of the Europeans in the Middle East, colonialism is not one of them. The misuse of the term may sound trivial, but it legitimizes the jihadist narrative of Western guilt and justified Muslim payback through terrorist violence, now perfumed as “anticolonial resistance.” It reinforces what Middle East scholar J.B. Kelly called the “preemptive cringe,” the willingness of the West to blame itself for the region’s problems, as President Obama did in his 2009 Cairo speech when he condemned the “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims.”

This apologetic stance has characterized our foreign policy and emboldened our enemies for half a century. Today the region is in more danger of collapse into widespread violence and more of a threat to our national interests than at any time in the last fifty years. Perhaps we should start crafting our foreign policy on the foundations of historical truth and precise language.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

15 Thoughts on “The Truth About Western “Colonialism”

  1. BitingBullets on July 29, 2015 at 11:10 am said:

    This is an opinion that is not PC and will never be broadcast, so obviously it is a true version of the facts on the ground.

    Thanks Bruce

    • Jack Friedman on July 29, 2015 at 2:03 pm said:

      As a trained Historian I have been arguing these points regarding ‘Colonialism’ and ‘Imperialism’ for years. the words have been so corrupted by most in the ‘liberal arts’ I fear their true meanings and lessons are lost. May they retrieved in the future – however distant. Jack Friedman, Tucson, Az.

  2. dupere on July 29, 2015 at 12:15 pm said:

    “” free land allocation to russians tass.”” Six million Russians live in the far east, which is 36% of Russia’s territory. 77 % of Russians live in European Russia. See–“” European Russia wiki.”” The prize of the energy assets east of the Ural Mountains, where no Russians want to live. Dear Vlad, the West is your last and best hope.

  3. Jack Raia on July 29, 2015 at 12:43 pm said:

    As I read this article, I thought of when President Obama took office and one of his first actions was to remove the bust of Winston Churchill. At the time, that was attributed to the President’s view Great Britain’s role of colonialism and imperialism early in the last century. A good point that Britain would not have established an Arab nation for the purpose of colonizing them, but rather to preserve them. Unfortunately the various factions weren’t destined to live in peace.

    • Jack Friedman on July 29, 2015 at 2:05 pm said:

      When the Churchill bust was returned, nothings afterward surprised me. It truly was the writing on the wall predicting the next 8 years.

  4. Pingback: Careless language

  5. Good article Mr. Thornton. “Moreover, it is blatant hypocrisy for Arab Muslims to complain about imperialism and colonialism.” that is so true when one really studies the history of Muslims and the Ottoman Empire. Of course today’s liberal would never acknowledge that…..low info voters as they say.

  6. Gregory Hoy on July 29, 2015 at 3:55 pm said:

    Excellent essay, especially the concluding quote: “…but it legitimizes the jihadist narrative of Western guilt and justified Muslim payback through terrorist violence…”

    Unfortunately, the myth that the Muslims are simply “reacting” to our previous transgressions is widespread. In truth, they have taken the initiative since the death of the Prophet Muhammad when the Four Righteous Caliphs launched their Imperial War of Conquest in a blitzkrieg seldom matched in military history.

  7. libra on July 29, 2015 at 4:01 pm said:

    I once traveled around the world about 15 years ago on a freighter whose crew was mixed international..One of the officers–a Sri Lankan–the former Ceylon, who had a young family and was highly disturbed over the ongoing Timor Tiger war and the hardships his family faced–repeatedly said to me ” I wish the British were still there–it was better then”. The Captain told me each day–“Soon,, you shall see–we will have major problems with the muslims” the captain told me the imams had ordered the muslim population to double up on births on the already overpopulated Island of Java as they were planning something soon…Then we had 9/11/01. Just as Dr Davis claims–the words imperialism and colonialism are words used by the marxists to denigrate the west and capitalism as they merrily seize whatever they can and as often as they can and killing any and all who try to stop them What is isis doing –if not imperialism and murder of infidels?

  8. arno on July 30, 2015 at 3:03 am said:

    Today the more fashionable word is globalization. This term actually points to colonialism in a way that supports Bruce’s argument.

    Looking at rising economies within the globalization narrative one finds that those countries in their majority compose what used to be the red-color zone of the British Empire as it was marked in 50-year-old British text-books. I conclude that the old Empire is the zone of rising economies. In other words, a rise to prosperity today is the consequnece of colonialism in the past.

    I would extend Bruce’s argument to the degree that the absence of British colonialism in the Middle East accounts for the region’s poor state compared against larger parts of the Commonwealth regions.

    The fate of countries that have been under, or rather enjoyed, US occupation multiplies this argument. Look at Japan or West-Germany. The US forces leaving Iraq early was the foolish action to support the other half of this argument. That is what would actually happen when the West deserts a region prematurely.

  9. Irving. on July 30, 2015 at 8:35 am said:

    “gratify the imperial pretensions of their ally the Hashemite clan, who shrewdly convinced the British that their self-serving and marginal actions during the war had been important in fighting the Turks.”

    A sideshow of a sideshow. And the Hashemites a sideshow in the Arabian Peninsula anyhow.

  10. Cornelius. on July 30, 2015 at 8:36 am said:

    “the captain told me the imams had ordered the muslim population to double up on births on the already overpopulated Island of Java as they were planning something soon”

    Immigration within Indonesia has been the case for some time. The Muslims sending an excess population to areas such as Borneo and the western part of New Guinea to displace that indigenous population sparse as it is.

  11. David Park on July 31, 2015 at 9:25 am said:

    Judge the ex colonies by their successes or failures in the present day. Give credit to the successes and harsh judgement on the failures as both are products of their populations and cultures. Excuses work best for the losers who were probably better off as colonies.

  12. Irving on July 31, 2015 at 9:41 am said:

    Russian imperialism never criticized as mentioned. The greatest land grab in history the claims of Yarmuk the Cossack to all of Siberia east of the Urals all the way east to the Pacific. 500 musketeers defeating a single tribe of indigenous and the race to the far east underway.

  13. Daniel Roll on August 3, 2015 at 7:24 am said:

    The misery of colonialism often started with the arrival of the Japanese, Dutch, Belgians, or Arabs and conversely with the departure of the British, French, or Americans.

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