Confronting Empire

Eqbal Ahmad (1933-1999) is a fascinating activist academic; not the least because he came into his own in the 1960s in North Africa, largely in Algeria, where he worked with Frantz Fanon in the struggle for liberation. He was also quite close with Edward Said. He was born in India, studied in Pakistan, then the US, and spent most of his career in American universities. But, also also connected with global activism, including the Palestinian struggle. Here is a lecture he gave in 1975 at a teach-in, which seems to have kept its relevance in 2021: 

Eqbal did not (as far as I know) write any books, but one book presents interviews he had with David Barsamian (covered in this post) and another brings together his writings (to be covered in a future post). The former book, Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire (2000, with a 2016 reprint) is not a polished written book, and as per its interview style, jumps topics and is often drawn into conversations specific to the weeks and months around which the interviews took place. A few notes:

"we all inherited a colonial system of higher education. These post-colonial governments had no will or desire to introduce an alternative system of education. The rhetoric and the structure they announced was that of independence. The reality was that of higher education based on colonial premises and systems. The educational system in this new setting of post-colonial statehood became increasingly dysfunctional because it came under opposing, contradictory pressures. Third, the functions of colonial education were different. As Lord Macaulav put it, "We want to train in schools of higher learning Indians who would be good at mediating between the Raj and the population, the large majority of Her Majesty's subjects."8 So, this education was supposed to produce not governors or citizens or educators or administrators of an independent state. It was all meant to produce servants of the empire. This we have continued to do to this day." (p. 16-17)

On Fanon: "If you take Black Skin, White Masks and read A Dying Colonialism or The Wretched of the Earth, or for that matter the editorials that lie wrote in El Moadjahid, which have been published as Toward the African Revolution 13 you see the passage of Fanon from race to class, from violence to reconstruction of society, from a distant resistance to reconstruction, from reaction to creativity." (p. 20)

Lessons from Chomsky: "truth has to be repeated. It doesn't become stale just because it has been told once. So keep repeating it." (p. 23)

Lessons for students: "I think that my life and my teachings all point to two morals: think critically and take risks." (p. 55)

"the absence of revolutionary ideology has been central to the spread of terror in our time. One of the points in the big debate between Marxism and anarchism in the nineteenth century was the use of terror. The Marxists argued that the true revolutionary does not assassinate. You do not solve social problems by individual acts of violence. Social problems require social and political mobilization, and thus wars of liberation are to be distinguished from terrorist organizations. The revolutionaries didn't reject violence, but they rejected terror as a viable tactic of revolution. That revolutionary ideology has gone out at the moment. In the 1980s and 1990s, revolutionary ideology receded, giving in to the globalized individual." (p. 83)

"The colonial state was not about being of service to the colonized. It was about exploitation and extraction of resources. The post-colonial state is exactly the same. This intelligentsia, this bourgeoisie - the propertied class of the third world - is as heartless in its lack of concern for the poor, in some ways even more so, as the colonial state. There has been a near breakdown of the institutions of higher learning." (p. 95) 

  29 Hits
29 Hits

Define and Rule - Mamdani

Mahmood Mamdani has written a number of essential reading books, including When Victims Become Killers, as well as Citizen and Subject and Neither Settler Nor Native (reviews on those to come in future posts). Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity (2012) is the W. E. B. Du Bois lectures, presented in three chapters (Nativism: The Theory, Nativism: The Practice, Beyond Settlers and Natives). As lecture notes, this is a relatively short book, of 154 pages in a small size book. Nonetheless, an interesting read, and particularly interesting to see Mamdani's ideas develop from this 2012 book until his 2020 book (Neither Settler Nor Native). A lecture on the book is available here. A few notes:

"Nick Dirks has rightly argued that anthropology supplanted history as the principal colonial modality of knowledge and rule after 1857, creating an ethnographic state in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century India. Having characterized colonized societies as stationary, all efforts were invested in containing social change in these societies - and justifying it as protection of vulnerable minorities." (p. 30)

"Before managing difference, colonial power set about defining it. Nick Dirks called this "the ethnographic state," which wielded the census not only as a way of acknowledging difference but also as a way of shaping, sometimes even creating, difference. The focus of colonial power, after 1857, was to define colonial subjectivity. Thus I have titled this book: Define and Rule." (p. 44)

"With races, the cultural difference was not translated into separate legal systems. Instead, it was contained, even negotiated, within a single legal system and was enforced by a single administrative authority. But with tribes, the case was the opposite: cultural difference was reinforced, exaggerated, and built up into different legal systems, each enforced by a separate administrative and political authority. In a nutshell, different races were meant to have a common future; different tribes were not. The colonial legal project - civil and customary - was an integral part of the colonial political project." (p. 48-49)

"Did tribe exist before colonialism? If we understand by tribe an ethnic group with a common language, it did. But tribe as an administrative entity that distinguishes between natives and non-native and systematically discriminates in favor of the former and against the latter - defining access to land and participation in local governance rules for settling disputes according to tribal identity - certainly did not exist before colonialism. One may ask: did race exist before racism? As differences in pigmentation, or in phenotype, it did. But as a fulcrum for group discrimination based on "race" difference, it did not." (p. 73)

"In an era when it was fashionable to think of violence as the way to "smash the colonial state," Nyerere taught otherwise: first, that the backbone of the colonial state and its legacy was no the army and the police but its legal and administrative apparatus, and that it required political vision and political organization - not violence - to "smash" these. The creation of a substantive law from multiple sources - precolonial life, colonial modern form of the state, and anticolonial resistance - and the establishment of a single and unified law-enforcing machinery meant that every citizen in mainland Tanzania was governed on the basis of the same set of rules, enforced by a single court system. Here, I intend to focus on Nyerere's seminal achievement: creating an inclusive citizenship and building a nation-state." (p. 107-108)

  85 Hits
85 Hits

A Dying Colonialism - Fanon (1959)

Fanon is well known for his Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and Wretched of the Earth (1961). Another of his works, A Dying Colonialism (1957), seems less spoken about (originally titled L'An Cinq, de la Revolution Algerienne). The first chapter reminded me of Said's Orientalism, which was written much later (1978). Going back to Orientalism, none of Fanon's work is cited, although Edward Said cites a work about Fanon. Fanon certainly enabled the type of work that Said did in Orientalism, but it seems he did not attribute the connection directly (although there are many direction connections in Chapter 1). Some notes from Fanon's A Dying Colonialism (1957):

"In the colonialist program, it was the woman who was given the historic mission of shaking up the Algerian man. Converting the woman, winning her over to the foreign values, wrenching her free from her status, was at the same time achieving a real power over the man and attaining a practical, effective means of destructuring Algerian culture." (p. 39)

"Every new Algerian woman unveiled announced to the occupier an Algerian society whose systems of defense were in the process of dislocation, open and breached. Every veil that fell, every body that became liberated from the traditional embrace of the haik, every face that that offered itself to the bold and impatient glance of the occupier, was a negative expression of the fact that Algeria was beginning to deny herself and was accepting the rape of the colonizer. Algerian society with every abandoned veil seemed to express its willingness to attend to the master's school and to decide to change its habits under the occupier's direction and patronage." (p. 42-43)

"Before 1954, a radio in an Algerian house was the mark of Europeanization in progress, of vulnerability. It was the conscious opening to the influence of the dominator, to his pressure. It was the decision to give voice to the occupier. Having a radio meant accepting being besieged from within by the colonizer. It meant demonstrating that one chose cohabitation within the colonial framework. It meant, beyond any doubt, surrendering to the occupier." (p. 92-93)

"The tactic adopted by French colonialism since the beginning of the Revolution has had the result of separating the people from each other, of fragmenting them, with the sole objective of making any cohesion impossible." (p. 118)

"This stay in France turned out in the end to be very profitable. It confirmed for me what I already sensed: that I was not French, that I had never been French. Language, culture - these are not enough to make you belong to a people. Something more is needed: a common life, common experiences and memories, common aims. All this I lacked in France. My stay in France showed me that I belonged to an Algerian community, showed me that I was a stranger in France." (p. 175)

  138 Hits
138 Hits


From Sembene Ousmane's 1974 novel Xala, translated in 1976 to English:

  • "The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than ever before, hidden inside us, here in this very place." (p. 84)

  • "All your past wealth - for you have nothing left - was acquired by cheating. You and your colleagues build on the misfortunes of honest, ordinary people. To give yourselves clean consciences, you found charities, or you give alms at street corners to people reduced to poverty. And when we get too numerous, you call the police..." (p. 100)

  200 Hits
200 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email