Postcolonialism, Anti-colonialism, Nationalism and History

AuthorChristine Doran
Publication Date01 Apr 2019
Nationalism and History
Christine Doran1
One of the most outstanding historical developments of the twentieth century
was the gaining of national independence from imperial rule by most of the for-
merly colonized countries, especially in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Yet, rather
surprisingly, many of the leading contributors to postcolonial theory, including
Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha and others, tend to minimize the sig-
nificance of national independence and take a dim view of the nationalist move-
ments, leaders and ideologies that struggled for it. The aim of this article is to
probe the reasons for this, canvassing postcolonial theorists’ main arguments and
outlining certain intellectual currents and commitments, notably poststructural-
ism, deconstruction and postmodernism, that have contributed to these nega-
tive stances. Some counterarguments are presented, as it is suggested that the
achievements of nationalist revolutions in the former colonies should be reas-
sessed more favourably. This could be a way of resisting the current hegemonic
power of the ideology of globalization.
Nationalism, postcolonial, revolution, Said, Spivak
Looking back over the volatile history of the twentieth century, several writers
have underlined the significance of the achievement of national independence in
most formerly colonized territories, notably in Asia, Africa and the Pacific. This was
1 Senior Lecturer in History and Political Science, Charles Darwin University, Australia.
Corresponding author:
Christine Doran, College of Indigenous Futures, Arts and Society, Charles Darwin University,
Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.
International Studies
56(2–3) 92–108, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719840257
Doran 93
clearly expressed by the cultural theorist Terry Eagleton, for instance, in whose
judgement ‘revolutionary nationalism was by far the most successful revolution-
ary tide of the twentieth century’ (Eagleton, 2004, p. 11). In a similar vein, Timothy
Brennan has referred to the twentieth century as ‘above all, the anticolonial cen-
tury’ (Brennan, 2014, p. 19). Yet, seemingly paradoxically, in some of the most
influential recent theoretical literature on colonialism and postcolonialism, there
has been a marked tendency to disparage the role of anti-colonial resistance and
nationalist movements for independence. For example, in Empire Michael Hardt
and Antonio Negri asserted that the ‘very concept of a liberatory national sover-
eignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory’ (Hardt & Negri, 2001, p.
133), and challenged the idea that national independence had brought any eman-
cipatory gains. Similarly, Gayatri Spivak, one of the acknowledged luminaries of
postcolonial theory, stated baldly that ‘National liberation is not a revolution’
(Spivak, 2016, p. 51) and in her work, has consistently emphasized the failure of
decolonization and the endemic collaboration of nationalist leaders with the
(usually) Western colonizers.
This article considers the often-fraught relationships of postcolonial theorists
with nationalism and with history. Examining the views of several leading post-
colonial writers on these issues, including Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, the
article focusses in particular on the work of Gayatri Spivak as one of the most
prominent participants in these debates. Robert Young, also an important con-
tributor to postcolonial theory, has identified these three—Said, Bhabha and
Spivak—as the ‘Holy Trinity’ of postcolonial studies, those most eminent in the
field (Young, 1995, p. 163). The main aim of this article is to probe more deeply
into why so often postcolonial writers have adopted markedly negative posi-
tions with regard to nationalism and, more broadly, to history; and to suggest a
rethinking of these issues. To foreshadow briefly some of the points that will be
developed, in Spivak’s case her depreciation of nationalism and history will be
linked to her perceptions of the elitism and exclusiveness of nationalist move-
ments, and a pattern of extrapolating from her early experiences in India. This
article provides insights into how the tendency to disparage nationalism, and
also history, has been associated with the strong academic influence on many
postcolonial scholars of poststructuralism and deconstruction, with their com-
mitment to the undermining of binary logics. More generally, it is argued that
these characteristics of postcolonial theory are linked to some of the salient
features of postmodern culture, including opposition to the concept of stable
identities, the high value placed on the figure of the nomad or exile, and a gen-
eral turning away from history and towards the elevation of the endless present.
Finally, it is suggested that these tendencies within postcolonial scholarship are
consonant with, and more importantly, do nothing to challenge, the prevailing
ideological dominance of globalization. It may be that, at the present juncture,
a reinforcement and renewed valorization of the nation state, of nationalist
loyalties and commitments, and of the history of anti-colonial struggles, offers
the best prospects for building resistance against the hegemonic pressures of
US-dominated globalization.

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