Professor's 'bring back colonialism' call sparks fury and academic freedom debate

Bruce Gilley sparked a storm of protest by claiming colonialism had been a good thing.  Now his article has been withdrawn because of threats of violence - sparking a storm of protest.

Adam Lusher
Thursday 12 October 2017 12:20
Starving children in India in 1945: academics have argued that some famines in the Raj were caused by British colonial policies
Starving children in India in 1945: academics have argued that some famines in the Raj were caused by British colonial policies

A senior academic has provoked storms of protest by calling for the return of colonialism – first from critics of his ideas, then from free speech advocates after his article was withdrawn due to threats of violence against the journal editor who published it.

Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, stunned his fellow academics when he wrote an article for the peer-reviewed journal Third World Quarterly entitled: “The Case For Colonialism.”

In it, he stated bluntly: “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy.”

“Western colonialism,” he claimed, “Was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.

“The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it.

“[By contrast] It is hard to overstate the pernicious effects of global anti-colonialism on domestic and international affairs since the end of World War II.

“Anti-colonialism ravaged countries as nationalist elites mobilised illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic and constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonisers. In our ‘age of apology’ for atrocities, one of the many conspicuous silences has been an apology for the many atrocities visited upon Third World peoples by anti-colonial advocates.

“Third World despots have raised the spectre of recolonisation to discredit democratic oppositions and ruin their economies.”

He concluded: “A hundred years of disaster is enough. It is time to make the case for colonialism again.”

Five of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Empire

Professor Gilley insisted this could work because rather than being ‘a foreign imposition lacking popular legitimacy’, colonial regimes actually had considerable local support.

“Alien rule has often been legitimate because it has provided better governance than the indigenous alternative,” he claimed. “Millions of people moved closer to areas of more intensive colonial rule, sent their children to colonial schools and hospitals, went beyond the call of duty in positions in colonial governments, fought for colonial armies.

“The ‘facilitators’ and ‘collaborators’ of colonialism far outnumbered the ‘resisters’ at least until very late.”

He proposed “three ways to reclaim colonialism:

“One is for governments and peoples in developing countries to replicate as far as possible the colonial governance of their pasts – as successful countries like Singapore, Belize and Botswana did.

[Or] Western countries should be encouraged to hold power in specific governance areas (public finances, say, or criminal justice) in order to jump-start enduring reforms in weak states. Rather than speak in euphemisms about ‘shared sovereignty’, such actions should be called ‘colonialism’ because it would embrace rather than evade the historical record.

“Thirdly, in some instances it may be possible to build new Western colonies from scratch.”

“Colonialism,” he argued, “Can return only with the consent of the colonised. Yet now that the nationalist generation that forced sudden decolonisation on hapless populations has passed away, the time may be ripe.”

Such was the furore caused by his article that 15 members of Third World Quarterly’s editorial board resigned in protest, disputing editor-in-chief Shahid Qadir’s insistence that they had been consulted about the piece.

The article faced a welter of scholarly rebuttals from academics accusing Prof Gilley of ignoring a “vast body of research” showing the poor economic performance of colonies and the suffering inflicted on local populations.

Nathan J Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs magazine wrote: “Perhaps the easiest way to understand why colonialism was so horrific is to imagine it happening in your own country.

“It is invaded, conquered, and occupied by a foreign power. Existing governing institutions are dismantled and replaced by absolute rule of the colonisers.

“A strict hierarchy separates the colonised and the coloniser; you are treated as an inconvenient subhuman who can be abused at will.

“The colonists commit crimes with impunity against your people. Efforts at resistance are met with brutal reprisal, sometimes massacre.

“The more vividly and accurately you manage to conjure what this scenario would actually look like, the more horrified you will be by the very idea of colonialism.”

An online petition calling for an apology and retraction from Third World Quarterly , attracted 6,936 signatures and accused Prof Gilley of “pseudo-scholarship” and arguments that “reek of colonial disdain for indigenous peoples … with the predictably racist conclusion.”

The lead drafter of the petition, Jenny Heijun Wills, associate professor of English and Director of the Critical Race Network at the University of Winnipeg added: “In our current political context, the lives and safety of refugees, and allies are being threatened by radicalised white supremacist groups.

“These kinds of ideas are not simply abstract provocations, but have real, material consequences for those who Prof Gilley seeks to dominate and objectify.”

Other academics, it was said, went further.

Discussions on Facebook appeared to show students and academics wishing Princeton University would revoke Prof Gilley’s doctorate, and trying to arrange a protest outside his office at Portland.

An email subsequently published online appeared to show one academic calling Prof Gilley a “racist fascist author” with a track record of publishing “white supremacist drivel disguised as academic scholarship”.

The email said engaging in a public debate about the article would merely give Prof Gilley the oxygen of publicity without advancing the state of knowledge, and appeared to express the hope that he would be disciplined by his university.

“While many people have left this man, his department, his university voicemails and messages,” the email read, “I highly doubt anything will come of it in terms of reprimands.”

Supporters of Prof Gilley claimed he had received death threats.

Then Taylor & Francis, the publisher of Third World Quarterly, withdrew the article “at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author.”

The withdrawal notice made clear this was because of threats of violence, rather than any failure to adhere to scholarly procedures.

It said: “Whilst the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.”

The withdrawal has now itself provoked protest, this time from academics who might have disagreed with the original article, but who opposed the way it was retracted because of threats rather than reasoned argument.

Jonathan Haidt, a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, warned: “Retraction is the new rebuttal, and threats of violence against journal editors is the new way to get a retraction”.

The way the article had been withdrawn was even criticised by one of the board members who had resigned in protest at it.

Vijay Prashad, from Trinity College, Connecticut, said the article should have been rejected on the grounds it failed “to meet academic standards of rigour and balance”, not because of threats.

Prof Gilley’s supporters appeared to link the fate of the article to claims that free debate on university campuses is being shut down by aggressive ‘political correctness’.

In an article available via Prof Gilley’s website, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and the author of Diversity: the invention of a concept argued: “The successful deployment of professional opprobrium and actual threats of murder to kill the article … was ultimately aimed at ensuring that other scholars who dissent from the contemporary orthodoxy of anti-colonialism will keep their mouths shut.

“It is further aimed at ensuring that generations of students will see no whisper of dissent from this orthodoxy in the published literature, and hear no hint of it from their instructors.”

In the midst of the controversy, Prof Gilley had apologised and said: “I regret the pain and anger it [the article] has caused for many people."

But Dr Wood insisted this apology had been issued under the duress created by threats, and that Prof Gilley now regretted it.

Dr Wood wrote: “As the rhetoric and threats escalated, Professor Gilley [decided] that the better part of valour was to withdraw the article and mouth the apology his critics demanded.

“He did so under what he calls the “onslaught,” but now regrets it.

“He is back in the fight.”

The Case for Colonialism article remains available via Prof Gilley's website.

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