Author: Virginia Tilley
What is Colonialism?
Colonialism is a type of imperialism in which the self-determination of the native people is completely denied to them.
The right of peoples to self-determination has been confirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is considered a pillar of international law. It is a collective right: that is, the principle holds that each people—not as individuals but as a group--has the right to decide how it should be governed. Historically, the right to self-determination was promoted around the turn of the twentieth century by Vladimir Lenin and US President Wilson regarding the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when both Communists and Liberals wanted to prevent European colonial powers from grabbing control over regions where the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were losing control. In the mid-twentieth century, the demand for self-determination became associated with the great decolonisation struggles in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where colonised peoples sought to throw off colonial authority and form independent states. Later, the term became important to indigenous and tribal peoples, who usually sought to express their right to self-determination in the form of autonomy zones. United Nations organs, in several declarations, reports and decisions, have affirmed that the Palestinian people have the right to self-determination.
Colonialism has been practiced historically around the world in two general categories:
· Classic colonialism—a State takes over a territory outside its own territory and assumes unilateral control over the government. The colonial power typically doesn’t transfer much of its own population into the territory: usually just administrators, some business people and their families. These colonists do not typically develop a complete society—that is, sustain a full range of classes, occupations, and political authority—but functions as an arm or fragment of the home society. Classic colonialism usually relies on the indigenous people for labour. Some colonial systems also used indigenous peoples for limited local governance (indirect rule) and typically brings some local people into lower ranks of the colonial administration. British and French colonialism in Africa is an example of classic colonialism.
· Settler colonialism—a foreign population moves en masse into a territory and establishes itself as a complete new society there. Eventually, this society separates from the home country and develops a new national consciousness and an independent state. This system may use indigenous people for cheap labour but holds them entirely outside the political system and may hold them outside the settler society itself (as in Native Americans in the US). Mass white settlement in Australia and New Zealand and Apartheid in South Africa (and Israel) are examples of settler colonialism.
Note: the two kinds of colonialism can mix, as in French Algeria. Typically, settler colonialism evolves out of classic colonialism, as mass immigration from the home country follows early colonial conquest. In Israel, the two kinds mixed from the beginning (see below).
Is Colonialism racist by definition?
In theory, no, but in practice, yes. The coloniser must always justify depriving the native people of self-determination somehow, so some explanation is always invented. In past centuries, classic colonialism rested on ideas of racial hierarchy, in which white people were at the top of the ladder. Later, when ideas about racial hierarchy lost credibility, this claim evolved into ideas of native cultural backwardness and the civilizing mission (“upliftment”).
Settler colonialism is always racist, however, because the settler society has to see the native people as “savages” or “primitives” in order to feel morally authorised to dispossess them. Only when the settler society gives up this view can decolonization and healing begin.
What is the remedy for colonialism?
Returning the right of self-determination to the population. In classic colonialism, this is arranged by giving political authority back to the indigenous population. The decolonised territory becomes an independent state run by the native people (or its elites). In practice, this is typically achieved by negotiating special deals with the colonial power that allow it to retain its strategic economic and/or military advantages in the new State after independence.
Settler colonialism is far harder to resolve because the settler society has “indigenized” psychologically and politically and has no “home country” to return to. Native self-determination can be expressed only by redefining the settler nation itself: persuading the settler nation-state to give up its exclusive control over governance in the state and genuinely share political power with the indigenous population. In settler-colonial countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas, this has been done through full democratization. South Africa is a late example of such a settler-colonial decolonisation, in the transition from Apartheid to full non-racial democracy. Other settler-colonial countries, like several in Latin America, have not fully achieved this—the indigenous people still struggle to redefine the nation in ways that truly include them. In some cases, like Australia and the US, the native people have citizenship and nominally equal rights but are so overwhelmed and damaged by mass white settlement that many still feel they live in settler societies. In these cases, some seek classic decolonisation from what they still see as unjust rule. In most cases, the bid for self-determination must be expressed as a demand for autonomy of some kind.
Is Zionism and the establishment of Israel a case of colonialism?
YES, in both senses. It is classic colonialism because the British assumed control over Palestine, against the wishes of the indigenous population. The British used the mandate system, established by the League of Nations after World War I, to gain control over Palestine. British interests were classically colonial in seeking to consolidate British control over the nearby Suez Canal, which was the vital trade route to India and the Middle East generally. The British government then “viewed with favour” the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Mandate Palestine that promised to establish a settlement friendly to British interests. This policy led to settler colonialism when European Jews then moved en masse into Palestine looking for new lives and a new political community, and subsequently “indigenised” and created a separate Jewish nation-state. (Jews from the Arab world moved to Israel after the state was formed.) Ironically, Jewish settler-colonialism, although initially assisted by British colonial ambitions, came to see British authority as unjust and fought against it.
Among all the settler-colonial states in the world today, Israel is unique in that it has not democratised and given the native people full rights. Palestinian citizens of Israel have citizenship but inferior rights that ensure they cannot threaten ongoing domination by the settler (Jewish) majority. Most native Palestinians, however, are still denied citizenship: these are the five million Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territories. More millions of native Palestinians were driven out in 1948 and 1967 wars, through ethnic cleansing, and are not allowed to return. All these policies are designed to ensure continuing domination by the Jewish-settler population and effective exclusion of the native people from control over land, resources and governance.
In conclusion, Israel is the last openly settler-colonial state in the world in the sense that it has not “decolonized”: that is, given up doctrines of settler superiority and fully democratised, including the native people as political equals. The unending wars and cycles of violence, which seems endemic to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stem from its settler-colonial character.