In post–World War II history, decolonization is a term generally employed to describe and explain the struggle for, and attainment of, freedom from colonial rule by most countries in Asia and Africa. This attainment was marked by a transfer of power; national political elites assumed the administrative responsibilities and duties previously discharged by the colonial authorities. Thus, new sovereign nations were born.
Steadfast struggle through political parties and related movements, in the pursuit of decolonization, marked the era of nationalism in Africa. Nationalism was the indispensable vehicle utilized to achieve the desired goal of decolonization.
It is important to point out that the study and analysis of nationalism in Asia and Africa has been affected by the scholarly and ideological controversies that still surround the "national question," nationality, and nationalism. While the power and influence of nationalism is undisputed, Benedict Anderson points out that the terms nation, nationality, and nationalism have all "proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone to analyze." Many scholars, especially in the West, have continued to look at nationalism as an anachronism and therefore as a concept that is not a revealing tool of analysis. Part of the explanation for this scholarly disillusionment is the ill repute nationalism acquired during the era of Nazism and fascism in Europe, when it came to be associated with intolerance and a reactionary chauvinism that was "at odds with the proper destiny of man."
The study of nationalism has also been a source of intellectual and ideological frustration to Marxists, who have traditionally been troubled by its "chameleon qualities." Nationalism "takes many different forms, is supported by many different groups and has different political effects." Unlike Marxism, which places much emphasis on a society's class structure, economics, and "form of economic organization," nationalism is basically political and cultural. This explains in part why Marxism and nationalism have had a "difficult dialogue" over the years.
In Asia and Africa, post–World War II nationalism was, above all, a "revolt against the West" (Barraclough), its chief characteristic "resistance to alien domination." This resistance, which led to decolonization, ultimately created a multitude of nations out of lands that had had "little or no national consciousness." It is fair to conclude that in order to comprehend the centrality and diversity of nationalism in postwar Asian and African history, "European modalities" may not be strictly relevant.
Aims and Objectives
Political freedom from colonial rule was viewed by nationalists and their supporters as the instrument to redress the economic and social neglect and injustices of the colonial era. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana urged fellow nationalists throughout Africa to "seek first the political kingdom and all else would be added unto" them. There could be no meaningful social and economic progress without political independence. Nationalist activists and their followers expected an improvement in their living conditions. This desire and expectation to live in dignity partly explains the political support given by the masses to the nationalists and nationalism.
In India, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) argued emphatically that without political freedom, Indians would have no power to shape their destiny. They would remain "hopeless victims of external forces" that oppressed and exploited them.
In semicolonial China, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) also saw the critical value of national political freedom from external domination. Without this freedom, there could be no advancement of his revolutionary social and economic program. It would have been futile to dream of building a communist society without a nation in which to construct it.
Nationalism identified exploitation as the primary economic mission of colonialism—exploitation of the colonized people and their labor and resources. In Africa, the expansion of cash crop production, land alienation, mineral exploitation, and even limited manufacturing toward the end of colonial rule enriched the Western capitalist countries, and not Africans. In the struggle for decolonization, there was a general outcry by the nationalists against this exploitation. The colonial economic record in Asia, and especially in India, provided nationalists with rich evidence of exploitation. There was the familiar example of British investment in railways that remained quite profitable to the investors but did little for Indian economic advancement. Colonialism had deemphasized the production of food crops while actively promoting the growing of cotton, jute, indigo, and opium, which fetched high prices overseas. The profits that accrued from these exports and other British capital were, to a large extent, invested in "white settler countries," such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and not in India. In addition, European powers did not encourage, nor support, the industrialization of their colonies. In India, this aggravated economic and social problems on the eve of decolonization.
Socially and culturally, colonialism was a racist system. The era of "modern" nineteenth-century imperialism was also the era of scientific racism. Colonialism, mediated through racism and racist policies, limited and even forbade meaningful cross-cultural dialogue between colonizer and colonized. Throughout most of Africa and Asia, racism was "not an incidental detail, but … a consubstantial part of colonialism." Harsh, brutal, and deliberately discriminatory treatment at the hands of European colonizers was the constant, painful reminder to Africans and Asians that they were a colonized and humiliated people. All nationalists, irrespective of ideological differences, were generally agreed that such treatment was indefensible; it must be ended.
The Development of Nationalism
The development of nationalism was not uniform throughout the countries of Asia and Africa. The majority of nationalist movements, however, roughly followed a distinct pattern. First, there were local protest movements; some were culturally based, while others were created by the local elite to protest against local and specific grievances, usually economic. Second, there was the crucial period of mass nationalism. In most countries of Asia and Africa, this occurred after World War II. In Africa, this rough pattern applies to all the countries that attained their political independence before 1975. The same is true in Asia, except for those countries that secured their freedom after protracted armed struggle led by communist parties. This constitutes what can be characterized as the first and dominant phase of African and Asian nationalism.
The second phase applies in Africa to the former Portuguese colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique, in addition to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia. In Asia, it applies to China and Vietnam, even though their wars of liberation had achieved key victories before 1975. In almost every case, political independence in the second phase was achieved after protracted guerrilla warfare. Liberation movements in China, Vietnam, and former Portuguese colonies in Africa moved to be more precise in their definition of national liberation and societal development. Further, they adopted a Marxist ideology as a guide to their struggle, much more deliberately and consistently than had the majority of the nationalist movements in the first phase. Although the nationalist movements in the second phase did not undertake to pursue identical policies, they nonetheless embarked on a far more detailed socioeconomic analysis of colonial and imperial domination.
In Africa, these Marxist-leaning movements were influenced by the revolutionary thought of Frantz Fanon (1925–1961). In his most famous book, The Wretched of the Earth (Les damnés de la terre, 1961; Eng. trans., 1963), Fanon argued passionately that true decolonization must be the product of violence. Colonialism, "created and maintained by violence," could be truly uprooted only through "mass participation in violent decolonization." This violence was to be the product of an organized revolutionary movement composed of urban intellectuals and peasants. Fanon also argued that revolutionary violence against the colonialists was "a cleansing force" for individual participants: "it frees the native from his inferiority complex and his despair and inaction." The meaning and implications of this observation continue to generate ideological and intellectual controversy. Still, it should be said that Fanon's formulation was not a "lyrical celebration of violence" (see L. Adele Jinadu) but rather a strategy to be employed by the colonized in pursuit of true liberation.
After World War II, European powers were not eager to liquidate their empires in Asia and Africa. Although drastically weakened by the war, neither Britain nor France (the major imperial powers) seemed anxious to grant political independence to their colonies. Indeed, the dominant postcolonial policies seemed to favor reassertion of imperial authority. To this end, France fought costly wars in Vietnam and Algeria as it tried unsuccessfully to suppress nationalism. Britain fought against a determined anticolonial movement in Malaya, as well as against the Mau Mau nationalist peasant revolt in Kenya. Even in those colonies where there was little or no armed resistance, European powers were quick to employ brutal force to try to stem the tide of nationalism.
Colonial administrators routinely dismissed the legitimacy of Asian and African nationalism. Any stirring of nationalism was seen as an alien, artificial, almost inappropriate creation, imposed by Asian or African elites on unwilling or otherwise ignorant masses. This was a disastrously mistaken claim and belief. It would have been impossible for nationalist activists to achieve any success without the sustained and spirited support of those masses. The ideological strife of the Cold War, however, led many colonial administrators to mistakenly view nationalist agitation as the unfolding of a global communist conspiracy.
In the end, imperial maneuvers, brutal force, and concessions failed to derail the drive toward decolonization. In the political climate of the postwar years, imperial powers were forced to see that there could be no compromise between direct imperial domination and the basic, nonnegotiable demands of nationalism.
On balance, it is fair to conclude that internal factors in each colony proved the chief determinant in the nature of the struggle for, and attainment of, political independence. Nationalist and revolutionary movements were essentially local in inspiration and objectives. These movements were not "exportable commodities," says Amilcar Cabral, but rather were "determined and conditioned by the historical reality of each people." This underscores the vitality and integrity of Asian and African nationalism and amply demonstrates (in Geoffrey Barraclough's words) that "the will, the courage, the determination, and the deep human motivation" that propelled it forward "owed little, if anything, to Western example."
After Political Independence: The Struggle Continues
The attainment of political independence by Asian and African countries left several questions unresolved. There was the question of ideology in the postcolonial period. In many countries, successful nationalist movements were essentially coalition parties, representing several ideological positions and tendencies. In Indonesia, President Sukarno (1901–1970) argued that the nationalist movement must be inclusive, and hence he saw "nothing to prevent Nationalists from working together with Moslems and Marxists." This expedient inclusiveness began to unravel in the postcolonial period. On this matter, it is vital to remember that these ideological questions were debated against the backdrop of the Cold War, which had an indelible impact not only on the texture of decolonization the imperial powers were willing to entertain but also on internal postcolonial ideological tensions.
Closely related is that decolonization did not lead to economic freedom or even sustained economic growth and development in most Asian and African countries. What happened? Asian and African countries rarely, if ever, inherited vibrant, varied, and integrated national economies. What they inherited, says Basil Davidson (1974), was a colonial economic system that for centuries had "developed little save the raw materials needed in the Atlantic world." In Africa, the imperial powers both before and after independence imposed "an institutionalized relationship between Africans and Europeans," which facilitated the exploitation of Africans and their resources. As in Asian countries, this system has proved to be very difficult to change. The consequences have been economic stagnation, often regression, and widespread poverty.
These economic problems have seriously compromised the essence of the political freedom won after so much sacrifice and determination. Yet in many of these countries, as in Latin America, the ruling elite lead opulent lifestyles amid grinding and widespread poverty. This cannot be taken as an indicator of economic development and social progress; it is the product of corruption, patronage, and oppression. Only "true decolonization," according to Fanon, could prevent the rise of an African national bourgeois eager to strike a self-serving compromise with Western imperialism. The critical point to remember is that in Africa, as in Asia, the inherited "economies remained externally oriented" and did not "provide the basis for a strong national economy."
The essence of decolonization has also been frequently compromised by the demands and expectations of foreign aid. For Asian and African countries, such aid has been an almost permanent feature of postcolonial history, but has not led to economic independence and progress; quite often, poverty and economic stagnation have persisted. Since the 1950s, aid from the West to African, Asian, and other developing countries has been guided by shifting political and economic paradigms. These have included import substitution, population control, and expansion of exports. "Structural adjustment" in support of globalization is the paradigm that currently guides the dispensation of Western aid. Still, poverty and poor economic performance have persisted in most Asian and African countries.
The formulation and implementation of these development fashions clearly indicate that a conscious effort has been made to sidestep tackling the fundamental and exploitative relationship between imperial powers and former colonies. The result, as described by Mahbub ul-Haq, is that a "poverty curtain" now exists, dividing the world into "two unequal humanities—one embarrassingly rich and the other desperately poor."
The struggle also continues in cultural affairs—a struggle over respect for Asian and African cultures. Culture is intricately linked to dignity and identity. Dignity, and with it cultural pride, are especially important for a people whose past has been dominated by alien rule and culture, and colonialism was hostile to the vibrant growth and assertion of local culture. This hostility was clearly evident in the propagation of racial stereotypes demeaning to Asians and Africans, characterizations and beliefs that are, sadly, not yet dead. A matter of critical importance to the people in former colonies is the survival of their cultures in the age of globalization, which has facilitated the rapidly expanding marketing of Western entertainment. Films, music, and general attitudes toward lifestyle promote a sort of global homogenization that is Western-derived and -controlled. This has not stimulated the survival or growth of local cultures and values. World culture is thought to be threatened if diversity is lost.
In the postcolonial period, culture has once again been invoked in the West as lying behind the poverty of developing countries. The cultures, values, and attitudes of most Asian, African, and Latin American countries, not their colonial legacy or even their underdevelopment by the West, are said to be at the root of their poverty; their traditional cultures are seen to inescapably impede progress. This is in contrast to Western societies, whose cultural values both inspire and facilitate progress. In the United States, key proponents of this "cultural factor" include Samuel P. Huntington and Lawrence E. Harrison.
The principal contentions advanced in arguing the cultural factor are not new. They formed an integral part of imperialism's theory and practice in Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century. They now mark the resurrection of a theory of development that has a distinct imperial lineage—cultural imperialism. As in the past, this theory avoids embracing history in its formulation and analysis. Perhaps even more crucial, it avoids discussing the origin and management of the current Western-dominated international political economy. There is no serious attempt made to analyze how this economy makes it particularly difficult for the majority of Asian and African countries to reap the economic and social benefits of decolonization.
The controversial and emotional question of language has emerged as critical in discussions of decolonization. What should be the language of creativity in African and Asian countries newly liberated from Western imperial rule? Many writers in these societies have agonized over this matter, concerned that the continued use of European tongues in literature and sometimes as the national language constitutes "linguistic imperialism."
In Africa, the foremost critic of what is called linguistic imperialism is Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Kenya's most eminent writer. In a 1991 interview, Ngugi emphasized the reality that a "very tiny minority, the tip of every nationality, speak French or English or Portuguese." Since most Africans speak their native languages, an African author who writes in a European language (rather than creating literature in an African language, which would then be translated into other African languages) essentially shuts off the huge majority and instead addresses fellow members of the elite. This is inherently undemocratic and is unlikely to serve as the cornerstone of a national literary tradition. Further, Ngugi holds that "African thought, literary thought, is imprisoned in foreign languages" and that African thinkers and writers, "even at their most radical, even at their most revolutionary are alienated from the majority." To Ngugi and his supporters, the language question, "is the key, not the only one, but definitely a very, very important key to the decolonization process."
See also Colonialism: Africa ; Nationalism: Africa ; Neocolonialism .
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W. O. Maloba