Colonialism is not a modern phenomenon. World history is full of examples of one society gradually expanding by incorporating adjacent territory and settling its people on newly conquered territory. The ancient Greeks set up colonies as did the Romans, the Moors, and the Ottomans, to name just a few of the most notorious examples. Colonialism, then, is not restricted to a specific time or place. Nevertheless, in the sixteenth century, colonialism changed decisively because of technological developments in navigation that began to connect more remote parts of the world. Fast sailing ships made it possible to reach distant ports while sustaining closer ties between the center and colonies. Thus, the modern European colonial project emerged when it became possible to move large numbers of people across the ocean and to maintain political sovereignty in spite of geographical dispersion. This entry uses the term colonialism to describe the process of European settlement and political control over the rest of the world, including Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia.
The difficulty of defining colonialism stems from the fact that the term is often used as a synonym for imperialism. Both colonialism and imperialism were forms of conquest that were expected to benefit Europe economically and strategically. The term colonialism is frequently used to describe the settlement of places such as North America, Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, and Brazil that were controlled by a large population of permanent European residents. The term imperialism often describes cases in which a foreign government administers a territory without significant settlement; typical examples include the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century and the American domination of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. The distinction between the two, however, is not entirely consistent in the literature. Some scholars distinguish between colonies for settlement and colonies for economic exploitation. Others use the term colonialism to describe dependencies that are directly governed by a foreign nation and contrast this with imperialism, which involves indirect forms of domination.
The confusion about the meaning of the term imperialism reflects the way that the concept has changed over time. Although the English word imperialism was not commonly used before the nineteenth century, Elizabethans already described the United Kingdom as “the British Empire.” As Britain began to acquire overseas dependencies, the concept of empire was employed more frequently. Thus, the traditional understanding of imperialism was a system of military domination and sovereignty over territories. The day to day work of government might be exercised indirectly through local assemblies or indigenous rulers who paid tribute but sovereignty rested with the British. The shift away from this traditional understanding of empire was influenced by the Leninist analysis of imperialism as a system oriented towards economic exploitation. According to Lenin, imperialism was the necessary and inevitable result of the logic of accumulation in late capitalism. Thus, for Lenin and subsequent Marxists, imperialism described a historical stage of capitalism rather than a trans-historical practice of political and military domination. The lasting impact of the Marxist approach is apparent in contemporary debates about American imperialism, a term which usually means American economic hegemony, regardless of whether such power is exercised directly or indirectly (Young 2001).
Given the difficulty of consistently distinguishing between the two terms, this entry will use colonialism as a broad concept that refers to the project of European political domination from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries that ended with the national liberation movements of the 1960s. Post-colonialism will be used to describe the political and theoretical struggles of societies that experienced the transition from political dependence to sovereignty. This entry will use imperialism as a broad term that refers to economic, military, political domination that is achieved without significant permanent European settlement.
The Spanish conquest of the Americas sparked a theological, political, and ethical debate about the legitimacy of using military force in order to acquire control over foreign lands. This debate took place within the framework of a religious discourse that legitimized military conquest as a way to facilitate the conversion and salvation of indigenous peoples. The idea of a “civilizing mission” was by no means the invention of the British in the nineteenth century. The Spanish conquistadores and colonists explicitly justified their activities in the Americas in terms of a religious mission to bring Christianity to the native peoples. The Crusades provided the initial impetus for developing a legal doctrine that rationalized the conquest and possession of infidel lands. Whereas the Crusades were initially framed as defensive wars to reclaim Christian lands that had been conquered by non-Christians, the resulting theoretical innovations played an important role in subsequent attempts to justify the conquest of the Americas. The core claim was that the “Petrine mandate” to care for the souls of Christ’s human flock required Papal jurisdiction over temporal as well as spiritual matters, and this control extended to non-believers as well as believers.
Even the spread of Christianity, however, did not provide an unproblematic justification for the project of overseas conquest. The Spanish conquest of the Americas was taking place during a period of reform when humanist scholars within the Church were increasingly influenced by the natural law theories of theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Pope Innocent IV, war could not be waged against infidels and they could not be deprived of their property simply because of their non-belief. Under the influence of Thomism, Innocent IV concluded that force was legitimate only in cases where infidels violated natural law. Thus nonbelievers had legitimate dominion over themselves and their property, but this dominion was abrogated if they proved incapable of governing themselves according to principles that every reasonable being would recognize. The Spanish quickly concluded that the habits of the native Americans, from nakedness to unwillingness to labor to alleged cannibalism, clearly demonstrated their inability to recognize natural law. From this, they legitimized the widespread enslavement of the Indians as the only way of teaching them civilization and introducing them to Christianity.
Many of the Spanish missionaries sent to the New World, however, immediately noticed that the brutal exploitation of slave labor was widespread while any serious commitment to religious instruction was absent. Members of the Dominican order in particular noted the hypocrisy of enslaving the Indians because of their alleged barbarity while practicing a form of conquest, warfare, and slavery that reduced the indigenous population of Hispaniola from 250,000 to 15,000 in two decades of Spanish rule. Given the genocidal result of Spanish “civilization,” they began to question vocally the idea of a civilizing mission. Bartolomé de Las Casas and Franciscus de Victoria were two of the most influential critics of Spanish colonial practice. Victoria gave a series of lectures on Indian rights that applied Thomistic humanism to the practice of Spanish rule. He argued that all human beings share the capacity for rationality and have natural rights that stem from this capacity. From this premise, he deduced that the Papal decision to grant Spain title to the Americas was illegitimate. Unlike the position of Pope Innocent IV, Victoria argued that neither the Pope nor the Spaniards could subjugate the Indians in order to punish violations of natural law, such as fornication or adultery. He noted that the Pope has no right to make war on Christians and take their property simply because they are “fornicators or thieves.” If this were the case, then no European king’s dominion would ever be safe. Furthermore, according to Victoria, the pope and Christian rulers acting on his mandate have even less right to enforce laws against unbelievers, because they are outside of the Christian community, which is the domain of Papal authority (Williams 1990).
Despite this strongly worded critique of the dominant modes of justifying Spanish conquest, Victoria concluded that the use of force in the New World was legitimate in cases when Indian communities violated the Law of Nations, a set of principles derivable from reason and therefore universally binding. At first it might sound contradictory that Victoria concluded that the Indians’ supposed violation of the law of nature did not justify conquest but their violation of the Law of Nations, itself derived from natural law, did. Victoria emphasized that the Law of Nations is binding because “there exists clearly enough a consensus of the greater part of the whole world” (391) and because the principles benefit “the common good of all.” This distinction seems to rely on the assumption that other principles usually associated with natural law (such as the prohibitions on adultery and idolatry) only affect those who consent to the practices, whereas violations of the Law of Nations (e.g. prohibitions on peaceful travel and trade) have consequences for those who do not consent. Ultimately, Victoria’s understanding of the Law of Nations led him to defend the practice of Spanish colonialism, even as he emphasized that the Spanish remedy of warfare should be limited to minimal measures required to attain the legitimate objectives of peaceful trade and missionary work. Within Victoria’s critique of the legality and morality of Spanish colonialism was a rationalization for conquest, albeit a restrictive one.
The legitimacy of colonialism was also a topic of debate among French, German, and British philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant, Smith and Diderot were critical of the barbarity of colonialism and challenged the idea that Europeans had the obligation to “civilize” the rest of the world. At first it might seem relatively obvious that Enlightenment thinkers would develop a critique of colonialism. The system of colonial domination, which involved some combination of slavery, quasi-feudal forced labor, or expropriation of property, is antithetical to the basic Enlightenment principle that each individual is capable of reason and self-government. The rise of anti-colonial political theory, however, required more than a universalistic ethic that recognized the shared humanity of all people. As suggested above, the universalism and humanism of Thomism proved to be a relatively weak basis for criticizing colonialism. Given the tension between the abstract universalism of natural law and the actual cultural practices of indigenous peoples, it was easy to interpret native difference as evidence for the violation of natural law. This in turn became a justification for exploitation.
Diderot was one of the most forceful critics of European colonization. In his Histoire des deux Indes, he challenged the view that indigenous people benefit from European civilization and argued that the European colonists are the uncivilized ones. He claimed that culture (“national character”) helps to inculcate morality and reinforces norms of respect, but these norms tend to dissipate when the individual is far from his country of origin. Colonial empires, he believed, frequently become the sites of extreme brutality because when the colonists were far away from legal institutions and informal sanctions, the habits of restraint fell away, exposing natural man’s full instinct for violence (Muthu 2003).
In Book VIII of Histoire des deux Indes, Diderot also refutes the dominant justifications for European colonialism. Although he grants that it is legitimate to colonize an area that is not actually inhabited, he insists that foreign traders and explorers have no right of access to fully inhabited lands. This is important because the right to commerce (understood to encompass not only trade but also missionary work and exploration) was used as a justification for colonization by Spanish thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Emblematic of this approach was Victoria’s conclusion that an indigenous people could not exclude peaceful traders and missionaries without violating the Law of Nations. If the native peoples resisted these incursions, the Spanish could legitimately wage war and conquer their territory. Diderot specifically challenged this view, noting that the European traders have proven themselves “dangerous as guests.” (Muthu 2003: 75)
Before enlightenment thinkers could articulate a compelling critique of colonialism, they had to recognize the importance of culture and the possibility of cultural pluralism. The claim that all individuals are equally worthy of dignity and respect was a necessary but not sufficient basis for anti-imperialist thought. They also had to recognize that the tendency to develop diverse institutions, narratives, and aesthetic practices was an essential human capacity. The French term moeurs or what today would be called culture captures the idea that the humanity of human beings is expressed in the distinctive practices that they adopt as solutions to the challenges of existence.
The work of enlightenment anti-imperialists such as Diderot and Kant reflects their struggle with the tension between universalistic concepts such as human rights and the realities of cultural pluralism. The paradox of enlightenment anti-imperialism is that human dignity is understood to be rooted in the universal human capacity for reason. Yet when people engage in cultural practices that are unfamiliar or disturbing to the European observer, they appear irrational and thus undeserving of recognition and respect. Diderot’s solution was to identify particularity as the universal human trait. In other words, he emphasized that human beings all share similar desires to create workable rules of conduct that allow particular ways of life to flourish without themselves creating harsh injustices and cruelties. (Muthu 2003: 77) There are infinite varieties of solutions to the challenges posed by human existence. Societies all need to find a way to balance individual egoism and sociability and to overcome the adversities that stem from the physical environment. From this perspective, culture itself, rather than rationality, is the universal human capacity.
Unlike many other eighteenth and nineteenth century political philosophers, Diderot did not assume that non-Western societies were necessarily primitive (e.g. lacking political and social organization) nor did he assume that more complex forms of social organization were necessarily superior. One of the key issues that distinguished critics from proponents of colonialism and imperialism was their view of the relationship between culture, history and progress. Most of the influential philosophers writing in France and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had assimilated some version of the developmental approach to history that was associated with the Scottish Enlightenment. While the Scots quite consciously took their lead from Montesquieu, they went on to develop a unique and profoundly influential eighteenth-century historical narrative known as the four-stages thesis. In that story, all societies were imagined as naturally moving from hunting, to herding, to farming, to commerce, a developmental process that simultaneously tracked a cultural arc from “savagery,” through “barbarism,” to “civilization.” This meant that for the Scots, “civilization” was not just a marker of material improvement, but also a normative judgment about the moral progress of society. The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were central to the creation of an historical imaginary that described a civilizing process, one marked most significantly by increasing refinement in modes of social interaction, which they saw as tied to the advent of commercial society. This, in turn, produced a historical narrative, which celebrated the emergence of a shared Western civilization based on the emergence of wealth and commerce (Kohn and O’Neill 2006)
The language of civilization, savagery, and barbarism is pervasive in writers as diverse of Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill. It would therefore be incorrect to conclude that a developmental theory of history is somehow particular to the liberal tradition; nevertheless, given that figures of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Ferguson and Smith were among its leading expositors, it is strongly associated with liberalism. Smith himself opposed imperialism for economic reasons. He felt that relations of dependence between metropole and periphery distorted self-regulating market mechanisms and worried that the cost of military domination would be burdensome for taxpayers (Pitts 2005). The idea that civilization is the culmination of a process of historical development, however, proved useful in justifying imperialism. According to Uday Mehta, liberal imperialism was the product of the interaction between universalism and developmental history (1999). A core doctrine of liberalism holds that all individuals share a capacity for reason and self-government. The theory of development history, however, modifies this universalism with the notion that these capacities only emerge at a certain stage of civilization. For example, according to John Stuart Mill (hereafter Mill), savages do not have the capacity for self-government because of their excessive love of freedom. Serfs, slaves, and peasants in barbarous societies, on the other hand, may be so schooled in obedience that their capacity for rationality is stifled. Only in commercial society are the material and cultural conditions ideal for individuals to realize and exercise their potential. The consequence of this logic is that civilized societies like Great Britain are acting in the interest of less-developed peoples by governing them. Imperialism, from this perspective, is not primarily a form of political domination and economic exploitation but rather a paternalistic practice of government that exports “civilization” (e.g. modernization) in order to foster the improvement and native peoples. Despotic government (and Mill doesn’t hesitate to use this term) is a means to the end of improvement and ultimately self-government.
Of course, Mill, a life-long employee of the British East India Company, recognized that despotic government by a foreign people could lead to injustice and economic exploitation. These abuses, in turn, if unchecked, could undermine the legitimacy and efficacy of the imperial project. In Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Mill identified four reasons why foreign peoples were not suited to governing dependencies. First, metropolitan politicians were unlikely to have the knowledge of local conditions that was necessary for effectively solving problems of public policy. Second, given cultural, linguistic, and often religious difference, European colonists were unlikely to sympathize with the native peoples and more likely to act tyrannically. Third, even if the Englishmen abroad really tried to act fairly to native peoples, their natural tendency to sympathize with those similar to themselves (other foreign colonists or merchants) would likely lead to distorted judgment in cases of disputes. Finally, British colonists and merchants went abroad primarily to acquire wealth with no long term investment and little effort, which meant that their economic activity was likely to exploit rather than develop the country. These arguments also echoed points made in Edmund Burke’s voluminous writings assailing the misgovernment in India, most notably Burke’s famous Speech on Fox’s East India Bill (1783).
For Mill, parliamentary oversight was no solution. First of all, it would politicize decisions, making imperial policy a result of the factional struggles of party politics rather than technocratic expertise. Furthermore, given that members of the House of Commons were accountable to their domestic electors, it would guarantee that imperial policy would be aimed exclusively at maximizing British self-interest rather than promoting good government and economic development in the dependencies. Mill’s solution to the problem of imperial misgovernment was to eschew parliamentary oversight in favor of a specialized administrative corps. Members of this specialized body would have the training to acquire relevant knowledge of local conditions. Paid by the government, they would not personally benefit from economic exploitation and could fairly arbitrate conflicts between colonists and indigenous people. Mill, however, was not able to explain how to ensure good government in a situation in which those wielding political power were not accountable to the population. In this sense, Mill’s writing is emblematic of the failure of liberal imperial thought.
Nineteenth century liberal thinkers held a range of views on the legitimacy of foreign domination and differed about what tactics should be used to achieve that goal. Alexis de Tocqueville, for example, made a case for colonialism that did not rely on the idea of a “civilizing mission.” Tocqueville recognized that colonialism probably did not bring good government to the native peoples, but this was irrelevant since his justification rested entirely on the benefit to France. Tocqueville insisted that French colonies in Algeria would increase France’s stature vis-à-vis rivals like England; they would provide an outlet for excess population that was a cause of disorder in France; and imperial endeavors would incite a feeling of patriotism that would counterbalance the modern centrifugal forces of materialism and class conflict.
Tocqueville was actively engaged in advancing the project of French colonization of Algeria. Tocqueville’s first analysis of French colonialism was published during his 1837 electoral campaign for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. As a member of the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville argued in favor of expanding the French presence in Algeria. He traveled to Algeria in 1841 composing an “Essay on Algeria” that served as the basis for two parliamentary reports on the topic (Tocqueville 2001). Unlike the more naïve proponents of the “civilizing mission,” Tocqueville recognized that the brutal military occupation did little to introduce good government or advance civilization. In an apparent reversal of the four-stages theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, he acknowledged that “we are now fighting far more barbarously than the Arabs themselves” and “it is on their side that one meets with civilization.” (Tocqueville 2001: 70) This realization, however, was not the basis of a critique of French brutality. Instead, Tocqueville defended controversial tactics such as destroying crops, confiscating land, and seizing unarmed civilians. His texts, however, provide little in the way of philosophical justification and dismiss the entire just war tradition with a curt statement that “I believe that the right of war authorizes us to ravage the country.” (Tocqueville 2001: 70). Tocqueville’s writing on Algeria, the French national interest is paramount and moral considerations are explicitly subordinate to political goals.
Tocqueville’s analysis of Algeria reflects little anxiety about its legitimacy and much concern about the pragmatics of effective colonial governance. The stability of the regime, he felt, depended on the ability of the colonial administration to provide good government to the French settlers. Tocqueville emphasized that the excessive centralization of decision-making in Paris combined with the arbitrary practices of the local military leadership meant that French colonists had no security of property, let alone the political and civil rights that they were accustomed to France. Tocqueville was untroubled by the use of martial law against indigenous peoples, but felt that it was counterproductive when applied to the French. For Tocqueville, the success of the French endeavor in Algeria depended entirely on attracting large numbers of permanent French settlers. Given that it was proving impossible to win the allegiance of the indigenous people, France could not hold Algeria without creating a stable community of colonists. The natives were to be ruled through military domination and the French were to be enticed to settle through the promise of economic gain in an environment that reproduced, as much as possible, the cultural and political life of France. After a brief period of optimism about “amalgamation” of the races in his Second Letter on Algeria” (Tocqueville 2001: 25), Tocqueville understood the colonial world in terms of the permanent opposition of settler and native, an opposition structured to ensure the economic benefit of the former.
In recent years, scholars have devoted less attention to the debates on colonialism within the Marxist tradition. This reflects the waning influence of Marxism in the academy and in political circles more generally. Marxism, however, has been extremely influential on both post-colonial theory and anti-colonial independence movements around the world. Marxists have drawn attention to the material basis of European political expansion and developed concepts that help explain the persistence of economic exploitation after the end of direct political rule.
Although Marx never developed a theory of colonialism, his analysis of capitalism emphasized its inherent tendency to expand in search of new markets. In his classics works such as The Communist Manifesto, Grundrisse, and Capital, Marx predicted that the bourgeoisie would continue to create a global market and undermine any local or national barriers to its own expansion. Expansion is a necessary product of the core dynamic of capitalism: overproduction. Competition among producers drives them to cut wages, which in turn leads to a crisis of under-consumption. The only way to prevent economic collapse is to find new markets to absorb excess consumer goods. For a Marxist perspective, some form of imperialism is inevitable. By exporting population to resource rich foreign territories, a nation creates a market for industrial goods and a reliable source of natural resources. Alternately, weaker countries can face the choice of either voluntarily admitting foreign products that will undermine domestic industry or submitting to political domination, which will accomplish the same end.
In a series of newspaper articles published in the 1850s in the New York Daily Tribune, Marx specifically discussed the impact of British colonialism in India. His analysis was consistent with his general theory of political and economic change. He described India as an essentially feudal society experiencing the painful process of modernization. According to Marx, however, Indian “feudalism” was a distinctive form because, he believed (incorrectly) that agricultural land in India was owned communally. Marx used the concept of “Oriental despotism” to describe a specific type of class domination that used the mechanism of the state and taxation in order to extract resources from the peasantry. Oriental despotism emerged in India because agricultural productivity depended on large-scale public works that could only be financed by the state, particularly irrigation. This meant that the state could not be easily replaced by a more decentralized system of authority. In Western Europe, feudal property could be transformed gradually into privately owned, alienable property in land. In India, communal land ownership made this impossible, thereby blocking the development of commercial agriculture and free markets. Since “oriental despotism” inhibited the indigenous development of economic modernization, British domination became the agent of economic modernization.
Marx’s analysis of colonialism as a progressive force bringing modernization to a backward feudal society sounds like a transparent rationalization for foreign domination. His endorsement of British domination, however, reflects the same ambivalence that he shows towards capitalism in Europe. In both cases, Marx recognized the immense suffering brought about during the transition from feudal to bourgeois society while insisting that the transition is both necessary and ultimately progressive. He argued that the penetration of foreign commerce is causing a social revolution in India. For Marx, this upheaval has both positive and negative ramifications. When peasants loose their traditional livelihoods, there is a great deal of human suffering, but he also pointed out that the traditional village communities were hardly idyllic; they were sites of caste oppression, slavery, misery, and cruelty. The first stage of this process is entirely negative, because it involves heavy burdens of taxation to support British rule and economic upheaval due to the glut of cheaply produced English cotton. Eventually, however, British merchants begin to realize that Indians cannot pay for imported cloth or administrators if they don’t efficiently produce goods to trade, which provides an incentive for British investment in production and infrastructure. Even though Marx believed that British rule was motivated by greed and exercised through cruelty, he felt it was still unwittingly the agent of progress. Thus, Marx’s discussion of British rule in India has three dimensions: an account of the progressive character of foreign rule, a critique of the human suffering involved, and a concluding argument that British rule must be temporary if the progressive potential it unleashed is to be realized.
Lenin developed his analysis of Western economic and political domination in his pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) (see Other Internet Resources). Unlike Marx, Lenin took a more explicitly critical view of imperialism. He noted that imperialism was a technique which allowed European countries to put off the inevitable domestic revolutionary crisis by exporting their own economic burdens onto weaker states. Lenin argued that late-nineteenth century imperialism was driven by the economic logic of late-capitalism. The falling rate of profit caused an economic crisis which could only be resolved through territorial expansion. Capitalist conglomerates were compelled to expand beyond their national borders in pursuit of new markets and resources. In a sense, this analysis is fully consistent with Marx, who saw European colonialism as continuous with the process of internal expansion within states and across Europe. From this perspective, colonialism and imperialism resulted from the same logic that drove the economic development and modernization of peripheral areas in Europe. But there was one difference. Since late capitalism was organized around national monopolies, the competition for markets took the form of military competition between states over territories that could be dominated for their exclusive economic benefit.
Marxist theorists including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, and Nikolai Bukharin also explored the issue of imperialism. Kautsky’s position is especially important because his analysis introduced concepts that continue to play a prominent role in contemporary world systems theory and post-colonial studies. Kautsky challenged the assumption that imperialism would lead to the development of the areas subjected to economic exploitation. He suggested that imperialism was a relatively permanent relationship structuring the interactions between two types of countries. (Young 2001) Although imperialism initially took the form of military competition between capitalist countries, it would result in collusion between capitalist interests to maintain a stable system of exploitation of the non-developed world. The most influential contemporary proponent of this view is Immanuel Wallerstein, who is known for world-system theory. According to this theory, the world-system involves a relatively stable set of relations between core and peripheral states as a functional in internal division of labor that is structured to benefit the core states (Wallerstein 1974-1989).
From the perspective of world-system theory, the economic exploitation of the periphery does not necessarily require direct political or military domination. In a similar vein, contemporary literary theorists have drawn attention to practices of representation that reproduce a logic of subordination that endures even after former colonies gain independence. The field of postcolonial studies was established by Edward Said in his path-breaking book Orientalism. In Orientalism Said applied Michel Foucault’s technique of discourse analysis to the production of knowledge about the Middle East. The term orientalism described a structured set of concepts, assumptions, and discursive practices that were used to produce, interpret, and evaluate knowledge about non-European peoples. Said’s analysis made it possible for scholars to deconstruct literary and historical texts in order to understand how they reflected and reinforced the imperialist project. Unlike previous studies that focused on the economic or political logics of colonialism, Said drew attention to the relationship between knowledge and power. By foregrounding the cultural and epistemological work of imperialism, Said was able to undermine the ideological assumption of value-free knowledge and show that “knowing the Orient” was part of the project of dominating it. Thus, Orientalism can be seen as an attempt to extend the geographical and historical terrain of the poststructuralist critique of Western epistemology.
Said uses the term Orientalism in several different ways. First, Orientalism is a specific field of academic study about the Middle East and Asia, albeit one that Said conceives quite expansively as including history, sociology, literature, anthropology and especially philology. He also identifies it as a practice that helps define Europe by creating a stable depiction of its other, its constitutive outside. Orientalism is a way of characterizing Europe by drawing a contrasting image or idea, based on a series of binary oppositions (rational/irrational, mind/body, order/chaos) that manage and displace European anxieties. Finally, Said emphasizes that it is also a mode of exercising authority by organizing and classifying knowledge about the Orient. This discursive approach is distinct both from a vulgar materialist assumption that knowledge is simply a reflection of economic or political interests and from an idealist conviction that scholarship is disinterested and neutral. Following Foucault, Said’s concept of discourse identifies a way in which knowledge is not used instrumentally in service of power but rather is itself a form of power.
The second quasi-canonical contribution to the field of post-colonial theory is Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak works within Said’s problematic of representation but extends it to the contemporary academy. By posing the question “Can the subaltern speak?” she asks whether the scholarly interest in non-Western cultures may unwittingly reproduce a new kind of orientalism, whereby academic theorists mine non-Western sources in order to speak authoritatively in their place. Even though the goal is to challenge the existing Eurocentrism of the academy, post-colonial studies is particularly vulnerable to the risks associated with any claim to speak authoritatively on behalf of the subaltern. Thus the field of post-colonial studies is haunted by its own impossibility. It was born out of the recognition that representation is inevitably implicated in power and domination yet struggles to reconfigure representation as an act of resistance. In order to do so, it introduces new strategies of reading and interpretation while recognizing the limitations of this endeavor.
The core problematic of post-colonial theory is an examination of the relationship between power and knowledge in the non-Western world. Some scholars have approached this topic through historical research rather than literary or discursive analysis. The most influential movement is the Subaltern Studies group, which was originally made up of South Asian historians who explored the contribution of non-elites to Indian politics and culture. The term subaltern suggests an interest in social class but more generally it is also a methodological orientation that opens up the study of logics of subordination. Whereas Said raised the broad issue of Orientalism, the Subaltern Studies group dismantled particular hegemonic narratives of Indian colonial history. According to Spivak, the Subaltern Studies group developed two important challenges to the narrative of Indian colonial history as a change from semi-feudalism to capitalist domination. First, they showed that the moment of change must be pluralized as a story of multiple confrontations involving domination and resistance rather than a simple great modes-of-production narrative. Second, these epochal shifts are marked by a multidimensional change in sign-system from the religious to the militant, crime to insurgency, bondsman to worker (Guha and Spivak 1988: 3)
The work of the Subaltern Studies group is emblematic of the way that post-colonial theory often inhabits the terrain between post-structuralism and Marxism, two traditions that have many differences as well as some commonalities. Despite the fact that many practitioners of the field are sympathetic to both traditions, other scholars highlight the incompatibility of the two. For example, Aijaz Ahmad has criticized post-colonialist theory from a Marxist perspective, arguing that its infatuation with issues of representation and discourse makes it blind to the material basis and systematic structure of power relations. The use of concepts such as hybridity easily degenerates into a kind of eclecticism that gestures at radical resistance while denying the theoretical basis of any theory of revolutionary change. Ahmad also argued that the influence of Said’s Orientalism was due not to its originality but, on the contrary, to its conventionality. According to Ahmad, Orientalism benefited from its affinity with two problematic intellectual fashions: the reaction against Marxism that lead to the vogue for post-structuralism and the “Third-worldism” that provided academics with a veneer of radicalism. Said, for his part, also developed a sustained critique of Marxism. In Orientalism, Said argued that Marx’s explicit defense of British colonialism was emblematic of his own implication in Orientalist discourse. Furthermore, for Said, Marx’s position was not merely a personal failure but instead reflected a more general problem with totalizing theory that he felt tended to marginalize any signs of difference that undermined Marx’s narrative of progress.
To conclude, it is worth noting that some scholars have begun to question the usefulness of the concept post-colonial theory. Like the idea of the Scottish four stages theory, a theory with which it would appear to have little in common, the very concept of post-colonialism seems to rely on a progressive understanding of history (McClintock 1992)). It suggests, perhaps unwittingly, that the core concepts of hybridity, alterity, particularly, and multiplicity may lead to a kind of methodological dogmatism or developmental logic. Moreover, the term “colonial” as a marker of this domain of inquiry is also problematic in so far as it suggests historically implausible commonalities across territories that experienced very different techniques of domination. Thus, the critical impulse behind post-colonial theory has turned on itself, drawing attention to the way that it may itself be marked by the utopian desire to transcend the trauma of colonialism (Gandhi 1998).