Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beating them at their own game.


This is about what Hamid Dabashi calls 'colonial modernity', the strange process in which the practises supposedly associated with Enlightenment, daring to know, using one's own intelligence, were exported by virtue of military force in a way that deprived the supposed subjects of such Enlightenment of the agency to fulfil the Kantian imperative. I do not need to elaborate on the common theme in imperial ideology, from Mill to Whitman Rostow, in which the colonised world was regarded as being in need of a violent military ruler who would impose such Enlightenment until the subjects were of age. But this is particularly about a pre-emptive strike by the targets of colonial powers, by states that sought aggressively to appropriate the forms of colonial modernity before it was imposed on them. This process was an important, if complicated, component of the global challenge to European rule. Gerald Horne writes that the decline of white supremacy as a global system of state organisation was signalled by developments in the 1890s, particularly in the form of an event quite often just overlooked or skated over in the histories of Italy: the Italian defeat at the hands of Ethiopians in 1896. Horne writes that: "at the time there was “no parallel case in modern history” of a “European army . . . annihilated by a native African race.”" Before Ethiopia became a global beacon of resistance to Mussolini, a focal point in the struggle against white supremacy in its most pernicious forms, it had already made anti-colonial history right in the middle of the Scramble for Africa.

Less than a decade later, Japan would prove its mettle against Imperial Russia. The dynamics of state formation are crucial here: Japan had reacted defensively to incursions by the West, specifically Commodore Perry's 'opening' of the country in 1854, by building a form of state capitalism. It had built a modern state, and was admired by American politicians and thinkers for its willingness to imitate the white man. Similarly, Ethiopian modern state formation was driven by self-defense against the forays of European colonial states.

In the north of Africa and parts of western Africa, Islamic reformism provided the legitimising ideology for strategies of state-building and the development of 'legitimate commerce' (which is not to imply that capital accumulation was always coterminous with the development of modern states - it isn't the case with Ethiopia). So, for example, attempts by colonial powers to prevent Egypt from industrialising and maintain it as an agrarian periphery of Manchester (which was, apparently, to its "comparative advantage" in the Ricardian terminology of the time) were resisted by the subalternised elites increasingly under the banner of reviving Islam. Ethiopia was not Muslim but Christian, and according to prevalent raciological assumptions, the 'true' Ethiopians were 'white' since they could trace their descendants to the Hamitic invaders of north Africa. Indeed, Ethiopia was seen by some colonial sources as a welcome bulwark against Arab-Islamic expansion. But, according to the historian Teshale Tibebu, its processes of state formation in the nineteenth century, centralising rule over previously disunited sovereignties, were similarly defensive and similarly offensive. That is, to resist European colonial powers, Ethiopia's rulers understood well enough that a strong state could be built much as they had been in Europe: through territorial conquest, and by integrating parcellised groups and statehoods into a larger polity. The same military build-up and use of imported rifles that enabled the construction of a centralised Ethiopian state also facilitated its victory in the 1896 Battle of Adwa.

The very logic of centralisation and homogenisation - under which Emperor Haile Selassie would later repress regional demands for autonomy and quash the Ethiopian-Eritrean federation, and which validated the destructive centralism of the Derg - would have important consequences for the emergence of Ethiopian nationalism partly as a result of the victory at Adwa. On the one hand, it created a predatory state in which the martial class was at liberty to appropriate from the peasants even during peacetime. It also threatened to undermine the basis for national unity precisely through its repression of regional identities. On the other hand, though a relatively powerful army had been built, the Battle of Adwa was notable for being a popular war. Peasants from across the country, including the 'colonised' domains marched by foot, carrying their own equipment, to deliver a crushing defeat to the Italian would-be colonists. The Ethiopian army was 100,000 strong and, had it not been for the arrogance of the Italians in sending 14,500 troops to fight a vaster army of well-armed Ethiopians, the war may have been won without a shot being fired. The peasants who rallied to the defense of Ethiopia did so not to defend the aspirations of the monarchs. After all, it was Emperor Menelik who had signed a treaty with the Italian rulers, allowing them to rule Eritrea - and it was that treaty which, it turned out, gave all of Ethiopia to Italy in the Italian language version. The peasants had every reason to distrust and despise the Ethiopian ruling class, but they mobilised to resist what they knew would be an even more predatory and oppressive ruler, and thus opened the space for a generalised critique of the oppressive colonial modernity into which they were being integrated. The national identity that emerged after Adwa cannot be read off from 'natural' ethnic allegiances (even supposing such a thing could exist), but from a popular desire for equality and justice that could be turned against the ruling class itself.

This dynamic of national liberation was evident throughout the twentieth century: the attempt to subvert the racial hierarchy (or in the case of Japan, to invert it, to place white Euro-Americans at the bottom of the pyramid) involved a dual process in which national rulers sought to emulate the colonists through the construction of developmentalist states, and at the same time mobilised popular movements who would challenge the colonial model in its entirety. And of course, the model for popular insurgency, or at least the informing lexicon, came from the Russian Revolution. Horne argues that this revolution was by far the key moment in the attack on white supremacy. American race theorists certainly saw it in such terms:

The implications of the Bolshevik Revolution for “white supremacy” were glimpsed early on by Lothrop Stoddard, Madison Grant, and other theorists of “white supremacy.” The latter saw “Asia in the guise of Bolshevism with Semitic leadership and Chinese executioners organizing an assault upon western Europe.” The former saw Lenin as “a modern Jenghiz Khan plotting the plunder of a world”; Bolshevism, he exclaimed, was “in fact, as anti-racial as it is anti-social” and “thus reveals itself as the arch-enemy of civilization and the race. Bolshevism is the renegade, the traitor within the gates, who would betray the citadel. Therefore, Bolshevism must be crushed out with iron heels, no matter what the cost.”


Even racist American rulers entertained respect for 'plucky' little Japan. Theodore Roosevelt admired their martial capabilities a great deal, and there was in fact a brief period of conviviality between the US and Japan after the defeat of Russia, which lasted until Wilson's role in thwarting a clause calling for racial equality at the Paris Peace Conference. But Bolshevism was something different. It was a frontal attack on a whole model, a whole 'way of life' as it would come to be called. It was fundamentally alien and threatening precisely because it sought to revolutionise modernity, to draw out its democratising, egalitarian impulses and bring them to their logical conclusion. There could be no co-existence with it, and no mutual respect, because Bolshevism didn't just mean healthy competition with white ruling classes: it meant death to them.