Globalizing Palestine

The historian James L. Gelvin, in The Modern Middle East, claims that “in spite of the fact that the size of Palestine and the number of people directly affected by its political problems are minuscule in comparative terms, the dispute between Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and various Arab states, on the other, has been at the forefront of international attention for over sixty years.”[1]  John Collins, an interdisciplinary scholar who has spent most of his academic career writing about Palestine, agrees with this observation in his fascinating book Global Palestine.  Unlike Gelvin, however, Collins does not stop at simply describing the internationality of the Israeli/Palestinian quagmire: he attempts to show the global significance of Palestine.  Specifically, Collins seeks to reveal how Palestine’s past and present can shed light on the globe’s present and future.  This essay looks at why Collins asks us to look at Palestine from a global perspective and how he articulates such an abstract idea as global Palestine.[2]

In the preface to Global Palestine, Collins gives us a pretty good idea about his project.  Explaining why he wrote the book, Collins writes, “I began this book with a desire to step outside the circle of often tired political frameworks within which Palestine has generally been imprisoned.”[3] The circle of frameworks he is referring to are “the seductive narratives of nationalism, with the binary logic that splits the world into hierarchically ordered halves (us/them, East/West, Orient/Occident, developed/developing, terrorism/legitimate state violence, etc.) and with the stale language of realpolitik and ‘national interests.’”[4]  According to Collins, they need to be avoided because, “if recent decades have shown us anything, it is that there are significant interpretive and political limitations associated with” them.[5] In short, the study of Palestine has been hindered by the rhetoric of the nation as well as by that of the state.  Thus, in Collins’ view, to emancipate the study of Palestine and take it in new directions, scholars will need to step outside the conceptual box.[6]

As the title of his book suggests, Collins’ solution to pulling Palestine out of its scholarly and political rut is to think of it in global terms.  In fact, this is the thesis of Global Palestine: “the book’s core idea is that the same forces operating to produce Palestine’s troubling realities are also operating globally in ways that have implications for all of us, and that examining Palestine’s recent past and present in this light can yield new insights about Palestine itself while also revealing important clues about global processes that too often remain hidden, camouflaged, and poorly understood.”[7]  On the one hand, Collins is claiming that Palestine is not exceptional: events in Palestine are a product of “the same forces” that are working across the globe.  Therefore, studying Palestine from a global perspective can “yield new insights about Palestine itself.” On the other hand, Collins is arguing that Palestine is exceptional: studying Palestine can enlighten our understanding of global processes.  In other words, Collins’ central thesis asks us not only to view Palestine from a global perspective, but also to view the globe from a Palestinian perspective; only this will allow us to understand the importance of Palestine.

Beyond political and interpretive boundaries, Collins informs us that the book is also designed to transcend (and even reject) disciplinary boundaries.  As he claims, “the book’s orientation also reflects the fact that I have always been, at heart, an interdisciplinary (I sometimes prefer the term anti-disciplinary) researcher who seeks to probe the boundaries of conventional wisdom.”[8]  This, he explains, is one reason the book draws on the work of Walter Benjamin, John Trudell, and Paul Virilio—three intellectuals whose work Collins describes as “unconventional” and “subversive.”[9]  Furthermore, “these influences . . . signal the use of an approach that embraces the practice of theoretical, methodological and thematic diversity for the simple reason that the deep structures of global politics have as little respect for disciplinary borders as they do for national ones.”[10]  Taking into account his claims about other types of boundaries, Collins ultimately holds that we can only truly understand Palestine and its politics by denying boundaries any significance.

In the chapter “Approaching Global Palestine”—the most important chapter for understanding the author’s program—Collins elaborates further on the need to study Palestine globally.  “In short,” he explains, “the remarkable global profile [of Palestine] tells us a great deal about the politics of globalization in general, from the impact of ‘time-space compression’ to the complex dynamics of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, from the troubling realities of permanent war to the changing face of international solidarity activism.”[11]  The key word in this sentence is globalization, for it comprises the global processes Collins describes and constantly refers to throughout the book.  In addition, globalization can be read as an attempt to emphasize Palestine’s importance in understanding the future—that is, where Collins sees the world heading.  Restating his thesis from the Preface, but adding to it in important ways, Collins writes, “the central argument here is that far from being shaped by global and globalizing processes, Palestine has been and continues to be an often prophetic index of and shaper of these processes, a kind of monadic unit that contains important clues to a series of much broader realities.”[12]  Mirroring what he says in the Preface, Collins believes Palestine “contains important clues” about global processes and “broader realities.”  The difference here is the use of the terms “globalizing” and “prophetic,” which signal Collins’ belief that understanding Palestine is important to understanding the future.  To restate, Collins holds that understanding Palestine’s present is integral to understanding the global present as well as the global future.

At the juncture, you might be tempted to ask, in what specific ways does Collins believe Palestine is prophetic? “First,” argues Collins, “as the primary targets of an ongoing settler colonial project (Zionism), Palestinians have been test subjects for, and in some cases active agents helping to catalyze, an emerging world of pervasive securitization and violent acceleration, a world order symbolized by the ‘Global War on Terrorism’—(GWOT)—a war in which anyone can be a target.”[13]  Therefore, in Collins’ eyes, Palestine is first prophetic in its experience of settler colonialism.  As Palestine becomes marked by increasing securitization and acceleration, so too does the world.  “At the same time,” continues Collins, “[Palestinians] also continue to be important actors in and symbols of the ongoing struggle for global justice, a struggle in which the defense of life and locality plays an increasingly prominent role.”[14]  The second manner in which Palestine is thus prophetic is in “the ongoing struggle for global justice.”  As the struggle progresses for Palestinian justice, so too does the struggle for global justice.  According to Collins, then, Palestine’s prophetic qualities demonstrate that, rather than being on the receiving end of globalization, Palestine is actively shaping it in crucial ways.

We might ask, however, if Collins is the first person to articulate the idea of a global Palestine.  In short, the answer is no; but a more nuanced picture is required for a better understanding of where Collins fits into the historiography of “global” Palestine.  As Collins notes, “for decades [the scholarly] literature was dominated by an implicit exceptionalism rooted” in Zionist claims and “corresponding claims of exceptional victimization on the part of Palestinians.”[15] This, according to Collins, prevented comparative studies between Palestine and other parts of the world and prevented global political theory from being applied to Palestine.  Along with binaries and zero-sum logic, claims Collins, this was the state of scholarship on Palestine until about the late 1980s.  Since then, “an increasing number of scholars have been pushing back against inherited frameworks of all sorts.  As a result, work on Palestine is increasing characterized by references to transnational processes, such as militarization, racialization, capital accumulation, ‘states of exception,’ biopolitics and a range of power/knowledge structures.”[16]  Thus, what Collins refers to as “Palestine’s Global Turn” was, on the one hand, made possible by a general global turn across the social sciences.[17]  On the other hand, “the opening up of the literature to these broader debates is, in its own way, part of the globalization/Palestinization phenomenon referred to above.”[18]  That is, events in Palestine contributed to the global turn just as the global turn may have contributed to events in Palestine.

This does not mean, however, that Palestine became global only in the 1990s.  Using Arjun Appadurai’s idea of “process geography,” Collins asserts “that the Palestinian struggle has always been a global one.”[19]  Process geographies, summarizes Collins, “are best understood as ‘precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction, and motion’ rather than as ‘relatively immobile aggregates of traits.’”[20]  One can see Palestine as process geography in the experience of Palestinian refugees, who never quite leave there homeland behind.  As Collins explains, “like all members of any globalized community, Palestinians who live in exile carry with them memories and markers of the homeland,” and “these are components of the global Palestinian experience.”[21]  So, even though they may not be physically in Palestine, Palestinian exiles bring their homeland with them wherever they go.  Palestine and Palestinian identity then become involved in a process of constant negotiation and (re)interpretation.  Some other ways we can see Palestine as process geography are in the involvement of other states in the geopolitics of Israel/Palestine and in what Collins refers to as “the global flow of the technologies of violence” (e.g. bulldozers) into Israel/Palestine.[22]  According to Collins, it is because of this “action, interaction, and motion” between Palestine and the rest of the world that we can speak of a global Palestine before the nineties.

Finally, let us turn to Collins’ use of the term “globalization.”  For, after looking at Collins’ central points, one could argue that Global Palestine is, more than anything else, a book about globalization.[23]  In Collins’ mind, globalization is not a new phenomenon: “the age of globalization is, after all, the age of linkages,”[24] and global linkages are far from novel.  Even so, globalization in the twenty-first century is unique.  It is not merely a question of acceleration, though Collins does see speed as an important aspect of twenty-first-century globalization.  Nor is it a simple matter of colonization, securitization, or occupation.  What is unique about globalization in the twenty-fist century is how acceleration, colonization, securitization, and occupation work together.  In the twenty-first century, claims Collins, these processes have, on the one hand, “produced a world marked by both radical integration and radical hierarchy,” and on the other hand, extended “the logic of permanent war across the globe in a way that complicates those narratives that focus almost exclusively on capital accumulation as the motor driving global history.”[25] Collins’ idea of twenty-first-century globalization can therefore be summed up as the compression of time and space (maybe even to the point that neither concept has very much meaning), the radicalization of global hierarchy, and the perpetuation of global conflict.

To recapitulate, Global Palestine is John Collins’ attempt to get us to see “Palestine’s prophetic global significance.”[26]  This essay offered some insight into Collins’ rationale for claiming that Palestine has global significance as well as how he articulates such an idea.  Perhaps most important in the idea of global Palestine is that what is happening to the Palestinians is also happening—or will eventually happen—to the rest of us.  In this reading, we are indeed all Palestinians.


[1] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 217.

[2] I say abstract because, in my opinion, adjectives like “global” lend themselves more to theoretical concepts than they do to concrete concepts.  The success of Collins’ argument depends on this abstraction.

[3] John Collins, Global Palestine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), ix.

[4] Ibid., x.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Whatever the merits of this cliché, telling people to step outside the box (the exact phrase is “step outside the circle”) can hardly be considered new and creative.

[7] Collins, Global Palestine, x.

[8] Ibid.

[9] These descriptions can be found in ibid., xi.

[10] Ibid., xi.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Ibid., 2

[13] Ibid., 2-3.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] The phrase “Palestine’s Global Turn” can be found in ibid., 3.  It is the title of a section in Chapter 1, “Approaching Global Palestine.”

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] I was introduced to this idea in a discussion with Reem Bailony on 6 March 2014.

[24] Collins, Global Palestine, 7.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] Ibid., 16.

 Works Cited

Collins, John. Global Palestine. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[Thanks to Michael O'Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Oil, Geopolitics, and Neoliberalism

In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey makes an intriguing argument about why neoliberalism-in-theory did not equate neoliberalism-in-practice (neoliberalization).  For him, the neoliberal turn of late 1970s was, more than anything else, “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19).  This explains why the reality of neoliberalization looked so different from the ideals of neoliberalism.  As he claims, “the theoretical utopianism of neoliberal argument has … primarily worked as a system of justification and legitimation for whatever needed to be done to achieve” the restoration or creation of an economic elite (19).  Moreover, “when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable” (19).  In short, neoliberalization has not meant the realization of a neoliberal utopia because the economic elites have distorted or discarded neoliberalism to (re)assert their dominance over the lower classes.  Importantly, because neoliberalization was about the restoration of the economic elites, it allowed for the creation of non-Western elites. This, according to Harvey, is further proof that neoliberalism cum neoliberalization was simply an “antidote to threats to the capitalist social order” and “a solution to capitalism’s ills” (19).

On the other hand, James L. Gevin alleges, in his article “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East,” that the post-WWII economic order is best understood through the North-South divide.  This divide played out until 2008 in a “three part dialectical process—1944-71, when the global economic system created an environment conducive to economic nationalism in the South; 1971-1980, when the South deployed the power derived from economic nationalism to challenge the system; 1980-2008?, when a reinvigorated system effectively vanquished economic nationalism in the South—through which the present order achieved dominance and the civic order of those states was put to the test” (9).  Between 1944 and 1971, the Bretton Woods doctrine of “embedded liberalism” benefitted the countries of the South.  Embedded liberalism was both national and international in scope: it honored national sovereignty but also allowed countries to participate in the new global order economic order.  From 1971 to 1980, the South challenged the North’s (especially the US’s) hegemony.  The two main events that precipitated the challenge were the “Nixon Shock” of 1971 and the oil shock of 1973-74.  In the third phase, lasting from 1980 until 2008, the North asserted its dominance through neoliberalism.  The onset of neoliberalism brought an end to the Bretton Woods system, and therefore, the South’s ability to effectively challenge the North.  Ultimately, by challenging the North, one could argue that the South actually accelerated its own demise; the oil shock of the seventies pushed the North to adopt neoliberalism.  Some might even say that the South ended the era of transnationalism and inaugurated the era of (Berger’s) globalization.

Finally, in Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell claims that, by looking at the role of oil in the economy and political structures of the Middle East, we can better understand how “carbon energy and modern democratic politics [are] tied intricately together” (5).  One way he shows this is through a discussion of the 1973-74 oil crisis.  In Mitchell’s reading, rather than a simple example of supply and demand that ushered in the era of neoliberalism, the oil crisis created a new discourse about energy that ushered in the era of militarism in the Middle East.

Works Cited

Gelvin, James L. “American Global Economic Policy and the Civic Order in the Middle East.” In Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper, 191-206. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso, 2011. 


Defining Third Worldism

Third Worldism was an ideology that came out of and responded to decolonization, which coincided with the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  The authors Robert Malley and Mark T Berger each provide definitions of this concept but with slight variations.  In this brief paper, I will scrutinize both definitions closely in the hope of coming out with a clearer understanding of Third Worldism.  First up: Robert Malley.  According to Malley in The Call from Algeria, Third Worldism was “the belief in revolutionary aspirations of the Third World masses, in the inevitability of their fulfillment, and in the role of strong centralized states in this undertaking” (2).  For his part, Mark T Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed four things:

1) the ‘popular masses’ in the Third World had ‘revolutionary aspirations’; 2) the fulfillment of these aspirations was an inevitable working out of history that linked pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia; 3) the vehicle for the achievement of this transformation was a strong and centralized nation-state; and 4) in foreign policy terms these nation-states should form an alliance that would act collectively under the umbrella of various regional and international forms of political and economic cooperation, such as the non-alignment movement and the United Nations (“After the Third World?, 34, note 4).

At first glance, it might look as if the only difference between the two definitions is that Berger provides an additional point. But what would a closer examination reveal? After all, Berger admits that his definition of Third Worldism is similar to Malley’s, but “departs in key respects” (“After the Third World?”, 34, note 4).

Regarding the first point, both Malley and Berger claim that Third Worldism believed that the masses of the global south had revolutionary aspirations.  They also share views on the second point, though slightly diverging from each other. Both men maintain that Third Worldism assumed that the achievement of the Third World’s aspirations was the “working out of history.” For, although Malley does not articulate such an expression, he implies it in his use of the term “inevitability.”  Berger breaks away from Malley, however, by adding that, according to Third Worldism, the “working out of history” meant linking “pre-colonial forms of egalitarianism to the realization of a future utopia.”  Indeed, Malley uses deceptively similar concepts—assimilationism, traditionalism, and Marxism—in another section of his book[1], but he is a lot more ambivalent about Third Worldism’s approach to establishing a dialogue between the past and the future.

After slightly diverging from each other on the second point, Berger and Malley converge again on point three.  In their eyes, Third Worldism believed that the revolutionary ambitions of the Third World could only be achieved through the nation-state. The similarity ends there: Berger and Malley deviate from each other once again on the last point. On the one hand, Berger claims that Third Worldism assumed that an alliance between the states of the Third World should be established to promote cooperation within the global south.  On the other hand, Malley, by failing to provide a fourth point, implies that transnational organizations were not a central tenet of Third Worldism.  This is a crucial difference, though it is not a surprising one.   For one thing, the two scholars have a different focus: whereas Malley tends to focus on themes, Berger tends to focus on chronology.  It is even less surprising given that Berger, writing seven years after Malley, had the opportunity to build on Malley’s definition of Third Worldism.  However, notwithstanding the differences between the two definitions, and notwithstanding Berger’s claim that his definition of Third Worldism “departs in key respects” from Malley’s, I would argue that the two definitions are more alike than not.

[1] Refer to pp. 23-27 of The Call from Algeria for a discussion on assimilationism, traditionalism and Marxism.

Works Cited

Malley, Robert. The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Berger, Mark T. “After the Third World? History, Destiny, and the Fate of Third Worldism.” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2004): 9-39.

Questioning Transnationalism

Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way open their article “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis” by stating that “Transnationalism is a much abused word,” then by asking, “is it the same thing as globalization? As internationalism? Is neoliberalism a particular period in the history of the political economy of transnationalism, or something else? Was the colonial period transnational or prenational?” (625). In their eyes, transnationalism is a form of antinationalism. Specifically, as the title of their article suggests, they claim that using transnationalism as an analytical category is a useful—perhaps the best—way to dispute and disprove the assumptions of nationalism as an analytical category. For example, when describing the goals of the article, the authors claim that they “want to suggest that “transnationalism” can do to the nation what gender did for sexed bodies: provide the conceptual acid that denaturalized all their deployments, compelling us to acknowledge that the nation, like sex, is a thing contested, interrupted, and always shot through with contradiction” (627). This suggestion is not something Roger Waldinger and David Fitzgerald would agree with. For them, transnationalism cannot be the end of the nation because it is mediated by the state. Referring to migrant communities who are often described as transnational, Waldinger and Fitzgerald reminds us that “states and the politics conducted within their borders fundamentally shape the options for migrant and ethnic trans-state social action” (1178). In other words, they believe transnationalism (in the way it is normally discussed) cannot do away with the idea of the nation because its terms are dictated by the nation-state. Furthermore, Waldinger and Fitzgerald claim that transnationalism doesn’t do away with identities; it reinforces them: “for transnationalism, the relevant forms of social action do not transcend difference but rather are directed entirely toward specific places or groups” (1179). In short, whereas Briggs, McCormick, and Way hold that transnationalism undermines the idea of the nation (and therefore, the nation-state), Waldinger and Fitzgerald hold that the nation-state undermines transnationalism.

As Yossi Shain’s article “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity” would seem to suggest, however, there are more than just two definitions of transnationalism. Shain takes a middle path between the Briggs-McCormick-Way definition of transnationalism and the Waldinger-Fitzgerald one. In his mind, Judaism connects Jewish-Americans to Israel in an “Israel-Diaspora relationship”, and thus, allows them to transcend the borders of the United States. However, Jewish-Americans transcend borders of one nation-state (the US) only to connect themselves with another (Israel). And that connection—and any influence that Jewish-Americans hope to have on events in Israel—is limited by the reality of living in the United States. One could argue, therefore, that Shain holds transnationalism to be both national and supranational. John Collins takes a similar stance in “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Times,” when he says, “in the United States, the antiwar movement has found itself making common cause with the struggle for Palestinian rights, an alliance that is paralleled by the growing alliance between US conservatives and supporters of Israel” (3). So, although transnational alliances exist between Americans and other groups, they are informed by political antagonisms in the US. Nevertheless, Collins does ultimately contend that the struggle of the Palestinians is not merely transnational (in its ability to forge transnational alliances), but also global (in its prophetic qualities). In the end, then, all four articles give varying definitions of transnationalism. But is that “abuse,” or is that scholarship? Personally, I believe it is the latter.

Works Cited

Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way. “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis.” American Quarterly 60 (September 2003): 625-648.

Collins, John. “Global Palestine: A Collision for Our Time.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 16 (Spring 2007): 3-18.

Shain, Yossi. “American Jews and the Construction of Israel’s Jewish Identity.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 9 (Fall 2000): 163-201.

Waldinger, Robert and David Fitzgerald. “Transnationalism in Question.” American Journal of Sociology 109 (March 2004): 1177-95.

[Thanks to Micheal O'Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Faces of the Raj

In his brilliant essay State, Power, and Colonialism, Douglas M. Peers states, “The Raj might in some of its military and economic ambitions be characterized as modern, but it was decidedly pre-modern and perhaps even anti-modern in many of its social, cultural, and political aspirations” (31).  What, we might ask, does Peers mean by this characterization of British ambitions in India? How can the Raj be described as both modern and pre-modern, or even modern and anti-modern?  Further, if we accept this claim, what led to the divergence in imperial ambitions? According to Peers, it is quite simple: “the imperatives of security and stability which stemmed from the anxieties and ambivalences of ruling such a complex and variegated land dictated the form and function of the state…” (16).  That is to say, the anxieties of empire produced a style of governance that favored military aspirations.  With military spending over fifty percent of government revenues in the early colonial period, it was only natural that economic ambitions became a top priority, as well.  These ambitions were modern because they worked together to develop a fiscal military state in British India.

Economic ambitions were, however, only a priority inasmuch as they financed the military state.  As Peers notes, the Raj prioritized “military needs in policy-making and financial transactions that created an increasingly efficient financial mechanism but at the cost of economic development” (31).  Likewise, the military needs of the colonial state hampered social and political improvements.  This was especially true after the Rebellion of 1857-8, when “the need for order took precedence over social and political reform” (24).  In this sense, the British Raj was a despotic regime.  We can say, then, that as a despotic regime, the British Raj was pre-modern; as “a liberal regime employing markedly illiberal means to perpetuate its rule,” the Raj was anti-modern (17).  Ultimately, according to Peers, the multiple characterizations of the Raj as modern and pre-modern or modern and anti-modern require us question the commonly held assumption that colonialism equates modernity.

Work Cited

Peers, Douglas M. “State, Power, and Colonialism.” In India and the British Empire, edited by Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu, 16-43. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[Thanks to Micheal O'Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]

Gandhianism and the Darker Nations[1]

This essay is concerned with understanding Gandhi’s influence in the darker nations, specifically how Gandhian nonviolence (Gandhianism) inspired Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. in leading their own struggles against oppression.  Using one piece of writing from both Mandela and King, I will try to understand how Gandhi’s ideas about nonviolent activism were interpreted and negotiated in the darker nations.  What made Gandhianism attractive to the darker nations? Was it even possible to practice Gandhianism in the darker nations? If so, how was it altered to fit the needs of the people? If alteration did occur, how much was by choice and how much because of political, social or cultural context?  For Mandela, the political reality of South Africa made it necessary to significantly challenge the basic assumptions of Gandhianism.  For King, the cultural reality of the southern US made it necessary to supplement Gandhianism with Christian concepts.  Ultimately, I will argue that even though they practiced Gandhianism in different ways, both Mandela and King adopted Gandhianism in their struggles for freedom and dignity.  As a result, I hope to also show how Gandhianism’s adaptability is what allowed it to become a universal weapon against oppression.

In the beginning of his essay “Black Gandhi,” Vijay Prashad writes, “Gandhi, in his lifetime, came to symbolize a new kind of politics, but his tactics had the weight of history behind them.  The elements that distinguished Gandhianism—marches, fasts, disobedience and strikes—had little novelty.”[2]  But if nonviolent activism was nothing new, what made the Gandhian brand of nonviolence so unique?  According to Prashad, “while most political movements used nonviolent tactics, Gandhi raised nonviolence to a moral ethic, to a strategy with a vision for recreating the world” (emphasis in original).[3]  Specifically, although “other political traditions shared the Gandhian adherence to strikes, fasts, and other nonviolent forms of protest,” they did so “without rejecting other tactics, such as sabotage, destruction of property, and militant confrontation with the police.”[4]  Thus, Prashad argues, “Gandhianism alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.  No violent means, according to the Gandhians, could possibly create a nonviolent society.  Violence, in this scheme of things, breeds violence.”[5]  In short, Gandhianism was the first political tradition to wholeheartedly reject violence in the practice of nonviolence.

Importantly, the success of Gandhian nonviolence as a mass political tactic was not only recognized by Indians and Britishers, but also by other colonized and oppressed peoples around the globe.  As the success of mass nonviolent resistance became plain, moreover, Gandhi became increasingly famous.  Corroborates Prashad, “in the 1920s and 1930s, as the Indian freedom struggle became synonymous with Gandhi, colonized and oppressed people in the darker nations took notice.  From Jamaica, African America, and southern Africa, among other places, came the query: Where is our Black Gandhi? Will our Black Gandhi come?” The darker nations, witnesses to the political magic of Gandhi, could not help but wonder whether they would get a mahatma of their own.  “Implicit is such queries,” Prashad notes quite rightly, “was a demand for a replication, across the globe, of the type of anti-imperialist mass movement that Gandhi is believed to have fashioned in India.”[6]  But was a replication possible? That is, was the replication of Gandhian mass nonviolence possible in the darker nations? Black radicals in particular asked themselves these questions. As Prashad points out, “the Black International engaged aspects of Gandhianism that centered on whether it was possible to entirely eschew violence when confronted with an extremely violent colonial or racist regime, such as those in southern Africa and the southern USA.  Could nonviolence, as a hard standard, succeed in bringing about popular mobilization when racist violence had shattered the confidence of a people? Would the oppressed not need a violent revolution to restore their sense of self?”[7]  One senses that the underlying concern the Black International had with Gandhianism was that it was not masculine enough, and therefore, could not produce the desired results of the violently oppressed.  In other words, they were under the assumption that, to gain their dignity back, they needed to answer violence with violence.  After all, violence was the language of the oppressor: it was the only language they spoke and the only language they understood.[8]  In spite of their concerns, however, and “despite occasional bouts of violence, the bulk of the population throughout most of the black world came to a simple conclusion: unless forced into guerrilla warfare by a ruthless adversary, it was far better to engage the last ounce of goodness in the enemy through moral nonviolent confrontation.”[9] Seeing nonviolence as a moral ethic is, in Prashad’s view, “the genius of Gandhianism that appealed to many in the Black International.”[10]

Nelson Mandela, in his 1999 Time Magazine essay “The Sacred Warrior,” shows quite clearly that Gandhi and “the genius of Gandhianism” inspired him in his struggle against oppression in South Africa.[11]  For example, towards the beginning of the essay, he writes, “[Gandhi] is the archetypal anticolonial revolutionary.  His strategy of noncooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anticolonial and antiracist movements internationally in our century.”[12]  Two things become clear from this passage. First, Mandela’s admiration for Gandhi is unabashed: Gandhi is the perfect example of an anti-colonialist.  Second, Mandela believes that the genius of Gandhianism inspired movements against oppression the world over.  He sharpens these ideas soon after when he claims, “the Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless.”[13]  In Mandela’s view, then, Gandhianism was more than just the inspiration for several anticolonial movements: it was also the dominant inspiration.  Moreover, Gandhianism was the dominant inspiration because it generated power and forged unity among the oppressed.  In fact, nonviolence was so appealing and successful that it “was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.”[14]  Gandhianism gave the moral upper hand to the oppressed, and Mandela—inspired by Gandhi—understood this better than most.

Still, as the Black International anticipated, Gandhianism could only do so much in the darker nations.  In the face of extreme violence, black South Africans had no choice but to resort to violence themselves.  Admits Mandela, “Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.  We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle.”[15]  Even after violence became necessary, however, Gandhian ideals were not simply thrown to the wayside.  In fact, Mandela reminds the reader that “Gandhi himself never ruled out violence absolutely and unreservedly.  He conceded the necessity of arms in certain situations. He said, ‘Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor…’”[16]  As Mandela sees it, rather than disavowing Gandhi by becoming violent against their aggressors, black South Africans heeded his advice.  That is, black South Africans resorted to violence only to defend their honor.  However, Mandela insists, “violence and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive; it is the predominance of the one or the other that labels a struggle.”[17]  To put it another way, as long as nonviolence as moral ethic predominates over violence in a struggle against oppression, the authenticity of Gandhianism is not compromised.  Part of the “genius of Gandhianism,” then, is that is adaptable to political contingency.

Like Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. found inspiration in Gandhi and Gandhianism.  In his capacity as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he espoused nonviolent resistance as the path to freedom for African America.  It is hard not to see the inspiration of Gandhi in King’s written work, but there are a number of pieces that explicitly mention Gandhi or Gandhian ideals in their connection to nonviolent activism in the southern US.  For instance, in the opening remarks of his essay “An Experiment in Love,” King proclaims,

From the beginning a basic principle guided the movement.  This guiding principle has since been referred to variously as nonviolent resistance, noncooperation, and passive resistance.  But in the first days of the protest none of these expressions was mentioned: the phrase most heard was ‘Christian love.’…

As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to assert its influence.  I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.[18]

In short, although nonviolent activism was practiced in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, it was not yet connected to Gandhi.  As time went on, however, Gandhianism began to “assert its influence” within the movement.  Without replacing the original motivation for nonviolent resistance—Christian love—Gandhianism provided African Americans with an essential tool in their fight against oppression.  As King concludes, “Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal.  In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method” (emphasis mine).[19]  The importance of what King is saying in that last sentence should not be overlooked: Christ is the motivation for the Civil Rights Movement, Gandhianism the method.  On one level, this idea demonstrates the deep impact that Gandhi had on King.  On another, possibly more important level, it demonstrates that, for King, Gandhianism can operate successfully in a deeply violent and racist environment.

However, not all African Americans were convinced that mass nonviolent resistance would bring about the change they desired.  One such person was W. E. B. Du Bois, who believed, as Prashad explains, that “the African American situation…was different from India’s.  Gandhi’s struggle thrived in a context where a tiny minority oppressed the vast majority, whereas in the US blacks comprised a small percentage of the population, and any call for nonviolent resistance ‘would be playing into the hands of our enemies.’”[20]  King may well have agreed with Du Bois that the African American situation was different from India’s, but he would have not agreed with Du Bois’ logic about violence—that is, if nonviolence benefits the oppressor, then violence benefits the oppressed.  In King’s estimation, “to meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love, we must meet physical force with soul free.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”[21]  As King sees it, violence cannot be the answer to violence because, in the end, it is detrimental to everyone.  Therefore, violence can only be met with nonviolence; that is the way to a better society.  Undoubtedly, this is the essence of Gandhianism.  Remember that, according to Prashad, Gandhianism differed from other forms of nonviolent activism because it “alone believed that the end of peace could only be attained through the means of peace.”[22]  If this statement is indeed true, then there is no denying Gandhi’s influence on King and the Civil Rights Movement, in general.

In an article written about his trip to India in 1959 (“My Trip to the Land of Gandhi”), King makes the following comment: “While I understand the reasons why oppressed people often turn to violence in their struggle for freedom, it is my firm belief that the crusade for independence and human dignity that is now reaching a climax in Africa will have a more positive effect on the world, if it is waged along the lines that were first demonstrated in that continent by Gandhi himself.”[23]  It is almost as if King, anticipating the bloody future in Africa, is pleading with Mandela to remain true to Gandhianism.  Unfortunately, that was not what happened.  Mandela and black South Africans practiced “pure” Gandhianism for as long they could.  There came a point, though, when the oppressed had no option but to resort to violence.  King and most African Americans, on the other hand, made nonviolent resistance the central tactic of the Civil Rights Movement.  Still, in order to accommodate African American culture in the southern US, Gandhianism linked with Christian Love.   In the end, despite the differences between Gandhianism as practiced in South Africa and the southern US, both of the darker nations in question adopted Gandhianism in their struggle against oppression.  Gandhianism, in its ability to adapt, functioned as a universal tool for achieving freedom and human dignity.

[1] I use the term “darker nations” as it is used in Vijay Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” Social Scientist 37 (January/February 2009): 3-20,  In that essay, the term is used to distinguish Gandhi (someone with “brown” skin) and peoples with darker skin color (people with “black” skin).  The distinction is important because in Prashad’s Darker Nations (2006), the term is used to describe the entire global south. The darker nations discussed in depth in this paper are African America and southern Africa.

[2] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 3.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] I was introduced to this metaphor in Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” where Mandela quotes a speech he gave in 1962: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence.”

[9] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As a more recent reflection from Mandela, I realize that this source is in some ways problematic.  Still, as an essay written by Mandela himself, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

[12] Nelson Mandela, “The Sacred Warrior,” accessed December 11, 2013,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Experiment in Love,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 16.  I was introduced to this essay and others in Prashad, “Black Gandhi.”

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 13.

[21] King, Jr. “An Experiment in Love,” 17.  These statements echo one made by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj: “We who seek justice will have to do justice to other.”

[22] Prashad, “Black Gandhi,” 4.

[23] Martin Luther King, Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 27.

Degeneration via Imperialism: George Orwell on Imperialism in British India

“Haven’t I told you something of the life we live here? The sort of horrible death-in-life! The decay, the loneliness, the self-pity?”[1]

During the nearly two centuries of British rule in India, many pieces of literature were written that dealt with a multitude of issues related to imperialism.  Though many are great literary works, such as E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India, few have authentically captured the experience of imperial rule like George Orwell’s Burmese Days.  Based on Orwell’s experience as an imperial officer in Burma, the novel follows the decline of an imperial officer who is at odds with the imperial ideology and system.  It is set in the 1930s in the waning years of the British Empire and addresses many issues pertaining to that phenomenon (power shifts, loyalties, frictions, etc.).  But the novel’s importance doesn’t rest on historical themes alone; Orwell was a political writer, and each one of his books or essays had an intended message.  Locating and understanding the message(s) of Burmese Days is the purpose of this brief paper.  Ultimately, this essay will argue that Burmese Days is a novel of guilt and moral responsibility that sees imperialism as a degenerative force because it progressively weakens the freedom of the colonizer and the colonized until both suffer tragically.[2]

From 1922-1927, Orwell was an imperial officer in Burma, which had been a province of British India since 1885.[3]  During those five years “he was responsible for the kicking, flogging, torturing and hanging of men.”[4]  Not surprisingly, this left Orwell with feelings of guilt and hatred for empire, which he saw as tyrannical by the end of his service as an officer.  After returning to Europe, he wrote, “The landscapes of Burma, which, when I was among them, so appalled me as to assume the qualities of a nightmare, afterwards stayed so hauntingly in my mind that I was obliged to write a novel about them to get rid of them.”[5]  Not only does one see the guilt Orwell feels for the things he did in Burma, but also the sense of responsibility to somehow reconcile his actions as a result.  Carried out through the semi-autobiographical character James Flory, these feelings are present in and form the basis of Burmese Days.

The Ethics of Imperialism

In order to understand how imperialism affects the characters in the novel, it is first necessary to understand how Orwell views and presents imperial culture. Although there are many good examples that reveal Orwell’s thoughts on imperialism, some of the most poignant come from the beginning of the novel.  For example, after Dr. Verswami (a native doctor and friend) questions Flory on why he called the British presence in Burma a lie, Flory responds by saying,

Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of robbing them.  I suppose it’s a natural lie enough.  But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine.  There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day.  It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives.  We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.[6]

This quote shows that Flory, unlike his fellow Anglo-Indians, acknowledges and feels guilt for the injustices carried out by the British in the name of empire.  More striking, however, is how he talks about the British presence in Burma as something that corrupts and torments the white officers.  According to Flory, it is the fact that the actions of the British Empire are covered up by civilizing rhetoric that corrupts the Anglo-Indians, and not necessarily the actions themselves.  Because they are corrupt, the officers are tormented into an endless justification of their actions.  When read this way, it can then be said that under the guise of the civilizing mission—the white man’s burden—Orwell views the Europeans as slaves to the imperial ideology.

More of Orwell’s thoughts about imperialism are revealed soon after, when Flory expresses his opinion on the real reason for the British presence in Burma.  He explains to the doctor that

the official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets.  Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn’t the Government behind it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English….[7]

Again, Flory talks about the façade of imperialism, only this time he talks about why exactly the British are lying through its civilizing rhetoric.  In Flory’s eyes, the British are in Burma for one purpose: to provide business interests with more avenues of trade.  In other words, the entire idea of empire is merely a tool that is used to justify and cover up the extraction of resources from the colonies by British businessmen.  In this sense, both the British imperial officers and the natives are simply tools of empire, neither one making truly independent decisions.  Because this system benefits no one in the colony itself, it is easy to see how and why the guilt of empire was difficult for Flory to handle.

Another example demonstrating Orwell’s presentation and judgement of imperialism in the novel comes from the end of an argument between Flory and Dr. Verswami.  After the doctor claims that the British have brought to Burma more than banks and prisons, Flory states, “‘Of course I don’t deny that we modernise this country in certain ways.  We can’t help doing so.  In fact, before we’ve finished we’ll have wrecked the whole Burmese national culture.  But we’re not civilising them, we’re only rubbing our dirt on them.”’[8]  On the one hand, Flory admits that the British presence in Burma has, indeed, modernised the country.  On the other hand, Flory does not see modernisation as a good thing because it is destroying the indigenous Burmese culture.  In his opinion, the British are bringing nothing more valuable to the Burmese than what already exists in their culture.  The British merely have the resources to impose rhetoric of civilization and superiority onto the indigenous population.  Again, Orwell raises questions of guilt and moral responsibility through his protagonist.  If what the British are imposing is not better than what the Burmese already have, how can one justify the actions of empire?  Further, if the British are conscious of that fact that what they are imposing is not better than what the Burmese already have, why are imperial officers imposing it?  From this, it can then be said that the imperial officer, in Orwell’s in interpretation, is not a free individual because he is not able to make logical or ethical decisions.

The Tragedy of Flory

Orwell’s judgement of imperialism as a degenerative force is best represented through James Flory, who is driven by his feelings of guilt and moral responsibility to a tragic end.  In this sense, Flory can be seen as a tragic hero; it is his strong ethical consciousness that is the cause of his deterioration and, ultimately, his death by suicide.  One way the deterioration takes place is through the relationship he has with Dr. Verswami.  As previously mentioned, Flory is unlike the other Europeans with regard to his views of empire and the guilt he feels as a result.  But the disparity is widened by the friendship between the two men because it is the cause of much discussion and conflict within the local European Club[9].  For example, when it is suggested that a spot in the Club should be given to a native resident of the city in which it resides, every member makes a negative comment on the matter except Flory.  This doesn’t go unnoticed, and once Flory leaves the discussion, Westfield (the District Superintendent of Police) says, “‘He’s a bit too Bolshie for my taste.  I can’t bear a fellow who pals up with the natives.  I should wonder if he’s got a lick of the tarbrush himself.’”[10]  Flory’s feelings become clear on the matter in the next scene when he speaks to the doctor about visiting his house.  He says,  “‘Such a glorious holiday from them … from my beloved fellow Empire-builders.  British prestige, the white man’s burden, the pukka sahib sans peur et sans reproche—you know.  Such a relief to be out of the stink of it for a little while.’”[11]  The fact that this scene takes place at the doctor’s house has the effect of making the views of Flory and the other European men very distinct.

Yet, even though Flory is known to be friendly with Verswami and other indigenous Burmese, he does not challenge or question the opinions of the Europeans when they insult the doctor or other natives.  Instead, Flory’s opinions remain hidden—at times, even from Verswami—because of the corruption of empire.  For instance, after the doctor questions Flory’s views on empire because he only expresses them in private, Flory responds by saying, “Sorry, doctor; I don’t go in for proclaiming from the housetops.  I haven’t the guts.  I ‘counsel ignoble ease’, like old Belial in Paradise Lost.  It’s safer.  You’ve got to be a pukka sahib or die, in this country.  In fifteen years, I’ve never talked honestly to anyone except you.  My talks here are a safety valve; a little Black Mass on the sly, if you understand me.”[12]  Although Flory disagrees with the racist views of the other members of the Club, he claims that he is kept from expressing them because of the nature of empire.  The tragedy of this is that his moral conscience becomes nothing but a burden because he cannot act on it.

However, what Flory tells the doctor is only part of the tragedy. The next part of it is revealed when the argument graduates to the possibility of Verswami being elected into the Club.  After the doctor explains how being elected to the Club would help him escape attacks from U Po Kyin, the narrator claims “[Flory] knew that in all probability, if he had the courage to face a few rows with Ellis, he could secure Dr. Verswami’s election to the Club.”[13]  This quote reveals that acting on moral responsibility is not completely out of Flory’s hands.  If he had the courage, not only could he challenge the other pukka sahibs’ views of the natives­­—and their views of empire—but he could also help his only friend to avoid scandal and hardship by electing him to the Club.[14]  In this sense, Flory is not forced to be silent solely by circumstances that are out of his control, but by a fear of being further distinguished apart from the rest of the Europeans.  This leaves him with a sense of guilt that remains with him and tortures him throughout the novel.  In short, it is the imperial ideology that keeps Flory crippled from acting on his morals, making his tragic flaw the ethics that also make him a hero.

Unfortunately, when Flory does decide to speak up for the doctor, it is too late to be of any help.  When the times comes for the election of a native to be made, U Po Kyin’s plan to ruin Verswami has already had detrimental effects on his reputation among the Europeans.  Furthermore, Flory’s decision is driven less by moral responsibility than it is by convenience.  For example, after realizing that the election was essentially in his power to decide, Flory stands up in order to nominate the doctor.  The narrator describes his thoughts in the following sentences:

But oh, what a bore, what a nuisance it was! What an infernal uproar there would be! How he wished he had never given the doctor that promise! No matter, he had given it, and he could not break it.  So short a time ago he would have broken it, en bon pukka sahib, how easily! But not now.  He had got to see this thing through.  He turned himself sidelong so that his birthmark was away from the others.  Already he could feel his voice going flat and guilty.[15]

At this point in the novel, Flory has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of the story.  His relationship with Elizabeth (a young European woman whom he has been courting) is almost surely over, which makes him self-pitying and desperate.  From this quote, it is clear that Flory nominates the doctor only because he sees that has nothing to lose.  The promise he made to the doctor is more of a burden to him now than anything else, but in his current situation, his relationship with the doctor is the only thing he has left.  Therefore, even though he feels guilty about breaking away from the other pukka sahibs, he chooses to speak up and nominate the doctor.  Unfortunately, Flory acts too late, for U Po Kyin’s plans to ruin the doctor and Flory have already been set into motion.  Herein lies the tragedy: it is only when Flory’s fate has been determined by circumstances of empire that he has enough courage to speak out against it.

Corrosive and Damaging Effects of Imperialism

Beyond the downfall of Flory, the idea of imperialism as a degenerative force is demonstrated through Orwell’s representation of empire as a parasite that, in the end, benefits neither the Europeans nor the Burmese.  In essence, this is what Orwell sees as corrosive and damaging at the heart of imperial culture.  For instance, during a comparison between the freedom of men in England and Burma, the narrator writes,

Everyone is freeing England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends.  But even friendship can hardly exist when every man is a cog in the wheels of despotism.  Free speech is unthinkable.  All other kinds of freedom are permitted.  You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.  Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.[16]

This quote clearly shows that even the Europeans in Burma do not benefit from empire.  In fact, participating in empire-building is more detrimental than anything else; for, in taking away the freedom of the Burmese, the British are giving up their freedom as well.  And in giving up freedom, the British are simultaneously giving up power.  Therefore, one reason Orwell sees imperial culture as corrosive and damaging is that it is detrimental even to the men who are given the task of carrying out the business of empire.

Another example of empire’s universally detrimental effects comes from a poignant scene in which Elizabeth sees Eurasians for the first time.  Both confused and appalled by what she sees, Elizabeth asks Flory questions regarding the condition of the Eurasians in Burma.  In response to a question about their options for work, Flory’s says, “The Europeans won’t touch them with a stick, and they’re cut off from entering the lower-grade Government services.  There’s nothing they can do except cadge, unless they chuck all pretension to being Europeans.  And really you can’t expect the poor devils to do that.  Their drop of white blood is the sole asset they’ve got.”[17]  Caught at the peripheries of both the British and the Burmese, the Eurasians are social outcasts.  They are the ultimate symbols of Empire because even though they possess assets of both groups, they benefit from neither.  The little prestige the Eurasians get from being half European is offset by the fact that they live as beggars.  In short, the Eurasians—whose very existence owes itself to empire—signify another group that is negatively affected by the realities of imperial culture.

The indigenous Burmese are the final group that Orwell claims do not benefit from Empire.  Of all the characters in the novel, none faces the consequences of empire more than Dr. Verswami does. For instance, when the narrator is describing the results of Flory’s death, he writes, “The first and most important of them was that Dr. Verswami was ruined, even as he had foreseen.  The glory of being a white man’s friend—the one thing that saved him before—had vanished.  Flory’s standing with the other Europeans had never been good, it is true; but he was after all a white man, and his friendship conferred a certain prestige.  Once he was dead, the doctor’s ruin was assured.”[18]  Due to the nature of imperial culture, Verswami’s status in the community was reliant on his friendship with Flory.  As Flory’s standing changed within the club, so did the doctor’s chance of being nominated to it.   Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the physical death of Flory also marks the symbolic death of Verswami.  If empire is detrimental to the empire-builders themselves, then can one not expect it to be detrimental to the natives as well? The case of Verswami is important because it is representative of the fact that, like all other groups under the influence of imperial culture, the indigenous Burmese cannot benefit from empire.

Of course, there is one exception that proves the imperial rule: U Po Kyin.  Of all the characters in the novel, British or native, U Po Kyin is the only one that benefits from imperial culture.  For instance, after his plan is realized and Flory commits suicide, U Po Kyin is elected to the Club.  He is even promoted and given a medal from the Indian Government soon after.  However, when looked at more closely, the case of U Po Kyin is less optimistic.  Undeniably, U Po Kyin does gain prestige and membership into the Club, but if his gains are merely imperial gains, then they are superficial at best.  In other words, because his gains only mean something within the realm of imperial culture, it cannot be said without question that U Po Kyin benefits from empire.

How imperialism is judged and portrayed in Burmese Days is hard to deny.  In the eyes of Orwell, imperialism is detrimental because it impairs the freedom of the British and indigenous Burmese alike, causing society—and the individuals within in it—to suffer.  The novel’s themes of guilt and moral responsibility that are embodied in Flory’s character are a direct result of Orwell’s own experiences as an imperial officer in Burma.  For this reason, it should not come as a surprise that Burmese Days reveals many truths about the imperial experience of British India in the 1930s.  In fact, Orwell’s intimate understanding and presentation of empire shows that even a novel can be a valuable tool to the historian of imperialism.

[1] James Flory in George Orwell, Burmese Days (Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1934), 277.

[2] The argument of this essay was influenced by a number of scholars, most notably Jeffrey Meyers, who argue that all of George Orwell’s works are themed around morality, responsibility, and commitment.  In making my argument, I hope to add to the scholarship of the past and present that closely analyzes the politics of Orwell.  For a brief introduction into this scholarship, see Jeffrey Meyers, A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975).

[3] Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007),

[4] Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell: Life and Art (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2010), 23.

[5] Quoted in Ibid.

[6] Orwell, Burmese Days, 39.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] In the book, the European Club is the ultimate symbol of empire and prestige.  The local club to which is Flory is a member is composed only of white men.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Ibid., 43.

[13] Ibid., 47.

[14] Pukka Sahib is a synonym for Anglo-Indian

[15] Ibid., 234-235.

[16] Ibid., 69.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] Ibid., 283.


Primary Sources

Orwell, George. Burmese Days.  Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1934.

Orwell, George. The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays, and Reportage. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company: 1956.

Secondary Sources

De Lange, Adriaan M. The Influence of Political Bias in Selected Essays of George Orwell. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

Larkin, Emma. Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Tea Shop. London: John Murray, 2004.

Levine, Philippa. The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2007.

Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. George Orwell: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Life and Art. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Meyers, Jeffrey. A Readers Guide to George Orwell. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Rai, Alok. George Orwell and the Politics of Despair: A crticial study of the writings of George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

University of California, Irvine. “Burmese Days Endnotes: Cultural, Historical, and Linguistic References in Burmese Days.” University of California. (accessed May 25, 2013).

Nineteenth-Century Orientalism(s)

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the British asserted with excessive pride that they had the largest European empire in the world.  Although this rhetoric was not a new phenomenon, it took on a new air and importance in a period when, as A. G. Hopkins notes, “expansion was converted into imperialism (and then into empire)”.[1]   Yet, despite the rapidly changing geopolitical and ideological climate, European descriptions of the non-European world and the language they employed to legitimate colonial rule resembled by and large those of their intellectual predecessors.  This essay is concerned with unraveling this incongruity.  Using the introduction and the last chapter of Alfred Lyall’s Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India (1894), I will attempt to show how, even though the Orientalist tropes used by Britishers to describe India and its people remained largely unchanged from the early-nineteenth century, late-nineteenth century Orientalism was unique.  In order to set up my analysis, I will first discuss Orientalism as defined by Edward Said in his seminal work of the same title.  Then, I will compare Lyall’s use of Oriental tropes to that of James Mill.  Last, I will explain the differences between late-nineteenth-century Orientalism and its early-nineteenth-century counterpart.

At its most basic level, “Orientalism is a style of thought based on an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’”[2]  In the eighteenth century, with expansion of European imperialism, Orientalism acquires an entire intellectual apparatus “for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views about it, describing it, by teaching it, selling it, ruling over it.”[3]  In other words, Orientalism becomes “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” under the aegis of colonialism.[4]  Thus, Said asserts that “the relationship between the Orient and the Occident is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of complex hegemony.”[5]

If, as Said claims, we are to “understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period,”[6] then Orientalism must be understood as a discourse used by Europeans to describe and interpret the Orient.  Furthermore, because “[Orientalism] is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world,”[7] it tells us more about the Occident than it does the Orient.  In other words, Orientalism is the Occident’s will to differentiate itself from the Orient.  Instead of revealing truths about the ‘real’ Orient (so much as a real Orient exists), it reveals how the Occident thinks about the Orient.

Now that I have briefly discussed Orientalism, I will move on to an analysis of Orientalist tropes.  In the introduction to his text, Lyall claims that the main reason Britishers find Indian history “tedious and confusing” is because of its “essential character.”  That is, “The history, like the annals of almost all Oriental States, is mainly concerned, up to very recent times, with military operations, which in India seldom rise above the level of desultory fighting, and with that class of politics that consists largely of revolts, conspiracies, dynastic contests, and the ordinary incidents of a struggle for existence among rival despots.”[8]  In this passage, Lyall gives us most of the Orientalist tropes that have been used to describe India for at least seventy-five years:[9] aimless Indians, conniving Indians, fanatic Indians, unchanging India and, of course, Oriental despotism.  Rather than just using these terms to describe India and Indians, however, Lyall uses them to describe an “essential character.”  This idea about the Indian character mirrors James Mill’s conjecture that “In dangerous and disorderly times, when every thing which the nation values depends upon the sword, the military commander exercises unlimited authority by universal consent; and so frequently is this the situation of a rude and uncivilized people, surrounded on all sides by rapacious and turbulent neighbours, that it becomes, in a great measure, the habitual order of things.”[10]  Regardless of the seventy-year difference, Lyall’s passage and Mill’s passage are almost identical.  Both men believe India is prone to Oriental despotism because of the chaotic nature of Indian society.  In other words, Oriental despotism is an essential characteristic of Indian history because chaos is an essential characteristic of Indian society.  In their eyes, by bringing law and order, the British alone can civilize Indians.

Likewise, both Lyall and Mill subscribe to the idea that India is unchanging.  For example, immediately following his description of the essential character of Indian history, Lyall asserts that Indian “civilization is uniform and stationary…”[11]  Compare this to James Mill’s comment’s on how closely Indians from the time of Alexander the Great resemble Indians in the time of the British: “From this resemblance, from the state of improvement in which the Indians remain, and from the stationary condition in which their institutions first, and then their manners and character, have a tendency to fix them, it is no unreasonable supposition, that they have presented a very uniform appearance during the long interval from the visit of the Greeks to that of the English” (emphasis added).[12]  The ideas Lyall and Mill have about unchanging India are rather identical.  Both men see Indian civilization as uniform and stationary and, by extension, outside of history.  But we need not worry, advises Lyall, because “although civilization has hitherto gone forward very slowly in Asia, the spread of European power is now clearing the ground for rapid movement upon a very extensive line of advance.”[13]  I do not think it is too much to suggest that Mill would enthusiastically agree with this statement.

Finally, I want to address a possible difference between early-nineteenth-century Orientalism and late-nineteenth-century Orientalism.  As we have seen, the general assumptions of early-nineteenth-century Orientalism are indeed discernible in late-nineteenth-century Orientalism.  Still, the ‘new imperialism’ introduced a new Orientalist rhetoric that was a byproduct of changes in Britain, Europe, and the world at large.  Writes A. G. Hopkins, “the new imperialism…was bound up with decisive changes in technology, with the enlargement of the political arena, with the spread of literacy, with the burgeoning ideology of dominance, and, in the case of Britain, associated growth of the tertiary sector of the economy.  These features help account for British ‘exceptionalism’ and for the extraordinary extent to which its domestic history was bound up with its empire.”[14]  In other words, the British empire of the late-nineteenth century made British Orientalism inseparable from British exceptionalism.  Thus, although Lyall makes traditional Orientalist statements about India, such as, “the exceedingly slow advance of new ideas and social changes among the Oriental races proves the strength of resistance possessed by barbarism entrenched behind the unchanging conditions of Asiatic existence,” he balances them out with the exceptionalist rhetoric of the new imperialism: “That one of the foremost nations of Western Europe—foremost as harbinger of light and liberty—should have established a vast empire in Asia, is an accomplished fact that which must necessarily give an enormous impulse and a totally new direction to the civilization of that continent.”[15] Even if Mill and other early-nineteenth-century authors wrote about (either explicitly or implicitly) British exceptionalism, it could not have meant the same thing as it did in the late-nineteenth century.  Lyall was writing at a time of ethnic nationalism, imperial competition (on a scale never before seen and never again matched), and an ever-expanding public sphere.  Of course, this is not to argue that late-nineteenth-century Orientalism was completely different from early-nineteenth-century Orientalism, but rather to suggest that the Orientalism of the ‘new imperialism’ was the culmination of post-Enlightenment Orientalism.

Given the nature of colonialist rhetoric, it might seem ironic that Lyall used the same Orientalist tropes Mill did seventy-seven years earlier.  Given the reality of colonialism, however, it should not surprise us at all.  As this essay has tried to argue, Orientalism remained essentially the same throughout the nineteenth century.  What changed by the end of the century was Europe’s vision of itself, and thus, its expression of the Orientalist discourse.

[1] A. G. Hopkins, “Overseas expansion, imperialism, and empire, 1815-1914,” in The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914, ed. T. C. W. Blanning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 233.

[2] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 2.  Said gives three definitions of Orientalism in his book.  I begin my discussion with the second.  Refer to page 2 of Orientalism for the first definition.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 12

[8] Alfred Lyall, The Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in Asia (London: John Murray, 1894), 2.

[9] James Mill’s History of British India was first published in 1817.

[10] James Mill, The History of British India in 6 vols., 3rd ed., vol. 1 (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), book 2, chap. 3, accessed November 20, 2013,

[11] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 2.

[12] James Mill, The History of British India in 6 vols., book 2, chap. 2.

[13] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 346.

[14] A. G. Hopkins, “Overseas expansion,” 238.

[15] Lyall, British Dominion in Asia, 345.

Colleagues in Apposition

There is a curious situation in the UCLA history department.  Vinay Lal and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, two scholars who write extensively on Indian historiography, rarely mention each other in their written work.  This would almost make sense if the two men had strikingly similar views on Indian historiography and history as a discipline.  However, since their views on the topics are polar opposites, it seems strange that neither Lal nor Subrahmanyam engages in a critical dialogue with the other’s writing.  For a student of Indian history, especially one who attends UCLA, this can also be disappointing. What is one to do if one wants to know how the two scholars would critique the other’s philosophy?

Thankfully, because of how clearly different their opinions are, we need not imagine what an exchange between Lal and Subrahmanyam would look like.  They basically engage in conversation with, or rather direct their arguments toward each other every time they write about Indian historiography.  Using Chapter One of Lal’s History of History (2003), “The History of Ahistoricity,” and Subrahmanyam’s Historically Speaking essay “Europe and the People without Historiography; or, Reflections on a Self-Inflicted Wound” (2004), this brief essay juxtaposes the two historian’s ideologies of history.  Because of the limited space available, the essay is by no means comprehensive.  It is merely a first attempt (at least to my knowledge) to place the views of the two respected UCLA historians in apposition.

Before getting into the main texts, though, we need to address an important issue.  The key to understanding the differences between Lal and Subrahmanyam is Ashis Nandy, and more specifically how both scholars feel about Nandy and his ideas. Whereas Lal is greatly influenced by Nandy’s views of history and culture, Subrahmanyam is deeply contemptuous of them.  For example, in the Preface to The History of History, Lal writes of Nandy, “Some of his writings have been critical in helping shape my thoughts on the enterprise of history in India, and those familiar with his writing will at once recognize the intellectual debt I owe to him” (xi).  Subrahmanyam, on the other hand, in the Outlook India opinion piece “Our Only Colonial Thinker,” writes that Nandy, “…is as dazzlingly clever as he is tiresomely repetitive and profoundly ill-informed.  And he is as innocent about the facts of India and her past as he is about Europe and hers.”[1]  The respective sentiments of Lal and Subrahmanyam toward Nandy remain consistent throughout their work.  Thus, if we conclude that Lal is pro-Nandy and that Subrahmanyam is anti-Nandy, is it too much to suggest that Lal is anti-Subrahmanyam and that Subrahmanyam is anti-Lal? I think not.  But let us move to the central texts of this essay for a clearer picture.

In “Europe and the People without Historiography,” Subrahmanyam enumerates four constructs of postcolonial studies that he disagrees with.[2]  For this paper, I will restrict my discussion to constructs one and three.  The first postcolonial construct that Subrahmanyam disagrees with is “The celebration of myth, and the characterization of history and historical consciousness as a negative attribute of modernity, one that is moreover probably responsible for many of the ills that beset contemporary societies the world over.”[3]  From this, we can be quite certain that Subrahmanyam would disagree with Lal when he writes, “the abandonment of history may well be the only heresy that remains to us, for that defiance is nothing other than the defiance of the categories of knowledge which have become the most effective and insidious means of oppressing humankind today” (67).  In short, whereas Lal holds history “responsible for many of the ills that best contemporary societies,” Subrahmanyam does not.

The third postcolonial studies construct Subrahmanyam disagrees with is closely related to the first:

The eager acceptance of an exotic characterization of the non-West.  Here, the desire to have the moral upper hand prompts many scholars—in the wake of such radical anti-modernists as Ashis Nandy—to invent the non-West in the mirror image of Europe.  Thus, it is claimed that non-European societies and cultures intrinsically incarnate the opposite of all aspects of European modernity.  If Europe is possessive, India must be selfless.  If Europe believes in growth, India must believe in stasis.  And so on.[4]

Lal’s argument in Chapter One of The History of History would fit in perfectly at the end of this construct: if Europe insists on the value of an historical consciousness, India must insist on the value of living in the present.  As Lal asks of Hindu India, “Is not the rejection of history as a way of knowing to be grounded in the existence of a different epistemology, indeed a different history, rather than in the quest for power, the reality of politics, and the perpetuation of deceit? Cannot the not-writing of history be a way of writing history, or perhaps more simply be a mode of living in the present…?” (40-41).  That is to say, the Hindu rejection of history is the (moral) mirror image of the European attachment to a history of power, politics, and deceit.  Therefore, it is safe to say that Lal’s “eager acceptance of an exotic characterization of the non-West” naturally places him at odds with Subrahmanyam.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to show that Vinay Lal and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have different, or rather opposing views about Indian historiography.  It was by no means comprehensive.  The analysis was not meant to provide a verdict on accuracy or preference, but to juxtapose the two author’s ideas about historiography.  In doing so, I hope that I opened the door for future discussions on the views of both intellectuals.

[1] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Our Only Colonial Thinker,” Outlook India, July 5, 2004, accessed November 4, 2013,  The quote refers to Nandy’s essay “A Billion Gandhis.”

[2] As this paper suggests, Subrahmanyam would define Lal as a postcolonial scholar (as he does Nandy).

[3] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Europe and the People without Historiography; or, Reflections on a Self-Inflicted Wound,” Historically Speaking 5 (March 2004): 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

Creating the Feeble-Bodied Indian

In the introduction to Orientalism, Edward Said writes, “The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average Nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (5-6).  This brief post attempts to show how Robert Orme’s “Effeminacy of the Inhabitants of Indostan” is a good example of India being made Oriental.  Specifically, it argues that India is made oriental by Orme’s commentary on the effeminacy of the Indian body.  In doing so, it also reaffirms Said’s claim that “The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony…” (5).

Orme starts his discussion of the Indian body by comparing it with the European body.  He claims, “very few of the inhabitants of Indostan are endowed with the nervous strength, or athletic size, of the robust nations of Europe” (299).  Before describing what the Indian body is, Orme describes what it is not.  The Indian body is not like the European body.  Whatever it is, it is not strong, athletic or robust.  According to Orme, then, the Indian body is different from and inferior to the European body.  Thus, the first comment establishes a relationship of power between Orient and Occident.

Next, Orme discusses how the effeminacy of the Indian body is “surprising,” and again compares it to the European body in generic terms.  Almost immediately after his previous comparison, he states, “… we see throughout India a race of men, whose make, physiognomy, and muscular strength, convey ideas of an effeminacy which surprises when pursued through such numbers of the species, and when compared to the form of the European who is making the observation” (299).  Because the Indian body is weak and effeminate in Orme’s eyes, it is surprising to him that the Indians are doing numerically well as a “species.”  What is more surprising to Orme, though, is that such a large population of effeminate Indians exists alongside masculine Europeans.  That this surprises him is a testament to how differently he views the two populations.  In continuing to distinguish the Indian body from its European counterpart through the dichotomies of weak-strong and effeminate-masculine, Orme reinforces the power relationship between the Orient and Occident.

In case his audience is not yet convinced of the complete effeminacy of the Indian body, Orme takes the comparison between the Indian and the European one step farther.  First, to be certain that his audience knows just how effeminate the Indian body is, Orme insists, “The muscular strength of the Indian is still less than might be expected from the appearance of the texture of his frame.  Two Englishmen sawyers have performed in one day the work of thirty-two Indians…” (299). In other words, one European body is as strong as sixteen Indian bodies.  Many Europeans probably read: one European is sixteen times more productive than one Indian.  The importance of the numerical comparison should not be overlooked. Not only does it allow Orme to support his claim about difference in strength and productivity between the Indian and the European, but it also allows him to use science to establish a theoretical relationship of power between the two groups.  Immediately after the numerical comparison, Orme writes, “allowances made for the difference of dexterity, and the advantage of European instruments, the disparity is still very great: and would have been more, had the Indian been obliged to have worked with the instruments of the European, as he would scarcely have been able to have wielded it” (299).  According to Orme, European instruments give the Europeans a productivity advantage over the Indians. Giving the Indians European instruments, however, would not close the gap between Indian and European.  Because Indians lack a natural dexterity, they would probably not be able to use the instruments.  Thus, as Orme sees it, Indians are naturally inferior to Europeans.  Combined with numerical comparison of strength and productivity, these two passages place Europeans in a position of power of the Indians.

Of course, there is an exception to Orme’s rule of Indian effeminacy.  As he explains, “Exceptions to this general defect of nervous strength, are found in the inhabitants of mountains which run in ranges of various different directions throughout the continent of Indostan.  In these, even under the tropic, Europeans have met with a savage…” (300).  Although the people of the mountains are an exception to the rule, they are discarded as irrelevant because Orme views them as savages.  That is to say, Indian masculinity is an uncivilized masculinity, and therefore, something that needs to be contained.  Even through the exception, Orme creates a relationship of power using the dichotomy of civilized-uncivilized masculinity.

Ultimately, this essay has tried to show that Robert Orme Orientalizes Indians in “Effeminacy of the Inhabitants of Indostan” by effeminizing the Indian body.  He achieves this largely by comparing Indians to Europeans and creating dichotomies such as weak-strong and Orient-Occident.  As a consequence, Orme establishes a firm relationship of power between Indians and the Europeans that promotes European superiority and domination.

Works Cited

Orme, Robert. “Effeminacy of the Inhabitants of Indostan” [1782].  In Historical Fragments of the Mogul Empire, 295-306. Reprint, Delhi, 1974.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Viking, 1978.