Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent

This is the second in this weekend’s pair of posts on L’affaire TWQ. The author is Swati Parashar from the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who has Disordered previously. An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Indian Express on 30 September 2017.


It is arguable that we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, with little respect for scholarly debates and academic endeavours. Despite the odds, several academics have been at the forefront of resistance against undemocratic forces; from participating in the widely attended public lectures on ‘nationalism’ at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in support of students charged with sedition, protesting against Trump’s policies in the US, to raising voices against state oppression in Turkey. Many academics in the critical tradition visualise an equitable world and contribute to insightful research and progressive activism. Hence, when a leading academic journal, intuitively named the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), founded to encourage anti colonial critiques and voices from the Global South, turns around to advocate for a return to colonialism and its benefits, it requires a serious public debate. It is time to hold the mirror to ourselves and reflect on our own academic practices.

TWQ was established in the 1970s, an era when being referred to as ‘Third World’ was a badge of defiance or honour rather than a slur. The term is now back in circulation within critical/postcolonial scholarship and has an analytical and political purchase. The journal averred to promote “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice”. The main financial patron of this academic venture was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which gained notoriety in 1990s with allegations of money laundering and other financial irregularities. However, the journal recovered from this scandalous association and went on to become one of the premier academic avenues for critical development discourse and postcolonial and decolonial perspectives on global politics. Academics, especially from the Global South, take pride in publishing in this journal.

The most recent issue of the journal carried an article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of Political Science in the US, titled “The case for colonialism”, which not only glorifies the earlier colonial rule but also advocates for the recolonization of certain ex-colonies. The publication of this article led to widespread furore in the global academic community, with angry petitions demanding the retraction of the published article. The statement by the editor-in-chief that the article was a ‘Viewpoint’ published to generate debate and had undergone double blind peer review, was endorsed later by the Taylor and Francis Group. It has now come to light that the editor-in-chief chose to publish the piece with major revisions, after 2 reviewers’ recommendations varied from rejection to minor revisions. As a protest against the publication,15 of the 34-member editorial board have resigned, stating in their letter that they had not been consulted about the publication of this article, and that even after requests, the reviews were not made available to them.

The article itself makes a very poor case for colonialism, lacking in academic rigor and empirical evidence, and is based on several historical inaccuracies, assumptions and misrepresentation of facts. A number of responses have already addressed the lack of scholarly content of this article and refuted the arguments with substance, nuance and evidence. This includes the most insightful piece by Naeem Inayatullah here on the Disorder of Things. I am interested in questions beyond the content of the article itself or its scholarly merit; questions about academic practices and what we may have missed, the very nature of our outrage and its long-term utility.

Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that not everyone in the editorial team feels similar to the group that resigned and the editor-in-chief of the journal is not the only one supporting the author. High profile editorial board member, Noam Chomsky favors a rebuttal and calls for the accountability of the editor in ensuring proper procedures. He has rejected calls for retraction saying it would open “dangerous doors”. He also cautions against the destruction of the journal, known to publish cutting edge research and voices from the Global South.

Faced with growing outrage for what is being seen as his “white supremacist, racist, fascist” views, Bruce Gilley, said on his website: “I have asked the Third World Quarterly to withdraw my article “The case for colonialism.” I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people. I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.” Taylor and Francis have offered a detailed explanation of why the article cannot be retracted despite the angry petitions and the author’s own request as well. In some social media discussions, it has been suggested that the author’s PhD should also be revoked by Princeton University, his alma mater. In times of instant outrage, none of this is surprising. However, this issue requires deeper introspection than the predictable outrage against one published article or one author in particular.

The oft repeated mantra “publish or perish” requires academics to not only undertake cutting-edge or paradigm shifting research but also to disseminate the findings through reputable channels to their peers and wider audiences. Writing in peer reviewed journals with significant impact factors is the key criterion to measure employability, efficiency, expertise and even eminence. Publishing, in these competitive times is not always an exercise of academic integrity, intellectual engagement and passion; it can easily become a ‘strategy’ to thrive in the brutal world of academia, to count citations and impact. Further, the academic world has gradually created very rigid, niche knowledge-based models where the expertise and reputation is built not only by getting published in reputed academic journals but also by holding a position with the advisory, governing or editorial boards of these journals. In most cases, academic journals end up facilitating the production of knowledge from a narrow band of authorship and then dissemination of that knowledge to another narrow band of readership.

For Gilley, the publication of an article on the defence of colonialism in TWQ was a perfect career move to generate publicity and draw attention to himself as the academic provocateur. The editor-in-chief acted on his own discretion to publish the piece without any discussions with his editorial board. This may not be an uncommon practice; shoddy editorial rigor is not just limited to TWQ. However, this raises some uncomfortable questions about the editorial board as well. Is the editorial board’s grand standing post facto? Could they have been more involved in the process or been more hands on with the journal? Should editorial board members be expected to know about the ownership, financial management and editorial policies of journals? It is not uncommon to serve on the advisory/editorial boards of multiple journals but is one able to do justice to these roles and participate proactively in the editorial decisions of journals? This is not the first time that an entire editorial board was clueless about a publication, till they saw it in print!

While the resignation of board members and public debate and criticism on this matter have put pressure on Taylor and Francis and the TWQ editor-in-chief to decentralize the publication process and examine the editorial decision-making, for the wider academic community, this provides an opportunity to discuss academic freedom (how much and where) as opposed to mere freedom of expression, and academic integrity (whose). An academic journal claiming to represent the ‘third world’ has only two scholars in its entire 34-member editorial board, actually based in the third world. The rest may claim third world origins but are all located in Western academic institutions, mainly the US and UK. How do we diversify publication spaces and make them genuinely inclusive? If the journal’s claims of reviews are correct, this also draws attention to the reviewers of the article, one of whom only suggested minor revisions. Reviewing is always about free labor without any tangible benefits to the reviewer. We all accept review requests to support one another and contribute towards academic endeavors. Is there need to think about strategies to review such problematic pieces, without being dismissive of any academic provocation and yet demanding good research and evidence? Did this article merit only ‘minor’ revisions?

In the political and moral economies of intellectual work, must knowledge from a good in the economic sense also reflect the good in the moral sense? Can a case for colonialism be made without reducing it to poor scholarship and opportunistic careerism as demonstrated by Gilley? Should the cost benefit or violence of colonialism be debatable anymore? Should a journal like TWQ, with its own intellectual commitments, be the space to publish, perhaps a more rigorously argued case for colonialism? It can be challenging to uphold academic integrity and intellectual conscience while also providing an intellectual space for a diversity of opinions and worldviews. Can these difficult conversations which may also seem offensive to many, be held within norms of academic civility? With censorship abundant in the world today, books and articles burnt by frenzied mobs and authors bullied and harassed, how does one make a case for retraction or for non-publication based on mere political leanings than rigor and research evidence?

Academic intolerance towards those with different views is not very different from general levels of intolerance in the world; it is also gendered. Bruce Gilley was at the receiving end of insults and anger, but much of the criticism was rightly directed towards the journal’s editorial process. On the other hand, more toxic and personalized treatment is meted out to women academics who ‘cross the line’. A case that garnered much attention recently was the publication of “In Defense of Transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel in Hypatia, A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. The journal editors issued a statement apologizing for the publication and announcing an evaluation of their review policies and practices. The author was defamed, threatened and relentlessly abused. Online feminist publication, the Feminist Wire gave into calls for censorship by eminent academics and retracted an article on the Burqa debate in 2012. The author claimed that the publishers had no objection to her piece but they retracted it after coming under fire from academics themselves. She was also subjected to online abuse and slander, which I personally witnessed and commented upon. Academic freedom cannot be upheld by bullying and calls for censorship or by adopting inflexible moral high ground.

Gilley is neither the first nor the last academic to offer a cost benefit analysis of colonialism and praise its virtues. British historian, Niall Ferguson, for example, has been putting up a spirited defense of colonialism for several years now. Colleagues in social media spaces have pointed out controversial views on colonialism and imperialism published elsewhere (also see Inayatullah’s post here). In these times of aggressive and insular nationalisms that have afflicted both the Global North and the South, the rewriting of the past is the most popular and provocative academic enterprise.

Hamid Dabashi wrote a scathing piece in Al Jazeera about the limits of liberal tolerance and how “certain historical calamities are no longer subjects for “scholarly” debate and differences of opinion.” However, all ‘monuments of moral shame’, as he calls them, have been studied for decades and frameworks of moral shame have emerged out of rigorous debates often with deniers and detractors. We have, throughout history, struggled with selective deployment of moral outrage and recognition of only some events as ‘historical calamities’, while others conveniently slip past our elusive academic framings and discourses. No academic enterprise can only be about preaching to the converted, talking with and amongst our own. We need to have uncomfortable conversations; how and on what terms are the real issues here.

Academics are the first to reject any notion of curtailing freedom of expression because people or communities get offended. When one of our own offends us, there has to be a better response than war cries for censorship. This TWQ controversy, in fact, should alert us to the diminishing standards of academic rigor in the so called best journals, and to the undermining of academic integrity and freedom in which we may all be complicit in different ways. It should also prepare us for what lies ahead; an intellectual war of ideas to counter pernicious theories and so called informed and peer reviewed ‘viewpoints’ that justify global injustices and violence on certain peoples and nations. Trump, Brexit and the rise of ultra-right regimes in Europe have not emerged in isolation. There is a deeper yearning to legitimise the ‘civilizing mission’ and to account for the unaccomplished tasks of colonialism and imperialism.

Last week, Boris Johnson, was caught reciting the opening verse of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Road to Mandalay’, while on his official visit to Myanmar, inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred of Buddhist shrines in Yangon. Definitely not the last time we will hear, “The temple bells they say/ Come you back, you English soldier.” As usual, Ashis Nandy has the appropriate response to the angst of these times, “Dissent probably survives better when its targets are optimally powerful, when they are neither too monolithic or steamrolling nor too weak to be convincing as a malevolent authority.”[1]

Dissent it has to be, neither silence, nor censorship.


[1] Ashis Nandy (1995) “History’s Forgotten Doubles”, History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, Theme Issue 34: World Historians and Their Critics, pp. 44-66

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One thought on “Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent

  1. Pingback: Columbus Owed it All to the Muslims | National Vanguard

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