Is Decolonization “Genocide”? Let’s See.

Priyamvada Gopal
8 min readNov 22, 2023

The verdict is in. ‘Decolonization’, tech boss Elon Musk has pronounced, will be a verboten term on the X app, formerly known as Twitter, along with the old liberationist slogan ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.’ Both, he declares, ‘necessarily imply genocide’ and constitute hate speech, the sort of thing that he fondly wishes us to believe, are not part of that platform. Oddly an aversion to hate speech doesn’t preclude Musk enthusiastically endorsing white supremacists and antisemitic commenters on his platform, or letting them back on after they have been suspended for the vilest forms of bigotry.

Musk has yet to be added to the annals of the many greats who have reflected on and debated decolonization over the twentieth century alone, but his words of apparent wisdom will have been seen by many more millions. Some of them, without any prior knowledge of the concept, will roll with the (frankly bonkers) assertion that decolonization is hate speech and tantamount to ‘genocide’. Given that there is, after all, a vast amount of activism, scholarship, and writing on the topic, perhaps a little engagement with the life and times of that rich and much-debated concept would be no bad thing — if information, understanding and accuracy are important to you.

In fairness, Musk cannot be accused of pioneering the tactic which presents ‘decolonization’ as a species of genocidal thinking. A vituperative and spectacularly ill-informed screed by a popular historian in a well-known American magazine shrieks much the same. Its attack on decolonization is aimed at historically reasonable descriptions of Israel’s 75-year old project of expropriating and populating lands in Palestine as settler-colonialism. Banning the word ‘decolonization’ will not change the realities of a textbook settler colonialism facilitated in the first instance by the British Empire and now underwritten by the settler-colony that is the United States of America. Even as I write this, armed settlers in the West Bank are pushing Palestinians off their own heritage lands and taking possession of them. That’s simple colonization deriving from the Latin ‘colere’ (to cultivate) and ‘colonus’ (tiller, farmer).

AGE-OLD TACTIC

Taking a concept and turning it into its opposite is an old establishment strategy to discredit challenges to injustice. This crude tactic has been wielded against all emancipatory movements. Recall, for instance, the predictable claim that Black Lives Matter, an anti-racist movement was, in fact, racism directed at white people. The women’s movement and feminism’s challenging of misogyny has long been attacked as ‘man-hating’ and ‘misandry’. By the same logic, ‘decolonization’ is tarred with the brush of its opposite, colonization, the execution of which has frequently entailed genocidal killings and mass dispossession.

Colonization is defined by land dispossession, race hierarchies, the exploitation of labour (most severely through enslavement), gargantuan extraction of natural resources (with resultant ecological damage), and the transfer of the resultant profits from colonies to Europe. Ethnic cleansing, genocide and massacres frequently accompanied these processes —particularly in the Americas, the Caribbean, Australia, Tasmania, east and southern Africa. From 1492 onward there unfolded an epic saga of European expansion and encounter remarkable not least for its frequent and brutal violence. It was also extraordinary in scale, eventually impacting hundreds of millions of lives and the near entirety of the globe. No other shared project of expansion comes close to this. For even as they nestled alongside and frequently collaborated with older systems of rule and oppression that preceded them, the European overseas empires that emerged after the conquest of the Americas — in particular the Spanish, French, British, Dutch, and Portuguese empires — shaped the near entirety of the world-system we live in today to a far greater extent than any other empires did. The ‘colonizer’s model of the world’ that they entrenched between them remains very substantially the world as we know and inhabit it in the twenty-first century. Decolonization is, among other things, a challenge to that model.

Historically, it is colonization rather than decolonization, particular settler-colonisation in the Americas, New Zealand, the Caribbean and Australia which has involved genocide and ethnic cleansing against Indigenous populations . Multiple studies have estimated the loss of Indigenous population density in North America alone to run into the millions, reducing it to a few hundred thousand over the nineteenth century: the most cited statistic argues that by the end of the nineteenth century, fewer than 238,000 Indigenous people remained of the estimated 5 to 15 million living there before contact with Europeans. There is a useful compilation here of colonial genocides by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Project.

UNDOING THE DAMAGE OF COLONIZATION

At its most basic, the term decolonization emerged in the context of the French invasion of Algeria in the nineteenth century to refer to the withdrawal of troops. It was then picked up by the Mauritz Julius Bonn, a German Jewish scholar working in England in the 1930s, having fled the Nazis. Bonn, a centrist rather than a radical, used it as a loose translation of the German word ‘gegenkolonisation’ or ‘counter-colonization’. Bonn had lived in and drew on his experiences in Ireland, South Africa under apartheid and German colonies in south-west Africa; in a world which was becoming increasingly democratic and egalitarian in his mind, decolonisation as inevitable. It was, in the most basic sense, a process which ran counter to colonisation and imperialism which he saw as predatory and seeking ‘ruling space.’*

By the middle of the twentieth century and in the lead up to the famous ‘Bandung’ Conference of African and Asian leaders, decolonization came to be understood in common parlance as the process by which African, Caribbean and Asian nations gained independence from colonial rulers. In a prior century, most nations in Latin America had already undergone such a process with figures like the legendary Simon Bolivar at the helm.

Is decolonization inevitably a form of reverse genocide? The historical record shows that the end of colonization was achieved by a variety of means in different places but there is no context in which genocide was inflicted upon ruling peoples or racial groups. Anticolonial methods certainly involved both violence and non-violence, from uprisings and riots to guerilla struggles, armed warfare (the Algerian War of Independence being a particularly bloodied example), destruction of property, strikes, mutinies, boycotts, civil disobedience, non-cooperation, and political negotiations. In no case was there a planned physical extermination of entire communities or races, though there was certainly a push to recover land, property, wealth, and political institutions. While there were also killings of non-combatants and political assassinations in anticolonial struggles — usually preceded or followed by far more ferocious and extensive colonial violence — there was no genocide in the sense of a planned and systematic extermination of members of a ruling community, race or ethnicity. In Raphael Lemkin’s influential definition, genocide is ‘the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves’. No decolonization has involved such destruction upon the colonizers although tragically, as in the case of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, the colonized visited such violence upon each other.

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

The most important aspect of decolonization, however, is not the fact of colonial withdrawal followed by local rule. It is that decolonization was and is seen by millions as a historical opportunity to remake their lives, societies, nations, and the world itself for the better. Decolonization comes into its own really as a vision of what comes after colonialism ends and the chain of destruction, damage, and violence is broken. Indeed, for iconic thinkers and anticolonial figures like Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon, decolonization provided an opportunity for all human beings to reinvent themselves, to imagine the world anew, without exploitation, domination, and violence.

Decolonization is, therefore, the very opposite of genocide: it is a vision of human flourishing and connection, of different ways of relating to each other beyond binaries, exploitation and domination. At its most expansive, it imagines sharing resources, not inflicting damage upon the environment, and finding connections between knowledge traditions and cultures.

Where ecology and climate are concerned, decolonization pushes against the genocidal implications of climate change, which has already killed and displaced so many, and invites us to develop more life-protecting relationships to both humans and non-humans. It is no accident that Indigenous struggles today seek to protect water, earth and air which all living beings need to survive. Decolonization also calls for land justice — for lands taken unfairly to be returned to communities that once had use of them, and for those without land, to be able to live and work on their share to be able to house and feed themselves. ‘Jal Jangal Jameen’ (Water, Forest, Land) is an Adivasi or Indigenous slogan in India used in campaigns to protect these and Adivasi livelihoods from mining corporations or other forms of extraction. It is also a reminder that decolonization needs to take place within postcolonial nation-states as well.

Another plank of decolonization that is the very opposite of genocidal is racial equality. It is in the name of racial difference and race superiority that genocides have been committed over the course of conquest and colonialism. It is the basis on which people were enslaved (of whom millions died in transportation) and cleansed from their traditional lands. Then, as now, dehumanising racial ‘others’ provides justification for killing them in staggering numbers and relegating survivors to reservations, refugee camps, or ‘bantustans’. Decolonization aspires to end such racial distinctions and the ensuing harm. Racial equality is life-giving not an ideology of extermination; it seeks to abolish race itself, not individual races. It is not accident that those who denounce decolonization typically have an investment in maintaining racial hierarchies.

Decolonization, for many activists and thinkers, challenges the economic order whereby wealth is concentrated in the hands of relatively few as the vast majority labour in exchange for very little. At its best — and in this regard it has not been honoured in many post-independence contexts — it envisions the end of economic inequality and imagines a more equitable distribution of resources and wealth. It is fair to say that most post-colonial contexts have failed in this regard to be truly decolonized. Too often colonial elites were replaced by post-colonial elites while life for the majority did not change very much. Those who have thought deeply about decolonization have also recognised that it entails challenging local elites as much as foreign rulers, for the two often collaborate in colonial rule: the old tyrants often got on very well with the new ones, as Césaire puts it.

A fully decolonized world largely remains a vision of a possible future, a horizon of aspiration. These unfulfilled hopes are one reason the term resonates for many people still. And that life-giving set of hopes — and the potential for challenge that they generate — is ultimately why those who have an investment in inequality, racism, & domination fear ‘decolonization’. From the rivers to each shining sea, it insists, starting with Palestine, all of humanity must be free.

(* For more on Bonn, see https://doi-org.ezp.lib.cam.ac.uk/10.1080/17532523.2013.857089)

--

--