Who needs postcoloniality?

A reply to Lindner

RP 164 () / Article

In Marx’s articles for the New York Tribune on British colonialism in India and the events leading to the Second Anglo-Chinese War (Opium War), critics have caught sight of a double mission attributed by him to British imperialism and colonialism to tear down the structure of archaic societies and lay the foundations for a new social order that would eventually reflect the capitalist model. A much later variation of this double mission was promoted by modernization and convergence theory during the early days of the Cold War (before the USA discovered the technique of proxy wars against the Soviets), whereby colonialism, which this theory of development often ignored or overlooked, was credited with putting into place the proper infrastructure for the later, successful postcolonial modernization of states like India, and, especially, Taiwan and South Korea, both of which were said to have benefited from the Japanese imperial intervention. While the modernizing mission of colonialism can be found in Marx’s early articles, it was replaced by modernization theory dedicated to ‘endowing’ a world-historical narrative (Hegel) ‘with a civilizational grammer and direction’, as well the task of overseeing ‘a transnational experience’ by administering capitalism as ‘it ideologically captures historical time and deploys it as means’. During the Cold War, modernization theory and its knowledges aimed to ‘manage ‘life’ in the so-called ‘Third World’ through the imperial instrumentality of a developmentalist policy, which was ‘perceived as a form of neocolonialism.’1 But the accusations of Eurocentrism and Orientalism were particularly important for a postcolonial theory, which ‘dematerialized’ Said’s version of colonial discourse in the name of radicalizing it, and its campaign to ‘provincialize Europe’ and ‘unthink Eurocentrism’.2 Kolya Lindner’s recent essay ‘Marx’s Eurocentrism: Postcolonial Studies and Marxian Scholarship’ (RP 161)3 is a recent reminder of both the persistence of this question and its capacity to fuel discussion. In these discussions, what is interesting is the fascination, bordering on desire, that postcolonial discourse, especially, has continued to exert for Marxism, and the possibility of establishing some sort of rapprochement that might end the academic division of labour between two antagonistic intellectual strategies and put to rest the apparently embarrassing charges of Eurocentrism. It should be stated that this peacemaking mission began several years ago, with attempts to imagine a Marxian postcolonial approach that might open the path to a more productive partnership. In her introduction to Marxism, Modernization and Postcolonial Studies (2002), Crystal Bartolovich observed the nearabsence of ‘direct’ and ‘serious’ dialogue between Marxism and proponents of postcoloniality.4 Noting that too often postcolonial theory’s indebtedness to post-structural philosophy encouraged dismissal of Marxism or ignored it out of ‘neglect’ and even ignorance, Marxism, for its part, fell into discounting postcolonial studies frequently for overlooking the material dimensions of imperialism and colonial life, especially the intervening mediations posed by capitalism and colonial enterprise. Any reading of the novel The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell (a writer who was not a Marxist), with its narrative of how British businessmen were planning to sell their rubber to the Japanese, whose troops were already within the city, will reaffirm Bartolovich’s judgement. In this dispute, she correctly proposed that the existence of a large fund of misunderstanding linking the two discourses in mutual antagonism was often accompanied by caricature and misrecognition. If Marxism was vulnerable to charges of an inaugural Eurocentrism, postcoloniality was answerable for its collaboration with imperialism in its most contemporary manifestation of globalization. This apparent complicity with forms of neocolonialism stemmed from its prior relationship with the Cold War and, in the aftermath, its affiliation with modernization theory. Despite competing claims, Bartolovich was convinced that ‘Marxism is the theoretical perspective suited to accomplishing’ the necessary critique of both the colonial violence of contemporary neocolonial residues, what the writer Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, 2006) described as the ‘shabbiest modernity’, and the more distant colonial past.5 Regardless of the distance separating these discourses, she is persuaded that they do have something to say to each other, if for no other reason than such an engagement would provide the opportunity to air their respective differences. But postcolonial discourse would hardly cede its own claim to theoretical privilege…