Learning history during the End of History (thoughts on decolonisation and imperialism).

Decolonising the Academy, the Curriculum and the History of Decolonisation

The uprisings in the US and the tandem solidarity actions worldwide over the past two weeks feel like some of the most emphatic, militant and transformative moments of historical rupture I’ve yet lived through. In the unnamed interregnum that constitutes the end of the End Of History, we’ve seen a cumulative number of these, the hopeless wasteland of calcified neoliberal victoriousness now well and truly confined to the status of historical curio.

But this feels different.

How, after this immense collective roar of resistance to the systemic racism and violence of militarised policing, this mass refusal to countenance things as they have been for so long, to renounce attempts at recuperation and assimilation, to counter the foundation myths of both the reactionary authoritarian and the liberal voice of reason, can even the most complacent and cosseted fetishist of the post-neoliberal consensus of piecemeal reform on the matter of racial justice square their worldview with what they’ve seen unfold in Minnesota, in New York, in Washington DC, in Bristol, in Jerusalem?

For the nativist right such events always act as merely confirmations of their assessment of the societal forces a racialised authoritarianism receives it’s appeal to practicality from: the maintenance of already existing class and race hierarchy in protection of the colonisation of both the bodies and time of their human capital. Race is one of the major aspects of this maintenance of control and extraction and in the US and UK, as in any other imperialist or post-imperialist state, the most vicious and structurally embedded.

There are other confluences and complex lines of flight underpinning the power relations and modes of cultural identification that coalesced around the election of Trump and the revanchism of a hard right Brexit. The left should guard against the woeful paucity of self-reflection on the subject of racism and colonialism that continues to render transatlantic liberalism so bereft. It is bereft both of the political legitimacy necessary to counter bourgeois rejections of a reckoning with the crimes of history, but also of an adequate analysis of it’s own shortcomings. It has incubated appeals to racist nationalism that have become unashamed in their brazenness. Make no mistake: they are as culpable in their prevarication and bad faith exhortations of reasonableness and levity as the more straightforwardly reactionary social tendencies they have for so long triangulated around and enabled.

Now more than ever it’s vital that those of us on the radical left reassert and make good on our solidarity with the victims of police brutality, state violence and murder while once and for all interrogating and rooting out any latent prejudices and reproductions of behavioural presumptions and inclinations that are born from being socialised into societies still deeply scarred and directed by our colonial past. Not through performative acts of mass prostration that individualise guilt over the actions of the imperial masters of our descendants, whose economic oppression and social isolation at home was made dependent off the back off dividing the global working class along racial lines via processes of primitive accumulation and the geographical resource hoovering of expansionist extraction. But by a refusal of that act of division through practical solidarity and comradeship. This will involve those of us for whom the colour of our skin mercifully excludes us from systemic racism unlearning our centuries long habit of domineering and talking past and over our BAME comrades as they lead this struggle that they are responsible for creating and have pushed forward with bravery, strength and dignity at every turn.

***

Edward Colston statue pulled down in Bristol, England during ...

It’s important to never underestimate the propensity of an inherited colonial mindset to rehabilitate exploitative dynamics of race under cover of some sop to representation in avoidance of structural change. This is already partially underway, with the unadulterated joy of seeing the Calston statue torn down giving way to an attempted shift of focus by local and national media institutions towards pushing the depoliticised distraction of a narrative that frames the issue of what statues should replace those of slaveholders as more worthy of focus than confronting the glorification of the abuse and murder of black Africans that made the slave traders worthy of symbolic recuperation in the first place. Many of these outlets are themselves deeply complicit  in maintaining a lack of meaningful diversity outside of gestures to a more diverse form of window dressing and its difficult to imagine that any reckoning with the consequences of past or present imperialisms as a partial remedy to the current sicknesses will be possible so long as the UK remains so risibly unmoored from even the most basic understanding of our colonial past. Furthermore, if we remain dominated by a hegemonic media class so determined to either outright disregard and delegitimise moves toward the decolonisation of public life, or to engage in apologia and excessive fence sitting on the subject, efforts to deal once and for all with the imperialist drive that acts as one of the primary entrenchments of class division will prove all the more difficult. Still, I remain bullish about the possibilities presented overt the last few weeks, which feel of a scale and intensity unlike anything that has erupted in more recent history.

***

As a class the survivalist impulse is to construct our politics around prefiguration. Fears, of the permanent threat of poverty, of displacement, of violence and reprisal against the embattled permanence of our negotiation with capital that we may eat, be housed, be free from harassment, intimidation and violence from the state are unified into the transformative concept of resistance, a bulwark against nihilism. One aspect of the US uprisings that has been so levelling and piercing is how militantly unfiltered their responses to the cumulative emotional affect of a daily life under the threat of murder at the hands of the state has been. Not only this, but this fear, this constantly demarcated and indelible precondition of life in a society with a social and economic base born from racist extraction has occurred at a time when white supremacy is openly, degradingly turbocharged like never before.

This is a resurgent and avowedly nativist far right in a convergence with traditional forms of social and economic conservatism. Such a post-neoliberal order has ruthlessly targeted and deliberately embattled a base constituency of xenophobic sentiment  and has no potentiality for shaming or scandal on those terms, something liberals seem to consistently and spectacularly fail ro comprehend. This unashamed crudity is the very crux of the revived nationalist political project and it’s rallying appeal. It’s here that the commentariats continued retreat in to their own unreality, a childlike delusion that the façade of a post-racial society of classlessness ever existed and that Trump, Brexit etc represents some kind of gauche intrusion onto this level playing field that reamins alien to the majority of us, seems so profoundly inadequate. They have often approached militantly antifascist sentiment with a kind of sociopathically disconnected reading of upper middle class turn-of-the-century social rationalism, one in which they can barely acknowledge that that their own calls for cool heads and “grown up” adherences to rotted, unfit for purpose liberal institutions inspires nothing but contempt from those of us who live in communities dogged by the threat of fascist incursion.

***

That a white skin tone protects me against much of the most brutal and ritualised class oppressions perfected and reimported during colonialism and institutionalised to this day is undeniable. To gloss over that subject would be as cowardly as it would be useless. This is a privilege in the true sense of a word too often overused and rhetorically employed as a box checking exercise by white liberals to absolve themselves of responsibility for real world action.

It’s certainly easy to laugh at the cringesome lengths a certain brand of extremely online, terminology obsessed advocates for representation shorn of class politics will go to in performing anti-racism while doing little of practical, organisational use to combat it offline. But these handwringing leaners-in do not constitute a serious manifestation of anti-colonial or antifascist ideology in the first place, and it’s telling that the right is often walked into a paradox of it’s own making as it tries to paint antifascists and decolonialists as both pampered snowflakes, terrified of even the mildest instance of political correctness, but also as malicious and subversive deliverers of mob handed violence in an effort to overturn the state. And while I try to be careful and accurate in my use of the word these days so as not to detract from it’s utility (see also: intersectionality) that specifically unhelpful brand of going through the motions of allyship has had some damaging consequences in terms of it’s gradual effect on how white people challenge racism in our own friendships, families and workplaces, which I’m pleased to see are now being gradually eroded by the avowedly multi-racial nature of this  new wave of protest.

One of the most damaging consequences of the liberal conception of the ally,  as opposed to the radical socialist conception of the comrade, is the encouragement of a kind of quietism in which people not directly subject to oppressions feel like its somehow appropriative to amplify the voices of their marginalised friends and those they want to show solidarity with. I think in certain contexts it’s a well-meaning consideration, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying they haven’t been speaking up about BLM on their personal social media feeds for fear of drowning out black voices on the subject. In certain mediums this is an important consideration, but in many spaces there doesn’t exist the same dynamic as something like a public facing Twitter profile in the first instance, and it can therefore be more easy to control and maintain presences on other forms of social media or real world inteactions. In terms of knowing precisely what the composition of audience and usefulness of a contribution each post may be, it remains absolutely essential to not dominate or steer the direction of the conversation over the heads of those most directly affected by the racism we are decrying.

But amplifying and sharing black voices and setting a positive example to other white people so they might understand there’s also people who look like them who are as appalled and disgusted by our imperialist, colonialist past, who on’t support its whitewashing and sanitisation, remains a useful and vital act of solidarity.

***

I’m 34 and attended a comprehensive school in Stockport from 1997-2002. Unlike the sixth form college I would go on to attend – located much nearer to the centre of Manchester and much more ethnically diverse in terms of catchment area – school was majority white. This was unsurprising given it’s suburban location would provoke many of my fellow students deeply insufferable parents to refer to it being located in Cheshire. They didn’t want to confront the geographical and municipal reality that it was in Stockport, a town with a historic image firmly at odds with their own pathetic conceptions of themselves as the vanguard of the newly classless late 90’s. It was deceptively wider ranging in terms of it’s class intake – as is the case with most areas of both urban and suburban England, significant pockets of invisibilised poverty and precarity rubbed up against prominent but tasteless indicators of middle class comfort.

My working class parents had been able to take advantage of college night classes and the opportunity to attend university free of tuition fees, enabling them to retrain later in life. They’d never ascended the property ladder under Thatcherism and remained renters (we’d later go on to be evicted by a particularly unscrupulous landlord) with a deep and abiding hatred of the Tory party, steeped in the values of old Labour trade unionism (although my Dad had been a member of the YCL and CPGB for a time in his 20’s), setting us both politically and culturally against the constituency status quo in a then Lib Dem/Tory marginal. Visits to my Mam’s side of the family in Jarrow cemented my sense of dislocation and the intense class anxiety already made prevalent by a somewhat displaced existence in childhood as we moved around the country following work and availability of rented accommodation.


But then, by 1997 the new dawn had broken, had it not?

It certainly seemed unlikely to me at age 11, as I took in my first secondary school history lessons, that I’d live out my late teens, 20’s and much of the first half decade of my 30’s very nearly snuffed out via debt, precarious and deeply stressful employment, the humiliation of various punitive restructurings of the benefits system, not to mention the poverty, addiction issues and mental health problems exacerbated, and often created by, this mode of existence.  

My Dad had started and encouraged my love of history and it was never a doubt in my mind that I’d go on to study it to as high a level as I could manage, or that my my aptitude would let me. But while individual teachers at high school level undoubtedly did their best to provide as much of a depth of context as possible in our studies, the curriculum itself and the choices most taken by the heads of department in particular were retrospectively riddled with the kind of recency bias, decontextualisations and lack of useful theoretical underpinnings that to this day, despite some minor improvements and adjustments arrived at only via tireless campaigning, inhibit and hinder the possibility of students critically engaging with conceptions of empire, imperialism and colonialism. The latter two of these concepts are underserved even by their designations within the realm of the conceptual.

For BAME students in the UK there’s a disjunct here between theories of extractive domination and state economic expansionism as solely historiographical tools. They were the lived daily reality of their forefathers, the social and personal consequences of the upbringing of their parents evident in discrimination and racialised presumptions transmuted and embedded in the very nature of what it is to be non-white in the UK for their children.

It is still the daily life experience of so many. I don’t doubt my history teachers had the intellectual acumen and pedagogical tools do deliver knowledge of these ideas and realities to us as students, but the overwhelmingly white classroom and the subject matter enabled them to deprioritise them. The first and second World Wars and their international consequences, in a country debilitatingly and pathetically inclined to use this historical period as both an emotional safety blanket and a sweeping avoidance tactic for all manner of engagements with it’s imperial past, were given great emphasis. Earlier years included projects on the American “Plains Indians” touching on the genocidal destruction of their land and culture in a manner that emphasised its injustice, but only briefly, and with no attempt to map the relationship between the colonialist projects of Britain and other European empires throughout history with that of it’s fomer colonies behaviours towards non-white Americans. The slave trade, the carving up of Africa and the colonial occupation of India barely even alluded to, let alone mentioned.

It was odd too, especially given this was the 1990’s and the emergent peace process was a nightly news concern, that some context for events in Ireland wasn’t considered of topical interest. This was the period of the last upticks in the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign as they attempted to leverage their power in negotiations with the British government, while reassuring those volunteers schooled in the traditionalist republican conception of politics as a dirty word, who were suspicious that peace talks would result in the unconditional winding down of the military branch of republicanism. Yet the history of British involvement in Ireland was never once discussed or brought up, much less pointed to as an example of the contradictions of Britain’s claims to have phased out empire or to practice a benign foreign policy.

Given I attended school 15 minutes from the centre of Manchester via train, bombed months previously, looking back it seems utterly bizarre that no attempt was made to contextualise events such as that even within the context of some regurgitation of the British line on the conflict.  If teachers addressed events across the Irish sea at all it was to sagely mourn the human tragedy of war and dismiss outright claims to political legitimacy from any side of the conflict, firmly reembedding the state narrative that what had been occurring for as long as any of their students had been alive was an aggravated crime wave, one enacted amongst equally bigoted ethno-religious factions. Our own Balkanised descent into depravity.

Mainstream historical debate during this period now seems most notable as a segue between the nationalist sentiment of institutionalised coercive nostalgia at the heart of the Major years and the aesthetic ciphers of a vapid modernity embodied by Blairism. Yet the former remained barely repressed, upheld by the grotesque triangulations of racist New Labour policymaking, not to mention a vicious assault on working class communities via a punitive social order authoritarianism. These social forces would explode murderously during the Brexit referendum to become once more mainstreamed. It’s little wonder to me that so many of my generation turned rightwards or to an apathetic, centrist adjacent nihilism. That the corrosive hegemony of capitalist realism so successfully cast anything to the left of the most ineffective social democracy as outmoded and worthy of ridicule had profound and chilling consequences for our ability to talk usefully and honestly about our imperialist history and was a significant influence on the social cleavages that would further entrench already ingrained racist sentiment in the UK.

***

If I couldn’t look to the classroom curriculum to challenge dominant readings of our imperialist past, there were more useful lessons gained from a year 11 trip to the WW1 Battlefields of France and Belgium. While the impact of this trip would be immense in my own life, confronting me face to face with the realities of the ludicrous tragedy of imperialist warmaking waged almost entirely by an international working class, this was a trip made by those students who had already enough of an interest in history beyond the average to have opted to study it at GCSE level. While some no doubt chose the subject due to it being the lesser of several evils, or out of figuring it might be an easier ride than another choice, there was probably a degree of willingness to engage critically with these subjects broadly shared by many of us in attendance.

I therefore can’t guarantee that the journey would have had as marked an affect on students who had already been failed by history classes to the point of harbouring hostility to the subject and can only speak from the perspective of someone who was forever changed by it. The trip begun to cement and formalise previously unconnected and disparate lines of thought that had rattled around in my head for years and the cumulative impact of gazing out at cemeteries that extended as far as the eye could see with identical headstones, inscripted on closer inspection in not just English but Mandarin, Hebrew, Urdu and other languages, was a turning point for my nascent politics and something that I grappled with for some time in to young adulthood.

International differences – Shaping our Sorrow


Those headstones bore the names of regiments and places of origin from across the expanse of the British empires dominion, a global working class ruthlessly exploited for their resources and labour at home then massacred in French and Belgian fields in pointless, pitiless slaughter at the behest of a ruling class that viewed them as genetically inferior. Then there was the heartbreaking mass graves of German troops given rudimentary and unthinking generic markers and all that implied about the ability of the victorious to manage the narrative and political implications of remembrance.

It felt obvious to me like never before that not only was the immense contribution of commonwealth troops in this unprecedented and hellish conflict almost entirely absent from British commemorations of the subject, but that the gross injustice of the scale of the class division at play remained largely unspoken. Thankfully, at this time, the lions led by donkeys narrative remained present in comprehensive education, bolstered by the memories, no doubt, of a generation of men and women raised by those who were lucky enough to survive WW1 or those unfortunate enough to have been widowed by it.

Where the rest of my schooling may have been deeply inadequate at tackling or even acknowledging imperialism, visiting Ypres and Flanders made it impossible not to engage with the sheer scale and diversity of working class lives lost in the furtherance of the petty sentiments of nationalism and monarchs. A Level history was more thorough when it came to the subject of empire, although this was perhaps a result of the colleges catchment area being much more diverse, with Islam the most observed religion and a more balanced mix of Asian, afro-Caribbean and white students studying alongside each other. In this light, it would have been preposterous for tutors to not encourage a serious, historically and politically informed discussion about issues such as imperialism and racism.

But by that stage the damage was already done for those having left the comprehensive system with not one iota of critical engagement with the realities of exploitation and empire. I can hardly blame them for not continuing to study history when it was presented so uncritically, so boringly, as if there was little at stake and events played out perfectly in line with the whig reading of history that was by that point already 40 years discredited by the historians of the new left.

***

As part of a generation for whom nearly everyone had at least one grandparent who had fought in WWII, it feels hard to convince people used to current uncritical glorifications of that period that a good portion of men of my Grandads age would speak both with a degree of pride but also a deep ambivalence about their wartime experiences. The grandparent who remained largely circumspect in relation to their wartime experiences only for their slide into seinility or dementia be signalled by a sudden, panicked flashback or outpouring, a suddenly detailed and disturbing anecdote of danger and violence experienced during wartime is not uncommon among my generational cohort.

It feels like this widespread reticence on behalf of those involved to speak frequently about their experiences of war has instead led to an assimilation of their historical narrative into a formalised brand of recuperative nostalgia. As many commentators and tweets have already pointed out in some depth, this is something almost exclusively engaged in by those who never lived through the war years themselves, seemingly in some odd act of vicarious fantasy lived via their own elderly fathers or long dead grandparents. This wilful sanitisation of historical reality constitutes the contemporary ideological backdrop for any attempt to distract from ruling class failings at a time of crisis (Keep Calm and Carry On, Blitz spirit, stiff upper lip, clap for the NHS etc)

This inclination finds its origins in both recycled wartime propaganda as a received record of events and in the coping mechanisms enacted by those remaining at home subject to blitz and rationing. In some form it has always existed as a glib patina in British life, a method of absolving all previous and future crimes of empire or foreign intervention by an appeal to the kind of jingoism that genuinely believes it was Britain, and Britain alone, whose embattled Island nation defeated the military might of Nazi Germany. That this narrative frames American intervention as late and insignificant and ripe for mockery, while entirely ignoring the enormous sacrifice of Soviet Russia in defeating the advance of the Third Reich makes it inherently ridiculous. But in austerity Britain after 2010 it has mutated to a grotesque parody, a nation of hardy, implacable, cap doffing Brits doing their bit with spirited wit and ingenuity against what was, in reality, a backdrop of widespread fear, city-scale industrialised destruction and huge personal loss.

Churchill Was Racist': Indians Remember Bengal Famine after Statue ...

It’s here that the figure of Churchill as an unimpeachable totem of Britishness becomes emblematic of the social and cultural consequences of not assessing complex figures in their totality, of ignoring or minimising their deep responsibility for maintaining and directing the white supremacy of imperial domination that they should universally symbolise as recognisably as any slave trader. Yet criticism of the fencing off of figures like Churchill in the national imagination is only now beginning to be deemed within the realm of acceptable political discourse, almost entirely due to the efforts of BAME led organisations to decolonise public spaces and educational and social institutions.

Long may we keep reminding people of that mans disastrous military adventurism, his ruthless repression of working class movements and his weaponizing of famine, gas and concentration camps in the service of empire. Here was a man far less adored and venerated by many of the working class men who do his fighting for him than is usually remembered, especially those drawn from regions like the north east who vividly remembered the effects his rabid anti-socialism had on the struggles of their parents to improve their wages and conditions.

The relative quietude of many of those who fought WWII was exploited, drowned out by the always louder but often less numerable numbers inclined to kneejerk nationalist sentiment in any situation regardless of accuracy. It goes without saying that during my education not a single mention was made of any of Churchill’s actions that might have made for a more well rounded picture of the man. Again, this was considered entirely beyond the pale.

Where the  British Empire was mentioned in my history classes, it was generally mentioned in passing as notable for it’s cultural consequences – tea, sugar, textiles etc – and in a broadly positive light as the background to the reign of Queen Victoria. There may have been some sanitised context of the empire relating to WWI/WWII, but this lack of willingness to confront historic British crimes has always made me fearful of the arrival of a hard right, nativist turn towards a culture war as one consequence of the disintegration of the end of history narrative. I’m minded of an instructive incident in one of our GCSE history classes in 2001 where I and 2 other kids, all 3 of us from left/trade union families, were the only students to answer the straw poll “are you proud that Britain had such a big empire?” in the negative. The entire rest of the class derided us for it.

I don’t say this to boast or to get retrospective cred, but to illustrate the inadequacy of an entire generations levels of education on the subject of empire, race and oppression. We remain far worse than the US in terms of acknowledging the consequences of our violent history. That history of massacre, of invasion, of famine, of brutal resource extraction and racist, imperialist subjugation based on capitalist expansion and racist pseudoscience haunts our shittip of a tinpot island to this day.

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