Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent
by Priyamvada Gopal
Published May 2020
Published May 2020
The Place, Race and Critical Theory Reading Group (PRCT) is a weekly gathering at the University of Sydney. The authors of this review are Nicholas Bromfield, Rebecca Clements, Jake Davies, Natalie Osborne, Dallas Rogers, Somwrita Sarkar, Pranita Shrestha and Catherine Townsend. We shift back and forth from individual to collective voice throughout this review.
Like many perpetually online academics, I’m plugged into news, trends and controversies via Twitter. In mid-2020, Priyamvada Gopal, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge and a vocal critic of empire, tweeted, ‘White lives don’t matter. As white lives’ and ‘Abolish whiteness’. This was at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. Gopal’s tweets were prompted by a ‘White lives matter Burnley’ banner flown at a Premier League game – and they sparked an ugly, yet entirely expected outpouring of abuse and death threats by racists and their apologists.
The UK Daily Mail reported that Gopal was attempting to start a race war and that she supported the persecution of white people. The Daily Mail was later forced to withdraw this claim and to pay Gopal £25,000 in damages.
Fast forward to October 2021. Gopal is invited to speak to the Home Office about her book Insurgent Empire and its lessons for policymakers working on policing, counterterrorism, security and immigration. But her talk is cancelled, purportedly for criticism of the British colonial project and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s ‘anti-black attitude’:
Priti Patel is also a reminder that many Asians in British Africa had ferociously anti-black attitudes and were used by colonial administrations to keep black populations in their place. An attitude she brings to government.
It is this praxis that made Gopal’s work so compelling for our reading group. As Gopal noted in a 2021 Los Angeles Review of Books interview, ‘Criticism of empire within Britain is a tradition.’ It is this critical voice, a tradition that Gopal calls ‘reverse tutelage’, that Gopal uncovers in Insurgent Empire. Gopal writes, those working ‘against power, injustice and oppression were not defined in exclusively racial or communal terms but could comprise alliances across the boundary between metropole and periphery’.
Likewise, we approached this book from a diverse set of positionalities and places of origin. As a reading group, we comprise alliances and disagreements that cross the boundary between metropole and periphery too. It is worth remembering, the subtitle of Insurgent Empire is Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent.
Is it possible to write a collective review of Insurgent Empire across the lines of colour and colonialism in our group? Perhaps, but this is not our agenda here. What we offer instead is a suite of vignettes that reflect on how we, a group of readers interested in understanding place and race, came together to think about the ideas in Insurgent Empire. When we shift from the first person vignettes into our collective discussions it is to reflect on our differences and debates, rather than to provide a neat set of conclusions.
The appearance of this album and the book are separated by roughly twenty years – and yet, they traverse similar political terrain, shaped by the power of black politics to confront imperialism and racism, as the lyrics of the Asian Dub Foundation’s The Colour Line make clear:
Racism and imperialism work in tandem
And poverty is their handmaiden […]
Black is not just the colour of our skins, it is the colour of our politics
Gopal was born into an upper-class family in India. Her father was a diplomat and she lived in Asia, Europe and the US, before settling in the UK. As Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Cambridge University, her story is one of international migration from a former British colony into the heart of the British colonial metropole.
The story of individual and intergenerational migration across the lines of colour, race and colonialism is familiar to many in our reading group too. While our group is physically based at the University of Sydney, we have readers of Indian, Nepalese, Iranian and Chinese heritage. We have Aboriginal readers as well as descendants of the colonial powers, European settlers now living on stolen Aboriginal land in this place called Australia. The diverse places of origin and positionality of our readers allows for a unique collective reading of this text. Together we explored how Gopal’s public criticism of empire echoed the characters she selected for her book. Both were, and are, working from the margins within the British metropole.
In Insurgent Empire, our fifth reading group book, Gopal re-evaluates anticolonial resistance across a complex geopolitical landscape, including India, Jamaica, Kenya and South Africa in her analysis. Gopal is interested in the transmission of anticolonial ideas from the colonies into the heart of the British metropole. Ideas that were born in the colonies, but were mobilised in the metropole before contributing to a global, anticolonial resistance movement.
Insurgent Empire unsettles the idea that liberty and freedom emerged solely from European thinkers associated with the Enlightenment. Instead, Gopal claims the intellectual basis of anticolonial notions of liberty and freedom were co-produced across the empire through interactions and alliances between the colonisers and colonised.
Gopal’s engagement with contemporary forms of continued colonisation through, for example, a critique of the World Bank and IMF, is one of the themes that attracted me to this book. I’m from a ‘semi-colonised’ country, often referred to as ‘Third World’ or ‘under-developed’. Yet, like Gopal, I was educated in various parts of the world; India, Canada, Norway, but now living and working on unceded Aboriginal land in Australia.
Gopal’s sagacious analysis of the co-production of resistance between the colonies and metropole resonates with me. The book provides a critical, yet pragmatic approach to understanding the historical complexities of colonialism. Insights and potential pathways we can all use to co-produce future anticolonial resistance movements within the complexity of the contemporary world. ‘As a result,’ argues Gopal,
colonial activists around the world realised that ‘the problem of empire was not specific to single nations but instead a global problem requiring global resources and solutions’ – though, at the same time, the national would retain its specificity and power as a legitimizing category for emancipatory aspirations.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the circumscribed power and modest successes of Gopal’s protagonists in the face of the power of the British state, capital and empire, and her own relation to power in post-Brexit Britain. In this sense, Gopal, a public intellectual with a strong anticolonial profile and over 80,000 Twitter followers, is the central character in a further, unwritten final chapter of Insurgent Empire.
Reading Insurgent Empire took me back to 1986 and listening to Kicking against the Pricks by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In Kicking against the Pricks, the Bad Seeds interpret other artists’ songs to their own thunderous musical ends, just as Gopal powerfully marshals the voices of anti-colonial dissenters to support her narrative of the history of resistance to the British Empire.
The dreariness and drudgery of pop music and middle-class suburbia the Bad Seeds railed against are obviously inconsequential in comparison to the desolation and destruction caused by the British Empire. Yet it’s the title, Kicking against the Pricks, lifted from an ancient Greek proverb, by way of the King James Bible, and possibly Samuel Beckett, that echoed through my mind as I read this book. Gopal lays bare a history of over 160 years of radical minorities actively resisting the pricks of the British Empire.
Gopal draws the reader in with the voices of dissidents – such as Shapurji Saklatvala, Nancy Cunard and C.L.R. James – to show the workings of ‘reverse tutelage’: the ways in which the colonised taught those in the metropole the power of anticolonial thought and action. Gopal argues that anticolonial crises and controversies from the 1857 uprising in India and the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion of former slaves in Jamaica onward exposed Britain to a rebel consciousness they were forced to acknowledge and understand.
A significant minority of influential Britons learned from these events and discourse, shifting their views, and this altered the course of British imperialism. Gopal acknowledges that many figures central to her text are minority voices, yet writing their histories, and reconfiguring historical understanding along the way, is the larger project of Insurgent Empire.
Gopal writes against the grain of much public and historical memory. An early, important line of thought is the influence the Jamaica Committee may have had on John Stuart Mill’s later and more radical positions on colonial violence towards non-European subjects and black enfranchisement. Another striking example is in the chapter on Pan-Africanist Trinidadian journalist George Padmore, and rising fascism in twentieth-century Europe.
In Britain and elsewhere, the Allies are still commonly characterised as having fought for freedom and democracy, rather than simply to contain Hitler’s territorial ambitions. Gopal details Padmore’s critique of the Allied anti-fascist discourse of restoring sovereignty, self-government and national life to Europe. Padmore argues this discourse was self-serving as it did nothing to address the implicit fascism of Britain’s empire, which explicitly disavowed self-governance for the colonies.
Gopal has a broader, activist intent for the counter-narrative histories detailed in Insurgent Empire. As she writes in her Epilogue,
We need to build an archive of dissidence, opposition and criticism in relation to the British Empire – one which might serve to caution us against levelling and self-serving assumptions about the past in order that we might engage in a more demanding way with the present.
Gopal’s challenge to readers is to understand this dissident past and not foreclose on our own possible radical futures.
Insurgent Empire is an inherently political history, one that argues that there is incremental and cumulative agency to minority dissent. We suspect Gopal wants readers to pick up this baton and continue the work of imperial and racist resistance into the twenty-first century. And so Gopal’s conclusion is optimistic, suggesting the purpose of the book is to ‘give heart and hope to those who look towards a more fully decolonised future for both Britain and the postcolonial world’.
I grew up in a small tourist town that championed its settler-colonial history. As a white Australian urban researcher of British heritage, I’m constantly unlearning and relearning my place on unceded Aboriginal Country. I’m interested in the book’s narrative revision of colonial history and how this might shape radical politics today.
Examining dissidence from the margins is important because marginalised voices are always articulating themselves ‘against the grain of the dominant’. The testimony of marginal people teaches us much about the mainstream, suggests Gopal, who shows how diverse attitudes and dissent were always part of a British anti-imperialist tradition.
Radicals and socialists in Britain organised, demonstrated, and protested in solidarity with resistance movements in the colonies throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gopal dashes the idea that white British Enlightenment reformers were chiefly responsible for the liberalising projects they were involved with. Their ideas were shaped by interactions with colonised peoples.
Gopal takes on the perverse myth that freedom from slavery and imperial rule was granted by British benevolence. This myth of benevolence still has a tenacious hold on ‘certain influential strands of British imperial history,’ and popular imagination in the UK. As she writes, ‘Britain today is itself as much the product of anticolonialism as it is of the imperial project’.
Gopal captures the reverse flow of ideas from the colonies to the British metropole. Her evidence is the presence of strong anticolonial black and Asian voices in the metropole itself – the interpreters of empire who were sitting between British dissidents and the millions resisting the British government in the colonies. She shows how European thought was co-produced through the interaction of ideas between the colonies and the metropole.
The idea of reverse tutelage arguably speaks to the broader political intent of the book. Gopal describes the transformational politics that emerged from the confrontation between the myth and reality of the imperial project, and through the lives of anti-colonial dissidents in the colonies and the metropole.
I imagine one aim of the book at this critical political juncture in history is to educate the more engaged British left. This is a group that might help disseminate these counter-histories to more marginally engaged white publics. Gopal’s carefully researched stories of British dissidents, which cover personal reflections of political change and attempts at dissenting political action, have depressing contemporary relevance. These stories from the past allow us to reflect on our own complicity in political mythmaking as well as dissenting action today.
Reflecting on the shortcomings of Gopal’s historical white protagonists’ newfound critique and advocacy may inform more effective strategies today. Gopal incorporates accounts of continued political action or reactionary turns across these peoples’ own lifetimes. Our group critically reflected on the limitations of white interpretation of anti-colonial politics and political advocacy through these stories.
Gopal places colonial dissidence at the centre of her analysis, moving away from a type of imperial history she says focuses on ‘the official mind’ of the governing elite. Without ‘grand counter-narratives of protest, resistance and revolution’ the imperial apologists will continue to control the public narrative, argues Gopal; she gives Brexit as one example of this tendency. She labels the lack of emphasis on resistance to colonisation in the historical record as a ‘bundle of silences’.
Gopal brings the tools of literary criticism to her historical analysis and seeks out the ‘interpreters of insurgency’. It is a mistake, suggests Gopal, to assess the utility of archival documents based solely on the ‘impact’ of the events they might be reporting on. The archive is predominantly white, Western, and male. The relative absence of black and Asian women was a matter of ‘great regret’ for Gopal, who interestingly says she makes no claims to writing a history at all. Nevertheless, Gopal’s critical analysis and interpretation of British history contributes to decentring imperial narratives and making space for foregrounding agency in diverse forms of resistance.
Sardar Udham, on Amazon Prime, brings to life the bloody, remorseless history of General Dyer’s Jallianwala Bagh’s genocide of 1919 in Amritsar, India. I watched it over dinner one night in 2022. The next morning Amartya Sen’s Guardian piece presenting an ‘alternative history’ of British Imperialism in India caught my eye.
Sen reminds us that ancient and mediaeval India’s ‘extraordinary accomplishments in philosophy, mathematics, literature, arts, architecture, music, medicine, linguistics, and astronomy’ sit far from the clichéd portrayals of India as a land of heathen snake-charmers. This is the idea of an India that needed to be ‘freed, modernised, and democratised,’ and it rather suited the British imperialist agenda. This idea allowed the barbaric plunder, loot, and economic invasion of India to be carried out in cold blood.
The power of Insurgent Empire is the way it shifts the frame of reference from the familiar figures of colonial history, such as Gandhi, onto marginal voices from the colonies and metropole. Their histories and untold stories challenge the traditional view that holds the coloniser and colonised apart.
In doing so, Insurgent Empire exposes the commonplaceness of anticolonial resistance. The lofty ideas of ‘freedom, democracy, and tolerance’ were reverse tutored to imperial Britain by a mass movement involving the powerless and the marginalised, the unheard and unwilling victims of the British imperial project.
As someone well-versed in Indian history, the questions for me are, why do we still need this book, and why has it taken so long for these histories of dissent and resistance to be centred? Or, in Gopal’s terms, why does a ‘wilful ignorance of other people’s cultures and histories,’ which ‘encourages the notion that freedom, democracy, and tolerance are intrinsically western’ still prevail? I find the imperial apologists’ capacity to ignore this self-evident truth simply astonishing.
The challenge with a book like this is how to bring the well-known stories of history into conversation with new historical discoveries. I would have liked to see this book set the lesser-known lives of its key protagonists against well-established historical critique and the other benefactors of reverse tutelage in the metropole.
I’m thinking here of Adam Smith’s 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, wherein Smith calls out the abuse of power by the British East India Company. Or, in the literary domain, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness:
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind […] The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
Britain only produced 1.8 per cent of the world’s GDP before the British Raj, while India produced 23 per cent. Apologists of empire often ignore this fact. As Tharoor notes,
By the peak of the Raj, those figures had been reversed: India was reduced from the world’s leading manufacturing nation to a symbol of famine and deprivation.
There is no doubt Gopal’s central thesis is correct, this is an old truth. For me, that the apologists of empire in the so-called civilised world still do not accept the imperial project was a genocidal project is a travesty. That this mammoth 600-odd page book is needed in the twenty-first century to counter the the apologists of empire provides further unsettling evidence that we may only be able to change the outer narrative skin of the imperial project, but possibly not its essential spirit, which continues to conquer and plunder in novel ways.
I’ve been part of a radical education collective in Meanjin/Brisbane over the last few years, called the Brisbane Free University. We’ve been reading and thinking together about how we might grapple with our own complicities in the structures of settler-colonial oppression and dispossession, while being useful accomplices in the fight against them. As a white settler, a cis person, an educated, middle class, and salaried person, I have much to account for.
It was in this longing for collaborative reckoning, and with much curiosity about the constitution and practice of solidarity between colonised peoples and members of imperial states, that I joined this reading group. The book is rich with stories of white citizens of the metropole learning to stand in solidarity with colonised people and fight their own nation’s imperialism. Yet the lessons of Gopal’s book must be considered alongside where we are. For me that’s Meanjin/Brisbane, a settler-colony where colonisation is an ongoing process of violence and dispossession.
Academics talk about settler-colonialism as a process where the settlers come to stay, a project of bloody genocidal replacement, and an invasion that was actively resisted by colonised peoples. The story of settler-colonialism is largely missing from Insurgent Empire.
Gopal focuses primarily on the exploitation and colonialism of India, Jamaica, Egypt, Ethiopia and Kenya. And so, for those of us engaging with this text in Meanjin/Brisbane, the lessons and concepts are not immediately transferrable. They need translation. This is not to diminish the value of Gopal’s work, but rather to contextualise how we apply it where we are.
Gopal outlines a set of political allegiances and possibilities that derive from a shared sense of working class belonging which spans the metropole and colonies. In Gopal’s book, the workers of the metropole and colonies find that their working conditions are at least partially co-produced in the era of global capitalism, ergo the conditions of one party are the concern of the other.
The political terrain in the settler-colony is quite different. Unlike the British and India case Gopal discusses, Meanjin today is both colony and metropole. Non-Indigenous workers are at once colonisers and potential comrades, both subject to capitalist exploitation and perpetrators and beneficiaries of colonial injustices and violence.
As Anna Carlson and the Brisbane Free University Radical Reading Group argue, the reality of the settler/worker in Meanjin gives a different twist to the idea of a worker in Gopal’s work. The settler/worker exists in Meanjin on stolen Aboriginal land and through the accumulation of property and other forms of wealth by non-Indigenous workers.
Indeed, the history of labour movements in Meanjin is marked by white supremacy, and contemporary labour and left-populist movements which often promote colonial-era universalism and wealth redistribution without really accounting for the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples.
Before the value of surplus and reproductive labour were stolen from us, the land, resources, and basic conditions of that work was stolen from Aboriginal peoples via the violent lie of terra nullius and the settler-colonial process. As such, the category of worker, as a foundation for working class solidarity, is perhaps less certain and more dynamic in Meanjin than in the cases Gopal presents.
I lived a stone’s throw away from Oriel College while an undergraduate at Oxford University. The college entrance hosts a giant statue of Cecil Rhodes, which looms large over passers-by. At Oxford, I often encountered a lacklustre defence of the university’s overt colonial symbolism, which went something like, you can’t judge the actions of the colonists by today’s standards.
Even respected British historians have used this dubious justification to defend the Rhodes statue. Gopal tackles this position head on in Insurgent Empire, writing it is a ‘patently false argument that criticism of empire involves judging the past by today’s standards’.
I was born in the UK in 1998, about a year after the Labour Party’s historic landslide victory to decisively end 18 years of Tory rule. I was too young to understand it at the time, but my family’s initial sense of optimism about Britain’s future following that election was shattered by the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The 2016 referendum on Britain’s European Union membership is a different story. Brexit was my first opportunity to vote in the UK. I clearly remember it. For political progressives, this vote was a cruel repudiation of decades of sustained cooperation with our European neighbours based on a nostalgic view of Britain’s past as an imperial power.
Insurgent Empire speaks directly to the British public, whose vote to leave the European Union happened just three years prior to the book’s publication. For Gopal, Brexit represents a continuation of ‘imperial apologetics’ by the political elite.
I suspect Gopal has a more specific audience in mind with this book too: the next wave of British dissidents. She frequently praises historical movements and figures positioned to the left of the UK Labour Party. The British chapter of the League Against Imperialism, a transnational anti-imperial organisation in the interwar period, and the internationalist Independent Labour Party, a left-wing pressure group within the Labour Party that disaffiliated from the party in 1932, both receive plaudits for their role in fostering criticism of British imperialism.
Shapurji Saklatvala, a Communist MP for a London constituency in the 1920s, who was ‘the first MP to make a sustained case in parliament against reformism and “liberal” approaches to colonial governance’ is portrayed in a favourable light. As is George Padmore, the Trinidadian journalist who from the 1930s to 1950s voiced his critique of British imperialism from London, while a member of the Communist Party in the US.
Gopal’s portrayal of the Labour Party is more chequered. Ramsay Macdonald, the UK’s first Labour Prime Minister, is discussed as an example of a British traveller whose worldview was positively shaped by his encounters with colonial India in 1910 – fourteen years before he became PM. Yet we discover later how Macdonald’s Government oversaw the disgraceful Meerut conspiracy (1929-1933), a protracted four-year trial of 29 Indians and 2 Britons designed to quash India’s labour movement. On another occasion, Gopal details the role played by prominent Labour MP Edward Morel in stoking racist and baseless fears about west African soldiers in the Rhineland raping German women in the aftermath of World War 1.
Gopal claims that a fringe collective of dissident voices constitutes an important minority in British politics. At times, I wanted more evidence to support Gopal’s claim that a minority of dissenters truly mattered in shaping events and represent a vital story in British history.
Her disappointment with the complicity and indeed oftentimes active support of the mainstream Left for the imperial project extends to today. Gopal attributes the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003, perpetrated by the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, to the persistence of mythmaking about Britain’s imperial past.
Gopal’s book was written within a British political landscape indelibly marked by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Brexit vote of 2016. She outlines a national story of Britain that does not indulge in imperial mythmaking but rather confronts Britain’s brutal imperial history. Her story is internationalist and anticolonial in outlook, but it crucially salvages a running dissident tradition of which British progressives can be proud. Gopal offers hope for the UK’s future.
For many in our group, reading Insurgent Empire within the settler colonial context of Australia was a collective act of anticolonial solidarity. We found Gopal’s discussion of solidarity and resistance across the coloniser and colonised binary instructive.
Insurgent Empire is a generative book, one that invites a wide range of interpretations, rather than a single-note evaluation. Gopal’s erudite writing presents an important new history of colonial resistance – one that each member of our reading group came to know through their own personal experiences with colonialism and resistance.
Ultimately, Gopal’s book is a story of hope. There is a glimpse of a future political project where every colony has secured absolute freedom from oppression through collective acts of resistance and solidarity. Insurgent Empire opens up the possibility of a different post-colonial future, and it is a future that we all want to be part of.