‘Resistance to the forces of tyranny is not only an option, but the only option’

Published: July 31, 2019 - 18:50

Priyamvada Gopal is currently a Reader in the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and Fellow, Churchill College, UK. Her latest book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, written and documented after years of painstaking research and original theoretical interventions and interpretations, is making waves across the academic circles and campuses in the West, especially in the UK and US. She was recently in New York, discussing the book. Published by Verso Books, and available in Amazon, the book traces an offbeat narrative: ‘Insurgent Empire’ depicts how Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were active agents in their own emancipation. Besides, they redefined the contours of freedom and liberation in Britain, with ideas of resistance and dissent, creating new forms of non-conformist and subversive theory and praxis, and an undiscovered realm of what can be called as reverse enlightenment, right in the heart and the margins of the Empire. Priyamvada Gopal earlier studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

 

The Guardian, London, concludes about your book: “This is an important book. Some narratives are told for the first time, others are retold in a different register. Gopal is particularly astute at specifying links between calls for colonial independence, overseas and workers’ movements back in Britain, connections that older studies have struggled to show. Polemic there is, but her battles with the empire denial lobby come in the opening pages and towards the close, and do not detract from a rigorous, persuasive revisionist history…” Do you agree?

 

I think it is right to say that some narratives draw on relatively under-used archives and others are more familiar ones retold in a different register. The point about polemic is interesting and perhaps points to a difference of approach between historians (as the reviewer, Miles Taylor, is) and literary critics. While it is true that the explicit statements of disagreement come only in the introduction and epilogue, I am not sure I would make quite so sharp a distinction in general between ‘polemic’ (or critique) and academic matter. The truth is important as are evidence, substance, rigour, but they can themselves constitute the heart of critique (which revising existing narratives require). Historians, in general, are more cautious about taking positions, perhaps, although they often, of course, do so despite themselves. It is not necessary to be agnostic in order to be rigorous, I think.

 

India in contemporary times is going through a particularly regressive and depressive phase, with a repressive and fascist regime taking over all institutions, ravaging and destroying them, celebrating the tyranny of mediocrity, including in academic and intellectual spaces. What, according to you, should we learn from history to overcome this phase which seems to be infinite as of now?

 

India was very much in my mind as I was writing this over the last several years when we have seen regression and authoritarianism rise on an unprecedented scale. As I write in the introduction, my first book was on dissident and progressive movements in India which challenged the premises of both colonialism and uncritical nationalism while imagining a new and truly emancipated future for the subcontinent. It occurred to me, following Edward Said’s lead, that if all cultures and civilizations share one thing, radical dissident traditions, then Britain too would have had one in relation to the empire. It simply could not have been true that all Britons were uncritically behind the colonial project.

 

India was very much in my mind as I was writing this over the last several years when we have seen regression and authoritarianism rise on an unprecedented scale. As I write in the introduction, my first book was on dissident and progressive movements in India which challenged the premises of both colonialism and uncritical nationalism while imagining a new and truly emancipated future for the subcontinent.

 

Your question is a tough one, of course, given the very ‘infinite’ seeming gloom in front of us and the truly terrifying nature of what has been unleashed in India with the seemingly enthusiastic consent of large swathes of the majority religious community. We may well be in uncharted terrain, the parallels to the 1930s in Europe notwithstanding. What should we learn from history? Well, that, as Herbert Aptheker said, resistance and not acquiescence is the motor of change and that there is absolutely no choice but to keep resisting, to keep dissidence alive (even as it extracts a heavy price, as we saw in Gauri Lankesh’s case or that of Dr Sai Baba’s, among others). Relatedly, we must keep alive, keep the faith, in the Indian subcontinent’s great dissident anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical traditions, including those with syncretic dimensions.  

 

This is, of course, harder than it sounds. What we also see in history, certainly as far as the British Empire is concerned, is the vital importance of organising against tyranny, making the necessary alliances across progressive and liberal sectors of society and politics.

 

In terms of Britain, why has it become so messy? What is the problem in the inner soul of this nation? Are they or are they not part of the EU ethos, if there is an EU ethos?

 

Although I hesitate to invoke constructs like a ‘national soul’ or even a ‘national psyche’, it is clear that there are some complicated and conflicted psychological, emotional and ideological inheritances from British imperial history. The scholar, Paul Gilroy, talks in terms of ‘post-colonial melancholia’ and that is certainly there, but, also, I think, a toxic cocktail of rage, entitlement, false victimhood, exceptionalism, and vanity.  If, in one sense, the project of Empire was turned by Victoria’s PM, Benjamin Disraeli, into a means of uniting the country behind the British flag in the face of deep economic inequality and vicious exploitation by the upper-classes of the working classes, Brexit has very clearly been used as a means of channelling grievances about the sharp edge of late capitalism and neo-liberalism away from the real culprits — the architects of Conservative ‘austerity’, for instance, into xenophobic anti-immigration sentiments. It’s a fairly simple trick — make people believe that their undoubtedly poorer living conditions and economic situation is due to foreigners rather than the financial elites and ruling classes of Britain.  And, it has largely worked, although bear in mind that the country is deeply, deeply divided over its relationship to the EU.

 

To some extent, the EU ethos is internationalist and more social democratic than Britain’s ruling classes are inclined to be, but we would be wrong to see that as a utopian ethos — it too is racialised as white and Christian and the internationalism is extremely limited. The bodies of refugees floating in the Mediterranean are a stark reminder of Fortress Europe and its own commitments to cultural homogeneity and xenophobia, not to mention neo-liberalism.

 

As for an ‘EU ethos’, well, that is another difficult question. To some extent, the EU ethos is internationalist and more social democratic than Britain’s ruling classes are inclined to be, but we would be wrong to see that as a utopian ethos — it too is racialised as white and Christian and the internationalism is extremely limited. The bodies of refugees floating in the Mediterranean are a stark reminder of Fortress Europe and its own commitments to cultural homogeneity and xenophobia, not to mention neo-liberalism. The simpler way to put it perhaps is that the EU is a deeply limited and flawed economic formation with cultural dimensions, but, that it is, at the current moment, more progressive and perhaps more amenable to reform than the ‘Little Britain’ envisaged by Brexit which is without a shadow of a doubt, a Far-Right racist project dressed up as a democratic pro-people’s movement.

 

Indeed, many countries in Europe, such as Hungry, Poland and Greece, which suffered both fascism and the purges and trauma of Stalinism, and post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, have moved Right-wing. Why do you think this is becoming a pattern, even as the Neo-Nazi forces rise in Germany and elsewhere?

 

As I said above, it’s a fairly simple but appealing trick. As the promises of trickle-down capitalism are exposed for the hollow con that they are, anger does emerge. That anger — and potential resistance and upsurge — are diverted on to the bodies of the stranger — the refugee, the migrant, the minority.  I don’t, however, think that the explanation is only economic — hatred is appealing to a racial or religious majority which is why we have so much middle-class support for Hindutva, for Donald Trump and for similar Right-wing projects. Hatred is perhaps easier than the difficult work of figuring out who is responsible for misery and deprivation; hatred also allows for self-regard, feeling better or even superior in oneself.

 

Stalinism and tyranny did great lasting harm in allowing for these ideologies to emerge and present themselves as the only moral alternative; it gave them a moral sheen they do not actually possess in themselves. It also made the case for democratic egalitarianism harder to make because it can always be pilloried as ‘communism’ of the Soviet variety.

 

Stalinism and tyranny did great lasting harm in allowing for these ideologies to emerge and present themselves as the only moral alternative; it gave them a moral sheen they do not actually possess in themselves. It also made the case for democratic egalitarianism harder to make because it can always be pilloried as ‘communism’ of the Soviet variety.

 

Last question: Do you think the Far Left, the Left, the Left-of-Centre, the radicals, the socialists, the anarchists, the feminists and the greens, can ever fly their flag of victory in terms of power in Britain? Can Jeremy Corbyn ever become a prime minister, and will he ever succeed to push the threshold of entrenched lobbies and vested interests of the so-called Empire to create a new radical transformation?

 

It is not beyond the realm of possibility. My own view is that broad Left coalitions are needed and that alliances with the Greens, for instance, would be a good idea for the mainstream social democratic party — Labour. Corbyn may well become PM, although it won’t be a simple or easy process, given how entrenched interests are. I would also caution against seeing a Corbyn-led government as a simple victory. Labour is a house divided, Corbynism as a project has its own limitations (not least in relation to the evasive and shifting stance on Europe), and, as I show in the book, Labour has a chequered history in relation to both anti-colonialism and anti-racism, a complicated history where there are both progressive and regressive figures on the Left. In many ways we see examples of this today as well, in particular a division over whether socialism in one country (so-called Blue Labour and its fellow travellers) is the answer (accompanied by anti-immigrant sentiments) or whether to embrace a full internationalism which would make a distinction between anti-colonialism and supporting tyrants like Bashar Assad. It’s a messy and difficult terrain, a terrain of struggle.

 

However, if there’s one idea that runs through the book it is that resistance to the forces of tyranny is not only an option, but the only option. To that, in fact, there is no alternative. 

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