It is arguable that we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, with little respect for scholarly debates and academic endeavours. Despite the odds, several academics have been at the forefront of resistance against undemocratic forces, from participating in the widely attended open lectures on ‘nationalism’ at JNU to raising voices against state oppression in Turkey. Most academics in the critical tradition visualise or theorise an equitable world and work towards that end. Hence, when a leading academic journal, intuitively named the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), founded to encourage anti-colonial critiques and voices from the Global South, recently turned around to advocate for a return to colonialism and its benefits, a public debate is necessary.
TWQ was established in the 1970s, an era when being referred to as ‘Third World’ was a badge of defiance or honour rather than a slur. The journal sought to promote “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice”. The main financial patron of this academic venture was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which gained notoriety in 1990s with allegations of money laundering and other financial irregularities. However, the journal recovered from this scandalous association and went on to become a premier academic avenue for critical development discourse and postcolonial and de-colonial perspectives on global politics. Academics, especially from the Global South, have taken pride in publishing in this journal.
The most recent issue of the journal carried an article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of Political Science in the US, titled “The case for colonialism”, which not only glorifies colonial rule but also advocates for the recolonization of certain ex-colonies. The publication of this article led to widespread furore, with angry petitions demanding the retraction of the published article. The inaccurate statement by the editor that the article was a “Viewpoint” published to generate debate and had undergone rigorous peer review, ultimately forced 15 of the 34-member editorial board to resign.
The editor of the journal is not the only one supporting the author. High-profile editorial board member, Prof Noam Chomsky favors a rebuttal and calls for the accountability of the editor in ensuring proper procedures. He has rejected calls for retraction saying it would open “dangerous doors”. He also cautions against the destruction of the journal, known to publish cutting edge research and voices from the Global South.
Meanwhile, faced with growing outrage for what is being seen as his “white supremacist, racist, fascist” views, Bruce Gilley, said on his website: “I have asked the Third World Quarterly to withdraw my article “The case for colonialism.” I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people. I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place.” In some social media discussions, it has been suggested that his PhD should also be revoked by Princeton University.
The article itself makes a very poor case for colonialism, lacking in academic rigor and empirical evidence, and is based on several historical inaccuracies and misrepresentation of facts. Members of the editorial board in their joint resignation letter have rejected the editor’s claim of the article having gone through the mandatory double-blind peer review process. The article was rejected thrice before it was finally published without any editorial board member endorsing it.
The oft repeated mantra “publish or perish” requires academics to not only undertake cutting-edge, policy relevant or paradigm shifting research but also to disseminate the findings through reputable channels to their peers, professionals and common people. It is quite clear that the TWQ editor took the decision regarding the publication of this article without upholding proper editorial processes.
Gilley is neither the first nor the last academic to offer a cost benefit analysis of colonialism and praise its virtues. British historian, Niall Ferguson, for example, has been putting up a spirited defense of colonialism for several years now. In these times of aggressive and insular nationalisms that have afflicted both the Global North and the South, the rewriting of the past is the most popular and controversial academic enterprise.
The TWQ controversy should alert the academic community to the diminishing standards of academic rigour in the so called “best journals”, and to the undermining of academic integrity and freedom in which we may all be complicit in different ways. It should also prepare us for what lies ahead; an intellectual war of ideas to counter the most pernicious theories that justify global injustices and violence unleashed by colonialism and imperialism. Trump, Brexit and the rise of ultra-right regimes in Europe have not emerged in isolation. There is a deeper yearning to legitimise the “civilizing mission” and to account for the unaccomplished tasks of the colonial project.