Freedom Declaration: Freedom as Independence

(Part of Four Conceptions of Freedom.)

In the struggle against the political, social, economic and cultural conditions of colonialism, anti-colonial movements and their theorists imagined ways to change, re-order and transcend. These anti-colonial imaginations informed struggles in the different waves of decolonisation. These three waves are as follows:

  • The 1st phase of decolonisation (1776 to 1826) brought about the national independence of most of the European colonies in North, Caribbean and South America (‘New World’)

  • The 2nd wave of decolonisation (1839 to 1931) in the dominions and ‘Old World’

  • The 3rd wave of decolonisation refers to the end of colonial rule after 1945 or WWII in mostly Third World (Africa and Asia)

There was no single imagination of how to organise society after colonialism. Varieties of freedom contested each other. In the post WWII period – the period of African and Asian independence – freedom became closely associated with the idea of forming sovereign nation states. In this framework, decolonisation had the following dimensions:

  1. It would provide freedom from foreign rule and domination
  2. It would create space for colonised people to chart their futures – self determination
  3. Independence would provide space to advance radical social and economic programmes which in some cases included socialism.

This conception also had strong emphasis on economic freedom. Colonialism was seen as linked to exploitation of the colonised people and the exploitation of the resources in the colonised countries. Independence was also about having a final say on how the wealth and natural resources of these different societies could be restored to the people.

The anti-colonial project was also framed as a people’s project to get back what had been taken away from them. It was a form of popular sovereignty.

The drive for freedom as independence also came from below. Colonised people’s calls for political rights and other privileges of citizenship carried greater emotional force and seemed more attainable when cast in terms of their particular place and community than references to the “international proletariat” or “pan-ethnic identities”.

While nationalist appeals could inspire the masses, the masses could complicate campaigns to win independence. In order to engage peasants, wage labourers, market women, and other ordinary people, the leadership of the independence movements had to address their concerns in ways they could understand. It became necessary for anticolonial campaigners to grapple with land, labour, and taxation issues that were located most directly within the colonial realm itself.

And it became necessary for them to appeal to local constituencies in their own cultural registers, drawing on their dress, dialect, customary practices, religious symbols, and other modes of meaning in order to attract support. The structural constraints of colonialism itself helped to channel the energies of its opponents toward national objectives. The transportation and communication infrastructures that anticolonial activists relied upon to reach their supporters and spread their messages—roads, railways, postal systems, newspapers, and so on—were contained for the most part within colonial boundaries. In this formulation, the social and economic demands made by the masses could be met through independence.

The resistance of the independence movements fundamentally called into question the colonial order and sought to establish a new order. The leading figures of the anticolonial movement in the 20th century consciously employed the rhetoric of revolution and spoke of the defeat of colonial rule in revolutionary terms. For example, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)wrote the following in his main work The Wretched of the Earth: “Decolonisation, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder”.Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), the founder and leader of the Viet Minh movement for Vietnamese independence, deliberately sought to portray the declaration of independence of his country from France as standing in the long tradition of the American and French revolutions of the 18th century.9 While the colonisers used terms such as “rebellion” and “insurrection” in their attempts to depict anticolonial resistance directed against them as criminal attempts to overthrow legitimate authority, the anticolonial movement employed the concept of revolution as a legitimising title for their struggle for independence

Socially and culturally, colonialism was a racist system. The era of “modern” nineteenth-century imperialism was also the era of scientific racism. Colonialism, mediated through racism and racist policies, limited and even forbade meaningful cross-cultural dialogue between coloniser and colonised. Throughout most of Africa and Asia, racism was “not an incidental detail, but … a substantial part of colonialism.” Harsh, brutal, and deliberately discriminatory treatment at the hands of European colonisers was the constant, painful reminder to Africans and Asians that they were a colonised and humiliated people. All nationalists, irrespective of ideological differences, were generally agreed that such treatment was indefensible; it must be ended.

It is important to understand that the idea of freedom as independence was not the only game in town or the only option favoured by those seeking freedom from colonialism. Another option that is often not spoken about was the idea of freedom that was not tied to state sovereignty or the idea of a nation state.

Léopold Senghor (Senegal) and Aime Cesaire (Martiniue in the Caribbean) promoted the idea of freedom as a co-existence with the former colonial metropole – France. Under this scheme, France would be transformed from a colonial nation to a democratic federation in which former colonies had a stake and voice – a transcontinental arrangement that brought the coloniser and the colonised together in one polity. For Senghor and Cesaire, colonial independence was not synonymous with freedom. They promoted a form of anti-colonial cosmopolitan that reconciled and reconstituted different worlds.

This is an edited excerpt from Dave Kennedy (2016) Decolonisation: A Very Short Introduction.