Decolonizing history: a global movement to reclaim diverse narratives

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-08-22


There is a general confusion in the use of the term “decolonize.” After Quijano, the key concepts are coloniality and decoloniality. Coloniality, in general, is the darker side of Western modernity and the infrastructure of Western Civilization. History is a modern, Western disciplinary practice. This is not a judgment, but rather a description.

As a discipline, the disciplinary regulation of history originated during the first stage of the European Renaissance (1350-1500). It secured a new meaning during the second stage (1500-1650).

During this period the foundations of Western global expansion (or globalization) were established, and the discipline of history secured them: the centrality of the actors, institutions, and languages (the enunciation) in which the past of Europe was invented and in which the past of the colonized civilization was appropriated. It was appropriated in two ways. First, the Western idea of history relegated coexisting civilizations to the past. Second, Western historians appointed themselves to write histories of other civilizations. And they did so in the six modern imperial European languages (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and English) grounded in two linguistic traditions (Greek and Latin). In both cases, Western history blocked and disavowed narratives in non-Western languages through which non-Western memories were maintained.

And of course, non-Western civilization has no need of “history,” which is the Western idea to keep their own memories. “History” means “what happened” and “the narrative of what happened.” Western history created the illusion that what it narrated is what happened. It conveniently created the belief that the narration IS what is narrated.

Hence, if you control the narration and interpret events from a single civilizational perspective, you may convince yourself to believe that what you say happened is what happened. What I just did above is a sample of decolonizing history. Next, you must find your own way according to your personal story, your local history, and your goals.

Modernization, decolonization, decoloniality, post colonization

Modernization refers to specific projects located in time and space. China’s concept of modernization is not the same as that of the U.S. although the same word is being used. There is much more in the word than catches the eye. The problem resides in that distracted readers pay attention to the surface, not to what makes the surface appear as what it seems to be.

In general, readers assume or want to know what modernization is, and bypass the fundamental questions: what is modernization for whom, who is using the word, why, with what purposes, to the benefit of whom? But there is more.

Modernization refers to instances within a general horizon named modernity. Modernity is the rhetoric, and points towards a horizon. Modernization are instances, in different places and times, aiming to advance towards that horizon.

Now enter decolonization, a key word during the Cold War. The Bandung Conference of 1955 remains as an anchor of the struggles, in South and Southeast Asia and Africa, to delink from settler colonialism so that the natives could organize and rule their own nation-states. And that happened with all the splendors and miseries.

However, parallel to expelling the settlers and establishing local governances, the period left a wealth of decolonial thinking: Mahatma Gandhi in India, Patrice Lumumba in the Republic of Congo, Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bisáu, Steve Biko in South Africa, and Martinican Frantz Fanon in France and Algeria.

Parallel to these legacies, the legacies of Sun Yat-sen should be kept in mind. There is a difference to consider: China did not endure the experience of settler colonialism (like India, Indonesia, and all African regions, except Ethiopia). However, China could not avoid coloniality. The Opium War in the mid of the nineteenth century, disrupted and interrupted, for better or worse, a long millenarian history of Chinese Civilization.

These legacies, which in my understanding, lead to the actual international politics of Chinese governance, are the legacies of de-Westernization: the appropriation of capitalist economics and the rejection of neo-liberal designs to homogenize the world. De-Westernization is a state-led project after decolonization during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the turning point: the Bandung State project of decolonization turned into the states project of de-westernization joined today by several other states, notably Russia and Iran, the BRICS countries, and all the countries that requested to join the BRICS+.

But, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the closing of decolonization during the Cold War, the concept of coloniality was introduced by Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano. This concept did not exist before 1992. The concept of modernity gave the impression that it was the totality. Quijano through years, and many of us followed and are following his step, that coloniality is the darker side of western modernity, that there is not and cannot be modernity without coloniality. Modernity manifest itself as the rhetoric of salvation to hide the logic of coloniality, which is the logic that materializes domination, exploitation, and oppression, and that generates conflicts. Decolonization is one of the responses to the conflicts generated by modernity/coloniality.

Notice that modernity is a European concept, created in Europe and expanded to the North Atlantic, responding to their own needs and desires. Modernity is a modern, euro-centered concept. Coloniality is a decolonial concept created in the Third World responding to the respective needs of desires. Coloniality is a decolonial concept.

Hence, we have modernity and modernity, coloniality and colonization and decoloniality (since 1992 and after Quijano) and decolonization. The first terms denote the rhetoric of salvation (modernity), the logic of oppression (coloniality) and the grammar of liberation from modernity/coloniality (decoloniality). At its turn, modernization, colonization, and decolonization denote specific instances in time and space in which modernity and coloniality materializes, and decolonization denotes the specific instances of, (particularly in the 20th century) based on local histories.

The post-colonial is a different story. First the prefix “post” did not exist before 1978. Francois Lyotard introduced it in his The Postmodern Condition. Post-modernity is still a euro-centered perspective that at once maintains modernity and establishes a difference with it. The emergence of postmodernity is parallel and contemporary with the emergence of neoliberalism.

Hence “post” means at once after something and a new perspective after that something. The post-colonial, and all the expressions derived from it, could not have existed before the introduction of postmodernity in Europe. While the decolonial traces its roots to the Bandung Conference, the postcolonial is grounded and dependent on post-modernity. In that sense, the postcolonial is entangled with postmodern thinkers (Lacan-Bhabha; Foucault-Said; Derrida-Spivak; Gramsci-Guha).

Furthermore, while the decolonial is grounded in Bandung and in the conquest of America during the European Renaissance, the postcolonial is grounded in postmodernity and the European Enlightenment and the colonization of India.

Decolonization in the Cold War era

In general, decolonization during the Cold War, in Asia and Africa, intended to send the colonial settlers home and to build a sovereign nation-state. That was an illusion, because the State was a powerful instrument of British, French, and Dutch colonial expansion. So, each decolonization ended up building modern/colonial nation states.

However, in 1949, when the U.S. took over world leadership from England, it announced its political and economic designs: modernization and development. Narratives of modernization (that is, the discourse to promote the benefits of modernization) replaced the British promotion of “progress” and the previous Spanish promotion of conversion. In general, salvation, progress, and modernization are historical manifestations of the rhetoric of modernity: the rhetoric that promotes the benefits of Western Civilization.

The result was that the formation of modern/colonial nation states in the previous colonized regions of Asia and Africa, which became dependent on the overall political, economic, and epistemic foundations of Western Civilization. In our terminology, after Quijano, the underlying structure of Western Civilization is the Colonial Matrix of Power. A pedagogical example: if the unconscious is the underlying structure of the human psyche (which is a European perspective of the human psyche), the Colonial Matrix of Power is the underlying structure of Western Civilization. This is a Third World perspective and a decolonial perspective of the world order since 1500.

So, yes, the formation of modern/colonial nation states in Asia, Africa, South/Central America, and the Caribbean, bought the dream of modernization. That is, they fell into the trap of the rhetoric of modernity. Today, however, all of us on the planet are witnessing the rise of strong state delinking from the Western rhetoric of modernity. A case in point is China. When Xi Jinping promotes modernization, he does it from his (and the Chinese government’s) own perspective and needs. To proceed in that manner implies delinking from the Western idea of modernity and modernization and to ground modernization in each local history in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

In the Chinese government’s own words: President Xi pointed out that realizing modernization is a relentless pursuit of the Chinese people since modern times began. It is also the common aspiration of people of all countries. In pursuing modernization, a country needs to follow certain general patterns.

More importantly, it should proceed from its own realities and develop its own features. After a long and arduous quest, the CPC has led the entire Chinese nation in finding a development path that suits China’s conditions.

Now, not every non-Western country (e.g., the U.S. and the E.U.) is ready to follow China′s sovereign determination. Many States prefers to remain within the Western idea of modernization. In the case of Egypt, it would be useful to trace the movement from Gamal Abdel Nasser′s contribution to the Non-Aligned Movement from 1961 to today. Egypt seems to act as a pendulum with one eye to West Asia (Middle East from the Western Perspective) and the other turned towards the E.U. and the U.S. in the North. Lately, Egypt seems to be looking more toward West Asia and to join the Chinese model of modernization, since it requested to become a member of the BRICS organization.

Three trajectories, three histories

The “we” depends on who is aiming at what. There can no longer be a universal (or even a global “we”) that decides for the rest of us. Histories are already being written from the three described perspectives and aims: histories from the perspective of westernization and re-westernization will continue to be written; histories from the perspective and aims of de-westernization have already begun to be written; and histories from the perspective and aims of decoloniality as decolonization have been written since the sixteenth century and are gaining traction in the 21st century.

None of these three trajectories are homogeneous. They are heterogenous. But the perspective of each of them is clearly perceived. The universal history written by Christian theologians and the secular universal history written by Hegel is no longer possible nor desirable. That is, whoever pretends that his (and it must be his in this case) history is universal will immediately be contested by the two other trajectories. However, the intent and pretense to universal history at this point can only come from re-westernizing aims and perspectives.

The co-existence of these three trajectories will be with us for a while during the 21st century. Unless some black swan unexpectedly changes the course of events of international relations and the goals and possibilities of the political society. These three trajectories co-exist in conflict.

However, decoloniality and de-westernization have one element in common: both are delinking from Western ideas of modernity and from neo-liberal designs. Nevertheless, decolonization and de-westernization differ in one important aim: de-westernization is disputing the control of the colonial matrix of power (e.g., the instrument of Western expansion and domination) while decoloniality delinks altogether from the colonial matrix of power.

In that triple scenario emerges the three “we” and the “three” type of histories being written. And remember each “we” and each “type” of history are heterogenous, and distinctive in their aims and horizons. The heterogeneity emerges in how to carry on the perspective and the aims, but remains distinctive on the “what”, the “why”, and the “what for.” The idea of universal history is gone, although there are still believers and defenders.


Walter D. Mignolo is William H. Wannamaker Distinguished Professor of Literature and Romance studies, Professor of literature at Duke University.

Editor:Yu Hui

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved