Palestine Amiss in Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire

Britain has no anti-imperialist tradition. There may have been the occasional outburst from this or that literary, cultural or political figure but such outbursts have always had very limited public appeal. In recent years opinion polls have shown the British public has an overwhelming positive view of the days when the British imperialist writ ran supreme over a very good proportion of mankind. Tens of millions of souls may have perished in slavery and destitution; hundreds and thousands  of millions of pounds may have been looted from what is now referred to as the Global South. But hey, let’s look on the positive of Empire: we eventually abolished slavery and built the railroads in India.

The Cambridge University academic, Priyamvada Gopal over the last several years has become known as a critic of British imperialism, imperial nostalgia and also of contemporary British racism. Her latest book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent is apparently informed by her admiration of Edward Said. As she states, the “late Edward Said’s work continues to nourish my mind and the impact of his thought will, hopefully, be evident throughout this book.”[i] Professor Edward Said distinguished himself as one of the world’s most preeminent intellectuals in the study of imperialism. Among his much esteemed books are Orientalism, The Question of Palestine and Culture and Imperialism. His writing was no doubt influenced by his status as a refugee as a result of British imperialism’s policies in his native Palestine.

The hypothesis that drives Gopal’s book is that anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist resistance in the British Empire influenced political dissent in Britain itself. In the introduction of the book there are numerous repetitions of this claim. For example, struggles in the Global South, “were not without impact on metropolitan ideologies and practices.”[ii] And more forthrightly:

“Resistance to the colonial project in several parts of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped shape criticism of and opposition to the imperial project within Britain itself…”[iii]

What also further drove her to write this tomb is that previous books on British imperialism, “do not examine in any depth the vital relationship between anti-colonial resistance in the periphery and the emergence of such dissent in the metropole.”[iv]

Among those whose resistance to British Imperialism reverberates to this day are the Palestinians. The British imperialist ruling elite in 1917 issued the Balfour Declaration to Zionist leaders committing itself to building a Jewish National Home in Palestine over the heads of the indigenous population. At the time of the declaration’s publication no more than 8% of Palestine’s population were Jewish. Today, thanks to British imperialism, Zionist-Jewish colonial settlers dominate in Palestine, while the indigenous Palestinian population are contained in mostly reservations, ethnically cleansed and dispersed around the world. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly Palestinian resistance to the British imperialist Zionist project is not up for discussion in Gopal’s book.

Strangely, a discussion of whether Palestinian resistance and potentially its supposed influence on dissent in the imperial metropole seems to be missing. To be fair to Gopal she lets it be known in the introduction of the book that one of the highlights of Palestinian resistance to the British Empire, that is the uprising between 1936-1939, is not considered for the following reason:

Insurgent Empire does not aspire to achieve anything like comprehensive coverage of anticolonial insurgencies, bearing in mind that the Empire was subject to almost constant challenge. It also does not attempt to survey the whole terrain of British dissent on imperial matters…Instead, my focus is on what I identify as exemplary crises of rule and engagement that helped create a tradition of dissent on the question of empire, looked outward to the colonial world, and sought to effect transformation as much in Britain as beyond.”[v]

Therefore, the Palestinian uprising of the 1930s, which is an intrinsic part of Edward Said’s political heritage, needed to be ignored or as she says it’s a “gap” because she “did not have the time and space to incorporate” it.[vi] This is nonsense, of course. The fact is this anticolonial uprising, as well as many others, simply will not fit her hypothesis. Palestinians have been resisting the British-Zionist colonial project in their homeland for the last 100 years. Edward Said continued to write about the plight of his people to his last breath yet Gopal has arrogantly produced a thesis supposedly inspired by him that does not discuss the specific imperialist policy that not only informed his politics but his person.  

Having set out her surreptitious stall in the introduction, Gopal still manages to drag Palestine to help substantiate her thesis and, according to the index of this book, it is mentioned twice. Once in the context of a discussion of one of the heroine’s of the book who next to no-one has ever heard of, a certain Margery Perham. Perham is, as Gopal says a liberal imperialist, that is, she is an apologist for the British Empire. So one can only wonder what Perham means when she says that British policies in Palestine were a “[great] mistake”.[vii]  Maybe, Gopal needed to inform her readership what Perham thought was a mistake. For example, there are many Western warmongers today who argue that mistakes were made with the Iraq or Libya wars but still support the original decision to military intervene. Did Perham think that British Empire was right to issue the Balfour Declaration but “mistakes” were made in its implementation? After all, I’m sure Gopal’s self-professed nemesis, the arch-imperialist Professor Niall Ferguson would agree that “mistakes” were made in the administration of the British Empire.

The second mention is when Gopal argues that the British had been forced out of Palestine in 1948 and, “counterinsurgency tactics developed in Palestine would be deployed in Malaya, which the British hoped to hold on to along with Singapore after the loss of India and Palestine.”[viii] India and Palestine were not the same. The British always intended to create a Zionist-colonial state in Palestine. Actually, one of the main reasons to create the Zionist project was to help secure the passage of shipping between the metropole (Britain) and the periphery (India and Asia). Therefore, there was no overall loss for the British in Palestine but actual success in establishing the very foundations of the Zionist-colonialist project in Palestine which every British Prime Minister has since supported. The ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population of Palestine in 1947-48 is rooted in British policy – a point, I would wager, Gopal will never ever acknowledge. On the other hand, India wasn’t occupied by Britain to be colonised by Europeans, but to be unapologetically looted.

Another mention of Palestine occurs in the discussion of a 1930s political fringe group called, League Against Imperialism (LAI). A prominent member of this group was an inconsequential British aristocrat by the name Reginald Bridgeman who Gopal claims “became a vigorous critic of Zionism and an advocate of justice for the Palestinian Arabs”.[ix] However, there is no reference to substantiate this assertion and Gopal doesn’t say when he began this advocacy. Bridgeman lived until the 1960s, so was he an advocate while a member of LAI or towards the end of his life after the British-Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine? And maybe the answer is in the absent reference.  

The most brazen sleight of hand in this tomb is the discussion of the British Labour politician Ramsay MacDonald who Gopal claims was briefly influenced by critics of Empire in the periphery. As such there is a meandering of his book The Awakening of India published in 1910. In the bibliography she lists other MacDonald books that assumingly she read to complete her thesis, The Government of India (1919)and Labour and the Empire (1907). But surprise, surprise she doesn’t mention his book, A Socialist in Palestine published in 1922 written in the wake of his visit to Palestine. Macdonald wrote in this tract that Palestinian demands for self-determination were deprived of “complete validity” because the biblical stories he was reared on as a child rendered that, “Palestine and the Jew can never be separated.”[x] Furthermore, Palestinian Arabs were incapable of developing the resources of their country and as such there is an “alluring call”[xi] for “hundreds of thousands of Jews”[xii] to colonise Palestine under a British mandate. This is MacDonald writing in 1922 justifying British imperialism and its attendant Zionist colonialism in Palestine. The reason Gopal decides to not include this text in her discussion is obvious.

So not only does she seem to ignore counterinsurgencies that don’t fit her theory, she elides books of characters under discussion that don’t fit her reading of those same characters. She doubles down on her disingenuousness by claiming that MacDonald “certain[ly]” came “to a clear recognition of the existence of other historical experiences and trajectories which challenged the British assumption of exemplary status…”[xiii] Obviously this is palpable nonsense because as already established this “certainty” went missing in action when he wrote A Socialist in Palestine in 1922.

Later in Insurgent Empire she claims that it is “ironic” that MacDonald implemented imperialist repressions when he briefly became Prime Minister between 1929-31.[xiv] The irony belongs to Gopal and the people ingenuously convinced by her rendition of MacDonald. This so-called “irony” only exists in Gopal’s imagination.

So what exactly happened between Macdonald writing his meanderings on India in the 1910s and his pro-colonialist views on Palestine in 1922? One can only a hazard a guess: could it be that going forward, Macdonald concluded, that British imperialism cynically needed to be justified with a socialist veneer? After all, as Gopal suggests, MacDonald in power was no different to any other British imperialist Prime Minister.   

When discussing Perham, Gopal claimed that some of her work has “escaped scholarly attention” but what’s blatantly clear is that it is MacDonald’s book, A Socialist in Palestine that has escaped Gopal’s scholarly attention.[xv] Or to express it in layman’s terms she seems to have sat on the evidence that would have belied and negated her hypothesis, that is, Macdonald as a representative of the imperialist metropole was even remotely influenced by the rebellions in the imperialist periphery. If he was affected by rebellions, as she claims, then the evidence strongly suggests that it convinced him that going forward the British Empire needed to be justified with socialistic terminology.

In the epilogue of Insurgent Empire, Gopal acknowledges Edward Said opining that there was very little opposition to the Empire in the metropole but she concludes that there was a “distinct minority tradition” of “opposition outlier” or “dissident[s]”.[xvi] If the manner Palestine has both been ignored and represented by Gopal is anything to go by then this “distinct minority tradition” is a figment of Gopal’s own head. And as Gopal over the last several years has let it be known that she is not averse to Western led regime change or at the very least someone who manufactures consent for Western led military interventions, this “distinct minority tradition” resembles the pretexts for current Western led regime change wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria as they too are exaggerations and products of the British imperialist propaganda imagination.

[i] Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, (London: Verso), 2019, pg. x

[ii] ibid., pg.7

[iii] ibid., pg.8

[iv] ibid. pg.6

[v] ibid. pg.36

[vi] ibid., pg.37

[vii] ibid., pg.432

[viii] ibid., pg.444

[ix] ibid., pg.264

[x] Ramsay MacDonald, “A Socialist in Palestine”, Jewish Socialist Labour Confederation – Poale Zion, 1922, pg.18

[xi] ibid., pg.171

[xii] ibid., pg.19

[xiii] Gopal op. cit., pg. 204

[xiv] ibid., pg. 277

[xv] ibid., pg.425

[xvi] ibid., pg.453

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