The oppressor’s values

The first generation, in countries with a state tradition like Egypt, China, and Vietnam, could find no other response to the challenge of colonization than to take refuge in religious (Muslim) or moral (Confucian) values. In fact, these resistance ideologies were not good for taking up the challenge. Might the emperor have lost the “Mandate of Heaven”? Was the Muslim leaders’ faith perhaps not strong enough? In any event, the elites often collapsed and it was in fact people from more modest backgrounds (provincial scholars among the Vietnamese, for example) who resisted.

The following, urbanized generation, among which some spoke the colonizer’s language—after having studied in London, Paris, or Geneva—was better informed. It now knew that the colonizer’s superiority was not due only to its weapons. The new elites attributed this superiority to their institutions: political parties, deliberative authorities such as parliament, a constitution, and so on. The early twentieth century was the time of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran (1904-1911), the Young Turk revolution (1908), the Xinhai Revolution in China (1910) and, a little later, in Egypt, the foundation of the Wafd Party. These headways were more or less successfully achieved, but did not seem to be the key to the problem.
The third generation—including among others Gandhi, Hồ Chí Minh, Zhou Enlai, Sukarno, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—is the one to be credited with having understood the role of modern nationalism. It grasped the importance of a body of emancipatory ideas, and they saw no reason why these should be an exclusively European prerogative. But these avant-gardes were very much a minority, lacking grounding in the masses. How could these be mobilized?

The role of ideology

In eastern Asia, the Bolshevik seeds of anti-imperialism resonated among the people and led to some severely repressed workers’ uprisings in Canton and Shanghai in the mid-1920s. Marxism, in its Leninist version, offered a powerful innovation: the vanguard party. Lenin, in What Is to Be Done? (1902) calls up the need for a vanguard, a party of professional revolutionaries made up of intellectuals and semi-intellectuals intended to lead and organize the labor movement, which according to Lenin, was spontaneously more trade-unionist than revolutionary.

The image given of the world was otherwise undoubtedly a simplified one, but easily comprehensible and, above all, a mobilizing one. After many failures, the Chinese Communist Party, against the backdrop of the war against Japan (1937-1945), succeeded in changing into a daunting force and in ultimately being victorious in 1949, to everyone’s surprise.

The effects of Leninism had been much less convincing in Western Asia. The Baku Congress (1920), which portrayed itself as anti-imperialist and invited peoples to free themselves from colonial subjection, went practically unheard in the East.

In India, Gandhi managed to mobilize a mass movement all the more difficult to counter that it was nonviolent. There were protests in Great Britain after troops fired on an unarmed crowd in Amritsar in 1919 and killed about four hundred demonstrators. This third generation, which included nationalists and Marxists (especially in eastern Asia), called the established order into question in increasingly organized ways and would turn against the colonizers the nationalist ideology that had been so useful to the latter for imposing their domination.