Imperialism: A Syllabus

Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, imperialism, teaching history

Radhika Natarajan is assistant professor of history and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Her research focuses on the intertwined histories of decolonization, the welfare state, and citizenship in the British imperial world. 

John Munro teaches US and international history in the department of history at the University of Birmingham, England. He is the author of The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945–1960 (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and, with Kirrily Freeman, coeditor of Reading the Postwar Future: Textual Turning Points from 1944 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019). 


Opposition to imperialism unites the struggles of our times. From classrooms to city streets, it has never been more essential to engage with the continuing history of imperialism. The urgency of our imperial moment is at once fierce and everywhere to behold: in Indigenous struggles for sovereignty, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist movements, opposition to heteropatriarchy, resistance against violent anti-Asian racism, global Black Lives Matter. While some would argue that empires are relics of the past, imperialism continues to shape our contemporary world.

Imperialism denotes the repertoires of power necessary for one entity to maintain control over subject territories and populations. Yesterday and today, the sharpest analyses of imperialism have come from those who have positioned themselves in opposition to empires, and so this syllabus—the product of a conversation between a historian of the United Kingdom and one of the United States—emphasizes approaches to empire that are anti-colonial. To borrow a formulation from the great anti-imperialist writer and intellectual Dionne Brand, no syllabus is neutral.

Many of imperialism’s critics have employed Marxism to explain the relationship between imperialism, capitalism, and racism. This makes sense, as Karl Marx was born into a world produced by imperialism and by resistance to it. His theory of history emphasized that human societies moved through progressive stages, and it was this framework that explained British dominance in India as a necessary transformation before a socialist revolution would be possible. V. I. Lenin argued that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism: as European finance capitalists extinguished internal markets, they sought consumers and raw materials outside Europe. As Lenin set to work on his influential pamphlet, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that Europe’s wealth derived “primarily from the darker nations of the world.” Eric Williams, the historian and the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, later pointed out that it was profits from Caribbean slavery that fueled the English industrial revolution. In Williams’s formulation, empire was not an outcome of capitalism, but created the foundations for it. Claudia Jones, meanwhile, centered gender and race in her theorizing of formal and informal imperialism. And Cedric Robinson, himself a chronicler of the Black radical tradition, contended that imperial expansion was an ultimate outcome of racial distinction and colonialism within Europe. To this day, thinkers working with Marx show how histories of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy are deeply intertwined with imperialism.

Empires are predicated on defining groups of people and distinguishing between them. In the Americas, the subjugation of Indigenous peoples and the rise of chattel slavery demanded intricate distinctions of race and hierarchy. In maintaining racial order and perpetuating imperial power, white-supremacist ideologies were crucial. As Stuart Hall formulated, these ideologies of race operated on two registers: the biological and the cultural. From the dawn of transatlantic slavery, Europeans theorized human difference; many argued that the distinctions between races were based in the body. But racism could also operate on a cultural level, leading to distinctions of custom, habit, and tradition. And it is on these distinctions that modern imperialism depended in order to maintain rule.


In putting together this syllabus, we have learned from other generative efforts, such as Viewpoint Magazine’s Imperialism issue, the LSE’s 15 Recommended Reads on Colonial Histories, Colonial Legacies, the EPW Engage’s Insidious Imperialism reading list, and the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism, as well as models like the Ferguson Syllabus, the Charleston Syllabus, and the Trump Syllabus 2.0.

One of the joys of public syllabuses is that they encourage reading, discussion, and political engagement, but without the many barriers to innovative pedagogy that are increasingly imposed by the constraints of the corporate university. Traditional syllabuses contain assignments, so that students carry forward the knowledge they gain in the classroom. And while this syllabus does not require essays or exams, we hope it will encourage readers to think of themselves as active participants in this conversation. Many of the imperial inequalities we take up in this syllabus have been inflamed by pandemic conditions. However, our distanced reality reveals the possibilities of digital platforms and networks to foster collective forms of learning and exchange and create new solidarities.

A topic of this capaciousness could be put together in a variety of ways. While our syllabus unfolds in a loose chronology, each week we highlight a structuring dynamic of imperialism, drawing through-lines between past and present. In addition to historical scholarship, essays, and interviews, we include literature and film, because creative forms have been crucial for making imperialism visible, critiquing its operations, and imagining a future after empire. Ultimately, this syllabus aims to foreground a history of imperialism that serves contemporary struggles.

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