Academic Journal Withdraws Article on Colonialism

Published November 9, 2017

The peer-reviewed academic journal Third World Quarterly published “The Case for Colonialism,” by Portland State University professor Bruce Gilley. The article, which is no longer available on the journal’s website, received immediate outrage when it was posted in September, and an online petition signed by more than 10,000 people demanded its retraction. Fifteen members of the journal’s editorial board signed a letter of resignation after publication of the article.

The journal, published by UK company Taylor & Francis, withdrew the article, citing “threats of personal violence” toward the editor who published the piece, Shahid Qadir.

Threats of Violence

In response to the uproar, the author requested the journal retract the article, InsideHigherEd reported, so the issue could be studied in a more “civil and caring” manner.

The journal said in a statement on its website, “The journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.”

Angry editorial board members initially claimed the journal had not conducted the proper processes of peer review. The journal’s publisher refuted the accusation by posting a detailed chronology of the review process for the article.

Argued Benefits of Colonialism

As the title suggests, “The Case for Colonialism,” which appeared in the journal’s “Viewpoints” section, spoke favorably about colonialism. It recommended a form of colonialism be tried again in “failed states,” especially in former colonies now subject to corruption, civil war, and poverty. Gilley’s article stated post-colonial independence has taken a “grave human toll.”

The article presented documentation showing living conditions had improved in most areas under Western colonialism. Indigenous people in the colonies “moved closer to areas of more intensive colonial rule, sent their children to colonial schools and hospitals, went beyond the call of duty in positions in colonial governments, reported crime to colonial police, migrated from non-colonised to colonised areas, fought for colonial armies and participated in colonial political processes—all relatively voluntary acts,” Gilley wrote.

‘Political Pressure and Hegemonic Views’

Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, says publication decisions should involve writers and editors alone.

“Editors should retain full control over what they publish, decisions they ought to make with significant input from their editorial board and reviewers,” Taylor said. “Authors should also retain the right to retract their work. If Gilley and Qadir want to pull the piece, that’s up to them. But this episode suggests political pressure and hegemonic views have dictated the outcome. And that’s very harmful to the reputations of both the journal and the discipline.”

In a Facebook post, the editorial board members who resigned denied they were trying to undermine free speech.

“We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate,” they wrote. “However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.”

‘Standard Behavior’

John Leo, editor of the Minding the Campus website and longtime columnist for U.S. News and World Report, says such firestorms are an all-too-common occurrence.

“This is standard behavior for many leftists in academe,” Leo said. “Don’t argue the issues, isolate the dissenter as a heretic, label him a ‘white supremacist.’ Get his article retracted or expunged. Make sure other potential dissenters notice what you did to him. Then pose as a respected scholar.”

Gregory Rehmke, program director for the nonprofit organization Economic Thinking, says colonialism is a complex phenomenon requiring study from a full range of perspectives.

“History offers both colonial success stories like Hong Kong and Singapore and colonial disasters like the Belgian Congo,” Rehmke said. “How can scholars further investigate the many challenges and problems of development economics if they can’t publish on the mixed accomplishments and failures of colonial powers?”

Jane S. Shaw ([email protected]) is School Reform News’ higher education editor.