Posted on 4 June 2024 in colonialism, decolonisation, empire, history, news

Empire Was Racist and Had To End but Decolonisation Is Often a ‘Disappointment’ – Historian Explains Why

In his ambitious new book, ISRF Fellow Martin Thomas provides a compelling account of how the decline of empire is inextricably linked to the rise of globalisation.

Adam Smith

Feature Image by Turaids

This article was written by a team member of Universal Impact.

A historian has given his verdict on what has gone wrong with decolonisation – explaining the root of the problem is modern capitalism.

Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) Fellow Martin Thomas is an expert in the history of empire, which he describes as “inextricably racist” and “viscerally intolerable”.

His new book, The End of Empires and a World Remade, looks at the collapse of European colonialism during the 20th century.

But Thomas reveals that “what came next was not some sort of simple process towards liberation, freedom, better futures”.

Speaking at his book launch in May, Thomas said:

Decolonisation has been crushed by the economic conditions in which it has taken place.

It is subservient to the triumph of a form of capitalism that is enshrined in what is often described as globalisation.

In its current iteration, [this] means the dominance of free market economic thinking, the idea that free markets can resolve problems better than governments and intergovernmental cooperation can.

In his new book, Thomas, Professor of History at the University of Exeter, reveals how the collapse of European empires led to a fundamental reorganisation of the world.

Over the course of 672 pages, he details how the “greatest process of state-making” in modern history led to new international coalitions, partitions and wars.

But Thomas explains that what followed was often a disappointment for many of those who opposed colonialism – and wanted more than just “same sort of political organisation but without ‘those nasty foreigners’ in charge”.

And many people who opposed empire found themselves “bound up in transitions over which they found themselves either denied control or losing control”.

Thomas added:

If there is a tragedy that we’re describing behind all of this unfulfilled decolonisation, it’s that virtually every problem we confront now cannot be solved at the level of a sovereign state.

The existential problems that we and our children are going to face are global. They demand of us some other form of making decisions and prioritising what matters.

Thomas, whose work has been supported by the ISRF, also discussed the connections between the end of empire and contemporary world politics, including the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

His rigorous research into decolonisation covers the impact of the Cold War and the US military’s response to the September 11 attacks.

And the book launch, which took place at Barnard’s Inn Hall, London, on 24 May, ended with Thomas emphasising that “decolonialisation is clearly not done”.

Speaking at the event, ISRF Academic Editor Lars Cornelissen said:

Nobody looking at today’s geopolitical landscape can reasonably conclude that the era of colonial ambition is over.

Within this complex and charged landscape, Martin’s ambitious and compelling book makes for a much needed intervention.

It revisits the history of decolonisation and forcefully argues that a complete understanding of the end of empires requires that we approach this history from a global perspective.

Thomas is the Co-Director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Histories of Violence and Conflict. He was an ISRF Mid-Career Fellow from 2015 to 2016.

His book, The End of Empires and a World Remade, is currently available in hardcover from Princeton University Press.

This event was the 32nd in the ISRF’s series of book launches. Next up is the launch of Disability and Political Representation by Professor Elizabeth Evans and Dr Stefanie Reher, on 20 June.