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Decolonisation and its discontents

Why a theory of despair is shaping some left responses to Gaza

Paul Mason
25 min readNov 20, 2023

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Simon Sebag Montefiore’s attack on decolonisation theory (The Atlantic, 27 October 2023) makes a valid point: that by defining the Jewish presence in Israel as “settler colonial” it legitimises the destruction of the state of Israel as an objective, and has led some on the left to justify the Hamas terror attack of 7 October. Under the banner of decolonisation, he writes:

“Western academics, students, artists, and activists have denied, excused, or even celebrated the murders by a terrorist sect that proclaims an anti-Jewish genocidal program.”

This is true. And even though such people remain a minority within the Palestine solidarity movement, some among its majority have tolerated their presence.

But I doubt Sebag Montefiore’s article will convince many of the young people proclaiming their “exhilaration” at the Hamas attack. Nor should it invalidate an academic discipline devoted to the study of a historic phenomenon labelled “settler colonialism”, which that has advanced our understanding of white supremacy.

Sebag Montefiore describes decolonisation theory as:

“a toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century”

and notes that it has

“replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians”.

But he cannot explain why it has done so, or how the “nonsensical mix” has solidified into a coherent ideology among young people, other than that its rise is part of a wider disintegration of rigour in academia.

Those of us on the left who do want to defend universalism, the rule of law and the Enlightenment tradition need to give a fuller account of the advantages and limits of decolonisation/settler colonialism theory; of the material roots of its popularity; and propose an alternative that goes beyond the reactionary defence of imperialist colonisation, which many liberals and conservatives have adopted.

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Paul Mason

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Author of How To Stop Fascism.