Criticism of postcolonial theories is on the rise. It meanders between foreboding and revanchist identity politics. It's time to defend yourself.

Two people lean against a window on each side.

Open window, closed window Illustration: Katja Gendikova

A specter haunts Germany: “postcolonial theory.” Framed as a monolithic block and often incorrectly called “postcolonialism,” it appears in speeches by politicians, as well as in articles, tweets, and statements by journalists and scientists. More recently, Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, has repeatedly made headlines with his criticism of “postcolonialism.”

Briefly summarized, the accusations read as follows: Postcolonial theory promotes anti-Semitism from the left, spreads a growing “cancel culture” in universities, represents a binary construction of the world as good and evil, and is expressed in hatred towards whites.

These massive attacks appear to be rapidly closing a window in this country that had just been laboriously opened: the acceptance of German colonial history and its historical connections to the racial-ideological annihilation project of the “Third Reich.” This can only be useful for historical revisionist actors like the AfD, which already asked the Bundestag in 2022 whether the federal government would “stop financing all projects.” [erwägt]that are in an affirmative connection with postcolonial theory.”

The Instinctive Science of Speech Entrepreneurs

There are two ways to approach current attacks on postcolonial theories. One is that of scientific criticism. The logical coherence, the quality of the arguments and, above all, the veracity of the arguments of the “Poko critics” are checked. In a scientific context, the latter primarily means fidelity to the source and verifiability: Can the claim be proven based on the literature?

But that's not the end. Science also thrives on contextual knowledge. One can quickly read a book or pretend to have done so; However, this doesn't mean you can see an entire field. Precisely for this reason scientists often spend years studying an object. Publications are reviewed through feedback, cross-reading and peer review processes. The fact that they are still debatable is a central part of science.

However, it is precisely these quality criteria that we are missing in the currently very strident debate on “postcolonialism”. While distorted representations in debate are part of the business model of some media professionals, knee-jerk criticism of postcolonial studies is particularly worrying when scientists with no documented expertise on the subject create a distorted image of postcolonial studies.

Scientific examination procedures are not preserved

This can be well illustrated by the statement “Is a 'decolonization' of science and research necessary?” published by the Academic Freedom Network on October 27, 2023 following the Hamas massacre. Although “postcolonial theory” still has a marginal existence in university curricula, the declaration describes it as a “hegemonic strategy”. Its representatives also periodically put the Shoa in perspective. The public statements and book projects of some colleagues involved in this network are in the same online, but they certainly would not survive scientific peer review or other scientific examination procedures.

However, a look at the literature shows that there are many important points of contact between postcolonial perspectives on racism, colonialism and fascism and concerns about eliminationist antisemitism. The works of Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt should be mentioned here as examples. The former's radical humanism was influenced not only by fighting fascism as a soldier in the Free French Armed Forces, but also by Jean-Paul Sartre's 1946 book “Considerations on the Jewish Question”; The latter originally wanted to title his main work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, “Elements of Shame: Antisemitism – Imperialism – Racism”.

However, these connections are hardly discussed in the German-speaking debate. Rather, critics of postcolonialism are very successful as discourse entrepreneurs with their visceral knowledge. Their combat pamphlets are treated as intellectually significant contributions and anchoring points of the digital attention economy.

Right-wing metapolitics

A second way of approaching criticism of postcolonialism is to understand these actors themselves as part of an authoritarian-illiberal turn, in which context voices from the right, conservative-bourgeois, liberal, and sometimes also from the left appear, with similar arguments. .

The ideological star of the New Right in the United States, Christopher Rufo, has shaped this change. The former advisor to Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis recently made a name for himself with the massive censorship of school and college curricula in Florida. In a tweet on October 13 of last year, Rufo called for the central concepts of left-wing progressive movements to be selected and reloaded through clever associative chains in such a way that actors from the right to the left of center could do nothing. apart from using these concepts to ostracize.

Specifically, in his opinion, “strong partnerships” should be created between Hamas, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Democratic Socialists of America and scientific “decolonization”, and then attack, delegitimize and discredit them in one fell swoop.

Rufo's strategy has already worked well in the United States. Philosopher Alberto Toscano described this vividly recently in his essay “The War on Education – in Gaza and at Home.” The political situation in the USA cannot be directly transferred to Germany. But here too, even voices that consider themselves liberal are falling en masse into the discursive trap of the New Right.

German variant of critical race theory

Postcolonial theories in this country suffer the same fate as critical race theory in the United States. Thanks to Rufo and other cultural warriors, the term has long functioned there as an empty signifier to create public opinion. It can be interspersed with progressive left themes to score a point against the “woke” elites.

The attack on postcolonial theories is an attempt to hold on to one's own privileges and authority to interpret history.

These empty signifiers do not need any further explanation, as they do not derive their meaning from research, sources, knowledge and evidence, but primarily from associations with other words. These then condense into a supposed threat scenario and become general resentment. Here the new “New Right” has successfully learned from the French Nouvelle Droite, which has been propagating Gramscianism from the right since the 1970s.

Its associative metapolitics is also increasingly bearing fruit in German-speaking countries. Anyone who hears “postcolonialism” today also hears “woke,” “anti-Semitism,” “cancel culture,” “anti-white racism,” etc. Even on the leftist and liberal spectrum, it may not always be clear to everyone whose political strategies are embracing the superficial critique of postcolonialism.

At the same time, it would be too easy to understand cross-party attacks on “postcolonialism” only as a result of successful right-wing metapolitics. What unites the protagonists is the articulation of an identity politics aimed at preserving the status quo, which reacts in a vindictive way to the uncomfortable questions of postcolonial theories or, in the case of the United States, critical race theory. This political identity retreat is an expression of the attempt to cling to one's own privileges and sovereignty to interpret history and society with all one's strength.

There can be no peace without postcolonial theories

A peaceful and inclusive future in Israel/Palestine cannot be achieved without the insights of postcolonial theories.

The explosion of violence that began on October 7 is the most massive escalation in a decades-long conflict. This conflict largely dates back to the founding of the State of Israel, which – although necessary after the Shoah – can be seen in the context of a very long history of colonial rule and mandate politics within the region. The Jewish educational scientist and first signatory of the Jerusalem Declaration against anti-Semitism, Micha Brumlik, also reminds us of this in his book “Postcolonial Antisemitism?”

Of course, postcolonial theories can also be discussed in terms of contradictions, inconclusive or problematic arguments. However, a peaceful and inclusive future in Israel/Palestine cannot be achieved without the insights of postcolonial theories. Precisely because its representatives place at the center of their analyzes the issues of land distribution and control, the emergence of inhuman categorizations, mechanisms of exclusion and multidirectional relations of violence, they offer an extremely nuanced analysis of the Middle East conflict.

They also remind us that, because of the Shoah, Germany in particular not only has a special obligation towards the Jewish people inside and outside Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism, but also towards the Palestinian people.