Labour History and the Case against Colonialism

Pepijn Brandon, Aditya Sarkar

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


The controversy around Bruce Gilley's article The Case for Colonialism has drawn global attention to a stream of revisionist claims and visions on the history of colonialism that has emerged in academia and in the media in recent years. Authors such as Nigel Biggar in the UK, Niall Ferguson in the USA, and Pieter Emmer in the Netherlands, have all published similarly revisionist claims about colonialism, arguing that postcolonial guilt and political correctness blind the majority of their colleagues to the positive side of the colonial project. Their argument chimes with wider societal trends, transforming the revisionist defenders of empire into heroes of a reinvigorated nationalist right within and beyond academia. The public influence attained by these approaches to colonialism requires historians to expose the deep methodological flaws, misreading of historical facts, and misrepresentations of prior scholarship that characterize the writings of this emerging revisionist trend. It is for this reason that the Editorial Committee of the International Review of Social History (IRSH) has decided to devote its first ever Virtual Special Issue to labour history's case against colonialism. This article, also an introduction to the Virtual Special Issue, sifts through the logical implications of the claims made by Gilley and like-minded scholars, providing both a contextualization and a rebuttal of their arguments. After assessing the long absence of colonial labour relations from the field of interest of labour historians and the pages of the IRSH itself, this article shows the centrality of a critique of colonialism to labour history's global turn in the 1990s. Using a selection of articles on colonial labour history from the IRSH's own archive, the article not only reconstructs labour history's case against colonialism, but also shows why labour history's critical insights into the nature of colonialism should be deepened and extended, not discarded.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-109
Number of pages37
JournalInternational Review of Social History
Issue number1
Early online date28 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


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