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Liberalism and Colonialism Essay

Liberalism is both egalitarian and inegalitarian, it stresses both the unity of mankind and the hierarchy of cultures, it is both tolerant and intolerant, peaceful and violent, pragmatic and dogmatic, skeptical and self-righteous. Bhikhu Parekh examines the writing of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, two of greatest liberal philosophers. Locke state that the Indians had cultivated and lived on their land for centuries and it was their ‘rightful inheritance’. He asked the English settlers for information about the Indian way of life, and built up an impressive collection of books dealing with the European exploration of the Americas.

The Indian way of life offered a realistic contrast to, and provided most valuable insights into, the nature and structure of political society. Locke’s analysis of the nature of reason was complex and inconsistent, by and large he thought that it analysed and reflected on the sense impressions, perceived similarities and dissimilarities between different events and entities, traced their causes, and formed universally valid generalizations. Locke analysed English colonialism in America in terms of his theory of man and society.

He argued that since the American Indians roamed freely over the land and did not enclose it, it was not their land; they used it as one would use a common land, but they had no property in it. In Locke’s view, English colonization not only did them no harm, but also respected their natural rights and conferred on them great economic, moral, cultural, scientific and political benefits. Locke characterized two modes of colonization, one based on ‘conquest by sword’ and represented by Spanish, the other based on commerce and represented by the English.

Whilst Locke’s principle of equality offer at least some moral protection to Indians, it offered them no political protection. Indians were entitled to equality as individuals, but not as an organized society. As individuals their basic rights and interests were to be fully protected. Locke defined equality, it obtained only between the civilized nations and placed the non-civilized societies outside the pale of international law and morality. For John Mill’s philosophical ideas, Europeans were interested primarily not so much in unburdening their surplus population and settling in these countries as in trade, commerce and olitical control.

This new phase of colonialism usually called imperialism. For Mill, man was a progressive being whose ultimate destiny was to secure the fullest development of his intellectual, moral, aesthetic and other faculties. In Mill’s view, human beings had both a natural and a historically acquired tendency towards conformity, which only a few were able to fight successfully on their own. For Mill as for most other liberals, individuality represented human destiny, but it was not underwritten by and even went against some of deepest tendencies of human nature.

Like Locke, Mill divided human societies into two, but his principle of classification was different. In some societies, which he called civilized, human beings were in the ‘maturity of their faculties’ and had ‘attained the capacity of being guided to their own improvement by conviction or persuasion. By contrast all non-European societies were ‘backward’, and human beings there were in a state of ‘nonage’ and ‘infancy’. Although Mill stressed the value of diversity, he defined its nature and permissible range in narrow terms.

He linked diversity to individuality and choice, and valued the former only in so far as it was grounded in the individualist conception of man. It ruled out traditional and customary ways of life, as well as those centred on the community. More so than Locke, Mill condemned the racist arrogance of and the misuse of political power by the colonial bureaucrats and yet he had no difficulty sharing the colonial contempt for native cultures and approving of the violence used to dismantle them.

Both Locke and Mill shared a firm belief in the equality of men and used it to justify and regulate colonial rule. And they also failed to understand the extremely complex relationship between human being and their cultures. Liberals do believe in equal respect for all human beings, but they find it difficult to accord equal respect to those who do not value autonomy, individuality, self-determination, choice, secularism, ambition, competition and the pursuit of wealth.


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