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Internal colonies – that is, spaces governed by ‘the rule of difference’ – persist today but the politicisation of the term ‘colonialism’ has impeded a sober discussion of the subject in many cases.

Colonialism is often understood as a system of domination reincarnated throughout history in manifold forms and manifestations. The question of what makes a political system explicitly colonial, and not – for that matter - simply exploitative, is hereby central.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, dependency theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein [1] , Andre Gunder Frank [2] and Walter Rodney [3] stressed the economic asymmetry between (neo-)colonial core regions and their peripheries on a global scale. They identified this ‘world system’ - or multiple ‘world systems’ - as the frameworks within which this exploitation unfolds, and which deprives the peripheral regions of their resources, while at the same time enriching the industrial core. In his famous historical materialist account on ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ (1972), Rodney systematized the notion of economic exploitation as the historical root cause of colonialism, or what then became fashionably known as neo-colonialism.

Simultaneously, the same rationale was applied to so-called ‘internal colonies’, that is regions within a state or polity which were subdued by their own government or ruling elite. Examples ranged from indigenous populations in Mexico[4] , the black majority in apartheid South Africa[5] , the Muslim Uyghurs in China[6] , or Celtic populations (Welsh, Scots, and Irish) in the British Isles[7] . Despite most scholars acknowledging the importance of culture, ethnicity and race, these soft indicators were rather seen as secondary and somehow negligible. At best, race and ethnicity were portrayed as instrumental in perpetuating economic dependency, while scientific racism and discriminatory policies were seen as ‘handmaidens’ in fuelling the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and a global working class. More nuanced analyses recognized the faultiness of these assumptions and instead reiterated the existence of a ‘periphery of the periphery’ - marginalised regions within the Third World - as opposed to the ‘periphery of the centre’, such as Britain’s Celtic north.

Another school of thought reversed this logic, putting race and ethnicity at the centre of analysis, thus making racism the ordering principle through which to examine the colonial realities. Scholar-activists such as Robert Blauner[8] , Stokely Carmichael[9] , Malcolm X and Harold Cruse - preoccupied with the theorization of US race relations in the 1960s/70s - envisioned a radical sociology which could de-mask colonial and racial oppression wherever it occurred.

It is little surprising that both of the above approaches were somewhat reductionist by focussing on two equally important aspects of colonial rule, respectively. However, only a synthesis - so it seems – can adequately define colonialism and its conceptual derivatives.


Colonies are spaces governed by what Partha Chatterjee calls ‘the rule of difference’ [10] . This difference surpasses sole economic exploitation as professed by dependency theorists, but is in turn less exclusively race-oriented than ‘radical’ sociological theories would make one believe. Instead, colonies are sites of multifaceted exploitative structures in various domains, including economy, politics, culture, sexuality and religion.

The Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci formulated this most explicitly in ‘The Southern Question’ (1926), in which he expounded a colonial structure that encompasses not only the default vectors of ‘economic exploitation’ and ‘political domination’ - as used in classical Marxist-Leninist thought - but also the novel notion of ‘cultural hegemony’, that is, a system in which cultural norms and value systems are deployed to fundamentally change a society’s self-perception and judgement of what is just or unjust. Hence, colonised societies are tricked into accepting the naturalness of their positions as subjects, as well as into co-creating and consenting to the very system that exploits them. Especially post-colonial theory has fed on this notion, and remarkably diversified discussions on classical (overseas) colonialism have emerged that portray culture and culture-change processes as equally important hallmarks of (post-)colonial structures, especially in the writings of Frantz Fanon[11] , Edward Said [12] or Homi K. Bhabha[13] .


Akin to ‘classical’ colonialism, similar structures developed within societies, states or empires. What distinguishes internal from external colonialism is not just the physical proximity of the colonisers, often in the midst of their own colonies, but the intensity of culture-change processes, and the rigour with which ‘cultural hegemony’ is asserted. Britain could not initiate these profound cultural changes which naturalise colonial rule in its Indian crown colony, and neither could France in Algeria, nor the German Empire in Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia). Ethiopia, on the other hand, incorporated the Cushitic-speaking, and often Muslim southern regions and transformed their populations into internal colonial subjects, separated from ‘northerners’ through economic, political, legal and cultural barriers and lines of stratification[14] . In nineteenth century Russia, similar processes were at work in which Russians colonised Siberia through the establishment of ‘frontier’ settlements, and transformed indigenous societies into compartments of an emerging Tsarist empire[15] .

More recent examples of internal colonialism are informed by the rise of capitalist economies and modes of production. Conquest and empire-building were soon substituted by modern states that were built on an industrial production, and a semi-integrated ‘reservoir’ for cheap labour. In 1948, two such internal colonial systems saw the light of day. In the same year that the State of Israel declared independence from British-occupied Mandatory Palestine, South Africa institutionalised a system of enforced racial segregation, white-minority rule, and exploitation, known as ‘Apartheid’ (apart-hood). Despite significant differences, both these systems epitomise Chatterjee’s ‘rule of difference’ between one group over the other, or more precisely over a collective of heterogeneous groups.

In the West, too, these systems existed. The US American Jim Crow laws (1876-1965) endorsed racial segregation and discrimination in public and private spheres, including the labour market, politics, culture, and the justice system. To varying degrees, these internal systems of ‘Apartheid’ were the modern-day versions of the internal colonial conquest of the nineteenth century. At times, the transition from ‘frontier colonisation’ - such as in Tsarist Russia - to ‘Apartheid’ was gradual and produced new forms of domination that unfolded along a continuum. What connects these manifestations, however, is the way in which the colonisers encapsulate and physically incorporate their subjects, while at the same time safeguarding the strict sustainment of boundaries: official, unofficial, political, economic, cultural, sexual, occupational and/or religious. Paradoxically, while internal colonisers uphold a claim to ‘civilise’ their subjects, and ‘pacify’ the land through the introduction of supposedly superior cultural systems – be it Christianity or liberal democracy -, they essentially deny colonial subjects the possibility of emancipating themselves from ‘subjects’ to ‘citizens’[16] .

Today, internal colonies persist and are reproduced through discourse and practice. Naturally, the politicisation of the term ‘colonialism’, external or internal, has impeded a sober discussion of the subject in many cases. Prime examples for these politics of naming are Morocco’s occupation of the Western Sahara, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, or China’s regime in Tibet. By acknowledging these sites as cases of ‘internal colonialism’, the denunciation of injustice becomes more systematic and consequential, and its effects for colonisers and the colonised alike can be embedded within the wider framework of ‘colonial’ and ‘post-colonial’ analysis and history.

* Hanno Brankamp is an Attaché at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) in Nairobi. He holds an MLitt in International Security from the University of St Andrews (UK), and a B.A. in Area Studies (Africa) from Humboldt University in Berlin (Germany), focusing on conflicts and security in Eastern Africa, including the Great Lakes and the Horn.


[1] Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974): The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century, (New York: Academic Press).
[2] Gunder Frank, Andre (1966): The Development of Underdevelopment, (Boston: New England Free Press).
[3] Rodney, Walter (1972): How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-Ouverture Publications).
[4] Casanova, Pablo Gonzalez (1965): ‘Internal Colonialism and National Development’, In: Studies in Comparative International Development, 1 (4), pp.27–37.
[5] Wolpe, Harold (1975): ‘The Theory of Internal Colonialism: The South African Case’, In: Oxhaal, Ivar, Tony Barnett, and David Booth (eds): Beyond the Sociology of Development: Economy and Society in Latin America and Africa, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), pp.229-252.
[6] Gladney, Dru C. (1998): ‘Internal Colonialism and the Uyghur Nationality: Chinese Nationalism and its Subaltern Subjects’, In: CEMOTI (Cahiers d'Etudes sur la Méditerranée Orientale et le monde Turco-Iranien), 25, pp.1-11.
[7] Hechter, Michael (1975): Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
[8] Blauner, Robert (1969): ‘Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt’, In: Social Problems, 16 (4), pp.393-408.
[9] Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton (1967): Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, (Vintage Books).
[10] Chatterjee, Partha (1993): The Nation and its Fragments, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p.19.
[11] Fanon, Frantz (2008): Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Press).
[12] Said, Edward (1994): Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage).
[13] Bhabha, Homi K. (1983): ‘The Other Question…Homi Bhabha considers the stereotype and colonial discourse’, In: Screen, 24 (6), pp.18-36.
[14] Donham, Donald (2002): ‘The Making of an Imperial State: Old Abyssinia and the new Ethiopian empire: themes in social history’, In: Donham, Donald, and Wendy James (eds): The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia, (Oxford: James Curry), pp.3-48.
[15] Etkind, Alexander (2011): Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, (Cambridge: Polity).
[16] Mamdani, Mahmood (1996): Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, (Princeton University Press).



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