Scholars working on decolonisation have all in one way or another touched on the Bandung Conference. Bandung was a pivotal moment in the 20th century that signalled a new way of doing things; a new postcolonial world in which nations of the Global South were staking their claim in the international sphere. Bandung has been widely criticised—and sometimes rightly so—for a variety of reasons, ranging from its lack of concrete goals to some of the uncritical rhetoric that was used around modernisation and development. Like so many other aspects of decolonisation, Bandung seems to have been held up to exceptionally high standards. In many ways, Bandung became symbolic of the process of decolonisation as a whole. Bandung was more than just a conference; it was the ultimate symbol of anti-imperial resistance and its success in dismantling the various European empires. For this reason, Bandung should always be placed within that particular moment. The hopes and dreams of billions of people that things were changing; that they were now able to participate in the global, in politics, in economics. This was an attempt not to fit into politics as it was—politics that was thoroughly colonial—but rather to change politics; to create a new international form of politics.
Underneath all of this was the hope that this was a new world; a postcolonial international. Bandung and decolonisation were about more than simple self-determination. Sovereignty was at stake, yes, but a new type of sovereignty. Sovereignty did not mean indirect rule; it did not mean controlling resources and people on terms set by the West; and it certainly did not mean being sovereign in an emerging neoliberal world order. The question of a postcolonial international hints at a different understanding of nationhood and sovereignty; one whose ultimate aim was to transform the international; to create a new form of world politics; to create an economic system in which sovereignty meant economic sovereignty above all.
We can see beginnings of this project in different parts of the world. The drive towards industrialisation as a way of delinking from a dependency on Western capital and expertise; the move to create social welfare policies; the massive investment in indigenous culture, arts and education. Focusing specifically on Africa, these trends were clear across the continent. Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, and others were not simply mimicking a Western project of modernisation and development. Nor were they simply power-hungry dictators who wanted to enrich themselves. To simplify the politics of these nations to this extent is to reproduce racist assumptions about the capabilities of Africans to partake in politics and to—ultimately—govern themselves.
That said, we also know how the moment of decolonisation ended. The projects that were started were let incomplete; and many nations ended up worse off decades later. The authoritarianism of many of these leaders has also been highlighted—excessively, I believe—and it is often they who have been blamed for the way things turned out. And yet this is to turn a blind eye to two things: the massive hopes that were placed on this historical moment; and the structural limitations these nations faced by the very international sphere they were trying to change. Because of the symbolic importance of decolonisation and all it stood for; because of the incomprehensibility of events like Bandung just twenty years earlier; and because of the continued attempts at neo-imperialism by European, American and Soviet states; because of all of this, this was a historical moment that was heavy with expectations.
I think many post-independence leaders were aware of the heavy weight of these expectations, and that they did try to fulfil them; I also think this was—from the start—a doomed project. Because while this was a moment of hope and freedom for many, it was also the beginning of a shift in imperial exploitation. Empires as they had existed for centuries were no longer tenable; instead we see a move towards free market capitalism as a means of imperial domination from afar. This was only to get worse with the start of the neoliberal revolution in the 1970s. Aside from this shift in imperial strategy, there was also the ropes that still bound these nations to older forms of imperialism. Take a country like Egypt, whose economy had—for over 100 years—been structured to serve the needs of Britain; where cotton was the main export to the benefit of few Egyptians; where there was a chronic over-reliance on foreign capital in Egyptian business ventures; where the majority of the population were in debt, servitude, or generally repressed. Given these conditions, and given new forms of imperial domination, what were the odds Nasser was up against? What happens when we contextualise his years in power through this lens? What happens when we take into account the formation of the state of Israel, the continued British, French and US imperial attacks, the refusal to allow Egypt to industrialise on its own terms? How have these become footnotes in the story of Nasser, of Nkrumah, of Lumumba?
Frantz Fanon once asked: don’t African leaders have the right to govern themselves badly? It is this question that was at the heart of Bandung. It was a space in which postcolonial nations were—for the first time—talking about what they wanted the world to look like. It was a space where imperial powers were unwelcome (much to their anger!) and where racism and imperialism were openly condemned. After centuries of European colonialism, this must have been a truly momentous event. I can’t think of any event like that since then. There have been many conferences; many events. We have the BRICS. We have the East Asia Tigers. We have the UN and their many annual conferences. But these are all clouded by the neoliberal moment we are in. indeed it is these conferences that very much reproduce the rhetoric of modernisation and development. Given what existed before and what came after it, Bandung seems like a breath of fresh air.
This post was inspired by two books on Bandung that recently came out: