Debate – the limitations of settler colonial theory

Australian socialist Jordan Humphreys, author of Indigenous Liberation & Socialism*, replies to two articles by Sai Englert on settler colonial theory.

Invasion Day Rally Melbourne 2020. Phoyo by Matt Hrkac used under CC licence.

Israel’s brutal war on the Palestinians has strengthened the interest amongst a new generation of left-wing people in colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. For many, this has meant an engagement with settler colonial theory.

In a two-part interview on the rs21 website Sai Englert, author of the book Settler-Colonialism: An Introduction, outlines what he sees as the usefulness of the concept of settler colonialism, albeit with some differences from the mainstream academic version, for understanding a wide range of issues from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians and apartheid in South Africa to the ‘White Australia’ policy.

I want to argue, however, that settler colonial theory is not a very useful guide to understanding these issues. The emphasis it places on the ideological similarities between different imperialist projects, rather than the structural differences between them, is deeply misleading. In particular, it leads settler colonial theorists to conceptualise certain social groups as ‘settlers’ despite enormous differences: for instance, the very different situations of Israeli settlers in the West Bank one the one hand, and the mass of the non-Indigenous population in places such as Australia, North America and New Zealand on the other. Even in those situations in which settler colonial theory might appear to make more sense, such as Israel, it comes with a number of questionable assumptions.

Englert does acknowledge some of the problems I have outlined above. In the first interview, he recognises that there is a ‘danger of limiting our understanding of settler colonialism to ideal types’ because ‘it misses both the dynamism of social relations in the colonies and the variety of struggles they engender, both of which shape the different colonial forms that develop.’

However, throughout both interviews and in his book he repeatedly makes general statements about settler colonialism and settlers across a range of contexts that undermine this point. This reveals that what is problematic in settler colonial theory is some of its core assumptions, not simply their application to concrete situations.

Thus in the second interview he argues that:

Since the 17th century, with the development of whiteness in the Americas as opposed to black enslaved labour, settler populations have often been the most virulent voices for the exclusion or elimination of Indigenous populations. Famously in South Africa, white workers strike in the early 20th century under the extraordinary slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite, for a White South Africa’. The Australian Labor Party is formed around the campaign for a white Australia, so its basis as a national party is a struggle against racialised labour. The Labour Zionist movement made demands for ‘Hebrew labour’, and the full exclusion of Palestinians from the ‘Jewish economy’ in Palestine before 1948.

Building on this comparison between South Africa, Israel and Australia he argues that ‘[o]ften these demands are made against settler capitalists, who may prefer to keep and exploit the Indigenous populations’, that all ‘settler classes participate in the process of dispossession’ and ‘Settler labour demands a greater slice of the colonial cake.’

Englert also argues that while labour movements can adopt racist attitudes in a range of situtations, in settler colonial societies this has a particular dynamic to it because the settler working class gains a material benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous people that ‘creates a loyalty to the settler state that is close to unbreakable.’ Englert then claims that this is ‘is borne out historically. There are no truly mass movements of settler workers in support of decolonisation.’

These are bold assertions, raising significant strategic considerations, to make about a variety of very different situations: South Africa, Israel and Australia. Contrary to Englert’s arguments, the historical record doesn’t back him up.

The Australian labour movement and Indigenous oppression

 Let’s take the example of the early Australian labour movement that Englert mentions, albeit briefly. The first problem is that the ‘White Australia’ policy wasn’t directed against Indigenous peoples, who fell outside its legal purview. The policy was rather directed at those foreign migrants considered ‘non-white’, particularly Asian workers. So the support for the White Australia policy by much of the official labour movement, while disgraceful, doesn’t have much to do with Australian workers being settlers benefiting from the dispossession of Indigenous people.

More generally, though, the early Australian labour movement was not cohered around hostility towards Indigenous labor. In fact, the labour movement was more often than not more sympathetic to Indigenous workers than it was to migrant workers. The Australian Workers Union, and its predecessors, which were the key backbone behind the formation of the Labor Party, explicitly included Indigenous workers as union members even while banning certain migrant workers like the Chinese.

A letter by David Temple, one of the early moderate leaders of the shearer’s unions, expresses both this racist opposition to some migrant groups and the quite different attitude towards Aboriginal workers:

The bush unionist objects to Chinese, Cingalese [Sri Lankan], Polynese, Malayese and such, not to the harmless and much injured aboriginal whom if an occasional unionist insults – there are blackguards everywhere – an occasional squatter still more frequently shoots on sight like a dingo. In many of the strike camps were aboriginals who had knocked off with the rest from various stations. At Warri Warri there were thirty-two whites and as many blacks.[1]

It is notable that hundreds, if not thousands, of Aboriginal workers, were involved in the mass shearers strikes of the 1890s, the most significant industrial conflicts of early Australian history which laid the basis for the formation of the Labor Party. It was also the case that there were hundreds of articles sympathetic to the dispossession that Indigenous people had faced printed in trade union newspapers during this period, as well as motions moved at conferences of the shearer’s unions. This doesn’t mean that there were no anti-Indigenous attitudes amongst workers of course, but the idea that this was particularly hegemonic as compared to other racist ideas simply doesn’t stack up.

The attitude of the early labour movement towards Indigenous workers reflected the fact that because the Indigenous population had been so seriously defeated in the early 1800s, it didn’t pose any organised threat to British governance by the late 1800s when the labour movement was forming. Ruling class racist ideology wasn’t then particularly focused on Indigenous people as the main enemy, as compared to foreign workers. The racist ideology around Indigenous people more saw them as a ‘dying race’ that should either be ignored or pitied.

That doesn’t mean there was no racism of course, but it definitely wasn’t the case that the labour movement was formed around some key idea of excluding Indigenous labour, who at any rate made up less than two per cent of the population at the time. This reflected that the broader dynamics that Englert believes impacted the working class in settler colonial societies, simply weren’t present in Australia; Australian workers weren’t involved in campaigns of dispossession against the Indigenous people to steal their land and gain material benefits from the colonial loot. This had already taken place some decades before, and involved a relatively small section of colonial society. Furthermore, most of the working class only arrived in Australia some decades later and lived in urban centres far from the last of the frontier wars.

The fact that the dispossession of Indigenous peoples had laid the basis for the ‘houses, workplaces, access to labour markets, the development of infrastructure, access to natural resources’ for the non-Indigenous working class also didn’t stop workers, in particular left-wing sections of the workers movement, from supporting Indigenous issues throughout the 20th century.

At first, this was led by a left-wing minority of activists in the Communist Party of Australia who waged a fight for unions to take up more radical positions on Indigenous questions in the 1930s. However, by the 1950s large sections of both the Communist and the non-Communist trade union world supported campaigns against racist segregation and for civil rights for Indigenous people that flowered in the post-war years. This campaigning led even the moderate Australian Council of Trade Unions to adopt a position supporting the struggles of Indigenous people for equal pay in 1967, followed by further resolutions supporting the struggle for land rights and opposition to Black deaths in police custody in the early 1970s.

Some of the most famous examples of Aboriginal activism in Australia, such as the 1946 Pilbara strike, the 1966 Wave Hill walk off and the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy protest received significant levels of support from trade union organisations and rank-and-file workers. It is also notable that many, if not most, of the post-war Indigenous activists had themselves been labour activists involved in trade union organising to some degree or another. By the 1970s support for Aboriginal issues was a pretty mainstream position within the workers movement and the broader progressive left in Australia. This continues to have a legacy today. While the proposed Indigenous Voice to Parliament was far from a radical measure, it is notable that 67 per cent of trade union members voted for the Voice, rather than the racist opposition to it, as compared to just 38 per cent of the general population.

There were of course some trade unions and sections of workers who expressed hostility towards support for Indigenous rights throughout the 20th and even into the 21st century; workers’ consciousness is unsurprisingly uneven. It is also the case that passive support for Indigenous rights is one thing, while direct participation in activist campaigns is another. It is also important to acknowledge that this wasn’t some easy organic process. The active intervention of a minority of left wing activists, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, as well as the impressive struggles of Aboriginal people themselves, was vital to educating a broader layer of workers in why they should oppose anti-Indigenous racism.[2]

None of this history squares with the picture presented by Englert of a privileged settler working class incapable of showing solidarity with Indigenous people (outside of the actions of very small left wing minorities). If taken to its logical conclusion settler colonial theory would mean writing off the revolutionary potential of the non-Indigenous working class in many advanced capitalist countries. Thankfully while the extent of solidarity with Indigenous peoples varies greatly across the United States, Canada and New Zealand, there is little evidence here either of the dynamics described by Englert.[3]

Israel and settler colonial theory

 However, most of Englert’s work is concerned with the question of Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians, and it is here that settler colonial theory appears to have a greater claim at theoretical applicability.

After all, Israel is involved in an ongoing colonial process, and while one might debate exactly why this is the case, it is clear that pinning your hopes on the Israeli working class waking up one day and supporting the Palestinians is a dead end. As early as 1967 the French Jewish Marxist Maxime Rodinson wrote an important polemic[4] arguing that Israel was a settler colonial state in order to rebut those who sought to defend Israel from accusations of imperialism, colonialism and racism.

However, there are important limitations to the settler colonial theory analysis even in the case of Israel and Palestine.

While it is absolutely correct to distinguish between the oppressors and the oppressed this is only the beginning of any serious analysis of the conflict. Unfortunately, settler colonial theory’s narrow framing of the question as only being about settlers vs Indigenous people stops here leaving essential questions unanswered. Worse still, the framework of settler colonial theory is often a barrier to seriously grappling with broader issues.

So settler colonial theory has little to offer in terms of an analysis of the class nature of Palestinian society. It is incapable of grappling with the relationship between the different Palestinian classes and political parties and the development of capitalism in the West Bank and Gaza, let alone the broader Middle East. But this is vital for any assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of different strategies for Palestinian liberation put forward by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and other organisations.

In his critical review of Gershon Shafir’s seminal settler colonial theory text Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict[5], Amir Locker-Biletzki argues ‘class and capitalism are almost completely absent.’ Like most settler colonial theorists there is no attempt to integrate an account of the emergence of the Zionist movement and the oppression of the Palestinians with the development of capitalism in the region and the formation of class divisions within both the Jewish and Palestinian populations.[6] In his critique of the political economy of settler colonial theory, Jack Davies argues that it ‘quietly leaves behind the materialist considerations of the earth and fascinates itself with the phenomenological density of the moment that Settler met Native, and merely implores us to take a side.’[7]

This weakness is even more striking today as the class structure of Palestinian society is quite developed with enormous implications for what kinds of political strategies can advance the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Settler colonial theory often ends up promoting an extremely uncritical and romanticised approach to often fraught politics of Indigenous nationalist movements, one notable example being a recent Tempest article on Palestinian resistance..

This approach reflects the essentially classless analysis of colonial societies promoted by settler colonial theory, a weakness which undermines its capacity to unpack the complex interactions between imperialism and capitalism, colonialism and class, and racism and resistance in today’s world. Settler colonial theory’s dismissive attitude towards the non-Indigenous working classes and its uncritical championing of Indigenous nationalist movements also echoes the problems of third worldism that influenced much of the radical left in the second half of the 20th century.

Rather than using settler colonial theory to unpack these important issues, socialists should draw upon, and build upon, the rich tradition of Marxist writings on these topics to explore the specific interactions between racism, class, oppression and capitalism in any given concrete situation.


* Indigenous Liberation & Socialism is published by Red Flag Books, Melbourne, and available from here in Britain.


[1] Worker (Brisbane), 27 June 1891, p3, quoted in Indigenous Liberation & Socialism, p84.

[2] See chapters 4 to 7 of Indigenous Liberation & Socialism for a more detailed account of this history.

[3] On the US see Steve Leigh, ‘Is the US still a Settler Colony?’ Firebrand:  https://firebrand.red/2023/08/is-the-us-still-a-settler-colony/; and on New Zealand the brilliant thesis by the Maori Marxist ES Te Ahu Poata-Smith, The political economy of Māori protest politics, 1968-1995: a Marxist analysis of the roots of Māori oppression and the politics of resistance, (University of Otago, 2002).

[4] First published in English as Maxime Rodinson, Israel; a colonial setter state? (New York: Pathfinder,1973). The French original is available here.

[5] Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

[6] Amir Locker-Biletzki, ‘Rethinking Settler Colonialism: A Marxist Critique of Gershon Shafir’, Rethinking Marxism 0:3, 441-461, DOI: 10.1080/08935696.2018.1525969.

[7] Jack Davies, ‘The World Turned Outside In: Settler Colonial Studies and Political Economy’, Historical Materialism, 2023. https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/articles/world-turned-outside

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