Internal Colonialism: 60 years of a Disruptive Concept

Raúl Romero

In 1962, Pablo González Casanova published several texts in which he reflected on development, exploration and democracy in Mexico and Latin America. The concept of “internal colonialism” began to appear there. However, it was not until 1963 that this category would begin to be developed in a more precise manner by Don Pablo. It is in the article “Pluralist society, internal colonialism and development” (Sociedad plural, colonialismo interno y desarrollo), published in issue 3 of the magazine América Latina (June-September 1963) where it was advanced in this way. Also in 1963, to be more precise, in May, González Casanova finished writing the book La Democracia en México, a book that would not be published until 1965 due to censorship. The fifth chapter of this book, “The Pluralistic Society,” includes a subsection entitled Pluralist Society and Internal Colonialism).

Don Pablo was neither the first nor the only one to reflect on this phenomenon. On June 25 and 26, 1965, in the newspaper El Día, the anthropologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen published the article “Seven Wrong Theses On Latin America,” in which he also developed the concept of internal colonialism. González Casanova and Stavenhagen were not only friends; the former had been the latter’s teacher and in time, they became collaborators. This intellectual and friendly relationship between Stavenhagen and González Casanova also involved the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, author of books such as The Sociological Imagination, The Power Elite and Listen, Yankee. Without elaborating on the concept, in lectures, writings and in private conversations, Mills sometimes used the concept of internal colonialism to refer to phenomena of “‘uneven development’ within the underdeveloped world.”

Later, when redefining the concept in 2003, Gonzalez Casanova would write that in other regions of the world mentions of the category can be found from the beginning of the 20th century, with the emergence of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. In fact, it is important to frame don Pablo’s reflections in this sense, not only with the Latin American political context and the rise of an innovative and radical critical thinking in the region, but also to observe the dialogue that these reflections maintain with authors such as Cesairé Aimé and his Discourse on Colonialism (1955) and particularly with Franz Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

The former rector of UNAM would define internal colonialism as a particular form of exploitative relations, in which within the same country, peoples belonging to the same culture and their social classes, dominate and exploit other peoples with their own cultures and social classes. Don Pablo also expressed his concern for the contradictions that exist even in countries where socialism or revolutionary nationalism had triumphed, and where national power was strengthened to confront imperialist policies, but social power was neglected – and even diminished – under the pretext of strengthening the nation.

As a phenomenon, the relations of domination and exploitation to which internal colonialism refers can be perceived to this day in Mexico. These are relations that can be observed with the emergence of the independent nation state, but that have survived the War of Reform, the Revolution, the welfare state, neoliberalism and even the so-called Fourth Transformation. These are relationships in which the metropolis continues to define the development policies that its colonies need. It imposes ports, trains and other projects that are not really necessary for the colonies, but rather for the project that the metropolis defines as national and a priority. In internal colonialism, the peoples, neighborhoods, tribes and nations that have their own structures of government and that generally belong to cultures different from the dominant one, do not have the possibility of making decisions about their territories and resources. The final decision is taken from the metropolis for the sake of development and national security.

In 2006, in connection with a new edition of Sociology of Exploitation, González Casanova wrote in the introductory text that internal colonialism is a concept that is part of a larger theoretical corpus, the socialization of exploitation, and that among his projects was to work on a sociology of liberation. In his long trajectory and in different texts, Don Pablo has worked on different pillars that would sustain that project: democracy, liberation, socialism, autonomy, knowledge and information, and so on.

Sixty years after Don Pablo put forward the concept of internal colonialism, a disturbing notion that made both the left and the right uncomfortable, the relations described therein are still valid. That is why Don Pablo and his theories and concepts are pillars of critical thinking, and bases for thinking about alternatives.

This article was published in La Jornada on April 10, 2023.
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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