*This post is part of our online roundtable on Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination
When the South African writer Peter Abrahams lived in London during the 1940s, he found himself disappointed by the organized Left. It was clear, he wrote later in his autobiography, The Coyaba Chronicles, that “communists, leading communists, no less than the members of the Working Men’s Clubs, saw a difference between black and white.” So what was the “answer to prejudice,” if not uncritical subscription to European Marxism? Abrahams turned to his friend George Padmore, the ex-Comintern official turned pan-African militant. Padmore told him that “it was a matter of power. The world only respected power. The moment the Africans and Asians and Jews had political power, the world would respect them.” Kwame Nkrumah turned this philosophy into a slogan: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will follow.”
Getachew’s project in Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination is essentially an investigation of the “political kingdom” that Nkrumah and Padmore conceptualized during the 1940s, and which they (and others) found themselves trying to build when Ghana became independent in 1957. The book begins with an analysis of Black Atlantic theory on decolonization, before exploring two of its instantiations — the attempt to form pan-African and pan-Caribbean federations, and the project to transform the global economy under the banner of the New International Economic Order. Getachew also uses Ethiopia and Liberia’s experience of membership of the League of Nations during the 1930s as case study of “unequal integration,” showing that even when the institutions of global order seemed to be expanding to include Black-led states, they bestowed on those states uniquely arduous burdens and responsibilities.
Worldmaking’s identification of a Black Atlantic anticolonial tradition is significant. Thirty-five years since Cedric Robinson published Black Marxism, it remains the case that structural critiques of the international order and its preponderant empires are too often seen as originating only in the Comintern, with everything else mere derivations of this original account — and often dubiously bourgeois derivations at that. Gesturing to alternative anticolonial lineages, Getachew pushes us to think about how African and Caribbean independence leaders were responding to a specific and, in important ways, sui generis (though not hermetic) tradition of international critique, preoccupied in particular with the racialized hierarchies embedded at the heart of the international system.
But I think a yet more significant contribution is the book’s insistence on the unremittingly global orientation of that tradition. Getachew tracks a set of connections between the transnational analysis of African and Caribbean anglophone thinker-politicians — Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Michael Manley, Julius Nyerere — and the concomitantly transnational projects they pursued once in power. By centering the project of global anticolonial liberation at the heart of African and Caribbean nationalisms, Worldmaking provides a corrective to unduly narrow and pessimistic accounts of those projects.
And though Getachew does not pursue this point directly, her book should push us to think about what has been lost in the contemporary retreat from globality, a retreat that has come not only from expected political sources — I am thinking of the vociferous challenge to “globalism” levelled by a recrudescent far-right — but also from those who share a counter-colonial political orientation, yet who have come to see globality as irredeemably tainted and impossibly compromised by its colonial origins.
Worldmaking’s focus on the first generation of African and Caribbean heads of state can, I think, be justified in the context of the enduring subalternity of these figures within the academic fields in which the book situates itself: political science, international relations, nationalism studies. But it would have been interesting to see this justification explicitly made through an engagement with the work of those who — like Saidiya Hartman, Jessica Krug, Cheryl Higashida, and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley — have been suggesting alternative (gender- and queer-oriented) directions for the study of the Black Atlantic. Similarly, a discussion of the scholarship on Black print cultures — by, among others, Penny von Eschen, Stephanie Newell, Derek R. Peterson, Karin Barber and Brent Hayes Edwards — might have helped to show some of the ways in which pan-African and Third Worldist subjectivities were never simply top-down projects of heads of state, but were also tied to traditions of self-education, literacy, travel, and publishing across the Black Atlantic.
Rather than addressing Black Atlantic studies per se, Worldmaking challenges a series of commonplaces of international theory: the “alien rule thesis,” which saw anticolonialism as a byproduct of westernization; the “expansion of international society” thesis, which saw non-Western nationalists as essentially seeking inclusion into a pre-existing international society; and the idea that nationalism is always particularistic and anti-liberal. Getachew’s critiques are convincing, and contribute to a now substantial body of work exposing the racialized dynamics and legal structures that have continued to demarcate “core” and “periphery” within a supposedly egalitarian international order.
Getachew is right to suggest that, despite existing ameliorative work, the general state of mainstream thinking on decolonization and nationalism remains parlous, and obdurately inattentive to the Black Atlantic experience. Yet the potential of Worldmaking lies beyond this specific claim. In encouraging us to think back to the anticolonial moment in Africa and the Caribbean — when a particular analysis of international racialized hierarchies came to be manifested in strategic attempts to transform global order — Getachew reminds us of the scale of the hopes that once existed, and which now seem to many irretrievably lost. For many of us working in the Black Atlantic archives of political thought, that sense of possibility, by no means reducible to a naïve optimism, is both a key attraction of that writing and a striking contrast with the cautious (even retrenching) mood prevalent today.