Worldmaking after Empire: An Author’s Response

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere, 1985 (Dutch National Archives)

I want to thank the editors at Black Perspectives, particularly J.T. Roane and Clayton Finn, for organizing this roundtable and the contributors, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Merve Fejzula, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Jermaine Scott, and Musab Younis for their careful and constructive engagement with Worldmaking after Empire.

As the responses note, a central aim of Worldmaking after Empire is to recover the age of decolonization and the tradition of Black anticolonial thought as sites of conceptual and political innovation. For Burden-Stelly, Worldmaking is engaged in “shifting the geography of reason,” a phrase borrowed from the organizing theme and principle of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. And as Fejzula and Younis illustrate, it seeks to wield the critical resources of the Black Atlantic in debates within political theory and the history of international relations, fields that have only belatedly taken up a postcolonial turn. Worldmaking is then both a project of historical reconstruction and an effort to intervene in contemporary normative debates. It excavates how a cohort of anticolonial intellectuals and statemen — Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams — developed an account of empire as unequal integration and racial hierarchy and conceived of the creation of an egalitarian international order as a central element of decolonization. In emphasizing the worldmaking rather than nation-building aspirations of anticolonial nationalists, it illustrates that contemporary debates about global justice or supranational institutions not only have historical analogues in anticolonial thought, but that theories of global redistribution and international institutions can be productively reframed by taking seriously the enduring legacies of imperialism and the lessons of projects concerned with its overcoming.

The combination of these competing aspirations generates tensions that the reviewers productively illuminate. First, in its effort to meld a history of ideas and normative political theory in the context of the Black Atlantic, the project of reconstruction is circumscribed to leading statesmen, which obscures the wider intellectual networks Azikiwe, Du Bois, Manley, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Padmore, and Williams inhabited. The danger of this focus, in Younis’ account, is that disconnected from wider literary and material cultures, anticolonial worldmaking appears as “top-down projects of heads of state.” Jermaine Scott argues that the excavation of the political and economic dimensions of anticolonial worldmaking should be supplemented with attention to its cultural features. Burden-Stelly asks what might be revealed about anticolonial worldmaking if we drew the boundaries wider to include anticolonial nationalist women, take up trade union and grassroots anticolonial organizing, and theorize the “close relationship between anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism.”

In Joseph-Gabriel’s reading and in her own work, the question of including Black women’s worldmaking is not only a matter of representation. Instead she illustrates that examining the fate of the West Indian Federation from the perspectives of Claudia Jones, Eugénie Éboué-Tell, Eslanda Robeson, and Suzanne Césaire reveals a set of Black Atlantic intellectuals who were always more circumspect about the role of American hegemony and sought alternative foundations for West Indian Federation. While Nkrumah and Williams sought to appropriate the example of American federation and rhetorically deploy America’s self-positioning as the first postcolonial nation, Robinson, Césaire, and others “held none of the [same] illusions.”

Worldmaking offers in this regard a circumscribed perspective on anticolonial political thought. As made clear in each of the reviews, the figures in the study must be situated in the broader intellectual and political movements from which they emerged and in which their ideas were contested by others. I take these limitations seriously, but also want to explain the set of choices I made in the book. First, methodologically I was committed to a history of ideas, which is focused on authorial voices and textual production. The figures I selected were not only political actors, but ones that published frequently in forms that ranged from monographs to journal articles. Though a useful way of tracking the circulation of ideas, it is limited in its capacity to attend to social and political contexts that exceed the text. To capture the density of the political worlds of decolonization, we would need to supplement a history of ideas with social and political history. In recent years, Jeffrey Ahlman, Monique Bedasse, and Priya Lal, among others, have offered new histories of the politics of decolonization on the ground that disabuse us of the view that anticolonial nationalism and internationalism were elite top-down political projects and illustrate the multiple ways in which decolonization was experience, practiced, and contested.1

However, more determinative than my method, which would still afford an engagement with Black women’s intellectual history, is my focus on the institutional high politics of decolonization. Three of the chapters are situated within the walls of international organization — the League of Nations and its successor the United Nations, while the fourth focuses on constitutional and treaty negotiations around regional federation in Africa and the West Indies. I trained my sights on this terrain because it is through these institutional contexts that the standard story of decolonization as a story of overcoming alien rule and expanding international society has been told. Rather than look beyond these confines, I sought to show that even in these rarefied spaces a far more expansive vision of decolonization was articulated.

However, this orientation privileged a particular kind of political actor — men who stood at the helm of newly-founded postcolonial states. But even here the study offers an opportunity to reconsider the relationship between masculinity, Black internationalism, and sovereignty charted in Michelle Stephens’s Black Empire.2 Stephens illustrated how Marcus Garvey, C.L.R James, and Claude McKay tethered their conceptions of a transnational Black nation to a masculine imaginary even as they challenged dominant notions of nationalism and statehood. Through not explicitly thematized in the book, the figures at the center of Worldmaking after Empire inherit the tensions Stephens lays out. At the same time, their vision of national independence moves far beyond a sovereign will to power. In their preoccupation with the fragility of postcolonial sovereignty, Nkrumah, Williams, Manley, and Nyerere argued that independence had to in fact be embedded in thick regional and international institutions. In their most visionary thinking, independence could only be secured through interdependence. Building new worlds of egalitarian interdependence were just as important to the task of decolonization as the demand for sovereignty. It would be going too far to claim this is a feminist account of self-determination, and as I show, these figures were often trapped between reinforcing state sovereignty and reimagining it. As the age of decolonization wore on, this contestation would be gradually settled in favor of reinforcing rather than transforming state power. Still, their most ambitious worldmaking aspirations veered closer to visions of the relationship between dependence and independence that contemporary feminists have advanced than we might initially have thought.3

Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination – Princeton University Press

Fejzula worries less about the limiting boundaries of the study than the conceptual terms by which I bridge the gap between historical reconstruction and contemporary political theory. In particular, she worries that my casting of anticolonial worldmaking in the neo-republican language of non-domination, a framework wedded to a negative account of liberty, obscures “the fullness of the integrated political, legal, and economic demands of postcolonial cosmopolitans.” Fejzula notes that a number of critics have pointed to the limitations of non-domination. Its emphasis on arbitrary power elides other dimensions of domination, and it begins from a rejection of positive accounts of freedom. In the chapter on the right to self-determination, I argue that non-domination can only describe the international face of anticolonial self-determination, not its domestic vision of democratic self-rule and social transformation (see pages 83-84 and 98-99). In conceiving of the worldmaking elements of anticolonialism through the language of non-domination, the study seeks to accomplish two things. First, it shows why and how even a negative conception of liberty in the international order generated an expansive reordering of international politics. Second, this expansive vision of non-domination was grounded in an increasingly sophisticated account of how arbitrary power operated in the international order. For example, Nkrumah’s thesis of neocolonialism pictured this danger largely in the form of external actors exploiting economic dependence and thereby distorting domestic political relations. By the time Nyerere and Manley were advancing the New International Economic Order, the anxiety of international arbitrary power was less tethered to discrete external actors and instead concerned with the way in which the structural logics of the global economy, epitomized in the experience of declining terms of trade, persistently curtailed postcolonial nation-building.

I deployed the language of non-domination because I thought this language illuminated important features of the anticolonial critique of international hierarchy, while also pointing to blind spots of the contemporary republican revival. On the second point, the contemporary debate has so far been largely (though not exclusively) limited to a domestic and constitutional frame. What I think the anticolonial critique of international hierarchy illuminates is the need for an account of an international order capable of securing legal, political, and economic guarantees of independence.

Even if this is a persuasive reason to turn to a language of non-domination, Fejzula suggestively highlights how my own examples of Ethiopia and Liberia in the League reveal the limitations of an approach focused primarily on arbitrary power. As she notes, the fate of these countries “highlight just how much such institutions could enhance imperial interventions in the name of restraining other sites of arbitrary power.” I fully agree: arbitrary power cannot be the only yardstick by which “unfreedom is measured.” This was the reason, in my view, that critiques of arbitrary power were conjoined to other languages of critique, especially exploitation.

Ultimately though, there is a larger question that animates this debate, and it is about the intertwined aspirations for historical reconstruction and engagement with contemporary political theory that I laid out at the outset. Writing in the context of a resurgent American imperialism with the worry that contemporary cosmopolitanisms had not sufficiently wrestled with the history and legacy of imperialism, I positioned anticolonial worldmaking as an alternative tradition where the preoccupation with global politics always begins from the predicament of empire. The problem with this framing, however, is that it consigns anticolonial thought yet again to the position of speaking back to the metropole, which contorts its vision, and registers its relevance to us primarily in terms of the kind of conceptual and political resources it might offer cosmopolitan theorists situated in the North Atlantic.

There is another possibility that Worldmaking after Empire hints at but does not fully cash out. And this is the possibility that what really matters about recovering and rethinking anticolonial thought is how it illuminates the distinctive political trajectories of the postcolonial world. Here, the history of decolonization is primarily framed and conceived as a history of the postcolonial present, one that is concerned ultimately with the contradictions and generative possibilities of politics in the postcolonial world. On this view, a postcolonial political theory is also less wedded to the realm of the international as such and instead would take up the task of developing social and political theory that adequately captures the specific conundrums of politics outside the West. Anticolonial worldmakers may be important interlocutors in rethinking contemporary global politics, but we should remember that they began from wrestling with the specificity of the colonial and postcolonial contexts that they inhabited. They model for us not only a postcolonial cosmopolitanism, but a political theory concerned first and foremost with diagnosing and transforming postcolonial politics.

  1. Jeffrey Ahlman, Living with Nkrumahism: Nation, State and Pan-Africanism (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2017). Monqiue Bedasse, Jah Kingdom: Rastafarians, Tanzania, and Pan-Africanism in the Age of Decolonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Priya Lal, African Socialism in Postcolonial Tanzania: Between the Village and the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Michelle Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914-1962 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
  3. I am thinking in particular of Iris Marion Young’s account of relational autonomy and Lida Maxwell’s recent urge to think with the ambivalent possibilities of democratic dependency. Iris Marion Young, Global Challenges: War, Self-Determination and Responsibility for Justice (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 50-51. Lida Maxwell, “Democratic Dependency: A Feminist Critique of Republican Nondomination as Dependency,” in Republicanism and the Future of Democracy, eds. Geneviève Rousselière and Yiftah Elazar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019). Earlier versions of the manuscript used Young’s language of relational autonomy. I thank Lida for her recent suggestive comment about the overlap between anticolonial worldmaking and her work on democratic dependency.
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Adom Getachew

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching interests include modern political thought with a focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of international law, theories of empire and race, Black political thought and post-colonial political theory. Her work reconstructs the animating questions, debates and institutional visions anti-colonial nationalists of the Black Atlantic pursued during the height of decolonization. Through the political thought of African, African-American and Caribbean figures such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley and Julius Nyerere, Worldmaking illustrates that anti-colonial visions of self-determination were projects of worldmaking that sought to overcome racial hierarchy and institutionalize autonomy and equality within the international order. Follow her on Twitter @AdomGetachew.

Comments on “Worldmaking after Empire: An Author’s Response

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    What a brilliant and thoughtful response. I am so grateful for Dr. Getachew’s wonderful book–it is a boon to Black political theory and history of Black political thought!

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