Anti-Colonialists Wanted the World

Adom Getachew

The anti-colonial struggle of the twentieth century wasn’t just about winning political independence — it was about shattering the global hierarchies that subjugated the Global South and winning an egalitarian world for all.

From left to right, Sir Albert Margai, prime minister of Sierra Leone, Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana, Dr Hastings Banda, prime minister of Malawi, and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966), prime minister of Nigeria, at Marlborough House in London for the opening of the annual Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, 17 June 1965. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty

Interview by
Sa’eed Husaini

In the three decades after World War II, anti-colonial activists attempted to throw off the shackles of colonialism. But their aims went far beyond winning political independence or building a new nation. For many, the goal was nothing less than the reinvention of the international legal, political, and economic order — to create a world where dominated peoples would finally secure self-determination and true national independence.

Postcolonial statesmen like Kwame Nkrumah, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere successfully pushed to enshrine a right to self-determination at the United Nations (UN), proposed ambitious projects of regional federation, and called for a rebalancing of the world economy that would redistribute wealth and power to the Global South. Anti-colonial nationalists, Adom Getachew shows in her new book Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, were also egalitarian internationalists.

Jacobin contributor Sa’eed Husaini recently spoke with Getachew about the “worldmaking” of the anti-colonial project in the postwar period and the need to topple the global hierarchies that have survived long after the formal fall of colonialism.

Sa’eed Husaini

You argue that decolonization was a “worldmaking” project that sought to transform the entire international order rather than just refashioning former European colonies into nominally independent nation-states. Why is it important for us to recognize the worldmaking ambitions of anti-colonial nationalism?

Adom Getachew

My argument about “worldmaking” is directed against a standard view of decolonization as an expansion of international society that gradually incorporated excluded colonies. While this standard account emphasizes alien rule and exclusion from international society, I draw on an account of empire as racialized hierarchy and unequal integration. It is against this view of empire that anti-colonial nationalists engaged in worldmaking. In recovering this history, I hope to illustrate that black thinkers contributed to conceptions of the international and to trace the origins of our contemporary dilemmas to the age of decolonization.

While there are limits to anti-colonial worldmaking, and the transformations of the global order since the 1970s mean that those projects are of a different time, I think we can learn important lessons from that period. Most important in my mind is a commitment to thinking about the national and international together and avoiding a binary between nationalism and internationalism, which has returned in our own time.

Sa’eed Husaini

Your book focuses on the political and economic theories of notable black and African anti-colonial and nationalist thinkers and statesmen. You draw on the political thought of Nnamdi Azikiwe, W. E. B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams. These are, of course, quite significant political figures. But is there also a sense in which the worldmaking projects of anti-colonial nationalists remained an elite, largely male-driven, intellectual agenda, rather than a broader mass movement?

Adom Getachew

The book focuses on the high politics of decolonization. It tries to take spaces like the UN and reconsider what was possible from within the arrangements of postwar international institutions. As a result, it emphasizes elite political actors. But mass movements were absolutely central to propelling the right to self-determination and the demands for economic development. The right to self-determination secured in the UN legitimized and enshrined successful political struggles of independence. It did not displace them.

I think the statesmen I study had a contradictory and ambivalent relationship to mass politics. On the one hand, and especially in the anticolonial struggle, they centered collective political action in boycotts, strikes, and other strategies of civil disobedience. At the same time, they sought to limit or contain such actions once independence had been won.

C. L. R. James, for instance, critiqued Williams’s vision for not being sufficiently connected to popular struggles. Frantz Fanon’s critique of national consciousness was a general indictment of this abdication of political mobilization. Against the state-level negotiations in which Nkrumah was engaged, Fanon wrote, “African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people, that is to say, in defiance of the interests of the bourgeoisie.”

Anti-colonial worldmaking did not only occur in the space of institutions like the UN. We should expand this idea to include a wide range of efforts to make new political worlds in the context of decolonization. For instance, we might examine alternative projects of pan-Africanism such as Rastafarianism, which generated new linkages between Africa and the Caribbean, but were often repressed or dismissed by state actors.

We might also examine the new spaces of literary and visual culture that sprang up, and the international networks that facilitated the circulation and reception of aesthetic production. Frank Bowling, whose painting is on the cover of my book, is one example of this. In 1965, he won the Grand Prize of Contemporary Arts in the First World Festival of Negro Arts.

I think, then, we need to proliferate what counts as worldmaking to include these kinds of projects. This would also allow us to better examine the ways that the projects of statesmen like Nkrumah were taken up, contested, and remade in popular practices.

Sa’eed Husaini

You see empire as a process of unequal international integration that became increasingly racialized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You argue that this order remained through the founding of the League of Nations despite Woodrow Wilson’s enshrining of the right to self-determination as one of the organization’s founding principles. While the inclusion of Ethiopia and Liberia in the League of Nations is often viewed as the first expansion of international society, you see this moment as one where unequal integration was only further entrenched. Why is that?

Adom Getachew

The inclusion of these states is often seen to be the first crack in the exclusionary standard of civilization that delimited the boundaries of the international order. What I do in the book is trace the processes of incorporation.

Ethiopia appeared in the League as a site of humanitarian crisis before becoming a member. In the 1920s and ’30s, both Ethiopia and Liberia were accused of condoning slavery. While both countries did have various regimes of forced labor, I trace how this humanitarian critique (1) deflected from forced labor in all the colonies, and (2) generated the conditions of burdened and racialized membership in the League for the two African countries.

It was burdened because their obligations to the League were more onerous than other members, and their more limited rights were subject to judgments about whether they had, in fact, fulfilled their obligations. It was racialized because the perceived failure of domestic reform was increasingly tied to their blackness. Over and over, the League toyed with the idea of revoking their membership and placing both states in the mandate system.

By the 1930s, Haiti — the first black state — was under US occupation, and the United States was considering military action in Liberia, which the League had no intention of denouncing. Ethiopia’s membership was already precarious as Italy prepared for its invasion. The irony for me is that the moment of inclusion actually generated the rejection and denial of black sovereignty.

Sa’eed Husaini

How did anti-colonial nationalists succeed in securing the right to self-determination at the United Nations, and why do you caution against seeing this moment as the inevitable universalization of the Westphalian regime of sovereignty?

Adom Getachew

The right to self-determination was not in the key postwar documents like the UN Charter and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It was introduced in the 1950s by postcolonial states as they sought to influence the binding covenants on human rights that would be ratified in the 1960s. This right would also be articulated in the historic 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

I argue that this was a watershed moment in articulating a universal conception of sovereign equality. We should see this as the culmination of efforts of peripheral states rather than simply the expansion of a European ideal.

It is important to note also that equation of the 1648 treaty of Westphalia with a regime of equal sovereignty only occurred in this postwar period. Westphalia carried meaning before this moment. Rather than projecting the idea of equal sovereignty back to that moment, I want to suggest that we read it as the product of anti-imperial struggles over a universal right to self-determination.

Sa’eed Husaini

With the right to self-determination secured at the UN, anti-colonial nationalists turned to projects of regional federation. Kwame Nkrumah advocated a federal, supranational “Union of African States,” while Eric Williams advocated a regional federation in the West Indies. What prompted these statesmen to pursue projects of regional federation?

Adom Getachew

The primary problem Nkrumah and Williams sought to address was a gap between de jure sovereignty and substantive independence. Both worried that postcolonial states remained too small and economically dependent on global markets to secure substantive independence.

Their strategy involved regional integration through federation. The idea was that, organized in federated units, postcolonial states would be more likely to escape the condition of dependence by directing their political and economic relations toward the region rather than the hierarchical international order. Both Nkrumah and Williams imagined a highly centralized federation that would organize development and redistribution on a regional scale.

While the right to self-determination was a political project and the New International Economic Order [NIEO, spearheaded by Michael Manley and Julius Nyerere] was primarily economic, the federations married these two. They were an effort to use political institutions to overcome an economic predicament. They were also interesting because, while the right to self-determination and the NIEO sought to refashion the space of the international (via the UN), the federations sought to address the international via regionally organized exit.

Sa’eed Husaini

You argue that the New International Economic Order sought to build a “welfare world” by framing postcolonial states as the international working class that created the world’s wealth and was thus entitled to global redistribution. Can you talk about this ambitious worldmaking project? And, given how directly the NIEO struck at the heart of the postwar international order and challenged the interests of rich countries’ ruling classes, was it destined to fail?

Adom Getachew

Although the NIEO would be declared through the UN in the 1970s, the term was coined in the 1960s, and the broad outlines of the vision were already being developed within the UN Conference on Trade and Development. What emboldened postcolonial states in the early 1970s were the actions of OPEC, whose embargo modeled the ways that postcolonial states might exercise a kind of strike action.

One of the most important things about the NIEO was that it did offer a real challenge to the US-centered world. North Atlantic actors felt compelled to respond by appeasing, accommodating, or outright opposing the demands. While it was unlikely that all the demands would be met, I think the fate of the NIEO was not decided in advance, and that’s an important reason to recover that moment.

Beyond this, I think the NIEO was an important moment of transforming a language of aid and charity to a claim of political obligations. This was the power of the argument about the international division of labor and the analogy to the domestic welfare state. I think you see a similar reframing in the contemporary conversation about reparations, especially in the Caribbean.

Sa’eed Husaini

From your perspective, have contemporary political projects organized under the rubric of “decolonization” (including calls to “decolonize” knowledge production about Africa within the Western academy) lost their worldmaking ambitions? And in a moment rife with global challenges — whether it’s the COVID-19 crisis or the climate crisis — how should we think about the persistence of international hierarchy and historical attempts to establish an egalitarian global order?

Adom Getachew

One of the most important features of anti-colonial worldmaking was the decolonization of the production of knowledge. After decolonization, higher education was expanded and often lost its direct connection (and subordination) to universities in the former metropole.

Nkrumah, for instance, launched the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana (formerly University College of the Gold Coast under the auspices of the University of London), which had as its aim the study of Africa in “Africa-centred” ways. By inviting W. E. B. Du Bois to launch his lifelong vision of an Encyclopedia Africana in Ghana, Nkrumah also maintained a commitment to the diaspora as part of African studies.

Efforts like this — to develop knowledge for a decolonizing world — were replicated with the New World Group at the University of West Indies–Mona, Jamaica; the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, in Dakar, where Samir Amin was the first director; and the Dar es Salaam School, where Walter Rodney spent some time. I think contemporary efforts to decolonize the university can learn from these earlier efforts.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that these were projects connected to social transformation in the newly independent states. They were less concerned with critiquing and overcoming Eurocentrism and instead thought about the world from the site of Africa and the Caribbean. They were interested in the specificity of their contexts to build new kinds of linkages to other places in the Global South. One of the great tragedies of the rise of neoliberal globalization in the 1970s is the ways it undermined these efforts by eroding public funding of higher education.

COVID-19, like other crises, reveals the deeply unequal and hierarchical character of our international order. Attending to the history of empire that has produced this condition and the efforts to overcome hierarchy denaturalizes the current structure and gives us models of internationalism. This crisis sharply illustrates the need for international cooperation and for developing mechanisms for coordinating response and recovery. I think we might also learn to think about internationalism at different scales, including overlapping regional configurations.

It is harder to figure out where the political energies for a new model of internationalism will emerge and to what international sites they should be channeled. My story of decolonization was told through state actors and centered the United Nations General Assembly. Contemporary struggles are unlikely to reproduce this form.