First-Time Author Spotlight: Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire

Decolonization revolutionized the international order during the twentieth century. Yet standard histories that present the end of colonialism as an inevitable transition from a world of empires to one of nations—a world in which self-determination was synonymous with nation-building—obscure just how radical this change was. Drawing on the political thought of anticolonial intellectuals and statesmen such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B Du Bois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere, Adom Getachew’s important new account of decolonization reveals the full extent of their unprecedented ambition to remake not only nations but the world.

In the book you argue that anti-colonial critics and nationalists in Africa and the Caribbean were worldmakers. What do you mean by worldmaking?

I use the term worldmaking in contrast to nation-building in order to highlight the global ambitions of anticolonial nationalism. In the book, I chart three different projects of worldmaking: the institutionalization of a universal right to self-determination, the constitution of regional federation in Africa and the Caribbean, and the effort to create a New International Economic Order. In these worldmaking projects, anticolonial nationalists took the international arena as the central stage for the politics of decolonization. In this context self-determination came to have a domestic and international face. Domestically, self-determination entailed a democratic politics of postcolonial citizenship through which the postcolonial state secured economic development and redistribution. Internationally, self-determination created the external conditions for this domestic politics by transforming conditions of international hierarchy that facilitated dependence and domination. Setting aside the better known story of the domestic politics of anticolonialism, I examine its forgotten international vision.

It’s surprising that nationalists seeking independence and national self-determination pursued these global projects. Why did anticolonial nationalists become worldmakers?

For anticolonial figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Michael Manley, and Julius Nyerere the end of empire could not be limited to the achievement of national independence because empire itself was a globalizing force. For these anticolonial nationalists, empire had created a modern world, by politically and economically integrating disparate lands and peoples. However, this was always an unequal from of integration that engendered international racial hierarchy and produced dependence and domination. The hierarchical world of empire was not limited to colonies that had not achieved national independence. As I show in the book independent states like Ethiopia and Liberia were also subject to the consequences of unequal integration and racial hierarchy.

Studying the fate of these states, Nkrumah, Williams, Manley and others warned against a decolonization limited to the achievement of national independence. They argued for projects of anticolonial worldmaking that could overcome empire’s world of hierarchy by creating the legal, political, and economic foundations of an egalitarian and domination free international order.

While we often consider nationalism to be illiberal and parochial, I show that attending to the animating role the problem of international hierarchy played in anticolonial thought and excavating the worldmaking projects it inspired reveals the universalism of anticolonial nationalism.

Can you tell us about the research process? What inspired the project, how did you select actors and archives?

I started this project at a graduate student in African-American studies and Political Science at Yale University. I came to the project animated by what I thought were gaps in my two fields. First, studies of black internationalism and Pan-Africanism tended to stop at 1945, suggesting that the postwar period was one where the nation-state triumphed over alternative institutional imaginaries. In relation to this body of work, I wanted to trace the afterlives of black internationalism in the age of decolonization and excavate the forms of internationalism that anticolonial nationalists believe the postcolonial state required. Second, over the last two decades political theorists have turned their attention to the problem of empire tracing the ways in which canonical figures in this history of political thought developed their accounts of sovereignty, liberty, and justice against the backdrop of European imperial expansion. Emerging in the context of the post-2001 resurgence of American empire, this body of work has highlighted the way sin which earlier entanglements between liberalism and empire or domination and international law continue to shape our international order. Yet, political theorists have yet to systematically consider the political actors and movements that articulated the most far-reaching challenges to the world of empire. Worldmaking after Empire is a step in this direction. It traces how in the thirty years after World War II, anticolonial nationalists launched the most ambitious project of remaking the world.

I tell the story of this effort trough a Black Atlantic perspective that centers African and Caribbean anticolonial nationalists as well as their African-American interlocutors. The figures in the study— Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michael Manley, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, George Padmore, and Eric Williams—were worldmakers in part because they had emerged from black international and Pan-African circuits. While empire had created a world of inequality, it also facilitated connections between colonial subjects and created the conditions in which they developed a common language of critique and collectively envisioned a world after empire. In tracing the connections between these figures and in reconstructing their political projects, I traveled to archives in Barbados, Ghana, Switzerland, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom.  

Your book charts both the rise and fall of self-determination. What contributed to the fall and perhaps failure of these projects?

 I argue that we can locate the fall of self-determination in both the internal crisis of anticolonial nationalism and the external challenges to its vision of a world after empire. Internally, authoritarianism, secession, and humanitarian crises called into question the anticolonial insistence that the postcolonial state was the site of an egalitarian politics of citizenship that could accommodate religious, ethnic, and racial pluralism. Critics exploited these internal crises to repudiate anticolonial worldmaking. By the 1970s, North Atlantic intellectuals and statesmen such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the anticolonial right to self-determination and demand for equality amounted to no more than a hypocritical mobilization of liberal ideals to legitimize illegitimate states. This critique set the stage for a counterrevolution that dejected and displaced the short-lived moment of anticolonial worldmaking. Faced with these internal and external challenges, postcolonial statesman who had boldly called for the a post-imperial world retreated into a minimalist and conservative defense of the postcolonial state against domestic dissent and international critique.

One might say that Worldmaking after Empire is a history of unrealized political projects. Why is it important to recover these histories?

It might be easy for readers to walk away from this book thinking that the anticolonial visions of a world after empire were utopian, unrealistic or otherwise doomed to fail. But my hope is that in recovering these histories we are better able to grasp our present political predicaments and find resources in the past with which we can imagine new futures. We have inherited from the anticolonial worldmakers an incomplete and as yet unrealized project of decolonization. While we take imperialism to be a feature of our past, the world of hierarchy empire created remains with us in the erosion of sovereign equality, the dominance of unrepresentative institutions such as the Security Council, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the unrestrained power of private corporations, and the rise of American unilateralism. The persistence of international hierarchy demands new efforts at making a world after empire. To be sure we cannot simply recuperate the projects of worldmaking anticolonial nationalists pursued half a century ago. We will have to come up with our own languages for worldmaking, but we might learn anticolonial worldmakers that our efforts will depend on our ability to combine domestic and international transformation.

Adom Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at the University of Chicago.