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.

Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel on Decolonization

DecolonizationThe end of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean was one of the most important and dramatic developments of the twentieth century. In the decades after World War II, dozens of new states emerged as actors in global politics. Long-established imperial regimes collapsed, some more or less peacefully, others amid mass violence. Decolonization by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel takes an incisive look at decolonization and its long-term consequences, revealing it to be a coherent yet multidimensional process at the heart of modern history. Recently, the authors answered some questions about their new book:

You describe the dissolution of colonial empires as a major process of the twentieth century. What makes decolonization important?

In a way, decolonization is both among the most overrated and underrated historical processes of the twentieth century. On the one hand, many contemporaries pinned high expectations to the end of colonial rule: a new age of social and international equality, post-racism, peace, empowerment of the South, economic redistribution, cultural self-determination, democracy, technological progress, etc. Many of these expectations did not, or only partially, materialize. Hierarchies and inequality continue to shape the relations between formally independent states. It is thus only natural that many see decolonization through the prism of historical disappointment and disillusion. They regard decolonization as a failure. Yet we also have to see what decolonization did change: It dramatically altered the norms that govern the word-wide relations between nations and peoples. While in the late 1930s large parts of the world population still lived in territories that were under alien rule, this has become an anomaly in the present time. Racial hierarchy is no longer an accepted structuring principle of world order. This fundamental normative change is a major dimension—and yes, also an achievement—of the decolonization era. In general, it is important to go beyond these narratives of failure and success and to understand decolonization as a fundamental restructuring—and geopolitical fragmentation—of the international system. This is a perspective we put forward in the book.

How do you explain this international sea change?

This is a question that many contemporaries and witnesses of decolonization were already debating, and today’s historians and political scientists have inherited several ways of explaining the end of colonial rule: that the colonial powers simply could not stem against the rising tide of national liberation movements, that the new postwar international scene of the Cold War and international organizations forced Europe’s colonial powers to give up colonial rule, or that the colonial powers, in association with influential big business interests, realized that they could pursue their interests in more cost-effective ways than colonial rule, the classical “neo-colonialism” theory. In our book, in line with today’s excellent scholarship, we try to avoid overtly simplified models. Decolonization was a multifaceted and complex historical process, and its sheer geographical breadth should caution us against one-factor-theories. The book seeks to provide an analytical grid that takes into account various levels of historical action (local, imperial, international) and time frames. This grid may be used by our readers to analyze and describe specific cases, and may also help to explain decolonization in comparative perspective.

How irreversible is this process, in light of the current international scene? Are there no clear signs that the international order marked by decolonization is coming to an end?

Decolonization never did away with power structures between nations and peoples. Rather, it changed the ways in which these hierarchies are arranged and exercised. The formally sovereign nation-state—and no longer the empire—has become the basis of the international system. Despite the current renaissance of “spheres of interest” and “interventions,” as worrisome as these tendencies are, we do not see the reemergence of internationally codified hierarchies between “metropoles” and “colonies.” To be sure, the post-1989 international order has been under great pressure. Yet, there are no historical precedents for the reappearance of once collapsed empires. If current talk of a “Greater Russia” really leads to Russian “re-imperialization” remains to be seen. In that case, Russian ambitions will eventually clash with a self-confident China, ironically its old Asian rival, which, by the way, has never really ceased to be an empire. Elsewhere, the rise of xenophobic and racist movements throughout the Western world hardly seems to be inspired by the desire to be again at the pinnacle of a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. These movements want to minimize interaction with what they conceive as the inferior and dangerous other (be they Syrians, Eastern Europeans, or Mexicans); their new symbol is “the Wall.” Colonial re-expansion would necessarily go in a different direction.

You also argue that decolonization marked “a crucial phase in West European nation-building.” What do you mean by this?

Of course, decolonization did not bring about new European nation-states. This happened in the global South. Yet, it did have a considerable impact on the European metropoles, and also on Japan, which had built up its own colonial empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century on. These metropoles were closely tied to their overseas possessions, and it is one of the paradoxes of the decolonization era that such ties intensified at the very moment of imperial demise. After the Second World War, Great Britain and France, the two leading colonial powers, sought to facilitate mobility within their imperial spheres and set up, by today’s standards, relatively liberal citizenship laws for people from their respective empires. Decolonization, in this context, came as no less than a rupture in longstanding geopolitical orientations. It set off a new phase in European nation-building, a sort of nation-building by way of contraction. The metropoles had to dissolve or redefine the many—economic, political, social, also mental—ties to their respective empires. In light of increased immigration from their former colonial territories, they also had to redefine what it meant to be British, French, or Dutch. Though not produced by the end of empire, European supranational integration became enmeshed in European decolonization: the postcolonial European nation-states started to focus on Europe and the European market, which more than made up for their losses in former imperial trade. Great Britain, marked by a long-standing ambivalence toward continental Europe, made its first attempt to join the European Common Market in 1961, after the disaster of the Suez crisis and at the apogee of African decolonization. In a way, the 2016 “Brexit” vote to drop out of the European Union concluded this period of postimperial British supra-nationalism.

How present is the history of decolonization today?

Remnants of the colonial past and the decolonization era are pervasive. They remind us that our current world was built out of the ruins of empire. For example, a large portion of international borders between states, including the conflicts they sometimes nourish, have been the result of colonial rule. Decolonization basically enshrined most of them as the borders between sovereign nation-states. Some of the most troubling conflicts in the world—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the conflict between Pakistan and India—can be traced back to the decolonization era. Yet, notwithstanding the many apparent links, assessing the long-term impact of decolonization and the colonial past remains a tricky operation. Postcolonial countries have taken very different trajectories, sometimes starting from the same colonial system. Consider the two Koreas which had been under Japanese rule and which took diverging paths. The Syrian civil war, to cite another case, can hardly be seen as the ineluctable result of Franco-British quasi-colonial rule in the Middle East during the interwar years.

While the impact of the colonial past and the decolonization process may be fading with time, memories relating to this period have experienced a boom over the past two decades. Certainly, many episodes of the decolonization period remain largely forgotten. Who remembers the bloody repression of a major insurrection in Madagascar in 1947–49? Yet, debates about the colonial past and its end have attracted a great deal of attention not only in formerly colonized countries, but also in Japan and in many European countries. These memories have even become a concern in the diplomatic world. Internationally concerted efforts at remembering the effects—and the many victims—of colonial rule, similar to what we have seen with regard to the Holocaust or the world wars, however, are still no more than a wild dream by some historians.

Why did you write this book?

Decolonization has become an important topic in international historical scholarship, a development not completely detached from the memory boom we just talked about. Over the past two decades, historians and social scientists around the world have worked at piecing together a complex picture of this process and its reverberations. In many cases they have unearthed new archival evidence, a lot of which has only recently become accessible. Decolonization is in the process of turning into a highly productive—and specialized—research field. The wealth of new empirical studies, however, has been rarely accompanied by attempts at synthesis or general interpretation. The book offers such a broader survey. We sought to write it in a clear, accessible prose which addresses students and scholars, but also readers from outside the historical profession who are interested in this process.

Jan C. Jansen is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton).