Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press) by Adom Getatchew

“Ghana has saved herself by her exertions. She will shortly save Africa by her example.” This phrase, from an editorial in the Accra Daily Graphic on 7 March 1957, the morning after Independence Day, expressed two of the great aims of anti-colonial politics: freedom at home, and solidarity abroad. Its aptness for that particular historical moment belied its origins in William Pitt’s boast that, in the recently concluded Napoleonic wars, England had saved herself by her exertions, and was to shortly save Europe. The Daily Graphic piece, it seemed, had cleverly updated an old slogan, changing the words but leaving the syntax intact.

For many years, this was the model of an influential way of thinking about anti-colonial politics and ideas: it claimed that anti-colonial thinkers and politicians, in arguing their case against colonial rule, applied European ideas of nationhood, sovereignty and self-rule to their own circumstances, forcing colonisers to see that their own ideals, once universalised, meant freedom from colonial subjugation. In this view, anti-colonial arguments involved colonised people picking up the coloniser’s tools to fight for their own freedom. Adom Getatchew’s marvellous book provides a timely corrective to this misunderstanding, tracing a new narrative of the nature and significance of anti-colonial thought and politics over the middle decades of the 20th century. Challenging the standard view of decolonisation as a moment of European-style nation-building, Getatchew offers instead an account of anti-colonial theory and practice as “worldmaking”.

Anti-colonial worldmaking sought to remake the international political order in the wake of the age of empires, establishing an egalitarian world politics based on the principles of self-determination. To be sure, this involved the end of alien rule in the colonies and the building up of new nation-states, but for anti-colonial thinkers like Ghana’s first prime minister Kwame Nkrumah and others, this was but the first step; true self-determination and non-domination would require a transformation of the international realm and the establishment of international institutions, both associations of newly independent states and organisations including former colonisers.

The perspective of anti-colonial thinkers was global because the conditions that framed their predicament were global too – their worldmaking was a response to the centuries-long project of colonial worldmaking that had begun with Columbus and the transatlantic slave trade and culminated in the scramble for Africa. They understood that European imperialism was more than just the relation between coloniser and colonised, and operated as perhaps the first true world-system. As Nkrumah argued, the independence of Ghana “is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent”, because on a world map indelibly shaped by the arbitrary subdivisions of empires, and in a global economic system built on the transfer of resources from colony to metropole, only robust international institutions and organisations could ensure real – economic as well as political – independence. Without such institutions, newly independent states remained vulnerable to what Nkrumah called “neo-colonialism”: that form of continued subjugation that relies on more or less secretive forms of diplomatic and economic coercion even after the departure of colonial troops and bureaucracy.

Anti-colonial institution-building took a number of forms: the establishment of regional federations like the African Union and the West Indies Federation to lessen the vulnerability of smaller nations and promote economic self-sufficiency within regional blocs; the organisation of newly independent states at the UN, where the old idea of self-determination, an afterthought in the original UN charter, was reinvented as a universal human right; and most radically, the demands for a New International Economic Order that would decisively break with the legacy of imperial political economy, demanding an equitable distribution of the shared wealth of the planet as the economic parallel to political non-domination.

Why return to anti-colonial thought today? Getatchew makes a powerful argument that the study of anti-colonial worldmaking is of particular interest to us in a time when the nation state has “come to represent a political form incapable of realising the ideal of a democratic, egalitarian and anti-imperial future.” Although the anti-colonial cosmopolitanism of the thinkers she discusses – W. E. B. Du Bois, George Padmore and C. L. R. James – seems a distant goal in a time of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia, revisiting their vision of a politics where nation states band together in international bodies to transform not only the lives of their own citizens but those of people across the world might provide the spark of political imagination that is so sorely lacking in our thinking about a just international order. As Getatchew notes, “the task of building a world after empire remains ours as much as it was theirs.” Her book, like those of the authors she so lucidly presents, offers us vital tools for doing so.

This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.