Andrew Zimmerman — Decolonizing Decolonization (Review of Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire)


by Andrew Zimmerman

A review essay on Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

In Worldmaking after Empire Adom Getachew demonstrates how scholars might decolonize political theory by examining the political theory of decolonization. She works against the narrative, widespread in both popular and scholarly discourse, in which decolonization ironically completes, rather than rejects, the colonial project. It is a narrative in which colonized Africans, Asians, Indigenous Americans, and Pacific Islanders learn to demand national self-determination only from their colonizers, learn from those who oppress them to demand their freedom. By winning national sovereignty and independence, this common narrative suggests, colonized people did not overthrow but rather completed their European tutelage.[i] That narrative ultimately extends the colonial misrepresentation of conquest, oppression, and exploitation as beneficence. Worldmaking after Empire rejects this false and pernicious account. Its important contribution is then to analyze a body of decolonial political theory without recapitulating what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “‘first in Europe, then elsewhere’ structure of global historical time.”[ii]

Eurocentric misrepresentations of decolonization typically credit US President Woodrow Wilson with the call for national self-determination, though this portrayal strains even so basic a feature of historical interpretation as chronology. Wilson, rather, appropriated Lenin’s earlier call for national self-determination in an effort to replace communist decolonial solidarity with a warmed over colonial “civilizing mission” perhaps best embodied in the “mandates” of  the League of Nations in Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific. This has been clear even to scholars in the Global North at least since Arno Mayer’s 1959 Political Origins of the New Diplomacy and Gordon Levin’s 1968 Woodrow Wilson and World Politics, though it was, of course, obvious to intellectuals and activists in the Global South from the beginning.[iii] Wilson’s anti-Black racism, including his drive to introduce segregation into the U.S. Federal Government, was no anomaly to an otherwise consistent democratic internationalism. Whatever the shortcomings of Lenin’s own vision of decolonization and anti-racism, Lenin’s Marxism and his writings on the national question remained central to decolonial and anti-racist struggles around the world at least through the twentieth century.[iv]

Who today could look for the origins of global anti-imperialism and anti-racism in the liberal internationalism of Woodrow Wilson and South African Jan Smuts rather than in the Black internationalism of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and so many others? Who would today see the League of Nations, with its declaration that the territories of the former German and Ottoman Empires would be placed under a “sacred trust of civilization” as anything but a cruel parody of decolonization? Many scholars, in fact: the Eurocentric view of decolonization that these views embody remains powerfully entrenched in ongoing neocolonial projects by the Global North. The United Nations, moreover, continued much of the frankly colonial internationalism of the League until enough colonies won their independence to use their voting powers as independent states to transform the United Nations, at least in its pronouncements.

It is in this moment, Getachew shows, that intellectuals of the Global South, building on the longstanding, intertwined anti-imperialist traditions of Black and Communist internationalisms, worked out a theory of colonialism and decolonization that colonizers could not, as Wilson had done, assimilate to their own racial, political, and epistemological order.

Getachew laid out her decolonial approach to theory in an important 2016 article on interpretations of the Haitian Revolution. She showed how the common view that the Haitian Revolution universalized the republican ideals of the French Revolution does so only by rendering the Haitian Revolution “neither Haitian nor revolutionary.”[v] This still common view strips the Haitian Revolution of much of its history in order to serve as the ironic completion of some other history, the history of its former colonizers and enslavers. That narrative of ironic completion is also the one that Getachew overturns in Worldmaking After Empire, in which decolonization completes, rather than overthrows, the project of colonial tutelage. In fact, as Getachew argues, the anti-racist universalism of the enslaved was a rejection of, and remains an alternative to, the racist universalism of the enslavers.

In  a similar vein, Worldmaking After Empire presents the decolonial internationalism of the Global South not only as historical challenge to the imperialist world system, but also as a model of continuing importance for decolonizing the broad tradition of Eurocentric theory that emerged with that imperialist world system. The book reveals, moreover, the way thinkers of decolonial internationalism drew on the earlier anti-racist universalism of the enslaved

Worldmaking After Empire focuses on a cohort of decolonizing intellectuals, most of whom became heads of post-colonial states. These philosopher sovereigns and internationalists include Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago, Michael Manley of Jamaica, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. For each of these thinkers, decolonization did not mean full participation of their nations within the world system of European imperialism, for they already fully participated in that world system — as colonies. The imperialist world system, that is, already included their nations as subordinate members and was even predicated on that subordination. The politics of decolonization called, rather, for the creation of a fundamentally different world system, one predicated on equality rather than inequality, cooperation rather than exploitation, emancipation rather than oppression. Decolonization, Getachew agrees with much recent scholarship, did not aim at national autarky; it only appeared to do so to those who could not imagine an international system other than imperialism.

The first transformation that Getachew focuses on is UN Resolution 1514, passed by the new postcolonial powers over the abstentions of the United States and other European colonial powers. The Resolution transformed the “principle of equal rights and the self-determination of peoples” from a distant goal, avowed but not pursued by the UN, into a language of sovereignty for present-day anti-colonial fighters and leaders. Resolution 1514 declared “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.” This did not simply force the United Nations to endorse immediate decolonization but also transformed the meaning of decolonization. Colonialism was no longer just rule by a foreign nation. It also included domination and exploitation, the racist order of colonial rule. The framers of Resolution 1514 and the other thinkers of decolonization whom Getachew analyzes understood colonialism as a world system whose dismantling involved the transformation of regional and international economies.

Getachew offers an illuminating analysis of two efforts to put this this decolonial internationalism into place: the first were the efforts at creating regional federations spearheaded by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Prime Minister Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago. These projects foundered on concerns of potential member states to protect their own sovereignty and the sovereignty of minority nationalities within multiethnic states. The second project was that for a New International Economic order (NIEO), which would have replaced the unequal exchange characteristic of the colonial world order with a decolonial system of equal exchange. This led to two important intellectual centers of decolonial thought: the New World Group of Jamaica and the Dar es Salaam school of Tanzania. But, drawing on work of Johanna Bockman, Getachew shows how the kinds of structural adjustments to the world economy that the NIEO demanded were undermined by IMF-imposed structural adjustments that drove Jamaica and Tanzania and much of the Global South into new forms of poverty and dependence.[vii]

But while neither of these attempts succeeded in realizing a democratic, decolonial world system, the project of decolonizing political theory, including its original analysis of colonialism, remains as valid and urgent as ever. By revealing the profound and original political thought at the heart of these particular decolonial projects, Getachew makes clear that particular shortcomings of particular initiatives do not mean that decolonization was itself a failure, though this is a staple of much hegemonic thinking in the Global North. In this, World Making after Empire also participates in the project of decolonizing political theory.

Getachew shows how decolonial theorists employed the history of Atlantic slavery to support their argument that colonialism was not simply foreign rule, but rather the global systems of racism and exploitation that continued even after formal decolonization. Works such as C.LR. James’s Black Jacobins, Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery, and W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction make the history of the overthrow of slavery in the Americas central to anti-colonial struggles. The history of Atlantic slavery was also important for the colonial internationalism of Woodrow Wilson, as his own white supremacist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction makes clear.

Getachew reveals, in one of the more surprising turns in her account, the important role that the history of the United States played in decolonial internationalist thought. One would hardly expect the thinkers Getachew discusses to look for positive models in the history of a nation that was arguably the most powerful enemy of the decolonial internationalism they advocated, and certainly one of the longest-lived and most powerful slave societies in the Americas. But, as Getachew shows, Nkrumah and Williams in fact turned to the U.S. Federalists and the U.S. Constitution for models of the federation of their own formerly colonized states.

For Getachew this was neither Eurocentrism, nor an attempt by Nkrumah and Williams to defend themselves against one of their likely enemies by clothing their own projects in its stated ideals. Nkrumah and Williams figured, in Getachew’s words, “the postcolonial predicament as a recurring political problem and the federal idea as replicable answer.”

But the anti-Black racism of the United States also continued to play a role in fighting against the democratic internationalism of decolonization. We thus see Daniel Patrick Moynihan, turning from his infamous culture of poverty account of supposed African American matriarchy to a screed against decolonization that is perhaps equally worthy of infamy. Neither the colonizers nor the decolonizers were pro- or anti- American, for the interpretation of the Americas was an agonistic field in which imperialists and anti-imperialists struggled.

Getachew describes an anti-imperialist political theory that posits a world system that is neither a particularistic “no” nor a universalizing “yes” to the imperialist world system. Worldmaking after Empire proposes a number of interpretive tools to help understand decolonization instead as a form of global political thought that is different but not derivative from imperialist globalization. Rather than completions and universalizations of European theory, we see a struggle of appropriations and counterappropriations: Wilson appropriating from Lenin, the framers of Resolution 1514 appropriating from the UN, Nkrumah and Williams appropriating from the Federalists, for example.

Getachew is of course not the first scholar to call for decolonizing theory. It is worth contrasting her approach with the earlier, and still influential, approach of the Subaltern Studies Group. Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty have each called on scholars to refuse to place popular, subaltern politics, into either the colonizers’ narrative arc of modernization or the decolonizing elites’ narrative of national liberation.[viii] Getachew reminds us that the two competing narratives should not be characterized as  imperialist internationalism and anti-imperialist nationalism, but rather as competing internationalisms on an agonistic field defined by racism and anti-racism, appropriation and counterappropriation. But, to borrow a question from Gayatri Spivak, can the subaltern speak in the political-theoretical landscape that Getachew offers?[ix] That is, is there a place in the intense struggle between colonial and decolonial internationalisms for varieties of subaltern politics that are amenable neither to the colonial nor the postcolonial elites? There is, of course, no necessary contradiction between the two approaches to decolonizing theory, Getachew’s and that of the Subaltern Studies Group. They are, perhaps, supplemental and mutually illuminating partial accounts.

Decolonization was never, of course, political theory in isolation. Decolonial war making has always accompanied decolonial “Worldmaking.” Frantz Fanon argued that attempts “to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table,” without combat, preserve the colonial class and international structures that true decolonization requires.[x] But by showing the ways that anti-colonial political theory offered a world diametrically opposed to the world of the colonizers, not simply a nationalist rejection of that world, Getachew suggests that even around Fanon’s “negotiating table” there was already a fundamental enmity. That is what makes this theory political.[xi] By decolonizing decolonization, Adom Getachew not only offers an important analysis of a group of political theorists who continue to be marginalized in our Eurocentric academies, but also calls on us to continue their projects of decolonial worldmaking.


Andrew Zimmerman is professor of history at the George Washington University. He is the author of Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, 2010) and the editor of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in the United States (International Publishers, 2016). He is currently writing a history of the US Civil War as a transnational revolution titled “A Very Dangerous Element.” Many of his publications can be found here.


[i] Perhaps the best recent version of this common narrative is Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Getachew discusses this text on 192n19.

[ii] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 7.

[iii]Arno J. Mayer, Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917-1918, Yale Historical Publications. Studies 18 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959); N. Gordon Levin, Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America’s Response to War and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968). On the decolonial response to the version of national self-determination offered by Wilson and the League, see Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[iv] See, for one account spanning much of the century, Harry Haywood’s splendid Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator Press, 1978).

[v] Adom Getachew, “Universalism After the Post-Colonial Turn: Interpreting the Haitian Revolution,” Political Theory 44, no. 6 (December 1, 2016): 821–45, 823.

[vii] Johanna Bockman, “Socialist Globalization against Capitalist Neocolonialism: The Economic Ideas behind the New International Economic Order,” Humanity 6, no. 1 (March 16, 2015): 109–28.

[viii] Ranajit Guha, “On the Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 45–86; Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe.

[ix] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–313.

[x] Frantz Fanon, “On Violence,” in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 2004), 1–62, 23.

[xi] In the sense of the political put forward by Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (1932; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here