What Was Decolonization?

A Review of Adom Getachew’s “Worldmaking After Empire”

Scott Malcomson

The title of Adom Getachew’s fascinating and bracing Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination is a bit misleading. Her period of interest, 1918-1980, was pretty imperial: Portugal’s colonial war ended in 1975, Rhodesia’s 15-year internal war ceased with the establishment of Zimbabwe in 1980, and Britain left Hong Kong only in 1997. She isn’t really tracking the more familiar worldmakings of that era either, the Paris Peace Conferences and the Bretton Woodses.

Rather, Getachew is interested specifically in “anticolonial worldmaking,” upending the familiar empire-to-nation modern chronology: “Against the standard view of decolonization,” she writes, “as a moment of nation-building in which the anticolonial demand for self-determination culminated in the rejection of alien rule and the formation of nation-states, I recast anticolonial nationalism as worldmaking.” [2] It’s a type of political-intellectual archaeology: Getachew is retrieving and re-framing some old anti-colonial arguments so that we might see their pasts and our present in a different way. As she says, “the animating motivation of this recovery is to contribute to a history of the present by rethinking decolonization.” [9]

Her method is to focus on certain key personalities and events. The first set begins with the League of Nations negotiations in 1919, featuring Woodrow Wilson and South Africa’s Jan Smuts, who, as the principal authors of the League of Nations Covenant, are seen as creating a system of national self-determination that “made it compatible with empire” and “racial hierarchy,” [48] with non-white selves being a good deal less self-determining than white selves and placed on a path of (possibly indefinite) self-improvement under white tutelage. I don’t think Getachew gets Wilson, Smuts, or the League negotiations quite right — more on that later — but the League certainly did accommodate the empires of Britain, Japan, and France, victorious powers which took on as League “mandates” the ex-colonies of defeated powers Germany and the Ottoman empire.

Against Wilson and Smuts, Getachew arrays W.E.B. Du Bois, George Padmore and C.L.R. James. Du Bois left the Socialist Party to back Wilson in 1912 but disillusion was swift as Wilson moved to segregate the civil service. We might wonder how illusioned Du Bois ever was; he was a romantic but also a politician and therefore an opportunist, and he was always ready to make use of Wilson if the chance arose. (Late in life Du Bois wrote a wonderfully perceptive short memoir of Wilson.) James, too, went through a period of disillusion with the League. Padmore had no illusions about Wilson to lose, though he had a few about Communism.

The three men settled on “the revival of Pan-Africanism as a distinctive internationalism,” Getachew writes, “one that centered a critique of colonialism as a dual structure of slavery and racial hierarchy. This Pan-Africanism drew on and was deeply influenced by Lenin’s account of self-determination but increasingly fashioned itself as an autonomous project of world revolution in which colonized subjects, rather than the metropolitan proletariat, were the key agents of global transformation.” [67]

That global transformation never arrived, but it did set the stage for Getachew’s second event, the passage in 1960 by the UN General Assembly of resolution 1514, which held that “all peoples have the right of self-determination.” [90] Kwame Nkrumah and Eric Williams now come into the picture, as does Nnamdi Azikiwe to a lesser extent. While their connection to resolution 1514 is not always tight (with the exception of Ghana’s Nkrumah), the resolution’s tie with African anticolonialism is: six African colonies gained independence in the 1950s, another 17 in 1960 alone. The League of Nations’ “tutelage” concept breathed its last. Resolution 1514 passed the General Assembly without opposition on Dec. 14, 1960, the celebrated Year of Africa. There were, however, some abstentions: Australia, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Nkrumah and Williams were very directly linked to the next development on which Getachew focuses: the early-60s efforts at postcolonial federations, in particular the Union of African States (Nkrumah) and the West Indian Federation (Williams). This section, for me at least, was the most interesting, as it gets at the heart of the issue of anticolonial self-determination in governance terms. Ex-colonies were unlikely to prosper as individual units. To the slight degree that colonies were designed at all — they were mainly the random results of major-power collisions — they were not designed to succeed economically on their own. Their self-determination was therefore likely in many cases to be nominal. But if small or otherwise vulnerable colonies could gather in federation, they might gain strength in numbers and through economic diversification and specialization, or at least increase their leverage in bargaining over the pricing of extractable resources. Nkrumah had brought Ghana to a relatively early independence (1957) only to turn around and urge Ghanaians to relinquish some of their sovereignty to a Union of African States. Eric Williams, working with the British colonial office, saw the West Indies Federation into existence in 1958. Leopold Senghor in French West Africa made a similar move in 1959. None of these prospered. The Caribbean federation lasted over four years; Senghor’s effort, after a year of negotiation with France, lasted only two months.

The final event Getachew considers is the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, with Jamaica’s Michael Manley and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere as dramatis personae. The phrase was coined by the Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, first head of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), founded in 1964 on the strength of ex-colonial member states. [161] After a decade of agitation, the General Assembly issued (1974) a Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States. As it turned out, the NIEO’s victories — Getachew cites GATT preferences for developing nations and other international efforts at boosting the economic performance of poorer countries and opening developed markets to their manufactures — preceded the NIEO declaration, which succeeded best at bringing out its enemies.

Getachew concludes that the age of anticolonial self-determination has come to an end, and “anticolonial worldmaking, which began as an effort to rethink sovereignty, culminated in projects that reinforced the nation-state” without really making the ex-colonial state any more viable. She also believes that we remain in an “era of unrestrained American imperialism” featuring “a striking return to and defense of a hierarchical world order.” [179]

This is too gloomy, and not only because the past few decades have seen the greatest reductions in poverty in history. Much of that improvement has been in former colonies, particularly if you include China, which is not quite right but not quite wrong either. (It’s the Chinese themselves who refer to the imperialist Century of Humiliation.) In the period 2000-2016, life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa increased by more than ten years. American hard power has arguably been in steady if gradual retreat since some point in George W. Bush’s second term. Donald Trump certainly is a bully but he has no plan for world domination or much of anything else; his one through-line since the campaign has been economic nationalism.

What we have had is a return of great-power conflict as a plausible structuring mechanism for international politics. I’m not altogether convinced by the great-power vision, given the deep autarkic urges of China, the U.S., Russia, the EU, and arguably India. (The main exception to this national-autonomy process is sub-Saharan Africa and the African Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The Africans may be the last globalists.) Besides, when you read the current, great-power-focused U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, they both read like documents composed by international-relations scholar-practitioners understandably desperate to impose some meaningful grid atop the ramblings and lurches of a wayward commander in chief. That someone as chronically unrealistic as Donald Trump would be the vehicle for returning to a hard-minded realism (as against the various idealisms of the Bushes, Clinton and Obama) is not easy to accept. Nonetheless, ideological currents among major powers can create their own reality, and, as Quinn Slobodian describes in his indispensable GLobalists, economic nationalism and the aggressions of empire are not opposites.

The old imperialism was often a result of great powers wanting to prevent each other from getting things that none of them really needed. This was pretty common knowledge in the 19th century and one inspiration for English liberalism, among other trends. The first (1835) book by Richard Cobden, later famed as a father of Britain’s free-trade policies, has many pages of ridicule devoted to “balance of power” politics. Great-power politics in its imperial heyday was seen by many as unstable at best and tending to create unproductive imperialisms of one kind or another while needlessly trampling the sovereignty and productivity of smaller and less technologically advantaged states.

Which brings us back to Wilson and Smuts. They were both anti-imperialists in their own ways. Smuts had long been bewitched by the Cecil Rhodes vision of a unified white-minority-led Africa, one that would transform the British empire into a league of self-determining states. Smuts saw World War I as the last gasp of old-school empires, and so did Wilson, who also took a broader view than Smuts of which peoples were “capable of self-determination.” But the anti-imperial, or at minimum post-imperial, principle itself was at the core of what both men were about when they arrived in Paris to negotiate the Covenant.

The process by which self-determination, omnipresent in the first, Wilson-dominated drafts of the covenant, gradually disappeared from the document had to do with several factors. One of them was certainly the preservation of the British, French and Japanese empires, but not in the way you might expect. Britain, the lead actor, embraced self-determination for its “self-governing” (and white-governed) colonies because it felt it had no choice. Even in the Boer War, in which Smuts had fought determinedly for the other side, Britain had needed American aid. In World War I, to survive the threat from imperial Germany, Britain needed American aid and Australian, New Zealander, Canadian and South African aid, as well as a very great deal from India, which was not self-governing. (Of course, you really have to squint to see minority-ruled South Africa as “self-governing” in any conventional sense.) Britain empowered these colonies in order to keep their loyalty and thereby hope to survive competition from a rival, waxing imperial power. So a number of self-governing colonies did get self-determination in Paris, having earned it on the battlefield, and the imperial grip was weakened. However, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, along with Japan, also wanted bits of the dismembered loser empires (mainly Germany) to take for themselves. Britain believed it was in no position to say no. France and Italy, the other of the five great powers, didn’t greatly care, seeing the whole discussion as a rather unmoored Anglo-Saxon obsession. But the embrace of this strange sort of federated mini-imperialism (more central to imperialism as such than is generally understood) was too much for the self-determination language to survive, even in the hypocritical realm of international treaty-making. Wilson waged a pitched battle to preserve at least the idea that “supervision” by Japan, Australia et al. of their quasi-colonies come with a commitment to the earliest possible independence based on self-determination and consent. He lost. It was the first in what would prove to be a series of humiliations prior to the collapse of his health and his presidency.

Getachew shows that Eric Williams and Kwame Nkrumah both used the example of the United States when trying to find ways to federate, respectively, the Caribbean ex-colonies and their African analogues. She devotes much attention to it, perhaps because of its unexpectedness. She describes these two leading anti-colonialists’ looking to U.S. history for inspiration as “unsettling.” I think I know what she means, but however unsettling, isn’t it also inevitable and even admirable? Part of the genius of Williams and Nkrumah, and also Du Bois, was that they could racialize or de-racialize international hierarchy based on the facts before them and their visions of the future. Both William and Nkrumah were operating on the premise that the experiences of “white colonies” were relevant to the experience and future plans of non-white colonies, and that non-white colonies certainly should expect the same consideration from the imperial center as their white counterparts had or did. All would be, to use Getachew’s terms, “colonized subjects” making themselves “key agents of global transformation.” (Williams stressed the relative recentness of full Canadian federated self-government in his arguments for West Indian federated self-government.) This was the core implication of the self-determination doctrine that Wilson had inserted into the League of Nations debate and which was removed as a result of the politics of those very same white colonies (plus Japan) as they sought to expand their own self-determination vis-à-vis Britain, at a price paid by their non-white neighbors as well as the expropriated corporations and white settlers, principally Germans.

What Williams and Nkrumah were doing was thinking about decolonization as something that might have happened to various white-majority (or in South Africa’s case, white-minority) colonies first but was not necessarily a racial project per se. That this perspective now seems remote is itself unsettling. One of the many achievements of Getachew’s book is that she recovers it, if a bit reluctantly. Her discussion would have been enriched by consideration of the Raj, of China as it confronted imperial Japan, and of the British Dominions, which were also colonies and were central to the imperial (and racial) reconfigurations of the League of Nations. Still, a passage like this gets you a pretty long way:

In framing themselves as heirs of 1776, Nkrumah and Williams also destabilized the claims of American exceptionalism. By portraying the limits of decolonization as recurring political problems that the United States had also faced, they offered an important rejoinder to observers who located postcolonial state weakness in cultural and sociological deficits. The experience of postcolonial states did not constitute deviations from Western models of the nation-state but were instead framed in a broader and recurring story of the limits of postcolonial independence in the context of hierarchy….American success had little to do with what Woodrow Wilson had described as an Anglo-American capacity for freedom. Instead, its postcolonial success emerged from pursuing an institutional form that successfully overcame the postcolonial predicament. [120-121]