The Long Dialogue between Worldmaking and Empire


Review of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, by Adom Getachew

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019


Adom Getachew has produced a splendid book. Worldmaking after Empire is beautifully written, powerfully argued, and has broad implications for how we should think about the contemporary international order. Her book “studies the global projects of decolonization black Anglophone anticolonial critics and nationalists spearheaded in the three decades after the end of the Second World War” (2). According to Getachew, these critics and nationalists began by redescribing empire as “a form of domination that exceeded the bilateral relations of colonizer and colonized” (2). Getachew then proceeds to trace chronologically and thematically three conceptual attempts to remake the world in more egalitarian ways: the institutionalization of the right to self-determination in the United Nations (UN); the formation of regional federations, and the demand for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). Getachew suggests that this project of historical recovery is of vital importance because in their critiques of empire, her protagonists were not arguing against a now-obsolete political form. “Empire was and continues to be constitutive of international society,” she maintains (31).   

Getachew’s analysis begins by rejecting the received empires-to-nation-states narrative that has so dominated traditional scholarship. She correctly points out that this narrative “conceives of empire as a bilateral relationship between metropole and colony” (16). The end of empire, then, is seen in this narrative as “the universalization of the nation-state as the accepted institutional form of self-determination.” This notion, she argues, is part of an assumption of progressive westernization. Instead, Getachew in her book charts what she calls “anticolonial nationalism’s radical challenge to the four-century-long project of European imperial expansion” (16).

Getachew’s historical account shows that unequal membership was a fundamental principle of the League of Nations. She begins by analyzing Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination project not as a progressive attempt to move beyond empire, but rather as a conservative Burkean project “to contain the threat of revolution” implicit in a variety of analyses of World War I as an imperial war. Wilson and Jan Smuts “recast self-determination in the service of empire” (39-40). Their position was that “racially backwards people were not suited for democracy but could partake in minimal forms of consent and were owed some modicum of respect” (42). “Racial hierarchy was,” Getachew shows, “constitutive of the League of Nations” (51).  

After World War II, Kwame Nkrumah sought to refashion the United Nations that had replaced the League “as the international forum for decolonization” (73). International institutions, in this view, “should lead the fight against imperialism by protecting all peoples’ right to self-determination” (73).  This was not an inevitable outcome of the creation of the UN, Getachew argues, but a consequence of the agitation and arguments of the black anti-colonial nationalists. Soon after Nkrumah’s speech in 1960, the UN indeed adopted Resolution 1514 guaranteeing self-determination as a right to all peoples. The anti-colonial nationalists had “appropriated the principle of self-determination but reinvented its meaning through a novel critique of imperialism that centered on the problems of slavery and racial hierarchy” (74). But they also insisted on “the international conditions of nondomination for existing territorial units in which popular sovereignty could be constituted” (79). 

As problems emerged with the project of self-determination, Nkrumah and others pointed to the reality of “fake independence.” Independence conceded by imperial powers in a world of unequal economic and political power might mean very little. Postcolonial states were inevitably weak in the face of the economic and political might of the ostensibly post-imperial powers. In both Africa and the Anglophone West Indies theorists turned to “federation as a central strategy for securing international nondomination” (108). A federation these theorists believed, “would create a larger more diverse regional economy that would slowly begin to undercut relations of dependence and could pool resources for regional economic development” (109). Both Nkrumah and Eric Williams turned the United States as a model of postcolonial federation. Their concern with sovereignty was that it was insufficient in the context of “international hierarchy and economic dependence” (113). Union through federal arrangement had solved the problem in eighteenth century America and it could do so again in twentieth century Africa and the West Indies. 

After these projects failed in the mid-1960s, anti-colonial nationalists turned to a new project, the New International Economic Order proclaimed in the 1970s.  They sought to address both the problems of economic dependence and “the vagaries of the international market…that persistently limited postcolonial nation-building” (144). The proponents of the NIEO  “envisioned international nondomination as a radical form of economic and political equality between states” (144). Michael Manley and Julius Nyerere in particular imagined postcolonial states as proletarians in a global class struggle. They hoped, unrealistically in Getachew’s view, that existing international institutions could be deployed in the service of creating a global welfare world.   


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Despite, or maybe because of, the brilliance of this book, I was left with a few questions. Every excellent monograph necessarily provokes questions. And bold arguments often stimulate non-specialists, like myself, to think through broader implications. 

First, I was left wondering about the tension between Getachew’s claims about the history of empire. On the one hand, she insists that her subjects were challenging “the four-century-long project of European imperial expansion” (20). In other words they are challenging a project—singular—which began in the sixteenth century and came to an end in the twentieth century.  On the other hand, while difference has always characterized empire, it was, according to Getachew, only in “the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [that] this difference came to be formulated in terms of race” (20). Periodization reemerges as an undertheorized issue in her sophisticated discussion of “empire as enslavement” (81). 

In other words, Getachew suggests that there was a fundamental transformation in the concept of difference at the heart of empire that happened in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was not one European imperial project but at least two. Indeed it is telling that in tracing the history of empire, Getachew jumps seamlessly from early seventeenth century theorists of empire to late nineteenth century projects. Getachew of course cannot be faulted for this remarkable historical leap. It is consonant with a good deal of work in the field—and exactly replicates Tony Anghie’s chapter structure, for example. Nevertheless I think this leap matters. It matters because it was precisely in this historical period that a number of theorists of empire—sometimes seen incorrectly as critics of empire—began to advance notions that bear a striking resemblance to the three projects—international protection of newly independent states, regional federations, and reimagining of the economic world order against European domination—that Getachew analyzes in her book. 

It also matters because it was in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that many subjects of European empires began to rethink conceptions of sovereignty in ways that bear a striking similarity to Getachew’s postcolonial cosmopolitanism.  These merchants, settlers, creoles, and sometimes indigenous critics of the imperial states in which they lived argued powerfully against Hobbesian and Bodinian conceptions of unitary sovereignty that they argued were both incoherent and intrinsically codified inequalities. Instead they, along with members of the European Republic of Letters like the Abbé de St. Pierre and Jonathan Shipley Bishop of St. Asaph, advanced an alternative conception—which many of them called “modern sovereignty”—in which they described sovereignty as dispersed, contingent and dependent on embeddedness in an international order. Don Herzog has already begun to sketch this critique in Sovereignty R. I. P. but much remains to be elaborated in the context of empire. What is important here is that these critics were very interested in demolishing the inequalities of the colonial relationship but they did not necessarily see themselves as post-imperial. They saw a world of empires as possibly a world that could promote economic and political equality.    

Second, I wonder about the “novelty” that Getachew accords her theorists of anti-colonial worldmaking (25). Getachew persuasively shows that her protagonists were concerned about the problem of “unequal integration into international society” (18). Thus they worried that in the context of decolonization domination would persist. They were less focused on exclusion from the international order than on the persistence of domination after inclusion. This was precisely the central problem faced by many in the so-called Age of Revolutions—which really needs to be renamed the period of imperial crisis. The United Irishmen, in their resistance to British imperial rule, insisted that the only way to preserve their independence from both economic and political domination required a promise from France and its allies. 

In other words, they appealed to France and other international actors to band together to protect their national autonomy in an international world. (This international aspect of the United Irishmen project has been systematically under-emphasized by twentieth century retellings of the events of the 1790s). Similarly the Americans were obsessed with creating international protections for the newly independent republic. Getachew points out that Williams and Nkrumah were interested in the American federal project in chapter four. But there was also an international aspect to the Federalists. The central problem that John Jay was obsessed with from the time of the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris was how to protect American autonomy in a very unequal international order.     

Indeed one way to understand the diplomatic projects of the American republic from 1775 onwards was to guarantee not only independence but non-domination by the French, Spanish or British after that independence. (A casual reading of the correspondence of the French consular materials would reveal that fact). It also appears likely that Tipu Sultan was seeking international support for the Kingdom of Mysore not solely to prevent annexation by the British, but also (if the diplomatic record is to be believed) to prevent post-independence domination either by his British enemies or his French military allies. Indeed a similar set of ideas seem to have been at work in the Middle Ground made famous by Richard White. There, various Indian groupings sought guarantees from the international imperial order to protect their autonomy. This was the so-called playoff system. Seeking international guarantees against domination was neither a uniquely African nor twentieth century development.    

Similarly the Federationists themselves rejected the novelty of their project. Getachew highlights how Nkrumah and Williams pointed to the United States as a successful, maybe the only successful, example of postcolonial statemaking. Interestingly during the Age of Revolutions, federal proposals were everywhere. The Irish, during the Patriot Revolution of 1778-1782, proposed remaking the British Empire as a federation, taming the power inequities implicit in the inclusion of England, by creating an imperial governing council in which England would be one of twelve members. During the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, David Hartley and John Jay proposed carving out a new post-colonial federation of the Floridas, Louisiana and the British West Indies. Josh Simon has highlighted proposals for broad Spanish American federations. And there were myriad proposals in the 1780s and 1790s to make India either into a federal appendage of the newly confederated British Empire, or a post-colonial federal state. 

Interestingly the vast majority of these federal projects did not think of themselves necessarily as anti-imperial. They were opposed to domination and demanded economic and political equality. In fact, these federations were all designed to address the problem of economic dependence that was strangling the development of colonies and former colonies. But most of them described themselves as empires—anti-colonial empires in some cases. (Getachew notes this on p. 118 but fails to conduct a historically rich analysis of the term in the context of the US 18th century debates.) This leads one to wonder whether Getachew might consider a more capacious conception of empire, or at least to accept that her definition is historically specific.

And critics of the British Empire and French Empire of the eighteenth century—many of them properly understood as radical imperial reformers rather than opponents of empire as some have argued—also argued against the economic distortions created by the Navigation Acts and the exclusif. Like Manley and Nyerere these critics argued that “self-reliance must begin with the entrenched dependencies of the colonial economy and seek to undo hierarchical relations that facilitated domination” (154). These radical reformers—mostly folks who had been colonial bureaucrats—often looked to free ports as a way to reorient colonies away from unhealthy monocultures that served European economies. One of these reformers, Edward Trelawney, both authored one of the earliest calls for abolition of the slave trade (1746) and a series of anonymous texts calling for the reorientation of the Jamaican economy (and in one memorandum) all British colonies away from the production of valuable raw materials, towards a more commercial economy integrated with its Spanish and French American neighbors. 


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Why does it matter that the projects Getachew describes have close parallels in the age of revolutions, close parallels that in one case her protagonists noticed? First, it suggests that comparative analyses over the long imperial period could provide suggestive policy implications for the present. Second, it suggests that perhaps the racialization of empire in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not fundamentally alter the structures of empire (indeed it strikes me that is one way of reading the corpus of Eric Williams that Getachew describes). And third it suggests that political economic projects of empire and decolonization are mutually constitutive over a long period—that those interested in empire, decolonization and the post-colonial order need to work over a longue durée that begins in the 17th century and has not yet come to an end. If the history of political thought has normative value it cannot restrict itself—at least with respect to political economy—to the study of the 20th century.         

Fifth, Getachew’s analysis of why the various projects of anti-colonial worldmaking failed, strikes me as less historically contingent and geographically specific than her narrative might imply. Getachew says that in Africa “colonial-era borders cut across ethnic and national groups” leading to the Katanga secession crisis and the Biafran war (102-103). In other words the arbitrariness of borders rendered the right of self-determination problematic. But isn’t that a problem common to the legacies of all products of state formation? Surely the same issues have been raised by the Bretons, the Kosavars, and perhaps by the Russians in Ukraine. 

The African and West Indian federation projects failed, according to Getachew, because Williams and Nkrumah underestimated “the attachments sovereignty created.” (p. 140). But exactly that problem doomed many of the federationalist projects in the Age of Revolutions, and certainly caused some problems in the American republic in the guise of states rights claims. All attempts at confederation, of whatever sort in whatever period, have to contend with earlier descriptions of sovereignty and the affective attachments they created. Getachew’s account of the displacement of the NIEO project rests on the post-oil crisis conjuncture which empowered critics “which ranged from first World statesmen to neoliberal economists” (171). In the Epilogue Getachew identifies the liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan as the leader of the critique in the UN. This sounds remarkably similar to the nefarious alliance of conservative politicians and neo-protectionist political economists who doomed the twin projects of free ports and bounties to reorient colonial economies in the age of revolutions.      

Sixth, and this may be just an artefact of quotation strategy, I noticed that in Chapter Five empire became less prominent in the analysis of the actors. When Nyerere or Manley are quoted they are discussing the inequities caused by capitalism. Unlike for Nkrumah and Williams for whom Empire was the central problem that needed to be overcome, when Empire is discussed in this chapter the language is Getachew’s. Similarly race as concept was also far less prominent in this chapter. So, I was left wondering whether the NIEO was addressing imperial, racial, or capitalist legacies? The evidence presented in the chapter points to the last of the alternatives.  

Last, I was left with a methodological question. I have been gesturing towards thinking through the various projects of postcolonial worldmaking in a broader structural context, a long historical moment from the seventeenth to the 21st century in which the structures of empire and capitalism opened up and repeatedly closed a variety of redistributive possibilities. But I wonder whether the methodological assumptions central to Getachew’s approach makes such an analysis impossible. She says that she analyzes texts as questions and answers, in which “question and answer are linked, but those linkages are governed less by an inevitable logic and instead articulated on a historically contingent stage” (77). If the stage is assumed to be always historically contingent rather than structured, doesn’t it become difficult to actually examine the key concepts of empire and capitalism?    

I have presented a series of quibbles that must be set alongside a brilliantly argued and researched monograph—a triumphant and original book. While I am perhaps less optimistic about the potential for the new worldmakers that Getachew points to in her last pages to solve the problems of global inequality, it is only because oddly as a historian I am more convinced that structural constraints will continue to haunt these projects. Put another way, I am convinced that whatever the achievements of Getachew’s anticolonial nationalists—and they were many as she shows—they will always come up against the Moynihans of the world until there is a simultaneous transformation in first world politics.


Posted on 26 February 2020

STEVE PINCUS is the Thomas Donnelly Professor of History at the University of Chicago, specializing in British imperial and comparative history.