Adom Getachew | The Theory and Praxis of Worldly Philosophers

By Adom Getachew

In our selected readings for this week, we have snapshots of the anticolonial movement in Ghana—what both James and Padmore call a revolution—from three different figures and at three different moments. We encounter Nkrumah just before he plunges into the nationalist movement and becomes its central leader. Through Padmore we receive a history of the nationalist movement during its heyday in the 1950s. And finally with James, we take up the tragic limits of anticolonial nationalism after the 1966 coup and Nkrumah’s death in 1972. These three figures also represent one vantage point on the question of “worldly philosophers” that animates this year’s 13/13 series. They were part of a generation of Atlantic intellectuals who contributed to the critique of imperialism and to the global project of decolonization.  I would like to follow two threads from the previous conversation: (1) what distinguishes the worldly philosopher from the academic? (2) How ought we think about the relationship between theory and praxis?

I. A Worldly Education

Biodun Jeyifo helpfully pushed back against too strict a distinction between the worldly and the academic philosopher. What is striking about figures like Nkrumah and others I examine in my book Worldmaking after Empire is that they actively and persistently pursued academic paths. Having received his bachelor’s from Lincoln University and two MAs from the University of Pennsylvania, Nkrumah began a PhD in Philosophy. His mentor Nnamdi Azikiwe who had paved the path to Lincoln had similarly started a PhD before having to drop it. This was the cohort that Eric Williams, a fellow traveler, and academic historian turned statesman, called the “1930s University generation” who would receive their education in the imperial metropoles and the United States before shaping the nationalist movements of their respective countries.

Under-appreciated but central to the making of Black Atlantic revolutionary intellectuals were the historically black universities of the United States like Lincoln and Howard which trained a generation of nationalists and employed them. Padmore’s peripatetic life as a member of the Communist Party begins when he leaves Trinidad to attend Fisk University. Williams would teach at Howard for almost a decade before returning to Trinidad. These black institutions not only educated a generation of nationalists, but well before Nkrumah and others appeared at their doors, they had been home to a critical body of scholarship that would shape the ideas of these figures. The pioneering work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson on African history, the examination of empire’s role in international politics by Merze Tate and other members of what Robert Vitalis called the “Howard School of International Relations” generated intellectual traditions which informed Nkrumah’s generation and to which they would also contribute.

If the brick-and-mortar black universities made it possible for a small cohort of colonized subjects to receive a formal education, many of the scholarly interventions advanced in those spaces were also circulating in and articulated by journalists, students, workers, and activists outside of the university. The periodical would be their forum. As Brent Hayes Edwards has catalogued in his field-defining book The Practices of Diaspora, black periodicals of the interwar period were the paradigmatic form through which pan-African ideas were circulated and debated. Padmore’s Negro Worker (initially The International Negro Workers’ Review) was published between 1928-1937. His later collaboration with James, the International African Services Bureau, would yield a short-lived periodical International African Opinion with the motto “Educate, Cooperate, Emancipate. Neutral in nothing affecting the African people” which James edited. Along with long-standing papers like the NAACP’s The Crisis, the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s The Negro World, and important Francophone and Lusophone counterparts such La Revue du Monde Noir, Correio de Africa (and after World War II Presence Africaine), black periodicals constituted a worldly public sphere. Three features of these periodicals are worth highlighting. First, they often reproduced each other’s articles such that a piece from the Gold Coast Leader or the South Africa based African World would be reproduced in the Negro World or vice versa, creating a network across these publications. Second, cheaper than books, carried by mobile subjects (black seamen, migrant workers etc.), and passing from one reader to the next, they circulated widely often evading concerted efforts by imperial states to suppress these publications. (This was especially true of the Negro World, which was banned by every imperial power.) Finally, the periodical, a collective enterprise of analysis, composed of many different voices on the page also made for collective and public reading practices. At times this involved translations into vernacular languages and public readings for those who were illiterate. Jomo Kenyatta famously described the practice of oral transmission of the Negro World as central to consciousness raising efforts of Kenyan nationalists.

I dwell on the institutional forums that facilitated the education of Nkrumah and others because it draws attention to two features that I think does distinguish the worldly philosopher. First, the texts these philosophers produce takes a wide range of forms. They are not often a philosophical treatise, and they are also not only the manifesto or party platform. They are likely to be the editorial, the speech, the essay, which have an improvisational quality. They are produced mid-stream. Second these forms often make clear that they are part of a community of critique. They are contributions to debates and on-going conversations. They are responses, extensions, elaborations. They stake out positions, seek to persuade an audience. In this regard, they require an attunement not only to the content of their ideas, but to their rhetoric, genre, and style. They also require us to reconstruct the audience. To whom and for whom is it written? What is it seeking to achieve in its audience?

Yet having said this, I have selected books for our conversation today. I think we should bring these same questions to these longer texts for they share the qualities of intervention, argument, and persuasion of these others forms. This is especially true of Nkrumah’s Toward Colonial Freedom, written to advance a particular critique of the imperial project just as he returned to Ghana and Padmore’s The Gold Coast Revolution, a vindication of the Convention People’s Party’s political project. I think also attending to these qualities allows us to appreciate how theory and praxis are connected in these texts.

II. Theory and Praxis

I mentioned earlier how many of these figures actively pursued higher education and sought out scholarly vocations—for some like Williams successfully. Even those who didn’t like James contributed significantly to the world of ideas—most importantly with his classic text The Black Jacobins. Reflecting on Black Jacobins in the 1970s, he recollected coming to London in 1932 having received a world class education befitting a British colonial intellectual, but with little understanding or knowledge of the black world. He notes his interest in Toussaint initially was completely literary, but that in the context of a self-education in Marxism and his involvement with a group of African and Caribbean anti-imperialists, it begins to transform. In this context he says, he wrote about “the San Domingo Revolution as the preparation for the revolution that George Padmore and all of us were interested in, that is the revolution in Africa.”[1]

Here is perhaps one central feature that marks the theory of worldly philosophers—a self-conscious awareness of the circumstances, the present stakes, of their writing. James would make this very clear in the preface of the first edition of The Black Jacobins, which ends “This book is the history of a revolution and written under different circumstances it would be have been a different but not necessarily a better book.”[2] Similar formulations of the present political stakes compelling their writing would also appear in two other books of the period—W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) and Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1938). These and other texts of the anticolonial tradition are formulated as acts of “reflexive intervention.”[3]

A second feature of anticolonial thought is the sense that inherited conceptual categories inhibit rather than enable critique. Early in Nkrumah and the Ghanaian Revolution, James writes, “The future of Africa will be rooted in the African experience of African life. Yet nobody, European or African, can make anything clear and consistent of the developing pattern in Africa unless upon the basis of the substantially documented and widely debated historical experiences of Western civilization.”[4] We should read this as a claim about a gap between the experiences of postcolonial Africa and the theoretical traditions inherited from the Western experience. In a recent essay, Karuna Mantena and I have argued that a diagnosis of this gap was a crucial element of anticolonial thought.[5] The worry that underwrites this diagnosis rests less on a concern with cultural authenticity and particularity. Instead, it is an argument that to theorize the colonial/postcolonial condition solely through inherited categories is to misunderstand what a political program of transformation requires (as in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth) or to misconceive the failure of such as program (as in James’s Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution). James’s answer to this challenge, as it would be for many other anti-imperialists, is not to abandon the categories and analyses drawn from the West. As he notes both he and Nkrumah are importantly products of the West. Instead, he aims to subject the inherited categories to what Fanon called “stretching.” He aims both to locate the distinctive sources and contexts of mass mobilization that gave rise to anti-colonial nationalism in Ghana and traces the centralization of power that marks the death knell of the revolution. In this the example of the Russian Revolution continues to guide him, but he also seeks to show how the specific experiences of colonialism generate tendencies toward centralization.

There is in this approach a fluidity—a tracking back and forth between abstraction and particularity, between theory and praxis. And as a result, the lines between theory and praxis, between praxis, strategy and tactics are constantly being blurred. I think this can be a fruitful approach in so far as each moment can be a site of generating theory. That is, the relationship between these moments does not flow one way beginning with abstract theorization and working itself down to strategy and tactic. Instead, reflection on strategies and tactics might also reorient theory. I take part of the worry in Seyla Benhabib’s essay to be that the failure to distinguish these moments of theory and praxis leaves us bereft of independent standards of judgment, that we have no grounds to defend our commitments beyond the terms of political struggle. I admit that the anticolonial thinkers surveyed here at least don’t have an answer to this challenge, and moreover it is not really a question that they can share. Their preoccupations lie elsewhere.

Still, we might consider whether differentiation within the category of worldly philosopher might shed light on the different ways the theory/praxis relation is posed.  One difference to consider as this year’s conversations continue is that between the worldly philosophers turned statesmen (Nkrumah, Williams, Senghor, Nehru, Mao etc.) versus the worldly philosopher who remain gadflies (James for instance)? How does the aspiration to state power and its demands transform the theory/praxis nexus?


[1] C.L.R. James, “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” small axe 8 (September 2000): 62-112, 72.

[2] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books [1963] 1989, xi.

[3] David Scott, “Radical Styles of Will,” small axe 23 no. 1 (March 2019): 169-186, 175

[4] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 12.

[5] Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena, “Anticolonialism and the Decolonization of Political Theory,” Critical Times (2021),