Bernard E. Harcourt | Comments on Adom Getachew’s Intervention

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Adom Getachew makes several key points in her intervention and essay. The first point concerns the distinctive writing and publishing practices of the worldly philosophers we are discussing at Revolution 2/13. For the most part and with some notable exceptions—for instance, CLR James’s The Black Jacobins (1938) or as Getachew mentions, Eric Eustace Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944)—rather than publishing monographs or research papers, they tended to publish editorials, articles, and pamphlets in politically engaged newspapers that were, at times, banned (such as The World Negro) by the imperial powers. This had several effects: the writings read as somewhat more improvised and politically engaged; the writings were part of a collective conversation. As Getachew said, “these forms often make clear that they are part of a community of critique. They are contributions to debates and on-going conversations.” As a result, the style and manner of their interventions are unique: more oriented toward being read by the public, more in conversation with ongoing debates, more attuned to what the people are thinking and doing. As Getachew suggests, “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.” This leads to a unique attention to situation and persuasion—what Getachew calls “a self-conscious awareness of the circumstances, the present stakes, of their writing.”

The second point concerns the relationship to Western critical theory. Getachew suggests that these worldly philosophers were both embedded in a Western tradition of critical thought—especially insofar as many of them were close readers of Marx—but at the same time weary of Western influence. They expressed concern that, in the words of Getachew, “inherited conceptual categories inhibit rather than enable critique.” To combat that, Getachew suggests, James, and possibly Nkrumah, engaged in Fanonian “stretching” of the categories.

The third point relates to the distinction between praxis, strategy, and tactic. In her essay, Getachew suggested that the worldly philosophers tend to flow more freely between the three and are less concerned about differences, but that readers of their writings often pay special attention to their discussion of strategy and tactic. One of the fascinating implications Getachew drew is that this may actually enrich our reading of critical theorists: the way that we read worldly philosophers—paying special attention to their discussion of strategy and tactics—could help us in our interpretation of more academic critical theory by focusing our attention on their use of strategy and tactics.

A fourth and final point that Getachew makes is very provocative. It has to do with the difference between those thinkers who enter the halls of power and those who remain outside critics: “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?” We will pursue this question in future seminars.

Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena on Decolonizing Political Theory

One way to test the possible differences is to read closely Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena’s forthcoming article in Critical Times, “Anticolonialism and the Decolonization of Political Theory.” Their essay provides almost a natural experiment because in their discussion, which they structure in three parts, they engage separately (1) the writings of two worldly philosophers (Fanon and Gandhi) on their critique of colonialism, (2) the writings of three western academic critical theorists (Susan Buck-Morss, Amy Allen, and James Tully) on their critique of the eurocentrism of critical theory, and (3) the writings of three non-western postcolonial theorists (Sudipta Kaviraj, Partha Chatterjee, and Mahmood Mamdani) on their reconstructive ambitions for anticolonial thought.[i]

Getachew and Mantena argue, in brief, that too many recent attempts at decolonizing political theory fall back on a critique of the eurocentrism of western political thought that unintentionally reauthorizes the western writings and western models of universality; and that, instead, we could decenter western political thought more radically, and successfully, by focusing on the more positive, constructive agenda of anticolonial worldly philosophers and of postcolonial thinkers today.

In making this argument, Getachew and Mantena emphasize the dual nature of anticolonial and postcolonial critiques: both have a critical project and a reconstructive project. As they explain, “We also hope to correct the one-sided reception of anticolonialism as simply a critique of the west. Indeed it might be useful to think of anticolonial thought as having two connected aims—one critical and another reconstructive.”[ii] This duality is important in their analysis.

Now there are surely certain idiosyncrasies associated with the particular authors that Getachew and Mantena discuss. There are also important historical dimensions regarding the different authors. Getachew and Mantena emphasize that the first set (Fanon and Gandhi) were writing at a time of yet-unrealized political ambition, whereas today’s “theorists write in the context of its eclipse.”[iii] So, we may not be able to generalize.

But what is distinctive is that Getachew and Mantena associate each of the three groups with certain adjectives and qualifiers—and these are telling, I would argue.

The first set of worldly philosophers located at mid-twentieth century (Fanon and Gandhi) succeeded in developing constructive critiques of colonialism that turned the world’s attention toward their reconstructive critical praxes. In this sense, they succeeded in realizing what Getachew and Mantena call “the aspiration of anticolonial argument: an attempt to reconstruct viable political futures in the aftermath of European domination.”[iv] While they had both a critique of colonialism and of the internalized privileging of eurocentric values even within the anticolonial movements, they remain important today for their reconstructive projects—and this, because their reconstructive projects were grounded in a situated position of the colonized world. “To arrive at their respective concrete universals,” they write, “Gandhi and Fanon each situate their critical and reconstructive projects in the specific locations of the colonized world.”[v] The most operative term in their analysis, I believe, is “situated”:

  • “situated mode of theorizing”[vi]
  • “from the standpoint of the colonized”[vii]
  • “Viewing colonialism from this situated context”[viii]
  • “corresponded to the specificities of the (post)colonial context.[ix]
  • “the audience for this anticolonial critique is not Europe itself, but fellow colonized elite subjects”[x]
  • “arguments and solutions that are often self-referential and abstract. Though the arguments might have been provoked and inspired by anticolonial or postcolonial criticism, they do not engage deeply or consistently with the intellectual and political contexts of argument that generated these critical interventions.”[xi]

In sum, their work is valued for being situated reconstructive praxis-oriented critique.

If the first group of worldly philosophers is more closely associated with a situated reconstructive analysis, the second set of western critical theorists at the turn of the twenty-first century (Buck-Morss, Allen, and Tully) are most closely associated with the terms “abstract,”[xii] “self-referential,”[xiii] or “limited,”[xiv] and discussed more in terms of their critique than their reconstruction.

Getachew and Mantena point to the way in which they tend to reinscribe the postcolonial critique within western political theory. Buck-Morss, in her work on Hegel and Haiti, for instance, recognizes the praxis of Haitian revolution through the framework of Hegel—and, they write, “this has the unintended effect of recognizing subaltern political action only through the verification of a canonical thinker and in terms of an already existing ideal.”[xv]

This is not to diminish the contributions of these critical theorists, whose interventions are described as “seminal” and “salutary.”[xvi] But their interventions treat the eurocentrism “primarily as an intellectual or epistemic problem”[xvii]; and they tend to reinscribe anticolonial insights back within the western tradition of thought. The most frequent terms are “abstract” and “self-referential”:

  • “too abstract or too self-referential”[xviii]
  • “they remain limited by abstraction, self-referentiality, and/or a limited engagement with the political conditions and contexts of postcolonial societies.”[xix]
  • “an idealist account of empire in which imperialism issues from an epistemic standpoint that views European modernity as universal”[xx]

The second group then is critical, not constructive, and abstract, not situated.

The third set of non-western postcolonial theorists of the twenty-first century (Kaviraj, Chatterjee, and Mamdan, all three academics at Columbia University) are most closely associated with their critical, rather than reconstructive project, and with conceptual work. Getachew and Mantena describe their “conceptual innovation” and “conceptual reanimation.”[xxi] They focus on Chatterjee’s concept of “political society” (as distinguished from civil society) and on Mamdani’s concept of the “bifurcated state.”[xxii] The key terms are “conceptual” critique:

  • “developing and elaborating these new concepts”[xxiii]
  • “primarily an analytical and critical category”[xxiv]
  • “They do not operate as terms of an ideal theory that stand apart from political practices”[xxv]

So what we have then is:

  1. Worldly philosophers who are (1) situated (2) reconstructive and (3) praxis oriented
  2. Critical theorists who are (1) abstract (2) self-referential and (3) critique oriented
  3. Postcolonial theorists who are (1) conceptual (2) innovative and (3) critique oriented.

Is it possible to generalize from this analysis? Would it be something about the “situatedness” of the worldly philosophers by contrast to the more “abstract” or “conceptual criticality” of critical and postcolonial thinkers? Or are these differences an artefact of the times? Of the eclipse of the promise of revolutionary change?


[i] Adom Getachew and Karuna Mantena, “Anticolonialism and the Decolonization of Political Theory,” Critical Times: Interventions in Global Critical Theory 2021; 9355193, available at

[ii] Id., 4.

[iii] Id., 26.

[iv] Id., 4.

[v] Id., 9.

[vi] Id., 6.

[vii] Id., 10.

[viii] Id., 10.

[ix] Id., 15.

[x] Id., 11.

[xi] Id., 39.

[xii] Id., 6.

[xiii] Id., 6.

[xiv] Id., 17.

[xv] Id., 18.

[xvi] Id., 6.

[xvii] Id., 16.

[xviii] Id., 6.

[xix] Id., 17.

[xx] Id., 20.

[xxi] Id., 25.

[xxii] Id., 29-31.

[xxiii] Id., 31.

[xxiv] Id., 32.

[xxv] Id., 33.