Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Revolution 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The man at the helm is the African intellectual. He succeeds—or independent Africa sinks… As in Russia after the 1917 revolution, it is the intellectuals who will lead the continent.

— C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution.[1]


The revolutionary movements for independence in Africa at mid-twentieth century were a high point for “critique and praxis”—a high point for a form of critical theory and action that was praxis-oriented and praxis-driven. The attack on colonialism and imperialism was spearheaded, in part, by worldly philosophers in conversation with each other and revolutionary actors around the globe, in confrontation with Marxism and communism, Trotskyism, African socialism, even Stalinism, and in study of the myriad experiments in liberation taking place around the world.

As Adom Getachew demonstrates in her brilliant book, Worldmaking After Empire, the ambition of these worldly philosophers was to transform the world—not just to create independent nations and certainly not merely to diagnose the crises of imperialism. Their objective was to create a new international order, to serve as a beacon for world transformation.[2] “On the millions of Africans,” C.L.R. James wrote in 1958, “hangs the real beginning of the history of humanity to which all that has hitherto taken place is only prehistory.”[3] Their horizon, James emphasized, was not even, merely, “the emancipation of Africa,” but “the emancipation of the whole of modern society.”[4] Theirs was an effort in what Getachew calls “worldmaking”:

Decolonization understood as a revolutionary project thus required remaking the international order that sustained relations of dependence and domination. Nation-building was to be situated and realized through worldmaking.[5]

We discussed at the last seminar, Revolution 1/13, the critical trajectory of Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, among others, at the Paris, Rome, and Bandung conferences—all of whom were deeply involved in these critical exchanges and efforts at worldmaking mid-century. In this session with Adom Getachew, Revolution 2/13, we turn to the critical writings and praxis of Kwame Nkrumah, C.L.R. James, and George Padmore, among others. It is hard to imagine a more critical praxis-oriented group of thinkers and actors.

Three Questions for Revolution 2/13

At the conclusion of our last seminar, I posed three questions to help guide our reading and thinking. There are, of course, many other directions and ways to engage the writings of Nkrumah, James, and Padmore—and I am sure we will follow many other leads. But let me begin here, preliminarily, to reflect on the three questions I mentioned last time.

  1. First, what, if any, difference is there between the critical philosopher situated in the academy and the worldly philosopherlocated outside, with regard specifically to their possible contributions to critique and praxis?

Reading the work of Nkrumah, James, and Padmore, what is most striking to me is the way in which they inextricably tie their analyses of “crisis and critique” with their propositions for “critique and praxis.” There is no question that they are engaged in deep exercises of critique and diagnosis in order to understand the crises of colonialism and imperialism. Before, during, and after the revolutions of independence, these worldly philosophers developed penetrating critiques that made signature contributions to critical theory, in addition to informing their critical praxis. The idea of “empire” diagnosed by Nkrumah and others during the 1940s—defined as “a state, vast in size, composed of various distinct national units, and subject to a single, centralized power or authority” with “diverse peoples brought together by force under a common power”[6]—were precursors to late 20th-century theorizing on Empire. The ideas of African unity, originally proposed through Du Bois’s lens of Pan-Africanism, were formative, historically and intellectually. And there were so many other penetrating critiques. Nkrumah’s concept of “neo-colonialism,” which I discuss here. The effort to think in aggregate terms beyond national, regional, or kinship identities among the former West African colonies.[7] (Nkrumah’s ideas on this would evolve from an earlier aspiration in the mid-1940s for “a complete national unity of all the West African colonies,”[8] to a later ambition in the 1960s of “a total continental political union of Africa.”[9]) The theory of political primacy that George Padmore and others developed—in Padmore’s words, “our point of view that political responsibility is an essential forerunner to economic reconstruction, and not vice versa.”[10] Padmore’s nuanced view on Pan-Africanism and its relation to a communist horizon.[11] The ideas of “Social Reconstruction” that built on Du Bois’s writings in Black Reconstruction.[12] The critical theories of different stages of colonial imperialism and critical praxes of mass organization.[13] The ambition not just to create independent nations, nor even to invent a new Africa—itself a momentous task—but more broadly to serve as a beacon for world transformation. The demand, in Adom Getachew’s words, “for the radical reconstitution of the international order.”[14] These were all brilliant critical insights.

But in their work, the analysis of “crisis and critique” was always twined—directly, intimately, inextricably—to an analysis of “critique and praxis.” One need look no further than the “Declaration to the Colonial Peoples of the World,” written by Nkrumah and adopted by the Pan-African Congress in 1945, a succinct text that treats intellectuals as vanguards and speaks of the need to educate and organize “the masses.” The last line symbolized the transformation of Marxist thought that was taking place not only in Africa, but in China and Asia more generally: “COLONIAL AND SUBJECT PEOPLES OF THE WORLD – UNITE!”[15]

One need look no further than how Nkrumah ends his essays from 1945-1947, Towards Colonial Freedom, where he rewrites the theoretical interventions of Marx in the context of mid-century imperialism:

Thus the goal of the national liberation movement is the realization of complete and unconditional independence, and the building of a society of peoples in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

PEOPLES OF THE COLONIES, UNITE: The working men of all countries are behind you.[16]

One need look no further than the final chapter of those essays, which Nkrumah placed, while still in London, under the rubric “What Must Be Done.”[17] As C.L.R. James writes:

Nkrumah helped to develop and has most fully embodied in action an independent current of Western thought, the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and other revolutionaries worked out chiefly by people of African descent in Western Europe and America, to be used for the emancipation of the people of Africa. These ideas were developed in conscious opposition to both stalinism and the social democracy. […] It is precisely this task to which revolutionaries in the East and West are now slowly awakening.[18]

Critical praxis forms the heart and soul of these writings. Their work, writings, actions were, in the fullest sense, crisis, critique, and praxis. And it was entirely in conversation—perhaps sometimes even a bit too much—with Western critical theory and praxis. There are passages in James’ history of the Ghana revolution, for instance, that strike me as giving too much importance to the “historical experiences of Western civilization,” especially as interpreted by Marx, and to the experience of “Western intellectuals.”[19] But this may simply reflect a change of discourse since mid-century.


  1. Second, if there is indeed a difference, how much of it turns on one’s personal implication in struggle and rebellion?

The answer here seems, too obviously, to be yes and so much—so much so, that we might need to push the question further, to the next level: What is the mechanism of this difference?

My initial impression here is that being implicated in struggle and rebellion entails working with others in a different, more intense way. C.L.R. James observes in his 1958 history of the Ghana Revolution—in a chapter titled “The Revolution in Theory,”—that the revolutionary movements in Africa were inextricably tied to critical intellectuals thinking, writing, and acting together, actively in conversation with each other. James traces the formative role of the African Bureau in London and of George Padmore (who set up the International African Bureau in 1935), of the fifth Pan-African Congress organized by W.E.B. Du Bois, Padmore, and Kwame Nkrumah and held in Manchester in 1945, of the debates and conversations between Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and others in London at the time, as well as C.L.R. James’s own contributions, especially his writing and publication of The Black Jacobins in 1938.[20] Their heated debates and engagements with each other fueled their multiple controversies over interpretations of Marx and Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, Du Bois and Marcus Garvey—in a way that feels different, qualitatively.

This takes me back to Biodun Jeyifo’s intervention, in his review essay, about the need to not simply ask “What more am I to do?” but rather, and simultaneously, “What more are we to do together?”[21]

Recall that in 1945-1947, Nkrumah had styled the last chapter of his tract, Towards Colonial Freedom, indexing Lenin: ‘What Must Be Done.”[22] (He concludes the chapter indexing Marx and Mao: “PEOPLES OF THE COLONIES, UNITE: The working men of all countries are behind you.”[23])

In his essay, Jeyifo acknowledges that the transition from the question “What is to be done?” to the question “What more am I to do?” is, in his words, “a radical and honorable rejection of all forms of vanguardism and myths of the inevitability of the triumph of revolutions in critique and praxis.”[24]

But, Jeyifo asks, is it enough to stop there? “What if,” Jeyifo asks, “these two questions that follow each other like a kind of synergy have often been followed by another question, ‘What more are we to do?’ What if indeed, it is impossible in all ages, indeed in any age of human communities, of the human race as a global community, not to ask, ‘What more are we to do?’”[25]

In the end, Jeyifo twines the final two questions, suggesting that they are a more judicious expression together than the original. They need to always go together. I am beginning to think that this may be right—especially in light of this mid-century history.


  1. Third, how much of all this discussion is about praxis as opposed to tactics or strategy? And what, if anything, do these interrogations tell us about the line between praxis, strategy, and tactics?

As I mentioned earlier, this is what Seyla Benhabib puts a lot of pressure on in her essay “On the unity and dissonance of Critique and Praxis.” [26] The project of pushing critique toward praxis raises important questions about the demarcation between praxis, strategy and tactics.

As I read these texts for Revolution 2/13, it strikes me that, in the same way in which crisis-critique-and-praxis need to be an integrated and coherent whole, that praxis-strategy-and-tactics (insofar as they can be cogently distinguished) also can or must form a coherent and interlocking unity. This is, I think, what we see in Nkrumah’s work, which is not only guided by certain overarching praxes of unity and solidarity, but by resulting strategic and tactical interventions that brought that unity to fruition through remarkable organizing efforts.

C.L.R. James details how Nkrumah, shortly after his return to the Gold Coast in December 1947, drafted a program for action, setting forth the different stages of organizational work to be done in order to implement the vision of the revolutionary party (the Gold Coast Convention). The program would be formative to the revolution. As James recounts, “This is the document of the revolution.”[27]

In his program, Nkrumah divided the forthcoming work into three periods: first, the organization, coordination, consolidation, and unification of the Convention branches; second, “constant demonstrations throughout the country to test our organisational strength”; and third, demonstrations, boycotts and strikes, as well as the convening of a constitutional assembly for self-government and national independence.[28]

What is clear from this program is how it integrated the larger ideals of critical praxis into the strategic dimensions—how they all formed a coherent whole. It is possible that it is precisely the integration of praxis-strategy-tactics that was necessary, or that led to success. As James notes, “Within twenty-seven months [Nkrumah] was to have carried it out just as written, to the last comma.”[29]

C.L.R. James’s embrace of cooperation may provide another example. In his writings, James draws on Lenin’s article “On Co-operation” from January 4-6, 1923. There, Lenin reverses his earlier position critiquing cooperative worker societies as merely furthering capitalism—a critique that mirrored Marx’s criticism of cooperatives, which I discussed last year in Abolition Democracy 6/13. Lenin embraces the cooperatives movement as of “absolutely exceptional significance,” “enormous,” and “boundless.”[30]

James refers the reader to these passages from Lenin’s essay, where, James suggests, Lenin embraces cooperatives as, in his own words, “the means that will be simplest, easiest, and most intelligible for the peasantry.”[31] These were part of broader thoughts on structural reforms of Soviet political power that Lenin developed in his final three essays; but they were central to his final thoughts about the centrality of the Russian agricultural workers (what he referred to as the peasantry), to the future of the country and the need to increase literacy and focus on education work in order to render them able to participate in cooperatives.[32]

Here too, there is a necessary linkage between praxis-strategy-tactics that calls for an integration of the idea of cooperation with the development of cooperatives and mutualist associations. Again, the critical praxis may only function as part of an integrated whole.

Looking Forward: Worldmaking Today

To be sure, the experiments that followed independence were marked by successes and failures, and disappointments. Adom Getachew traces, in her epilogue, what she calls “the fall of self-determination.”[33] Getachew refers to an “incomplete decolonization that culminated in a world of unequal nation-states.”[34]

The subsequent history would be marked by transformations that could not have been envisaged before independence. The radical transformation of decolonization itself produced new dilemmas and problems to confront. The later texts of C.L.R. James—speeches, essays, even letters written to Nkrumah warning of a downward spiral in Ghana and of anti-democratic tendencies—attest to the turmoil that would mar the revolution.

But that does not detract from the critical praxis that brought about a revolution. To the contrary, it reinforces the urgency of praxis, an urgency that must be joined to a different philosophy of history. It calls for a radical theory of illusions, actions, and praxis. This calls to mind the philosophy of history tied to abolition democracy and the writings of Angela Davis, who explained that, “What we manage to do each time we win a victory is not so much to secure change once and for all, but rather to create new terrains for struggle.”[35] Derecka Purnell expresses this brilliantly in her new book, Becoming Abolitionists, when she writes:

in some tomorrow, I hope that neighborhood councils mainly fight over color themes for street festivals, not whether the bulk of spending needs to go to police and permits for security. I want council members to be annoyed with each other because the community garden is running out of space for new fruits and vegetables, and it’s taking longer than expected to determine whether to expand the smallest garden or open a third location. I want new kinds of controversies for the democratically elected boards, like reserving a town hall to discuss lowering the age for voting on neighborhood issues so that more youth can be eligible to participate. We deserve new kinds of problems.[36]

Nkrumah caps his piercing analysis of neo-colonialism with the observation that “the faint-hearted might come to feel that they must give up in despair”; but Nkrumah proposed instead a maxim he derived from history: “the budding future is always stronger than the withering past. This has been amply demonstrated during every major revolution throughout history.”[37]

Nkrumah concludes his text, in the penultimate chapter, in the following terms:

Neo-colonialism is not a sign of imperialism’s strength but rather of its last hideous gasp. It testifies to its inability to rule any longer by old methods….

This means that neo-colonialism can and will be defeated. How can this be done?

To which he responds: unity, independence, and non-alignment. Harking back to our last seminar, “the spirit of Bandung is already under way.” “Unity is the first requisite for destroying neo-colonialism.”[38] Although these programs and calls for action may have disappointed—Nkrumah was deposed only a few months later—they resonate still today and give hope.

They resonate especially with the struggles of Indigenous resistance in the United States. Nick Estes writes about Indigenous resistance and especially the movement at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016-2017 in his book Our History Is The Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (2019). There, he discusses the ambition of a revolutionary Indigenous movement that seeks “nothing less than the complete departure of the colonial reality.”[39] The ambition to get beyond not only settler colonialism, but all of its neo-colonial vestiges (even where some progress has been made). As Estes writes, “the absence of the colonial system was not enough to bring about true freedom; rather, freedom could only find its genuine expression in actions that would create a new Indigenous world to replace the nightmarish present.”[40]

That “new Indigenous world,” I take it, is not a return to an earlier indigeneity—that would be impossible given the capture and forced transportation to the Americas of millions of persons from Africa and the later migrations from Asia and Europe. With the emphasis on the “new,” this harkens instead to a new conception, a worldmaking, that reminds me, with that term “new,” of Fanon’s final words from The Wretched of the Earth: “we must innovate, we must be pioneers,” “we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking.”[41]

Unity and community plays a central role in Estes’s account. That was the message of Nicholas Black Elk: “the people must unite to nourish back to health the tree of life, so that it can bloom once again.”[42] This same unity was at the heart of the praxis at Standing Rock—which formed part of a much longer history of Indigenous resistance—to unite the many Indigenous peoples and those who joined them in the struggle for the protection of water and the earth.

Recognizing, ultimately, the eclipse of self-determination as world-making, Adom Getachew concludes her book, Worldmaking After Empire, on an uplifting note:

In the Black Atlantic world, from which the worldmakers of this book emerged, intimations of a new language are afoot in the Movement for Black Lives, the Caribbean demand for reparations for slavery and genocide, and South African calls for a social and economic decolonization. Like the worldmakers of decolonization, these political formations have returned to the task of rethinking our imperial past and present in the service of imagining an anti-imperial future.[43]

Adom Getachew has just published an article in Dissent that develops these ideas and argues that the Movement for Black Lives, especially in its 2016 Vision for Black Lives platform, may represent the emergence of a new Black internationalism.[44] In her article, “The New Black Internationalism: The Movement for Black Lives has developed an incipient internationalist language and vision, with the potential to remap America’s place in the world,” Getachew suggests it is a form of internationalism in this country that avoids the shoals of both isolationism and imperialism while embracing solidarity with people around the world.

It is fitting and a great honor to welcome Adom Getachew to Revolution 2/13!


[1] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, (Westport: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1977), 15.

[2] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 5.

[3] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 20.

[4] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 162.

[5] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 17 (emphasis added).

[6] Kwame Nkrumah, “Colonialism and Imperialism,” in Towards Colonial Freedom: Africa in the Struggle Against World Imperialism (London: Heinemann, 1962), 1.

[7] Nkrumah, “Apology for Apologetics,” in Towards Colonial Freedom, 33.

[8] Nkrumah, “Apology for Apologetics,” in Towards Colonial Freedom, 33.

[9] Nkrumah, Towards Colonial Freedom, xi.

[10] George Padmore, The Gold Coast Revolution: The Struggle of an African People from Slavery to Freedom (London: Dennis Dobson LTD, 1954), 244.

[11] See, generally, Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 76-77.

[12] Nkrumah, “What Must Be Done,” Towards Colonial Freedom, 43.

[13] Nkrumah, “What Must Be Done,” Towards Colonial Freedom, 39-41.

[14] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 5.

[15] “Declaration to the Colonial Peoples of the World,” written by Kwame Nkrumah, approved and adopted by the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, October 15-21, 1945, in Nkrumah, Towards Colonial Freedom, 44-45.

[16] Nkrumah, “What Must Be Done,” in Towards Colonial Freedom, 43.

[17] Nkrumah, “What Must Be Done,” in Towards Colonial Freedom, 38-43.

[18] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 62.

[19] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 12 and 16; see also id. at 13, 14.

[20] On Padmore, see especially James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution,63-65; on Du Bois, see especially id. at 74-75; on The Black Jacobins, see especially id. at 66-68.

[21] Biodun Jeyifo, “The Illuminati and its acolytes: Critical theory in the text and in the world,” British Journal of Sociology 72, no. 3 (June 2021): 869-870.

[22] Nkrumah, Towards Colonial Freedom, 38-43.

[23] Nkrumah, Towards Colonial Freedom, 43.

[24] Jeyifo, “The Illuminati and its acolytes,” 869.

[25] Jeyifo, “The Illuminati and its acolytes,” 870.

[26] Seyla Benhabib, “On the unity and dissonance of critique and praxis,” British Journal of Sociology 72, no.3 (June 2021): 862.

[27] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 47.

[28] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 48.

[29] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 48.

[30] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 202.

[31] Quoting Lenin in James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 202.

[32] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, 203.

[33] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 180-181.

[34] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 181.

[35] Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 26.

[36] Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Astra House, 2021), 278.

[37] Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (London: Panaf Books, 1970 [1963]), 251, 252.

[38] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, 253.

[39] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (New York: Verso, 2019), 17.

[40] Estes, Our History is the Future, 17.

[41] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 239.

[42] Estes, Our History is the Future, 17.

[43] Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire, 181.

[44] Adom Getachew,  “The New Black Internationalism,” Dissent Magazine, Fall 2021, available at