Bernard E. Harcourt | Reading Kwame Nkrumah Today

By Bernard E. Harcourt

At the height of the crisis in Ghana in 1965, Kwame Nkrumah published a book titled Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. A few months later, in February 1966, Nkrumah would be deposed in a violent military coup backed by the CIA.[1]

The idea of “neo-colonialism” as the next, if not last, stage of imperialism is brilliant and it captures not only the experience of formerly colonized countries in Africa in the mid 1960s, but, I would argue, our experience today in Western liberal democracies: We are governed, manipulated, and exploited domestically, today, by the same cabal of multinationals, financial interests, elite and political leaders, and sovereign security interests, that quietly ruled in the postcolonial territories of Africa in the 1960s—the ExxonMobil and Shell oil and gas companies that undermine climate consciousness and create fantasies of a self-sustaining and self-regulating Gaia; the financial and insurance giants like Citigroup and AIG, bailed out during the 2008 economic collapse, that fuel consumer indebtedness and prevent universal health care; the NSA, CIA, and National Security Council that ensure total information awareness; the political leaders and elite who buoy, as Alex Raskolnikov recently demonstrates, the richest 0.1%.

“The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty,” Nkrumah explained. “In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”[2]

That was certainly true of many newly-independent African nations at mid-century. It was in full display following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and the political and economic developments there under Mobutu. At the time that Nkrumah published his book on Neo-Colonialism in 1965, Nkrumah, as president of Ghana, had ample first-hand experience of what he described so well there. Naturally, the concept had been circulating among worldly philosophers at the time. As Biodun Jeyifo emphasizes, these were collective ideas that were being developed in constant exchange and debate. C.L.R. James, for instance, expressed similar thoughts about the enduring nature and metamorphoses of colonialism.[3]

To actualize Nkrumah’s insight for the contemporary domestic plight of Western liberal democracies, such as the United States, it is important to rethink the term “the State which is subject to it” in Nkrumah’s earlier definition.  That term, for Nkrumah, specifically referred to the independent African sovereign state that was subject to the neo-colonialism exercised by the “imperialist power,” the latter consisting of an amalgam of the former colonial sovereign state, its civil servants, its corporations, manufacturers, and multinationals, and what Nkrumah refers to as the “consortium of financial interests.”[4]

In our contemporary context, it would be necessary to highlight the notion of an “imperialist power” and distinguish it, technically, from the “sovereign state.” To do that, we need to identify and recognize the different institutions and entities at play—in a manner similar to how Nkrumah proceeded in his book.

Nkrumah’s entire discussion in Neo-Colonialism is a detailed, minute, microscopic breakdown of the different corporate and governmental entities and interests in the diamond, tin, aluminum, nickel, mining, etc., industries of Africa—with a theoretical critique that reads like a precursor to the analyses of neoliberalism, of financialized capitalism, of the Washington Consensus, etc., that would begin to emerge in the 1980s and extend into the 2010s.[5] Nkrumah describes in intricate detail “the extended tentacles of the Wall Street octopus … [a]nd its suction cups and muscular strength.”[6] He analyzes the interconnections between the intelligence agencies, multinationals, foreign aid agencies, banks, IMF, U.S. Information Agency, etc. He extracts their “general objective”: “to achieve colonialism in fact while preaching independence.”[7]

Nkrumah gives examples—and it is these specifics that we would need to update for today’s neo-colonial reality:

  • “The troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it”[8]

Today, for instance, the United States maintains putative sole jurisdiction over the territory of the Guantanamo Bay camp and military base in Cuba. It claims total control over the area and uses it as an extra-territorial prison, governed without American due process, turned into a rogue no-man’s-land subject to the whims of the executive branch and its military, justice, and state departments.

  • “Military conflict has thus become confined to ‘limited wars’. For these neo-colonialism is the breeding ground.”[9]

We could think here of the declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the undeclared conflicts throughout the Middle East—in Yemen, Somali, Pakistan, etc. These are our limited wars today, brutal reminders of that breeding ground of neo-colonialism.

  • “Neo-colonial control may be exercised by a consortium of financial interests which are not specifically identifiable with any particular State”[10]

This corresponds, today, to the Washington Consensus and its progeny—not identifiable with any one particular nation, but rather the diffuse product of the member states of the IMF and World Bank.

  • “Neo-colonialism is based upon the principle of breaking up former large united colonial territories into a number of small non-viable States which are incapable of independent development and must rely upon the former imperial power for defence and even internal security”[11]

This makes me think of the divide-and-conquer strategies that are so frequent in anti-protest policing, such as at Standing Rock, Ferguson, or now the Line 3 Pipeline, where the effort is to infiltrate and create discord within protest movements using the traditional warfare strategies of counterinsurgency. This is something we are litigating in the Thunderhawk v. Morton County litigation at the IJS.

In effect, Nkrumah’s writings on neo-colonialism speak not only to countries that were formerly under the oppression of colonialism, but also, now, to the colonizers and settler-colonial states as well. It speaks not only to the past, but also to the present.

In this context, there is a strong resonance between Nkrumah’s thesis on neo-colonialism and the idea that, at a domestic level, the United States is experiencing a Counterrevolution—the rise of a new counterinsurgency warfare paradigm of governing. I’ve written extensively about that elsewhere, so will not elaborate on that idea here. But the return of the counterinsurgency paradigm, born in the wars of anti-colonialism, reflects well the way in which forms of colonial governing have become internalized and domesticated, and now pervade the internal workings of the former colonial states. I had referred to this once as poetic justice, which was an unfortunate slip. But there is something tragic about the way in which these modes of governing persist, expand, and continue to infiltrate new spaces.


[1] Seymour Hersh, “CIA Said to Have Aided Plotters Who Overthrew Nkrumah in Ghana,” The New York Times, May 9, 1978, available at

[2] Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (London: Panaf Books, 1970 [1963]), ix. Nkrumah had already written and discussed the idea of neo-colonialism earlier, for instance in his Foreword to his 1945-1947 writings published in 1962. See Kwame Nkrumah, Towards Colonial Freedom: Africa in the Struggle Against World Imperialism (London: Heinemann, 1962), x.

[3] See, e.g., C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Westport: Lawrence Hill and Company, 1977), 28-29.

[4] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, x.

[5] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Nancy Frazer, “Democracy’s Crisis: On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism,” available at; Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, eds., Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Bernard E. Harcourt, The Illusion of Free Markets(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Carceral Notebooks Vol. 6 (2010).

[6] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, 240.

[7] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, 241.

[8] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, ix.

[9] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, xi.

[10] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, x.

[11] Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, xiii.