Today, Russian ideologues and propagandists are raising alarms over the “West’s attempts to introduce ideals and norms alien to Russia. They denounce the Russian opposition, which allegedly operates under “orders from the West.” And they stoke fears among television audiences that the West is preparing “nothing short of a war” on Russia. In turn, American, British and Western European commentators accuse the Russian government of waging targeted attacks on Western institutions and conducting an information war against the West.
While all this noise can be tuned out, if you pay attention for just a moment, you quickly realize that the point of all this sensationalism isn’t the content itself but the feeling of comfort these ideologues and publicists evoke. Amid all thе accusations of “Western operatives” and “hybrid warfare,” there’s a nostalgia for the former bipolar order in which Russia — or perhaps more specifically, the post-war USSR — had a clear and leading role. Western politicians and authors, meanwhile, long for times past when they were triumphant champions of the twentieth century’s global conflict.
Preparing for a war gone by
All of these mutual threats hark back to the Cold War, which was more than just a frozen standoff between two superpowers (played out in regional wars). It was also a clear and comprehensible system of international relations, especially when viewed from Moscow and Washington. Each of these global poles flew a flag that other countries were compelled or enticed to rally around — cozying up to the (capitalist) West or to the (socialist) USSR.
From the Western point of view, the twentieth century was dedicated to a deadly standoff against the ideologies of fascism and communism, followed by another one between capitalism and communism as political and economic systems. All of these worldviews and doctrines were formed in Europe more than a hundred years ago. In this sense, Vladimir Putin — who never tires of evoking Russia’s triumph in World War II and the resulting repartition of the globe — holds a distinctly Western point of view. His position may be contentious, but it’s framing is rooted in Westernism all the same.
Meanwhile, hidden by the pall of conflict between capitalism and socialism was another confrontation entirely. The Cold War ruthlessly dragged in third countries, quashing their pursuit of decolonization, sovereign nation building, and the formation of their own political systems, writes Yale historian Odd Arne Westad in one of the best books on the history of the Cold War.
From the Western point of view, the twentieth century was dedicated to a deadly standoff against the ideologies of fascism and communism, followed by another one between capitalism and communism as political and economic systems
From a non-Western point of view — or more precisely, from the point of view of most non-Western people — the main global development of the twentieth century was the appearance of independent nation states from the ruins of European and Asian empires. Of course, people in Egypt, India, China, Pakistan, and Thailand, can imagine what worries Americans and Europeans (indeed, thanks to the ubiquitous spread of the English language, this isn’t so difficult for them to do). But the world looks different “from the other side.” From the perspective of those outside of Washington and Moscow, what’s important isn’t the conflicts “within the Western world,” but rather the relations between former colonies (or states caught in the orbits of these empires) and former colonizers.
Human rights and democracy as neocolonialism
In this prolonged and painful conflict with the West, which goes back much further than the Cold War, Russia occupies a unique and dualistic position in terms of both geography and history. In a recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed a joint declaration, “on several issues of global governance,” which stated that human rights should be protected “in conformity with national specificities.”
Legal mechanisms aimed at protecting the rights of the individual first appeared in international agreements and legal documents in the 1940s, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the post-war era.
The authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the European Convention on Human Rights and other documents from that period were driven by an effort to protect the groups and nationalities that were victims of the crimes exposed at Nuremberg and in other post-war trials. It was therefore imperative to create a concept of human rights acceptable to conservatives simply because up until the 1940s, the idea of human rights itself was associated with the revolutionary tradition of droits de l’homme and the communist movement. It was important for the Christian Democrats and other centrist parties to create a “Judeo-Christian democratic” version of human rights that denied the communists (who were popular in post-war world) a monopoly on human rights.
The mass killing and widespread suffering of those persecuted during the war years was heightened by the exceptional difficulties Jews and other refugees had crossing borders. Some countries wouldn’t let them out, while others wouldn’t take them in (this included the United States, as evidenced by the unforgettable tragedy of the Voyage of the St. Louis). Human rights protection thus had to exist at a level above borders. The idea of human rights protection, which was established in the Universal Declaration and other post-war documents, arose from the existence of a moral absolute that reigned supreme above nations’ sovereignty over their territory.
This in turn became a predicament for the Soviet Union, even though it was founding member of the United Nations and its ambassador, Alexander Bogomolov, participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The leaders of the USSR and the leaders of other socialist states and countries, which in the second half of the twentieth century were called the “third world” (in the sense that they were initially neither capitalist nor communist) came to see “western” human rights as a pretext for interfering in their affairs.
The communists and their satellites saw their human rights not as political and civil rights, but as social rights: the right to have a roof over one’s head, clothes to wear, employment, and social services. While, the West reproached the communists for violating human rights (through suppression of opposition and lack of elections), the communists reproached the West for violating of social rights (due to unemployment and extreme inequality).
Even though Russia has grown closer to China and comes out on China’s side in the battle with the West, Russia still belongs to the “historical West” and, as such, faces grievances from China — and the exact scale of these grievances remains unknown.
Today’s Russian leaders are fond of emphasizing their conservatism and consider themselves guardians of traditional values. Yet the version of human rights they choose is not conservative democratic — it’s socialist. That is to say, it’s based on social rights, rather than civil or political ones.
China has long been at odds with its Western partners over human rights. “China, along with the rest of the developing world, chooses to first prioritize economic and social rights, as opposed to the Western focus on civil and political rights,” explains Phil Ma, a researcher at Duke University. “These rights emphasize collective values and opportunities for economic growth, not just democracy promotion.” More importantly, criticism for human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang are taken by Chinese politicians not in the context of the recent Cold War, but in the context of the Century of Humiliation, the period that ended with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
The period from 1842 (the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the First Opium War) to 1949 (the establishment of the People’s Republic of China), during which China lost a significant amount of territory and economic independence. China suffered one defeat after another at the hands of Western powers, which dictated trade conditions, including supplies of opium to China and taking Chinese cultural treasures to Europe. The destruction of the Old Summer Palace, burned and looted by the British and French during the Second Opium War in 1860, stands as a symbol of China’s foreign humiliation during this period.
In a broader context, contemporary Chinese state leaders act as representatives of a preeminent non-Western power trying to overcome challenges they inherited from the colonial period. These leaders therefore perceive human rights and the spread of democracy as nothing other than the West’s attempt to teach eastern barbarians to be “civilized.” Makau Mutua, a Kenyan-American professor at the SUNY Buffalo School of Law, calls this the “savages-victims-saviors” construction. This approach, in his opinion, is dangerously close to the old imperial notion that western civilizers are called to come and save eastern savages from themselves.
China’s Communist Party bases its legitimacy not in ideology, which lost its relevance when the Cold War ended, but in its role as a nation-building power. It was the party, after all, that brought an end to the era in which China suffered territorial and economic losses from the actions of great powers, namely Great Britain, France, the United States and, yes, Russia.
Celebrating victory over Russia
The Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra opens his book “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” with a story of what the defeat of the Russian navy in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima meant to the world outside the West. Japan, which won the battle, was not the only country celebrating. This good news covered the pages of newspapers in Egypt, China, Persia, and Turkey. It marked the first time in the new era when a non-European country was able to defeat a European power in a full-scale military conflict.
Intellectuals and reformers from the non-European world have regarded that day as a pivotal milestone. Mustafa Kemal, who would later come to be known as Atatürk, wrote that he became convinced at that point that modernization according to the Japanese model could change his country. Jawaharlal Nehru, the then future first prime minister of independent India, recollected how news of Tsushima gave him a breath of inspiration and hope for Asia’s liberation from their subordination to Europe. American civil rights leader and intellectual William E. Dubois wrote of a worldwide surge of “colored pride.”
Historically, Russia has been one of the colonialist powers. At the dawn of the new era, Russia was part of the West; it acted like a Western empire and was regarded as such by the non-European world. China’s grievances towards Russia, which essentially remain in place to this very day, are the standard objections of a former colony to a former colonial empire. When Deng Xiaoping met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Beijing in 1989, the Soviet leader was taken back by the array of “old” issues raised by the Chinese leader. Gorbachev had arrived to iron out relations with the USSR’s partner, only for the Chinese leader to remind him of Russia’s Tsarist policies, humiliations from years past, the territories ceded to Russia in the Treaty of Aigun and the Treaty of Beijing, and China’s resulting territorial disputes.
The communists and their satellites saw their human rights not as political and civil rights, but as social rights: the right to have a roof over one’s head, clothes to wear, employment, and social services.
Gorbachev, like all Russian leaders existing within the Western political agenda, couldn’t come up with a response “Protocol dictated that Gorbachev reply by laying out our position, our vision, but he didn’t do that, as he wasn’t prepared for such a reception. He was silent, effectively agreeing with Deng Xiaoping’s rendition,” recalled Andrei Vinogradov, a China specialist from the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, in a recent interview. In China, the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict is also seen as a “pushback against the northern aggressors.” On a recent anniversary of the clash in China, participants of the events were honored with awards.
In March 1969, an armed conflict broke out between the USSR and China over Damansky Island (Zhenbao Island), which is located near Manchuria. The Soviet Union regarded the island as its own, while the PRC saw it as territory Russia obtained thanks to colonial treaties. The clash killed 58 Soviet military personnel and injured 94 others. Estimates of the Chinese casualties range from 100 to 300, though the exact number remains unknown.
The island went to China after the border demarcation in May 1991. China acquired several other islands and territory totaling more than 300 square kilometers (nearly 116 square miles) during demarcation in 2005.
A Different historical perspective
Although the European Union continues to be Russia’s main trading partner, trade with China is on the rise. While seven years ago, the volume of EU trade with Russia exceeded trade with China five times over, today it’s only twice as large. China has already overtaken Germany in the role of Russia’s primary supplier industrial equipment. The relatively modest amounts of Russian natural gas exported to China are now increasing. Military collaboration is becoming ever closer and is most evidently expressed in the form of joint drills. There are realistic prospects of Russia gaining entry into China’s technological sphere of influence, specifically in the area of 5G network construction.
In his research examining the prospects of Russian integration into Pax Sinica (China’s geopolitical space), Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, has found that for the time being China is exploiting its economic advantage, mostly by extracting better terms of trade — specifically, reduced prices for oil and gas. As Russia’s dependence on China grows, Chinese politicians could very well start to pressure Russia in areas other than commerce, for example to end military alliances with PRC antagonists, or to convince Central Asian countries to permit Chinese military presence on their territory as security for the Belt and Road Initiative. Short-term gains for Russia could turn into long-term losses.
While it’s still expedient for Kremlin politicians to play the role of zealous warriors against the West, Moscow’s non-Western partners have a much longer memory than the Russians do. The Kremlin’s logic is clear, but it’s dictated by views that were formulated during the Cold War years. The Russian perspective encompasses merely several decades, while Chinese politicians view Russia — and the rest of the world — from a centuries-long perspective. Thus, even though Russia has grown closer to China and comes out on China’s side in the battle with the West, Russia still belongs to the “historical West” and, as such, faces grievances from China — and the exact scale of these grievances remains unknown.
Editors note: This article was first published in English by the Russian publication, Meduza.
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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.
Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.
What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.
In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.
Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.
Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.
This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.
The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.
Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”
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