According to a familiar narrative, Anglo-American political philosophy experienced a rebirth in 1971. Prior to then, political questions had fallen out of favor in philosophy departments. Then John Rawls published A Theory of Justice. Rawls’s monumental book worked out a new form of liberalism, one that combined its traditional regard for civil and political liberties with an expanded program of economic redistribution, in the process blurring the lines between liberalism and socialism. Political philosophy was rejuvenated and progressive ideas, particularly as they concern distributive justice, have set the terms of philosophical debate ever since.
In recent years this account has faced criticism. Where the traditional narrative framed Rawls as a progressive figure, some critics now view him as a regressive one. One of the leading revisionists was Charles Mills, a philosopher who taught at the City University of New York Graduate Center before his untimely death in 2021. Mills argued that Rawls’s theory of justice was only applicable to Western democratic states and, as a result, unconsciously adopted “the viewpoint of colonial racial privilege in a nominally post-colonial epoch.” In Mills’s telling, even the “vast, polyglot secondary literature of Rawlsianism” lacked the intellectual resources to address the legacy of racism and colonialism. His conclusion about Rawls and the broader discipline of political philosophy was grim: “the decolonizing enterprise has a long way to go, indeed in some respects has barely begun.”
Since Mills published his article “Decolonizing Western Political Philosophy” in 2015, National Public Radio has offered advice on how to “decolonize your bookshelf” and stickers bearing the slogan “decolonize your syllabus” have appeared for sale on Etsy. An idea such as decolonization is surely catching on when it is the subject of an explainer in Teen Vogue (“What Decolonization Is, and What It Means to Me”). Mills may not have inspired these popular calls to decolonize, yet they echo his suggestion that colonialist ideas need to be rooted out of some of our most intimate intellectual spaces. As the project has gone mainstream, however, it has also come under new scrutiny. Is decolonization, in its present guises, really so progressive?
One of the most ambitious counterarguments to this movement is presented by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò in his provocative new book, Against Decolonisation. Táíwò, a professor of African political theory and philosophy at Cornell University (not to be confused with the Georgetown philosopher of the same name, whose work was also recently reviewed in The Point), takes aim at Mills and laments how a concept that once referred to escaping political and economic subjugation by powerful states has come to mean something far less precise. According to Táíwò, “because modernity is conflated with Westernism and with ‘whiteness’—and all three with colonialism—decolonisation (the negation of colonialism) has become a catch-all idea to tackle anything with any, even minor, association with the ‘West.’” Táíwò argues that such undisciplined uses of “decolonization” have a perverse effect, stymieing attempts to understand, let alone improve, the situation of formerly colonized peoples.
In Against Decolonisation, Táíwò’s focus is on Africa. He traces the origin of a prominent strand of decolonization theory to the writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan novelist and author of Decolonising the Mind (1986), a book whose thousands of citations attest to its global influence. It memorably recounted Ngũgĩ’s experience as a schoolboy in 1950s Kenya. Being caught speaking his first language, Gĩkũyũ, anywhere near school resulted in canings, fines and being made to wear signs saying “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey.” Given this history, Ngũgĩ argued that one of the most effective political acts of African writers is to publish in their indigenous languages. When it came to his novels and other literary works, Ngũgĩ had already switched from English to Gĩkũyũ. “This book,” he wrote in Decolonising the Mind, “is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings.” Henceforward, both his fiction and nonfiction would be available to English-speaking readers only in translation.
Ngũgĩ’s condemnation of Western languages as vehicles of African expression is representative of a larger African decolonization project, which goes beyond Mills’s comparatively mild version, and which sometimes characterizes engagement with Western concepts and values as a form of “epistemicide” or “mental de-Africanization.”
In opposing this view, Táíwò invokes a vast command of African philosophy and history. Against Decolonisation ranges over everything from Africans’ enthusiastic embrace of Christianity in the pre-colonial period of “informal empire” to the Fante Confederacy of nineteenth-century Ghana, whose founding document “ranks alongside the Polish constitution of  as one of the earliest attempts at liberal constitution-making in the world.” These and other details are marshalled to support an alternative reading of African history, one that considers European colonialism “an episode, not an epoch.” Táíwò’s historical framing emphasizes the role Africans themselves have played in shaping contemporary Africa, a theme reflected in his subtitle, “Taking African Agency Seriously.” To exaggerate the influence of colonialism, Táíwò charges, can itself show disrespect to Africans.
Táíwò is at pains to distinguish two different meanings of “decolonization.” The first, which he considers illuminating, refers to a colony achieving self-government. The second refers to the goal of avoiding any idea, practice or institution that “retains even the slightest whiff of the colonial past.” This broader understanding of decolonization is the one Táíwò opposes. Where the first definition identifies a crucial step toward African societies becoming fully modern, home to liberal-democratic governments that follow the rule of law, respect rights and ensure the well-being of their people, the second undermines that unfinished project by rejecting modern political goods as artifacts of colonialism.
Táíwò is a fearless and original thinker and, at times, a polemical one. To be sure, Táíwò in his ferocious mode is often witty (one chapter is called “Decolonise This!”) and scores some tidy hits, though sometimes Táíwò lets his polemical gifts carry him too far. (“Here is the deal,” he writes, “the world, the so-called West or Global North, does not owe Africa”—overlooking the many obstacles to African development, such as heavy-handed interventions in African economies by Western-dominated entities like the World Bank, and subsidies to Western farmers that price out their African counterparts.) But Táíwò’s excesses should not overshadow his insights. These are especially on display in his less scathing moments, in which he comes not to destroy decolonization but to take it over, by channeling its liberationist energies in a more productive direction. The race-based account of writers such as Mills, Táíwò points out, is complicated by colonialism’s white subjects—the Irish, Québécois and Afrikaners, for example. Many discussions of colonialism in Africa also pass over in silence what Táíwò terms “the single outstanding colonial issue in the continent,” the occupation of Western Sahara, which has been ongoing since 1975, and which features an African aggressor, Morocco. The fact that most African borders were originally drawn by colonial powers is often cited as evidence of colonialism’s ongoing presence. Táíwò counters that countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, South Sudan and Eritrea have redrawn national borders since the colonial period, suggesting that the continent’s current borders also reflect African influence.
But Táíwò’s unyielding opposition to overly broad notions of colonialism sees him adopt a definition that feels too narrow. He makes it sound as though the moment we widen our understanding of colonialism to include anything other than one state ruling another, we deny the agency of the colonized, turning them into “mute presences in the drama that other people are writing.” But colonial authorities relied on the view that some populations were incapable of self-rule or otherwise inferior, and it seems reasonable to include such ideological defenses under the “colonialism” label.
In 1962, after Nelson Mandela had dedicated his life to the armed struggle against apartheid, he was passing through Khartoum Airport on African National Congress business. “As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set.” Mandela’s point was that apartheid, in addition to being a system of laws, was an assault on the self-respect of black South Africans. Táíwò argues that he is following Fanon in positing “flag independence” as a fundamental break: once formerly colonized peoples achieved self-rule, their control over their own affairs could be undermined by foreign powers, but it could no longer be removed, and so colonialism no longer obtained. But the fact that even Mandela could internalize the racism of his society is a reminder of the power of colonial mindsets. They are unlikely to have disappeared when the flags were raised or when apartheid fell, and we need an understanding of colonialism broad enough to capture this.
Where Mills, Ngũgĩ and other decolonizers adopt varying degrees of suspicion toward cultural products of Western origin, Táíwò argues that there is a different way of engaging the West’s output, by practicing what he calls “domestication”: using political and cultural ideas that originated in the West to advance non-Western interests. With this approach, what matters is not where an intellectual or artistic framework comes from but how it might be used alongside indigenous ones to meet the needs of formerly colonized peoples.
Táíwò notes how domestication was practiced by figures who have become synonymous with the struggle against colonial rule. In The Wretched of the Earth, for example, Fanon wrote that “all the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought.” Europe’s failure was not that it lacked the right ideas, but that it failed to extend and adapt them to its dealings with non-Europeans. Julius Nyerere similarly saw value in Western philosophy, taking inspiration from John Stuart Mill in the fight for Tanzania’s independence. Amílcar Cabral, who led pro-independence forces in what was then Portuguese Guinea, and who, like Fanon, was influenced by Marx, once said that “Portuguese (the language) is one of the best things that the tugas [the Portuguese] left us,” in part because Portuguese had a more extensive scientific vocabulary than the local creole.
Decolonizers may regard any form of anti-colonialism that looks to the West for guidance as naïve. While European thinkers may have talked a good talk about democracy, equality and humanism, their real legacy was one of bloodshed. But this is surely shortsighted. It is not just that Fanon and others who drew on Enlightenment ideals in resisting colonialism were far from starry-eyed in their view of Europe, or keen to forgive its transgressions. There is a long history of leaders in Africa and elsewhere coming to power on anti-colonial platforms, proclaiming concepts such as Negritude or “national authenticity,” only to terrorize their own people once in office (a history, tragically, that included Tanzania under Nyerere). A refusal to judge intellectual traditions by anything other than their proponents’ worst crimes does not cast decolonization theory in a more favorable light than European humanism. It leads to nihilism, as no political philosophy can survive such a test.
Táíwò presses the case for domestication by noting its many advantages over a rejectionist stance. Some of those advantages are practical, as even Ngũgĩ would likely concede. Since Decolonising the Mind appeared, Ngũgĩ, now a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, has stayed true to his vow to publish all his literary writings in Gĩkũyũ before English. His goal of abandoning English altogether, however, has proven more difficult. “Those who write in African languages are confronted with a dearth of outlets for publication,” Ngũgĩ observed somewhat ruefully in the preface to Moving the Centre, a 1993 collection of essays, most of which first appeared in English.
Táíwò cites a variety of other problems with trying to publish exclusively in African languages using the example of his Nigerian mother tongue, Yorùbá. Even when researchers are capable of publishing in a language such as Yorùbá, doing so exposes their work to a much smaller audience than if they had employed English. Decolonial inquiry conducted according to Ngũgĩ’s standard therefore risks being cut off from the wider debates and developments of the field in question, an outcome Táíwò likens to being privatized.
On a colloquial level, Yorùbá lacks nothing in comparison to English. But in certain academic domains, its technical vocabulary remains underdeveloped. The first doctoral dissertation written entirely in Yorùbá, for example, was only defended in 1991. To do advanced work in any field inevitably requires using international terms and concepts. Conducting scholarship in a decolonized mode therefore risks saddling its practitioners with the exhausting project of “equivalence-ism,” which involves “spending an inordinate amount of time searching for equivalent terms in our autochthonous languages to show that ‘what English can do, we can do in Yorùbá.’” The outcome, as Táíwò points out, is that “our languages and their possibilities become limited by the boundaries set by the external languages.” What begins as an attempt to escape Western influence ends up reinscribing it.
Some of Africa’s most prominent writers—Chinua Achebe, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Wole Soyinka—have made enduring contributions to global literature by writing in English and French. Who is to say that their output should not count as African? Táíwò’s defense of domestication is more reflective of the practice of countless African creators. A suggestion of domestication’s power and possibility comes when Táíwò notes the frequency with which writers of African descent have skillfully appropriated one of the West’s most canonical texts, The Odyssey. Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, Ralph Ellison and others have rewritten Homer’s story in African, Caribbean and African American idioms. Táíwò reminds us that the frontier separating Western and non-Western culture is not only a site of conflict, but a quarry for artistic and intellectual achievement.
People everywhere, he observes, “appropriate what is to hand to tell their stories, to make sense of the world.” Colonizers certainly never had any qualms about appropriating African ideas and objects, music and food, for their own ends. Recently, however, a more encouraging example has involved the global uptake of African thinking about justice. South Africa did not invent truth and reconciliation commissions, but the victim-centered version that the Mandela government created in 1996—to bring transitional justice to the country after the fall of apartheid—has had a wide impact. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for example, was established in 2008 to address the consequences of a residential school system imposed on indigenous people, and the Canadian commission has in turn influenced others created by Scandinavian countries to document injustices committed against their indigenous population, the Sámi people. And so an African approach to transitional justice has penetrated Europe, the continent that once considered itself Africa’s schoolmaster. Such domestication, for Táíwò, is not merely a European practice but a human one.
There is an ambivalence in calls to decolonize. Such demands often suggest that an institution or discipline is indebted to colonialism at a foundational level. Yet decolonizing something seems pointless unless it contains a core of value that can be separated from its colonial residue. As Táíwò puts it, “whatever can be decolonised cannot at the same time have colonialism as part of its very constitution.”
Mills argued that Rawls’s legacy has had the toxic effect of hiding the history of colonialism and racism from view. And, indeed, those concerned with the needs of formerly colonized peoples might get the impression from Mills that the “vast, polyglot secondary literature of Rawlsianism” has nothing to offer them. But Rawls’s reception among philosophers concerned with delivering justice to indigenous peoples, asylum-seekers, postcolonial societies and African Americans suggests that Mills’s account of Rawls’s negative influence was badly overstated. Will Kymlicka, for instance, has updated Rawls’s approach to address the situation of so-called national minorities—indigenous peoples, Puerto Ricans, the Québécois—whose presence inside liberal states is a result not of immigration but colonial conquest. His work has influenced policymakers around the world and inherits the Rawlsian idea that a just society must, as Rawls put it, “avoid at almost any cost the social conditions that undermine self-respect.” Rawls in this way joined arms with Mandela in opposing all apartheid mindsets.
Though Kymlicka and other descendants of Rawls may not describe themselves as decolonizers, that seems largely a packaging issue. Many political philosophers have addressed issues that decolonization theorists ask us to take seriously. This is not surprising, given that debates in political philosophy often turn on the best way to ensure that political institutions uphold some form of moral equality. Or, as Táíwò puts it, “How good can scholarship be if it is blind to the experiences of a significant portion of humanity on account of their ‘difference’?”
Mills was right to want philosophy to be a discipline that can speak to a cosmopolitan range of issues and their histories, including racism and colonialism. But if that is our goal, we won’t get far without an accurate inventory of the resources philosophy already offers for achieving it. Calls to decolonize Western philosophy overlook just how powerful its resources are in this regard, its European origins notwithstanding. The history of an idea does not define its future.
Image credit: Marc Wathieu (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)