In 1981 A.M. Babu wrote African Socialism or Socialist Africa, an attack on the cultural nationalism promoted by Julius Nyerere. Leading ideologue of Umma, the revolutionary organization that led the decolonization of Zanzibar, Babu had good reason to write this polemic; Nyerere's ujamaa movement had, by 1964, annexed Zanzibar into Tanzania, liquidated Umma, and smashed the socialist initiatives post-colonial Zanzibar had taken. Rejecting the ideology of "African Socialism", which argued that African culture was essentially socialist and so the key to a successful post-colonial state would be a return to an authentic past, Babu sided with Fanon and other anti-colonial theorists who argued that cultural nationalism was a "pit-fall" that could never produce socialism.
We know now, thanks to Amrit Wilson's recent book, that Nyerere's annexation of Zanzibar, and subsequent crushing of Umma, was directed by the CIA. The consummate "African Socialist", the rebel leader who knew how to appear anti-imperialist, was essentially an imperialist stooge. The US was not worried by Nyerere's independence movement because it understood that this ideology was ultimately not a threat to global capitalism; the US was worried by the Umma-led revolution in Zanzibar, however, and made sure it was smothered before it could follow in the footsteps of the Chinese Revolution.
Babu's insights regarding this experience, as well as the insights and theoretical interventions produced by all of the great anti-colonial theorists and the most revolutionary anti-colonial movements, remain relevant. History has a tendency of repetition, especially during a single epoch, where all of the problems of the past return to haunt a present still trapped by its primary contradictions. Colonialism remains, as does capitalism, and so the past errors that were encountered in an attempt to solve these contradictions will be reencountered whenever these contradictions are confronted; those who are unmindful of the past, and the errors that led to significant failures, will find themselves unconsciously repeating, as either tragedy or farce, the same mistakes.
Much of what is being promoted in the contemporary decolonial discourse, normative mainly at the centres of capitalism, is an example of this historical repetition. More accurately: it is a repetition, though vaguely, of an ideology that was once seen as counter-revolutionary by the most advanced organizations and theorists of the previous global anti-colonial movement. Reading Babu's critique of Nyerere's ideology, or even Fanon's Wretched of the Earth in its entirety, should cause one to reflect on today's decolonial discourse.
In the past few years the term decolonial, as opposed to the older anti-colonial (or even the more recent post-colonial), has manifested as a quasi-radical brand. Any activist group who wants to prove that its anti-oppression politics is aware of colonialism now uses this word, slapping it on websites, inserting it into speeches, bandying it about in movement pissing contests. But it is an example of chic jargon that, in its vagueness when it comes to the material facts of settler-colonialism, ends of valorizing and promoting the very culturalism that past anti-colonial movements sought to eradicate. Most often it is part of an equally vague problematization of eurocentrism as a practice of decolonizing the cultural arena, or perhaps even decolonizing the mind (though not, it must be said, in the way Ngugi meant in his classic book of the same name), and is thus part of the same nebulous politics of identity that is only radical in appearance. What is often grouped under this label of decolonial (which emerged as a conceptual term only in the first decade of the 21st century) is precisely, though quite often nebulous, the kind of culturalist ideology that, as noted above, was denounced by the great anti-colonial thinkers and movements of the past.
To be clear, if we interpreted the word according to its most obvious semantic definition, "decolonial" is not problematic. Decolonization should be embraced as the solution to the colonial contradiction, and we should have little patience for those who would suggest otherwise. The problem with the decolonial discourse, though, is that, in most cases, it is incapable of concretely producing decolonization; it is quite alien to anti-colonial theory even if some of those who promote this discourse might claim otherwise. In point of fact, the decolonial discourse seems like an attempt to weld post-colonialism to anti-colonialism, even if it might suggest otherwise.
Today's decolonial discourse resonates with the cultural nationalism of the past, though it is often a dismal echo of Nyerere's "African Socialism" or other culturalist ideologies––at least these variants of cultural nationalism were connected to actual liberation movements. Hence we often find, when we investigate those people and groups who overuse the word (since it is now, in the past three years, becoming quite popular to do so), a repetition-as-farce where innumerable cultural activities, especially those that can be embraced by "allied groups" or individuals looking for personal meaning, are branded decolonial and in this branding given a radical vaneer. While it is correct to recognize that some sort of cultural/psychological decolonization is necessary for any anti-colonial movement, there is a point where such a practice becomes a dead-end and, in its turning back, may end up producing liberalism and collaboration with capitalism. Indeed, the great anti-colonial theorists of the past understood this danger.
It seems doubtful, based on the way the discourse is used, that many of those who use the decolonial brand are aware of much of the history of anti-colonial struggles. Aside from citing the important theorists, there doesn't seem to be any awareness, or at least care, of what these theorists problematized and what the revolutionary movements of the past encountered as moments of counter-revolution. After all, the vague anti-marxism and identity politics that is most often endorsed by the decolonial discourse leads to an erasure of marxism. We can thank Homi Bhabha for this act of textual violence: in the past two decades he has worked hard to reinterpret Fanon according to obscurantist post-colonial categories, much to the annoyance of serious Fanon scholars such as Lewis Gordon and Ato Sekyi-Otu.
Hundreds of organizations with state funding––who thrive on grants and union donations––now incorporate the decolonial brand into their mission statements and participate in conferences where everyone can learn decolonial dances and do decolonial art. We would be hard pressed to find, amongst this brand loyalty, anything that actually approaches anti-colonial praxis. Nor could such activities ever promote concrete decolonization when they can exist quite comfortably within an NGO and grant-sponsored context.
(To be fair, there are probably some organizations and individuals who use the term decolonial only because it is popular but who, in fact, take it to mean anti-colonial in the strong sense––this is usually what happens when a word becomes popular, regardless of how it is normatively understood. In general, though, the name decolonial stands for a concept that, though most often vague, is thoroughly culturalist.)
The return of cultural nationalism, even in the most vaguest sense, to anti-colonial discourse should not be surprising. In the past decade and a half, after all, the mainstream activist population at the centres of capitalism––from anarchists to social democrats––have learned to recognize, though sometimes in a clumsy manner, the importance of some sort of anti-colonial politics. Even a decade ago, for example, it was uncommon for these mainstream activists to use the term settler-colonialism––I know this because I was working on a dissertation that concerned settler-colonialism and could not find this concept in the mainstream contemporary social movement literature or circles. Since that time the old term has been repopularized; there is even an online journal of settler-colonial studies (which is actually quite good). So if there is a return to the recognition of settler-colonialism, though often uncritically, and a parallel recovery of anti-colonial ideology, it seems logical that there would also be a return to the errors of the past. Unaware of this conflicted, of the innumerable line struggles between cultural nationalists and revolutionary nationalists, most of those touting the decolonial brand cannot help but reproduce the erroneous line––it is, unfortunately, easier to replicate historical failures than historical successes. Besides, the politics of identity and post-modern ideology, due to their foundational problems, are more likely to produce culturalism.
Despite the normative conceptual meaning of the brand "decolonial", though, there is at least something worth celebrating about its recent emergence. The fact that remaining settler-colonialisms are recognized as a problem, the fact that decolonization should be embraced… it is important that such an understanding is growing more popular. And yet, because the decolonial cannot provide a thorough account of colonialism, can subsist quite easily with liberal ideology, and is generally ignorant of anti-colonial history, results in a significant limitation. We should hope that, as Fanon noted in Wretched, this culturalism is merely a preface to a revolutionary ideology––a necessary but tragic stage that, while being a pit-fall where many will remain trapped, can lead to the kind of politics that is actually capable of changing the world.