by Michael C. Dawson
Afropessimists argue that we can only understand the global system of racial domination if we acknowledge that it is, first and foremost, a system defined in toto by anti-blackness. Moreover, Afropessimism rejects a central role for political economy and politics for understanding the essence of black oppression. For the past few years, this branch of critical race theory has gained a number of supporters in and out of the academy. For example, Frank Wilderson’s highly influential 2020 book Afropessimism was long-listed for the National Book Award and was praised by several outstanding black intellectuals.
This essay centres the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton as they are widely recognised leaders of the Afropessimism school of thought. Wilderson and Sexton claim that the enslavement of Africans constituted a rupture; a rupture that was essential for the development of capitalism but also a rupture that put black bodies and black people outside of the logics of capitalism and colonialism. For Sexton and Wilderson, anti-blackness is both a unique system of structural dominance as well as an ideology. Anti-blackness, they claim, is defined by racial slavery and impervious to change. Sexton argues for example, “the application of the law of racial slavery is pervasive, regardless of variance or permutation in its operation across the better part of a millennium”.
In this essay, I offer a critique of Afropessimism, both as a theory of black oppression and as a political project. I make the following claims. First, Afropessimism incorrectly centres the experiences of people of African descent that were enslaved within the U.S. This results in the homogenisation of the experiences of peoples of African descent, and, equally importantly, mischaracterises and belittles the oppression of non-African colonised subjects. While I agree that anti-blackness is a central structural feature of global white supremacy that emerged with the mid-15th-century Iberian slave trade, I argue that it is not the only critical structural feature that historically defined white supremacy. Further, the ontological centring of the experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. radically and incorrectly homogenises the history and conditions of the peoples of Africa and those in the African Diaspora.
Secondly, I argue that Afropessimists overemphasise the continuities in the black experience in the U.S. While Afropessimists are correct that there are structural continuities across time that continue to contribute to black oppression—not the least of which is a continuing vitriolic and violent global anti-blackness—they underemphasise the achievements of black freedom struggles. Even Wilderson’s own biography is a testimony to critical changes in the black experience in the U.S. The positive changes that are elided in the work of many Afropessimists—such as the formation of modern black civil society and a great expansion of a robust and often revolutionary black politics— serves to erase the often heroic struggles of black activists; struggles that often tragically failed to bring substantial progress, but that also sometimes achieved victories in the struggle for black liberation.
Finally, and critically, Wilderson and Sexton present a fatally flawed account of the relationship between black oppression, white supremacy and the capitalist social order. I will demonstrate that this is a flaw that not only makes impossible any accurate account of black oppression, but also prevents us from understanding the contradictions and cleavages that exist within black communities and black politics.
Afropessimism Incorrectly Centres the Experiences of People of African Descent Enslaved within the U.S.
Afro-Pessimists homogenise the black experience. I agree with Wilderson when he argues that the enslavement of blacks, and specifically the slave trade, was a condition for the development of global capitalism, particularly as the Atlantic became more economically important than the Mediterranean. The large-scale sale of Africans in 1444 by the Portuguese marked Africans as the Other, justifying in the minds of royal, religious, and secular Portuguese elites the brutal and exceptional enslavement of Africans. Previously, only prisoners of war were subject to enslavement. This marked the moment when Africans were marked as the exception to natural law in service of accumulation; in service of profits. I also agree with Wilderson that this marks the inception of a set of anti-black logics that have taken a life of their own and have rendered black lives less valuable, subject to excessive and often arbitrary violence, and ultimately disposable during the entire history of capitalist development.
I disagree, however, when Sexton and Wilderson privilege the role of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the “New World” and homogenise the black experience. They fail to understand that black people have played a number of roles viz colonialism and have been valued differently by capitalist states and managers depending on those roles. Sexton’s claim “[t]he United States provides the point of focus here, but the dynamics under examination are not restricted to its bounds” glosses over the differences in black experience at the time of slavery and the present day, and between “New World slavery” and old-world colonialism. It assumes that the figure of the enslaved African in the “New World” can represent the entirety of black experience. This is untenable: After all, one might well argue that the experience of colonised Africans was more akin to that of the other colonised populations of Asia and the “New World” than that of their enslaved cousins. The work of scholars such as Michael Ralph and Andrew Zimmerman, among many others, demonstrate that those enslaved in the so- called “New World” was not the same, for example, as the experience of Africans in Senegambia who worked as agents on behalf of European colonial powers.
Further, these Afropessimists incorrectly belittle the oppression of non-white peoples who are not of African descent. If the threat and shadow of slavery followed those of African descent across generations, the very real threat of dispossession, massacre and even genocide at the hands of Euro-American imperialists and their clients similarly hung over entire indigenous populations across multiple continents and islands.
But Afropessimists deny this. Sexton, for example, argues that with respect to black folks, indigenous populations had the same relationship to people of African descent as the Europeans that colonised the western hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. Sexton argues, “freedom from the rule of slave law requires only that one be considered nonblack, whether that nonblack racial designation be “white” or “Indian” or, in the rare case, “Oriental”—this despite the fact that each of these groups has at one point or another laboured in conditions similar to or contiguous with enslaved African-derived groups.” In other words, Sexton here argues that modern racial slavery was so momentous than even the indigenous victims of genocide, or the conquered colonised peoples throughout the world, had more in common with whites than they had in common with enslaved African populations and their descendants—even though arguably colonised Africans had more in common with other colonised peoples than with their enslaved cousins in the Western Hemisphere.
Sexton declares, “we note the fact that ‘the absolute submission mandated by law was not simply that of slave to his or her owner- but the submission of all the enslaved before all whites. The latter group is better termed all non blacks (or, less economically, the unequally arrayed category of non-blackness), because it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a condition for freedom.” Even bracketing the historical inaccuracies, the logical and temporal slippage in the above passages that lead to the transformation from “enslaved before all whites” to “better termed non blacks” is stunning. The genocide of indigenous peoples in the New World preceded black slavery and was in many ways as or more brutal even if the dehumanisation processes markedly differed. Nine out of ten indigenous people died due to European diseases in the New World—yet that category was a condition for freedom? The American empire as well as that of its European counterparts required periodic massacres of racialised “natives” at places such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, or in the early 20th century, the Philippines where an extraordinary percentage of the population was killed during the American military intervention before World War I. In his work on racialised U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Kramer calls estimates of 250,00 Filipinos dying as a result of U.S. military intervention during the late 19th early 20th century “conservative”. Massacres such as these were conducted by from Southern to Northern African by brutal imperialists such as the Germans and British.
To sum up: White supremacy was and is a global imperial project that divided the world into civilised, human, citizen-subjects, and non-civilised, sub-human colonised subjects. The enslavement of Africans and the centrality of the slave trade for the early development of capitalism and empire for Atlantic sector European states ensured that anti-blackness would be an enduring structural feature of white supremacy. But the processes of racialisation, domination, dispossession and exploitation associated with white supremacy differed within and across regions. Only by not homogenising the experiences of the various racially subordinated populations—including the experiences of people of African descent—will we be able to analytically forge theories and practices needed for black liberation.
Afropessimism is Anti-Political and Erases the History and Achievements of Black Liberation Movements.
Wilderson argues that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history. Wilderson states: “As provocative as it may sound history and redemption (and therefore narrative itself) are inherently anti-Black.” For Wilderson, blacks are outside of history; “space and time” are absent: “just as there is no time for the Slave, there is also no place for the Slave.” In asserting that black people are outside of history, Wilderson is making the claim that Blackness is irrevocably marked as slaveness—there is no historical change in the meaning of blackness and position of black people. In Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson claims that “Afropessimism is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” “Blackness,” Wilderson emphasises, “cannot exist other than Slaveness”.
This is not so much an iconoclastic claim as a false one. It is true, of course, that Black lives after slavery continued to be marked by domination and violence. The spectre of extreme violence aimed at individuals and black communities, the expropriation that marked share cropping in the rural south, the super-exploitation of black industrial workers, the precarious position of black women performing paid and unpaid domestic labour, and the continued vulnerability of black women to all of the above as well as gender-based domination, all serve to emphasise the continuities of domination.
But while there were important continuities between in the condition of black people during and after slavery, the rupture caused by the end of slavery nonetheless represented a massive change in how black life was organised—a reorganisation that transformed the articulation between white supremacy and the capitalist social order. The end of slavery presented new and important opportunities for black agency even if full “freedom” was not achieved. It was marked by the formation of black civil society, the emergence of new possibilities as well as new challenges for black politics. It was during this period that the institutional backbone of black civil society was developed—including the black church (which was as much a political institution as a sacred one); black institutions of higher learning; cooperative and mutual aid societies; and. a myriad of other organisational initiatives. All were launched and/or consolidated during this period. The ability to form families, expand black politics, and build black civil society represented a type of real if limited progress.
Further, Wilderson’s claim that the black condition is defined by “slaveness,” that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history is also profoundly anti-political. For Wilderson, blacks exist outside of the domain of politics: “The violence of the slave estate cannot be thought of the way one thinks of the violence of capitalist oppression. It takes an ocean of violence to produce a slave, singular or plural, but that violence never goes into remission. Again, the prehistory of violence that establishes slavery is also the concurrent history of slavery. This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.”
Wrong. What progress has been made has been the result of fighting through social movements that, as Malcolm X urged, used any means necessary. Fighting oppression is inherently political. The anti-political nature of Wilderson’s central claim casts aside the momentous struggles of black people for liberation in the U.S., massive struggles for freedom throughout the African Diaspora, the 20th-century African national liberation struggles, as well as contemporary African struggles against neocolonialism, neoliberal regimes, and against the new imperial project of redividing Africa.
Perhaps the most immoral implication of Wilderson’s claim that slaveness defines blackness is that the human is defined against blackness. If blacks are not human then it is easier to claim that black people are outside of history, and blacks are outside the realm of politics. For Wilderson, all human life is defined in opposition blackness, in opposition to the condition of being a slave. Wilderson explains, “Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence. There is no world without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the World.” This claim places Wilderson outside of both the black radical and black nationalist traditions. Black movements whether black liberal, black Marxist, or black nationalist fought and died insisting on Africans’ humanity—although some, particularly but not exclusively many black nationalists, questioned the humanity of those that enslaved others. Black movements have historically, and correctly, demanded a place in a world the recognition of one’s own humanity regardless of one’s status as enslaved, expropriated, and oppressed.
Afropessimism Distorts the Relationship Between Anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism
Finally and critically, this version of Afropessimism severely mischaracterises the relationship between anti-blackness, white supremacy, and capitalism. Wilderson asserts that political economy is of little use for analysing the black condition as the condition of the slave, the condition of blacks, is subject to violence that cannot be explained by political economy. Further, the status of the slave is invariant to “historical shifts.” I assert that only by understanding the interaction between the multiple systems of domination blacks are subject to—white supremacy (of which anti-blackness is a central structural feature), patriarchy and capitalism—will we be able to understand for any given era the status of blacks; the massive and multiple forms of violence that blacks experience, and the way forward toward full black liberation.
In Afropessimism, Wilderson only briefly considers the role of political economy in black subjugation. He argues that the use/study of political economy cannot explain the violence committed against blacks. This violence, Wilderson argues, is invariant across time. Specifically:
“Black people exist in the throes of what historian David Eltis calls ‘violence beyond the limit,’ by which he means: (a) in the libidinal economy there are no forms of violence so excessive that they would be considered too cruel to inflict upon Blacks; and (b) in political economy there are no rational explanations for this limitless theatre of cruelty, no explanations that would make political or economic sense of the violence that positions and punishes Blackness….the Slave’s relationship to violence is open-ended…unaccountable to historical shifts.”
What Wilderson misses is that blacks are subject to multiple sources of violence—the cumulative nature of which is monstrous. Simultaneously analysing the articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism leads one to the realisation that blacks depending on context in various combinations experience violence as workers, women, and/or as black people. Each system of domination routinely inflicts violence for those at the bottom of each hierarchy. I would add that an aspect of white supremacy and anti-blackness is that for blacks even the forms of violence that derive from patriarchy and capitalism are intensified due to white supremacy. This violence is also rational to the degree that each form of violence is ultimately aimed at reinforcing the rule of those at the top of each system of domination.
In a much earlier essay, Wilderson more directly addresses the relationship between capitalism and black subjugation. Wilderson asserts that “…the United States is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix.” This statement is promising in that it hints at the simultaneous analysis of the interaction between capitalism and white supremacy. Yet, he does not sufficiently explore the consequences of this statement and does not analyse the actual dynamics created by the articulation of capitalism and white supremacy.
For example, in Afropessimism Wilderson correctly asserts that “….the emergence of the slave, the subject-effect of an ensemble of direct relations of force marks the emergence of the capitalism itself.” The “primitive” accumulation necessary for the establishment of the capitalist social order does have at its centre the brutal and hideous social relations of slavery and the slave trade, but not only slavery. But unlike what Wilderson argues, the historical record shows that under white supremacy and colonialism blacks are not the only racially subordinate group to be subject to “direct relations of force.” As Ince argues, “direct relations of force” do not only mark the subject of the slave, but of the colonised more generally such as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of particularly the “New” World (itself a precondition of capitalism). Establishing and maintaining capitalism has required the expropriation of resources and labour—simultaneously wedded to the violation of black, brown, and yellow bodies throughout the world. In the end, non-white bodies are disposable in the global North and South; in the ghettoes, barrios, reservations, prisons, refugee camps and immigration detention centres that can be grimly found throughout the world. The particularities are important—and anti-blackness is a key particularity that shapes capitalism and white supremacy, but as argued earlier, it still a part a global system of white supremacy marked by direct relations of force, and which non-whites are racialised differently by that force.
Within the context of the U.S., only a type of stubborn blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the historical record, and refusal to see the interrelationship between capitalism and racial domination can lead those such as Wilderson to argue that “we were never meant to be workers…..From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.” This assertion flies against the historical evidence. No, blacks were meant to work, die, and be accumulated as need be. White supremacy often demands that blacks die. Capitalism demands that blacks must also, when necessary work and/or be accumulated. Each, and patriarchy as well, continually make their bloody demands. Through politics and other means of struggle blacks continually resist. This resistance can only be successful by understanding the mutual articulation between each system of domination.
Conclusion: What is at Stake?
What is at stake is far more critical than an abstract academic debate between theorists. These debates speak directly to how we understand Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections and the racist, authoritarian and potentially fascist phenomenon of “Trumpism” and the rise of neo-fascist movements in the global north and south. It speaks to how we best understand the accelerating rates of inequality in both the global north and south popularly described by Thomas Piketty. It speaks to how we understand the rising wave of violence that black folks face here, throughout the Diaspora, and within Africa itself.
Afropessimists have an ahistorical narrative that distorts the relationship of white supremacy to capitalism—insisting despite all historical and contemporary empirical evidence to the contrary that the core logics of slave-based anti-blackness exists outside of, and ultimately invariant to, the dynamics of the capitalist political economy. This strand of theorising has taken root in real-world activism—in this case among young black activists struggling once again for black liberation. Afropessimism, however, presents real political dangers for those organising for black liberation. I will mention three such dangers here. By arguing that black subjugation lies outside the realm of the political, Afropessimism serves as a basis for political demobilisation rather than mobilisation. Indeed, Wilderson is correct when he states, “This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.” Second, Afropessimism severely undermines those attempting to build solidarity with other racially subordinate groups. Do we still need to be building independent radical black movements and organisations? Yes. Is building solidarity hard. Yes. Is one likely to experience anti-black racism from some other peoples of colour? Yes. Is it still a necessary task if meaningful political victories are to be achieved? Yes.
Third, by ignoring the class and gender dynamics within black communities, Afropessimism makes it far more difficult to understand the dynamics of intra-black politics. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for fighting all forms of oppression and domination that are experienced within black communities. Afropessimists are correct to insist that the logics of racial domination are autonomous and not fully determined by a capitalist social order. Afropessimists fail to understand, however, the effects of the interaction of multiple systems of domination have on black life and politics. It is our task to forge better theoretical weapons to not only illuminate the nature of oppressive systems of domination, but also to provide effective tools to combat oppression.
 There are a wide range of activists who either have been identified with Afropessimism and/or have been in conversation with prominent Afropessimists such as Frank Wilderson. Brilliant scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Saidya Hartman, and Fred Moten have been claimed by those supporting and critiquing Afropessimism. The latter two in particular have been in sympathetic conversation with Afropessimists, such as Frank Wilderson. However, they—as well as scholars such as Christina Sharpe whose argument is congruent with Afropessimism—rarely use “Afropessimism” in their own published research. Fred Moten has publicly stated that he is not an Afropessimist.
 Jared Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery’, Social Text 28(2 (103)) (2010), 37. Emphasis added.
 I am making an historical claim about global capitalist social order that emerged during the 16th century. I am agnostic about the theoretical claim that processes of racial subordination are necessary for original and ongoing capital accumulation, and thus necessary for capitalist social orders.
 Anna More, 'Necroeconomics, Originary Accumulation, and Racial Capitalism in the Early Iberian Slave Trade', Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19 (2019), 75-100.
 Michael Ralph, Forensics of Capital (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 36.
 Ralph, Forensics of Capital; Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa.
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 16.
 Ibid., 36.
 Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and the Phillipines (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 157.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 226.
 Ibid., 227. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 225–6.
 Ibid., 229.
 Ibid., 224. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 228–9.
 . Patriarchy is not addressed as a system of domination or oppression in Wilderson’s analysis.
 Ibid., 216. Original emphasis.
 Frank B. Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?’, Social Identities 9(2) (2003), 225.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 229.
 As I and many others argued, going back to Rosa Luxemburg, it is more correct to understand accumulation as an essential ongoing aspect of the capitalist social order and reject Marx’s terminology of “primitive” or “original” (depending on the translation of Volume I of Capital).
 Onur Ulas Ince, ‘Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention’, Rural Sociology 79(1) (2014), 104–31.
 Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx’, 238. Emphasis added.
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 224.
by Emily Katzenstein
Afropessimism issues a radical challenge to contemporary theories of the role and nature of anti-Blackness and its relation to other forms of oppression and domination. As the very term makes clear, it is characterised by a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the possibility of Black liberation. For Afropessimists, modernity inaugurates a “new ontology” of anti-Blackness that defines Blackness, as a constructed category, as inextricably tied to the condition of enslavement and thus as a structural position of “social death.” Afropessimists here draw on the work of Orlando Patterson, who understands enslavement as a form of “social death” defined as “natal alienation, generalised dishonor and violent domination”. As Frank Wilderson III, one of the leading theorists of Afropessimism, puts it: “Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.” Wilderson thus rejects, in the most radical way possible, a narrative of progressive Black emancipation. Blackness as a structural position remains essentially fixed despite historical changes, no matter how transformative they may seem. “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president,” Wilderson argues “are merely changes in the weather.”
But Afropessimism not only issues a radical challenge to theories and histories of anti-Blackness. It also challenges the idea that anti-Blackness functions analogously to other forms of oppression and domination that are based on distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, or class. Anti-Blackness, in Afropessimist thought, isn’t one form of subjugation amongst many forms of oppression (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) but a condition of radical alterity and abjection that must be recognised as the limit of the human condition—the other of the category of “human.” Laying claim to humanity in the face of pervasive dehumanisation, Afropessimism insists, is doomed to failure because Blackness denotes a position from which laying claim to “humanity” is a political and, indeed, ontological impossibility. This implies a radical reconceptualisation of the relationship between struggles for Black freedom and struggles against other forms of oppression. In his most recent book, Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson argues that non-Black struggles against domination ultimately only become legible through the comparative illegibility of Black political claims and thus perpetuate the exclusion of Blackness from the category of “human” in order to make themselves legible as “human.”
In this series of essays on Afropessimism, which will be published in installments, Michael Dawson, Jordie Davies and Marcus Lee reflect on and grapple with the theoretical and political challenges that Afropessimism poses. In the first essay of the series, Michael Dawson reflects on the question of whether an ontological account of Blackness can theorise anti-Blackness in its complexity and in its changing historical articulations and asks if Afropessimism allows us to recognise the ways in which different forms of domination are articulated. Dawson evaluates Afropessimism’s relationship to other ideological traditions in Black political thought, such as Black nationalism and Black radical thought. In this context, he critically examines Afropessimism’s foregrounding of the libidinal (rather than political) economy and assesses its potential for generating a critique of the entanglements of white supremacy and capitalism.
In “Afropessimism and Narrative Theorising”, Marcus Lee offers a rejoinder to Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism. Lee provides a close reading of Frank Wilderson’s authorial and narrative strategies and reflects on how Afropessimism imagines Black sociality and practices of recognition.
In the final essay in the series, “After Afropessimism,” which will be published on 31 May, Jordie Davies asks what political opportunities Afropessimism presents by re-centering anti-Blackness in struggles against racism and white supremacy and tackles the implications that Afropessimism has for coalition-building in movement politics.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 18ff.
 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. ACLS Humanities E-book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982: 38.
 George Shulman. "Theorizing Life Against Death." Contemporary Political Theory 17:1 (February 2018), pp. 118-127: 119.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism. Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 42.
 Ibid., 96.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 20
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 243ff.
by Tejas Parasher
It is difficult to overstate just how much of a watershed moment the immediate aftermath of WWI was for modern democracy. No previous global crisis had revealed on such a scale the self-destructiveness and the fundamental unsustainability—political, economic, and military—of the European states-system. Writing from London in 1917, the British economist John Hobson predicted the rise of new movements which would increasingly seek to disentangle democracy from the military-industrial state; as a result of the war, Hobson argued, “not only the spirit but the very forms of popular self-government have suffered violation.” The war had made clear in stark terms the ever-present possibilities of autocracy and violence underneath the veneer of democracy in modern states.
Hobson’s observation proved prescient. The months after November 1918 witnessed a proliferation of political experiments, ranging from the council communism of the Spartacus League in Berlin to pluralism and guild socialism in Britain, France, and the United States, bringing together political and legal thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, Léon Duguit, Harold Laski, and G.D.H. Cole. Though distinct in their respective ideologies, these movements were all propelled by disillusionment with the representative, parliamentary republics created in Western Europe through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
That diagnosis was not restricted to pacifists and democrats. Carl Schmitt asserted confidently in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1923) that nineteenth-century liberal models of representative government inherited from John Stuart Mill and François Guizot had outlived their usefulness in a new age of mass politics, and only remained standing “through sheer mechanical perseverance as an empty apparatus.”
But how the problem that Schmitt called “the crisis of parliamentary democracy” was perceived beyond Europe and North America after 1918 still remains a largely untold story. In recent years, historians have uncovered the depth of interaction between subject peoples in the colonial world and the various political ideologies and institutional proposals circulating in Europe in the wake of the Great War. A notable example is Susan Pedersen’s exemplary study of petitions submitted to the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission by groups in the Middle East, the South Pacific, and south-western and eastern Africa, demanding political independence from imperial rule. A much less examined aspect of this period, though, is the orientation of anti-colonial thinkers and leaders towards the critiques of nation-state sovereignty and representative democracy consuming European political thought of the time. To put it differently, how were Hobson and Schmitt’s diagnoses of the post-WWI situation understood in Bombay or Cairo, instead of in London or Berlin? The point of such an inquiry is both to provide a more global historiography of the early twentieth-century crisis of parliamentarism and to better understand the full range of political thought precipitated by the crisis.
My recent research explores these themes through an examination of the rise of a normative challenge to representative democracy, particularly its nineteenth-century parliamentary variant, within Indian political thought between 1918 and 1928. My focus is on a group of historians and philosophers based at the north Indian universities of Allahabad and Lucknow and at the southern University of Mysore. Identifying themselves as political pluralists, these writers turned to pre-modern Indian history to unearth forms of classical republicanism and participatory law-making. Their books, pamphlets, and draft constitutions contained the earliest theories of direct democracy as a tangible constitutional ideal in modern South Asia.
By the mid-1910s, there was an established, well-organised nationalist movement in the Crown Territories of British India. For three decades, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been lobbying for political and economic reform within the empire. Politically, the INC sought the introduction of a parliamentary system elected through adult suffrage, modelled on the settler colonies of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Parliamentarism was seen both as a distinctively English achievement and, as an arrangement wherein only representatives deliberated and legislated, as the most effective way of selecting members of an educated, urban elite to govern in the interests of the wider population.
Thus, between 1885 and 1915, Dadabhai Naoroji, a key figure in the evolution of Indian nationalism, repeatedly defined the Indian demand for self-rule (swaraj) as an extension of parliamentary principles established in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and imported to the satellite states of the Anglosphere by the late nineteenth century. Even as nationalist politics came to be divided between liberal and revolutionary camps from the first decade of the new century, the embrace of parliamentarism remained secure. For the revolutionary leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who constantly linked Indian nationalism with the struggles for Home Rule in Ireland and Egypt and was hailed by Lenin as a “democrat” in 1908, swaraj meant the election of members of political parties into self-governing representative institutions. For all the disagreement over tactics, early nationalist arguments in India converged on a view of popular self-government as an indirect electoral enterprise, exercised by a limited number of deputies on behalf of the citizenry.
From 1918, the nationalist attempt to mediate popular sovereignty through the established procedures of parliamentary representation provoked a reaction amongst a new group of writers who held a different understanding of swaraj. A key moment in the fracturing of the consensus around parliamentary government was the publication of Radhakumud Mookerji’s Local Government in Ancient India in 1919. Mookerji was born in rural Bengal in 1884 and trained as a historian at the University of Calcutta. The backdrop to his political formation was the upsurge of anti-British agitation in eastern India in 1905, known as the swadeshi movement, which highlighted to him the role of historical narratives in shaping anti-colonial nationalist politics. Radhakumud eventually settled at the University of Lucknow as Professor of Ancient Indian History.
Local Government in Ancient India was a strikingly presentist political book to have been written by an academic historian. Radhakumud challenged the Indian National Congress’ uncritical acceptance of parliamentary government. He insisted that WWI had made clear not only that parliamentary republics did not always express the full will of their people, but that representative institutions under the conditions of modern economic life, electioneering, and party politics could easily be co-opted by political and economic elites and interest groups. In seeking to transpose the nineteenth-century English system of electoral representation into India in the 1910s, the Congress was essentially introducing “self-rule from above,” leaving the power to make and amend law in the hands of a relatively small political class.
Radhakumud’s response was to turn to constitutional models from ancient and medieval South Asia. Relying on recent archival discoveries of Sanskrit and Pali-language treatises and archaeological inscriptions from southern India in the ninth and tenth centuries CE, Radhakumud made the claim that pre-modern Indian states had been elaborate federal structures consisting of semi-independent local jurisdictions overseen by a central monarchy. The jurisdictions themselves were governed by large citizens’ assemblies (sabha) consisting of adult house-holders; the sabha performed all legislative, executive, and judicial functions, and chose sub-committees for specialised functions on the basis of sortition.
Radhakumud was not the first modern Indian writer to give a republican re-interpretation of states which had frequently been denigrated in terms of either Oriental despotism or ungoverned anarchy, as in James Mill’s History of British India (1817). But Radhakumud was the first to consider a medieval federation of citizens’ assemblies as a viable political model for the twentieth century, as a real alternative to parliamentarism. Much to the chagrin of other historians, Radhakumud proposed that replicating a system of citizens’ assemblies provided a coherent model of direct democracy, much more participatory than the models of representative government espoused by the INC leadership.
Local Government in Ancient India went through two English editions in 1919 and 1920. Its core thesis was reproduced in a number of other Indian texts from the 1920s, including Brajendranath Seal’s Report on the Constitution of Mysore (1923), Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East (1923), and Beni Prasad’s A Few Suggestions on the Problem of the Indian Constitution (1928). Radhakamal Mukerjee’s Democracies of the East—from which I draw the title of this post—was the most detailed example of the genre. Radhakamal Mukerjee decried the nationalist acceptance of the English model of electoral representation, premised on suffrage, political parties, and parliamentary supremacy, as insufficiently democratic. Nationalist politics limited legislative sovereignty to “a certain small and well-defined class which packs and directs the assembly, and speaks in the name of the people.” Radhakamal accordingly presented the creation of directly democratic assemblies patterned on medieval Asian states as a way to overcome the structural hierarchies of sovereignty embedded within parliamentary government. As in Local Government in Ancient India, the reconstruction of pre-modern republicanism was a response to the perceived inability of parliamentary states to allow for wide political participation.
Democracies of the East framed its program of historical recovery as an attempt to avoid the fate of European parliamentary regimes during WWI—in particular the threat of unaccountable governance by a class of periodically elected political elites, the conversion of popular rule into the rule of a few. Indeed, Radhakamal Mukerjee saw his proposals as part of a wider trans-national backlash against statism and representative democracy between 1918 and 1923, praising movements such as syndicalism, pluralism, and guild socialism in Western Europe, the Middle East, East Asia, and beyond. Indian history was for him a repertoire of intellectual resources to aid these movements in the imagination of new democratic futures. He was especially drawn to the guild socialist G.D.H. Cole, aligning his own intellectual project with the latter’s attempts to revive medieval practices of self-management in associational life in lieu of electoral forms of labour politics. While there is no evidence that Democracies of the East was read in the British guild socialist circles around G.D.H. Cole, in the mid-1930s Radhakamal did travel to London to meet with Cole’s fellow pluralist Ernest Barker at the Institute of Sociology.
The Indian pluralists’ visions of participatory democracy remained academic experiments in the 1920s, never really taken up by political movements on the ground. By the late 1940s, the dominant constitutional paradigm in India came to be narrowed into a demand for sovereign statehood and parliamentary democracy. As John Dunn has argued, in such circumstances the mid-century transition from imperial rule was unable to be a truly transformative rupture with the state-form of representative democracy ubiquitous in Western Europe following the Second World War.
Given these subsequent developments, returning to the defeated democratic traditions emergent in the immediate aftermath of WWI in British India is an exercise of intellectual retrieval. It allows us to reconstruct the contours of a discourse and ideology at odds with the tradition of self-government which eventually triumphed with independence. The existence of the pluralist discourse indicates, above all, how the profound crisis of liberalism and modern democratic thinking that Carl Schmitt associated with the European 1920s was a global phenomenon stretching far beyond Europe.
In South Asia, these years were similarly an opening for thinkers to challenge the principles of representative government consolidated in the region’s political thought and practice by the 1910s—principles which, in the hands of nationalist leaders, would re-assert their dominance by the 1940s. The civilisational language that Indian pluralists adopted in their opposition to representative democracy—turning to an invented tradition of ‘Asian’ republicanism—was of course strikingly different from Schmitt or Hobson. Yet their turn to history was a response to similar underlying political dynamics, produced by a shared global moment of transformation and experimentation in theories of sovereignty and collective self-government.
 J.A. Hobson, Democracy after the War (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917), 15.
 Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 21.
 Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Tejas Parasher, “Federalism, Representation, and Direct Democracy in 1920s India,” Modern Intellectual History (January 2021): 1-29. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-intellectual-history/article/federalism-representation-and-direct-democracy-in-1920s-india/625B0116F57186A02ABE261B001012CE.
 Radhakumud Mookerji, Local Government in Ancient India, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1919).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, Democracies of the East: A Study in Comparative Politics (London: P.S. King & Son, 1923), 356.
 Mukerjee, Democracies of the East, 340-41. Also see G.D.H. Cole, Self-Government in Industry (London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1918).
 Radhakamal Mukerjee, India: The Dawn of a New Era (An Autobiography) (New Delhi: Radha Publications, 1997), 166.
 John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 154.