January 28, 2021

“This system can no more provide freedom, justice and equality than a chicken can lay a duck egg.” A few days after the death of George Floyd, the British academic Kehinde Andrews, who specialises in Black Studies, quoted Malcolm X in an interview. Fires burned across America, statues were toppled, problematic TV episodes were erased from history and L’Oréal removed the word “fair” from its beauty products. It all seemed so profound. Yet Andrews was under no illusions. “Today’s inequality,” he argued, “is the cul-de-sac we went down when we tried to reform racism out of a fundamentally racist system.” And there’s only one way out of a cul-de-sac.

Andrews’s book The New Age of Empire is an extension of that argument. In it, he cautions sympathetic readers not to get too giddy over the embrace of “anti-racism” by officialdom. As he sees it, it will only lead to “meaningless change” and “token gestures”. A self-proclaimed “black radical”, Andrews wants to attack the root of the problem: the West itself and the “logic of empire” that organises it.

Unsurprisingly, ground zero for Andrews’ critique is the Enlightenment — the “sacred foundation of Western knowledge”, as he sardonically puts it. All our modern ideas of freedom and equality are traditionally traced back to this Age of Reason. Andrews argues against that narrative. Kant’s racist anthropology and Hume’s polygenism, he writes, “provided the universal and scientific framework of knowledge that maintained colonial logic”, which is the central organising principle of the current “political and economic system and therefore infects all interactions, institutions and ideas”.

Kant et al placed white people firmly at the top of the racial hierarchy. And that codification of black inferiority was used to justify Western imperialism, which has gone through several mutations — from the relentless expeditions into the New World and Atlantic slavery, to 19th century European colonialism, to the present, in which the United States inherits imperial responsibilities. In our allegedly “post-racial” age, institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank continue to exploit Africa through unfair “structural adjustment” programs that force austerity and privatisation upon poor African nations, further crippling their economies. No matter how “the logic of empire” mutates, the premise is still the same: “The West is rich because the rest is poor”.

As an epigone of Malcolm X, Andrews is not interested in interracial allyship as a solution. “The white left”, as he calls them, are too in thrall to the “psychosis of whiteness” to recognise that racism and imperialism are baked into their own politics. Echoing Maoism-Third Worldism, he chastises the white Left for failing to see that the “true revolutionary class has always resided outside the West”. As far as he’s concerned: “If you have come this far and believe that White people offering a meaningful hand of friendship is the solution, then you have missed the point.”

His solution is revolutionary Pan-Africanism — and has been for some time. In a 2018 video he made for the BBC, Andrews outlined his African utopia, his own Wakanda, materially rich and technologically advanced, where the diaspora will eventually return to their “African promised land”. In his book, he states his purpose is to develop “the politics of black radicalism, which centres on uniting Africa and the African diaspora to create a true revolution … the only true solution to the problem of racism”.

Andrews’s tract is uncompromising. His re-telling of the history of Western violence and the chronically poor state of Africa is potent. Interestingly, he is also critical of China and other upstart powers for using Africa as a “stepping stone” for their own development, while continuing the systematic “looting” of the continent. But Andrews ignores a number of contradictions that might puncture this worldview.

Ironically Pan-Africanism, the ideology Andrews pledges fidelity to, is a bastard child of the West. It was westernised blacks that imagined a global black community with a common destiny transcending all nations, as a response to racial oppression (an idea rather similar to Zionism, a comparison Andrews wouldn’t be pleased with). Many of the icons of Pan-Africanism — Henry Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X — hailed from the Americas, not Africa. Even native-born African adherents like Kwame Nkrumah were Western educated and very much influenced by the modernist impulses of Marxism.

But Andrews exhibits a common vice of contemporary radicalism: the idea that to be radical is to be disenchanted with all that is Western. It is rather fashionable, as the shrill calls to “decolonise” suggest, to believe that authentic radicalism regards the Enlightenment not as a resource in challenging imperialism but an imperial project itself. That narrative omits the fact that, while mainstream Enlightenment thinkers like Kant were rabid racists, the Enlightenment also provided the best tools to date for universal human liberation.

As Jonathan Israel has documented in his voluminous scholarship, there were two sides to the Enlightenment: a moderate and a radical wing. Funnily enough, all the individuals Andrews names in his galère of “dead white men” — Kant, Hume, Locke, Voltaire and Jefferson — were part of the Moderate Enlightenment, which was more elitist and conciliatory towards the old order. A different set of dead white men, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, made up the Radical Enlightenment — Diderot, Condorcet, D’Holbach . They  applied reason consistently against old hierarchies and institutions, including slavery and colonialism, precisely because they were fetters on human freedom and equality.

For instance Condorcet, in 1795, observed that during the “Age of Discovery” a “stupid and brutal fanaticism governed the kings and robbers”, which meant the “unfortunate beings who inhabited these new countries were not treated as men, because they were not Christian”. He went on to argue that the advantages of the Age of Discovery meant nothing unless Europeans “acknowledge men of other climates, equals and brothers by the will of nature, have never been formed to nourish the pride and avarice of a few privileged nations”.

Indeed, anti-imperialist radicals of the 20th century such as CLR James recognised that Western thought was the wellspring of all progressive, emancipatory politics — especially the historical gains that emerged out of the Enlightenment. Secularism, individual rights, the scientific method, democratic politics, universal values, philosophical humanism and materialism have superseded earlier concepts — not because of white supremacy, but because they are, patently, improvements on what came before. Out of the seismic upheavals that formed the modern world — the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific revolution and the Enlightenment — flowed superior ideas: ideas that still form the basis of human liberation.

These so-called “western values” are not western in any essential sense. They aren’t the property of white people; they are the birth right of all humanity. Which is why previous anti-imperialist radicals made a distinction between the good that stemmed from the most revolutionary elements of Western culture and the scourge of Western imperialism, which was a major obstacle to the realisation of these ideals around the world.

“The science resulting from all human knowledge has no nationality,” observed Sekou Touré, who lead Guinea to independence: “The ridiculous disputes about the origin of such and such a discovery do not interest us since they add nothing to the value of the discovery.”

Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese nationalist and Pan-Africanist himself, was known to have been inspired by the French revolution in his anti-imperialism, and studied French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Moreover, CLR James, while detesting European colonialism, felt no shame in acknowledging the “learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation” and made it his mission to “master the literature, philosophy and ideas of Western civilisation”.

Radical Enlightenment values are still the best tools humanity has crafted to create a better world. The challenge then is not to negate them but to build upon them, expand them, and ultimately raise them to a higher level never before seen. This still remains Africa’s path to liberation from tyranny and want — as opposed to Andrews’ nihilistic vision, which sees no place for interracial solidarity and finds a “glimmer of hope for true transformation” only in total collapse of the system. Dare I suggest it: “western values” are the real path towards black freedom.