On the Scale of the World examines the reverberations of anticolonial ideas that spread across the Atlantic between the two world wars. From the 1920s to the 1940s, Black intellectuals in Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean established theories of colonialism and racism as structures that must be understood, and resisted, on a global scale. In this richly textured book, Musab Younis gathers the work of writers and poets, journalists and editors, historians and political theorists whose insights speak urgently to contemporary movements for liberation.
Musab Younis is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.
What motivated you to write On the Scale of the World? How does it build on your research interests?
I’m interested in why people have historically decided to oppose colonial rule and what methods they have adopted to try and create alternative political structures.
I started out researching the history of pan-African politics during the 1950s and 1960s. I was especially interested in Kwame Nkrumah’s attempt to create a United States of Africa and the obstacles that lay in his way. But I quickly realized that the intellectual roots of the early post-independence period in Africa and the Caribbean lay in the preceding decades, particularly the 1920s and 1930s.
When I started digging into the archives of Black anticolonial writing during the interwar period—reading texts in both English and French—I was struck by the arguments, debates and ideas that often seemed to speak directly to our present moment. I became particularly intrigued by the persistent references to globality in this archive — especially the idea that race constitutes a world-spanning structure of colonial rule.
What was something surprising or unexpected that you discovered over the course of writing the book?
In standard histories of twentieth-century economic thought, Africa is essentially missing. Structuralist ideas like dependency and unequal exchange are usually seen by scholars as having been transported to Africa from Latin America during the late 1960s and 1970s. This leaves the impression that the African continent during the twentieth century was basically a receptor of economic ideas developed elsewhere.
But while researching the book, I found that a critical understanding of African economies in world perspective was already flourishing on the continent well before the Second World War. I looked at the economic critique of colonialism put forward by West African intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s. These intellectuals sought to explain the region’s economic instability under British colonialism. They came to see this instability as a structural feature of the colonial relationship, what E. W. Blyden had called in 1908 “the law of disintegration under the European competitive order.”
Not only did West Africans see their region and continent as unequally bound to Europe, but they also contrasted this with the favorable treatment enjoyed by “white” countries in the empire, like Australia. And they concluded that race was central to Africa’s economic exploitation. This way of thinking was open to currents of economic thought elsewhere—but it wasn’t simply derivative of them.
How does approaching this particular history from a global perspective offer new ways of thinking about nation and empire?
One common way that scholars have analyzed nationalism is to see it as a principle that people belong to nations, each of which deserves its own state. Yet in the archives I studied, I found that Black anticolonialists frequently believed in nationalism as a step towards something else: the destruction of what Aimé Césaire described as the “white world.”
Expressions of nationalism across the interwar Black Atlantic were bound up with hopes for planetary transformation. Sometimes they were also provocations designed to expose the racial limits to sovereignty and the hypocrisy of the international order. Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is perhaps the most famous Black nationalist organisation in history. Reading the UNIA newspaper Negro World, which was published between 1918–33, I found that its protean expressions of nationalism were inseparable from the project for an anticolonial revolution that would abolish global White supremacy.
Thinking on the scale of the world, rather than on the scale of a single empire, helped to reveal correspondences between imperial projects. French, British and US imperialists in the 1920s and 1930s spoke of their unique missions to civilize and develop the areas they occupied. By contrast, in the anticolonial archive I located many arguments that ‘jumped scales’ (to borrow a term from the geographer Neil Smith) to state that these empires were fundamentally parts of the same exploitative system. The Sierra Leone Weekly News called this the “League of European Brotherhood.”
What can contemporary movements for liberation learn from the anticolonial work of Black intellectuals in the 1920s to 1940s from around the world?
Contemporary movements can benefit from recalling the scalar ambition of interwar anticolonialists. Newspaper editors across the Black Atlantic during the 1920s and 1930s painstakingly created files of clippings from newspapers carried by ships. They could hardly have imagined the technology we now possess for communicating across distances. Yet I think they would also be surprised by the narrowing of political ambition that has accompanied advances in technology. They often described their problems as requiring changes in the “grand machinery of the world,” as one Sierra Leonean editorialist put it in 1919. Today, we regularly find people advocating local solutions to planetary problems.
What is the main message that you hope readers will take away from your book?
Scale defines the political subject of liberation. This is perhaps the book’s main message. Without considering the full extent of a political system, you cannot properly understand it. And without understanding it you cannot hope to transform or abolish it.