Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.—Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Neither the English people themselves nor the masses of imperial subjects could be expected to perpetually accede to the imperial myth of civilizing in the face of the overtly selfish and catastrophic preoccupations of white settler colonists.—Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism
In Patrick Wolfe we lost an intellectual giant. More than any other scholar, he has emerged as the leading figure in the burgeoning field of settler colonial studies and has done so much to advance its generative theoretical paradigm. We also lost another intellectual giant in 2016: Cedric J. Robinson, whose work challenged liberal and Marxist theories of political change, exposed the racial character of capitalism, unearthed a Black Radical Tradition and examined its social, political, cultural, and intellectual bases, and advanced a concept of racial regimes that deepens our understanding of the historically contingent character of racism. I learned a great deal from both men. When I first read Wolfe's Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, I found myself returning to Robinson's work, to places where their ideas converge and, especially, where they diverge. Unfortunately, Robinson's absence in the discourse on settler colonialism has, in my view, impoverished much of the work—including Wolfe's outstanding new book. My essay is a modest attempt to wrestle with specific claims in Traces of History, with Robinson's insights into race, racial capitalism, and colonialism, as well as traces of South African and European history, informing my critique.
Traces of History expands Wolfe's argument that settler colonialism operates through a "logic of elimination." The destruction or expulsion of indigenous peoples is a continuous feature of settler societies, primarily because they want the land. The logic of elimination is also consistent with forced assimilation as well as state policies that define and protect limited rights for indigenous [End Page 267] people through the politics of recognition: cultural protections and individual rights in lieu of indigenous sovereignty, land and water rights, and the means of livelihood—a critical point made recently by Glen Coulthard.1
Wolfe sets out to interrogate the operations of race making in specific historical processes, in particular, in the always contingent struggles over land, labor, culture, and power. It is important to acknowledge Wolfe's recognition of the fundamental role of race so as to avoid the impulse to pit a racialization framework against a settler colonial one, or to treat white supremacy and anti-Blackness as transhistorical structures that overdetermine myriad processes of racialization. Wolfe, by contrast, argues for the historical specificity and mutability of race or "regimes of race." "There are no grounds," he writes, "for assuming that such striking disparities represent the uniform workings of a discursive monolith called 'race.' Rather, this book will stress the diversity distinguishing the regimes of difference with which colonisers have sought to manage subject populations."2 A critical insight, especially at a moment when in our zeal for the transnational or our discovery of W. E. B. Du Bois's pithy formulation that the "color line belts the world,"3 there is a tendency to characterize racial regimes as global constructions by emphasizing what they hold in common. And yet Lorenzo Veracini correctly points out that because the dynamic between colony and metropole renders settler colonialism inherently transnational and transcultural, its historiography "should be also considered in the context of its global development."4
I want to suggest that by not incorporating more of the globe in his study, Wolfe's particular formulation of settler colonialism delimits more than it reveals. As he writes in the introduction: "The role that colonialism has assigned to Indigenous people is to disappear. By contrast, though slavery meant the giving up of Africa, Black Americans were primarily colonised for their labour rather than for their land."5 The statement is problematic for two reasons. First, it presumes that indigenous people exist only in the Americas and Australasia. African indigeneity is erased in this formulation because, through linguistic sleight of hand, Africans are turned into Black Americans. The Atlantic...