The lamentable death of the philosopher Charles W. Mills, on 20 September 2021, has not only stunned us but left us all the poorer intellectually, the more so, I believe, for the want of an adequate framework for appreciating the real scope of his contribution. Easily, Charles was one of the most formidable Jamaican intellectuals of his generation, a thinker whose body of work—including six published books: The Racial Contract; Blackness Visible; From Class to Race; Contract and Domination (with Carole Pateman); Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality; and Black Rights / White Wrongs—will have a lasting impact on a number of overlapping intellectual traditions.1

I didn’t know Charles very well. When I arrived in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago in August 1992, he had already been in the philosophy department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, for two years. For a time, we lived within walking distance of each other, in Chicago’s Near North, but we seldom saw each other. I am not sure why. It may have been nothing. But it may have been that there was a certain unarticulated intellectual incompatibility, or at least divergence. I eventually formed the impression that Charles saw me essentially as a “postcolonial” intellectual oriented by poststructuralism and given to the apolitical deconstruction of discourse. That would not have been completely fair, I think, but not, to be honest, completely unwarranted either. For my part, I am sure, and equally unfair, I saw him as essentially an unreconstructed orthodox Marxist in the analytic philosophic tradition. So when we did meet, we seemed really as ships passing in the night of mutual unintelligibility or, more likely, of awkward indifference. (It should also be said that although we attended the same secondary school, Jamaica College, he had already graduated the year before I arrived there. He was, therefore, a “big boy” to me, virtually beyond the prospect of reciprocal communication.) I didn’t know it at the time, but when I left Chicago in 1996 for my ill-fated attempt to configure a relationship to the University of the West Indies, Mona, Charles must have been almost finished writing what would become The Racial Contract, his land-mark book published to great acclaim in 1997. I must admit that when I first read this book (almost as soon as it appeared, so provocatively derivative was its title), my opinion was that Charles had merely shifted from one conformist attitude to another—from being an orthodox Marxist working out the right theory of ideology, to being an orthodox liberal working out the right theory of the social contract. I suspect I was not alone in holding this view of Charles, for, after all, in those unsettled and ambiguous years of reversals following the collapse of the Soviet communist project and the seeming disgrace or obsolescence of Marxism as a political philosophy and philosophy of history, this would not have been an unusual intellectual trajectory for the Left.

I was mistaken, however—seriously so. But this misrecognition, I believe, whatever its regret-table personal sources, has wider implications. It has implications for how we think—or how we should think—of the dialogue of intellectual traditions and the (sometimes irrepressibly) agonistic perspectives that discordantly animate it and sometimes preclude meaningful exchange. Charles was after something far more profound and far-reaching than simple ideological-political rebranding. Thinking more deliberately and more carefully about his work in the wake of his premature death has prompted me to reflect on the nature of his intellectual project and the nature of the misrecognition that shaped the missed opportunity for a more concerted engagement with conceptions that I now—belatedly—see as compatible with my own concerns and commitments.


Charles had himself instructively sketched much of the arc of his own story in a remarkable autobiographical essay, “Red Shift: Politically Embodied / Embodied Politics,” that allows us to situate him at the crossroads of a number of cultural-intellectual vectors.2 The essay tracks a not-unfamiliar (yet also not exactly typical) Brown, male, Jamaican middle-class trajectory through the latter half of the twentieth century. Born in 1951 into a prominent intellectual family (his father, Gladstone, was a professor of government at UWI; his mother, Winnifred, was well-known in social work circles), Charles lived a relatively sheltered and bookish life in the salubrious environs of UWI faculty housing.3 The story he tells is one of gradual, even reluctant, political awakening in the context of a politically awakening Jamaica. Though not much moved by the stirrings of Black Power in his early teenage years, he was nevertheless mildly propelled—within days of starting at UWI—into the October 1968 student demonstrations prompted by the expulsion of Walter Rodney. The intersections of race and class that shaped that catalytic conjuncture would prove an auspicious generational introduction to radical political thinking. There were no immediate effects, however. Charles pursued (unusually) an undergraduate degree in physics and spent two years teaching at what is now called the University of Technology in Kingston before deciding to pursue a PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto. It was only in the context of the post-1968 shift to the left in Jamaica—in particular, Michael Manley’s socialist turn in 1974—that Charles decided to write his dissertation on Marxism and ideology (certainly a burning issue among the Left at the time). But then, even as he graduated in 1985, PhD on Marxism in hand, the global historical ground beneath his feet was giving way—the heyday of the project of the Left was already over. Not least, the violent implosion of the Grenada Revolution in October 1983 (about which he has also written) forced Charles to recognize that the old game of radicalism was no longer in play. As he said, “Some activists continued to run on momentum, thinking that this was just a temporary setback. But they were wrong. An epoch had ended, which would, of course, soon be globally capped by the 1989–91 collapse of what used to be termed ‘actually-existing socialism.’”4

To this point, Charles had been oriented largely by a Caribbean narrative and a Caribbean ethos, sustained no doubt by the Caribbean diaspora in Toronto. The move into the US academy when no jobs emerged in Canada was a rude and transforming shock to his personal and intellectual ecosystem. Above all, Charles, hitherto a privileged Jamaican Brown man, now ran headlong into the blank wall of US race rationalities and relations, and the subtle and not-so-subtle machinations of interpersonal and institutional racism. Not only was this a world of triumphalist liberalism, it was also the post–civil rights world of the backlash against affirmative action and the reassertion of resentful, multicultural Whiteness. Against the backdrop of a number of telling experiences (which he recounts in detail), Charles resolved to move away from philosophic work on Marxism toward philosophic work on race. But what is notable is that the trace of Marxism continued to inflect his thinking. “In retrospect,” he writes, “what I have come to recognize is that I unconsciously took the theoretical apparatus I knew best—Marxism—and shifted its terms from red to white and black. I don’t mean . . . that I reduced race to class. Rather, I took the Marxist way of approaching class and applied it to race.” This is of enormous importance in understanding Charles’s work; it separates him from a whole swath of scholars working on race. From Marxism, Charles retained the focus on systemic questions of social domination rather than ideational questions of individual prejudice. Inspired in a major way by the radical feminist idea of patriarchy, he endeavored to understand race as a structure of global power. “Where Marxists talk about capitalism, or, more generally, class society,” he says, “I was working with the concept of white supremacy. Whites and nonwhites are the two key players; racial exploitation is taken to be central; whites constitute the ‘ruling race,’ the Herrenvolk, whose rule is consolidated by the state and the legal system; and dominant Eurocentric and racist ideologies justify (originally) or obfuscate (currently) the fact of white domination.”5

Crucially, I think, for Charles the theoretical labor involved in the critique of the racial contract did not necessarily entail a wholesale rejection of the liberal contract idea itself. The constructivist assumptions of the contract, he suggests, are indispensable to the prospect of a rational, deliberative reconstruction of the grounds of a progressive polity committed to egalitarianism and justice. What is important, therefore, is a genealogical labor of rehistoricization and reconceptualization that aims less to dismiss than to deracialize liberalism and reconfigure the grounds for a more inclusive and nonexploitative contract. This whole direction of Charles’s project is sketched in Black Rights / White Wrongs, a book that, in a sense, lays the groundwork for a theory of corrective justice. Now, whether you think that what remains after Charles’s deconstructive critique is recognizably “liberalism” is another matter entirely. I am not sure. The more important point, though, is Charles’s endeavor to get us to appreciate the conceptual-political need to critically think through the liberal-racial present—from where we are now. And this is a project I share.


Intellectual traditions, I have argued, are only sustained by agonistic dialogue—among the living, and between the living and the dead.6 Admittedly, though, the latter is easier than the former. Perhaps among living interlocutors there is simply too much at stake, intellectually and existentially. But then, surely, this is where the generative gains would be—in the live exchange, the discomfiting give-and-take, between rival perspectives rethinking the roughly shared present of a roughly shared past. I now better appreciate Charles as a fellow traveler, on his own distinctive path but embodying intertwined threads of overlapping intellectual traditions (not least, specifically Caribbean ones), seeking to pose and respond to a demand that haunts many of us making similar journeys on parallel paths: In the wake of the global collapse of the great modern projects of radical transformation that shaped our commitments to a better world, what are the languages of political morality that deserve our urgent attention? Charles Mills made an eloquent contribution to helping us respond to this question.

New York

December 2021


Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); From Class to Race: Essays on White Marxism and Black Radicalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003); Contract and Domination, with Carole Pateman (Cambridge: Polity, 2007); Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class, and Social Domination (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2010); and Black Rights / White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).


Charles W. Mills, “Red Shift: Politically Embodied / Embodied Politics,” in Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality, 1–27.


See Gladstone Mills, Grist for the Mills: Reflections on a Life (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1994).


C. W. Mills, “Red Shift,” 11. On the Grenada Revolution, see Charles W. Mills, “Getting Out of the Cave: Tensions between Democracy and Elitism in Marx’s Theory of Cognitive Liberation,” in Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality, 128–63.


C. W. Mills, “Red Shift,” 22, 23 (all italics in original).


See David Scott, “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” in “Interpretation and Its Rivals,” special issue, New Literary History 45, no. 2 (2014): 157–81.