Twenty years ago, the Jamaican political theorist Anthony Bogues published a book in the Routledge series on Africana Thought titled Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals.1 Rereading it, all these years later, I am struck not only by its insights but also by its continued resonance, the ways it still captures a contemporary demand in Black and Caribbean studies—namely, the demand to think the irreducible difference of the political thought of Black intellectuals. Widely known for his early study on C. L. R. James and his later work on Sylvia Wynter and George Lamming, Bogues’s central preoccupation has been with mapping the contours of a Black radical intellectual tradition and, in particular, with the demonstration of the place within it of an errant idea of the human.2 If one were to identify the central problematic across the varied contributions to the intellectual life of a Black radical tradition, Bogues seems to suggest, it would be the radical Black intellectual’s refusal of the epistemic and ontological assumptions (conceits, really, presumptions) of Enlightenment humanism and their subversive articulation of alternative modes of imagining humanity as a matter of knowledge and being, thinking and personhood. I am not sure that I am always in complete agreement with Bogues’s formulations or claims, but there is something profoundly admirable in the direction and ambition of his vision that bears studied reflection.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Black Heretics, Black Prophets is influenced by Cedric Robinson’s now indispensable Black Marxism, specifically the idea of a Black radical tradition it advances.3 But though close in content and purpose, they are not exactly identical in their forms of conceptualization. For example, while he certainly mobilizes a critique of various aspects of Eurocentrism, Bogues is less concerned than Robinson to offer a systematic reconstruction of European history (and the ineradicable foundations of race and racialism that subtend its political unconscious) as the empirical basis for discerning the limits of European critical theory, Marxism especially. Bogues too has his doubts about European Marxism, obviously, but he has perhaps a deeper sympathy for the continued relevance of at least some of its practitioners—the Italian maverick Antonio Gramsci, for instance. Similarly, while Bogues too is drawn to the idea of a Black ontology, he does rather less philosophical-anthropological work than Robinson to establish the cultural and cosmological ground of Black difference. Bogues may well disagree, but I read him as being much more oriented by something like what Ian Hacking (borrowing from and elaborating on Michel Foucault) might call an “historical ontology”—that is, the coming into being of ourselves as ethical subjects.4 The Foucauldian idea of an “historical ontology of ourselves” offers the prospect, which I think Bogues values, of suggesting deep, ineradicable, and authentic “truths” about ourselves that are nevertheless founded in the power-structured historical worlds we traverse, which we constitute and which constitute us. Connected to this is the fact that Bogues is principally animated more by politics and the languages of political criticism, and therefore he is almost always en route from ideas about being and personhood toward alternative visions of political world making.5 Moreover, where Robinson tends to see the twentieth-century Black radical intellectuals as rediscovering the authentic popular Black traditions, for Bogues there are two streams of this tradition running together—one among Western-educated intellectuals oriented around a “heretical” relation to European social theory; the other emanating from the popular classes and centered on redemptive and “prophetic” languages of insurgency and refusal. What is notable about the sensibility of Bogues’s way of thinking is its restless movement, always tentative, essayistic, and speculative, that shields it somewhat from some of the more totalizing ambitions of Robinson’s exercise.


One central dimension of the project of Black Heretics, Black Prophets is to mount a concerted critique of the pervasive and perverse assumption that the thought of Black intellectuals is largely derivative. The conceit is a familiar one. Europe, so it is presumed, is the source not of one mode of rationality among others but of reason itself. European social-historical experience is such as to have been distilled and sublimated and transformed into ideal abstractions of normative, propositional force and universal application—that is, theory. Not so Africa and its social-historical experience. Africans and their descendants articulate experiences too, but only in concrete forms of expression such as narratives, myths, and poetry; they do not have the capacity for the abstraction of theory, let alone of philosophy, theory’s authoritative arbiter and judge.6 “Reason still remains the preserve of the West,” Bogues writes. “What this means is that thinkers like C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, and W. E. B. Du Bois are never credited with intellectual independence or originality. Their ideas exist only in relationship to and because of the already accepted terms of thought.”7

Each of the chapters in Black Heretics, Black Prophets develops a counterpoint to this enduring form of racism by demonstrating the distinctive conception of the human that animates a political theory of society. One chapter that is to my mind especially illuminating is the one on Julius Nyerere (1922–99), the political thinker, anticolonial actor, and president of Tanzania. Many of us can vividly remember Nyerere’s first visit to Jamaica in September 1974 during the first regime of Michael Manley. For both of these leftist Third World leaders, this was a tumultuous time: just three months before, Nyerere had hosted the controversial Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam; and only two months after Nyerere’s visit to Jamaica, Manley would recommit the People’s National Party to democratic socialism. In thinking about Nyerere, Bogues is especially interested in two famous documents, Ujamaa (1962) and The Arusha Declaration (1967), both of them formative for the imagination of Third World socialism but neither of them typically thought of as specifically works of political theory. This is precisely how Bogues aims to consider them, exploring what he calls the “three ideational features of the African anticolonial movements: African humanism, African nationalism, and African socialism” (96–97). Bogues’s concern is not simply to celebrate Nyerere but also to “open one possible door for us to think about the study of political theory as a practice” (101). He wants us to read Nyerere’s texts of practical political policy making as theory. Indeed, I take his larger point to be that what is disguised in European theory are just those background practices that organize its forms of cultural experience and its tacit fields of intelligibility.

Take the question of African socialism. Bogues is interested in the constituent epistemic elements of Nyerere’s understanding of socialism and how these contributed to a distinctive political theory. At the center of Nyerere’s idea of socialism, he holds, is a notion of “human equality”—an idea shaped not by the economic rationality of class struggle but by an ethical demand (drawn from Nyerere’s cultural traditions) to satisfy a human requirement by the moral-conceptual force of an idea of human responsibility (105). It is the establishment of a polity of human equality that was the driving force leading Nyerere to the idea of ujamaa. For Bogues, part of what is important to recognize here is the way in which the particular idea of human equality that is embedded in the culturally specific cosmological order that shaped Nyerere’s being and thinking mirrors and contributes to a more general orientation in radical anticolonial thought—namely, the establishment of what he calls the “primacy of the human” (106). Colonial domination was a complex of powers that aimed not only to exploit the colonized in brutal regimes of extraction but also to dehumanize them, to undermine their sense of themselves as valid persons and therefore radical anticolonial thinkers, Nyerere foremost among them, sought to foreground the project of a new and revalorized humanity.

Here, I think, is a demonstration of Bogues’s distinctive hermeneutic method: one, he takes up texts or figures epistemically displaced or erased from the conventional canon of political theory and reads them in such a way as to excavate their political imaginaries from their normative vocabularies of society and personhood; and two, he then enables us to recognize in these radical interventions the critical demand to rethink what it means to be human.


When, more than two and a half decades ago, I was in the process of initiating the journal Small Axe, I consulted my former teacher Rupert Lewis (the doyen of radical journal editing in postcolonial Jamaica) on whom I might involve in the project. Without hesitation he asked me whether I knew Anthony Bogues. I did not. Bogues too had been his student.8 Well, Lewis said, he is at this moment in an office right down the corridor, and you should meet him. So I knocked on Bogues’s door, introduced myself, and described in an undoubtedly floundering way what I had in mind for Small Axe. He listened with that patient and thoughtful attitude I have come to think of as the characteristic ethos of his way of being a Black Caribbean intellectual, and then he said something like “I’m with you, but I believe you place too much store by ‘modernity.’ It was formative, yes, but it wasn’t everything; you are leaving something out.” He meant, I believe, that I saw modern power as too overdetermining in its destructive-constructive effects on the conditions of Black life. I am not so sure I agree entirely. But I can now see more clearly that Black Heretics, Black Prophets is an account of what Bogues might have thought I was leaving out: underplaying. And yet it is much more than that. It is also the vivid expression of his own heretical humanism—a dissenting and revisionary and perhaps reparative humanism that is made, to paraphrase Aimé Césaire (one of the recurring figures in Bogues’s book), to the measure of a world yet to come.9 Part of the critical value of Black Heretics, Black Prophets is that it is not just a theorization of the idea of a Black radical tradition, it is also an exemplification of that tradition; it seeks both to articulate the internal historicity and intelligibility of the tradition and to embody the modes of intellectual belonging that now shape a recognizable inheritance.

New York—San Juan—Manchester

February–March 2023



Anthony Bogues, Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (New York: Routledge, 2003).


See Anthony Bogues, Caliban’s Freedom: The Early Political Thought of C. L. R. James (London: Pluto, 1997). Bogues is the editor of two collections from the Caribbean Reasonings Series—After Man, Towards the Human: Critical Essays on Sylvia Wynter (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2005); and The George Lamming Reader: The Aesthetics of Decolonization (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2011)—in each of which he has an important essay. He is also the author of Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, Freedom (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010).


Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022); originally published in 1983 by Zed Press. See, instructively, Jordan T. Camp’s interview with Bogues for episode 1 of Trinity Social Justice Initiative’s podcast and video web series Conjuncture: The Black Radical Intellectual Tradition and the Critique of the Present, December 2021; see www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=Em07ZD84h50 (accessed 12 March 2023).


See Ian Hacking, “Historical Ontology,” in Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1–26. Hacking is thinking with Michel Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 32–50.


In this respect Bogues often reminds me of the subaltern political theorist Partha Chatterjee, especially in The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Lineages of Political Society (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2011).


From various directions others have also commented on this fact. See, for example, Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and Lewis R. Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000).


Bogues, Black Heretics, Black Prophets, 2 (italics in original); hereafter cited in the text.


See Bogues’s appreciative essay “Radical Caribbean Thought: Rupert Lewis and the Politics of an ‘Internal Dread,’” in Clinton Hutton, Maziki Thame, and Jermaine McCalpin, eds., Rupert Lewis and the Black Radical Tradition (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2018), 83–96.


See Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955), 68.