Notes on Cooper’s Colonialism in Question

Colonialism in Question: theory, knowledge, history

This book is about people who study colonialism. In particular, it asks why there should now be a mini-boom in colonial studies, when once it was virtually unknown. Beyond that, Fred Cooper is clearly fed up with much of this work and especially the conceptual language of recent colonial and post-colonial studies. He finds it faddish, often wrong-headed and he has a point. But it is risky to write about academics without locating them in a history of something else, like society, politics or Africa’s predicament.

FC can perhaps afford to take this risk because he has a record of researching and publishing African social history, most notably his monumental Decolonization and African Society: the labor question in British and French Africa (1996). In this and earlier work, Cooper showed that the headline positions taken in the drive for emancipation from colonial rule tended to be oversimplified. He preferred to show how a variety of interests combined to generate particular results for local situations, seen always in the light of translocal trends. In consequence he was able to document more variety over a wider canvas of historical comparison than anyone else working in the field of African labour, and that includes my own discipline, anthropology.

This line does not serve FC well in the present book. For it leads him to avoid grand narratives that might help him to locate the academic trends he discusses in some broader picture of African and world history. He specifically eschews trying to connect intellectual and political history here. But we are left wondering what the larger point of the story might be. This evidently occurred to FC himself, since in his Conclusions he returns to the issues that make the study of African history important. Africa is the most potent symbol of unequal society in a racist world. Africans have endured and resisted the engines of inequality for centuries – first slavery and the international movement to abolish it, then colonial empire and the anti-colonial movement (linked to Pan-africanism), finally apartheid and its negation. Yet Africa still stands for poverty and underdevelopment in a world that is rapidly growing more unequal. Where does it end? When, if ever, will Africans devise the political means to emancipate themselves in a durable way?

FC cannot be accused of taking lightly the shift from slavery to colonialism and then decolonization in Africa. It is heart-breaking that the aspirations for true independence that animated the 1950s and 60s should have culminated in a situation today where many Africans are worse off than they were a half-century ago. In the process political discourse and academic analysis have had to rethink the periodization of modern times. Colonial empire has traditionally been the benchmark for the organization of tense in African history, with past, present and future divided forever as pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial . When independence was taken to be a radical break with the colonial past, scholars rushed to fill the void that was pre-colonial African history; and, when real independence then seemed to be slow coming, post-colonial society was renamed neo-colonial and colonialism was seen to have a stronger grip on the present and future than once seemed likely. The whole idea of signing a new social contract with the stroke of a pen (‘Seek ye first the political kingdom’) had to be rethought.

I recall a pioneering paper by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch asking when the end of colonialism was first actively envisaged by the imperialists and her answer was 1935 for the French in West Africa, 1940 for the Belgians in the Congo and 1945 for the British in West and East Africa. This extended and confused the transition from colonialism to something else and mirrored growing uncertainty concerning the post-colonial transition. Who was to blame for Africa’s current plight and when? To some extent, this justifies FC’s emphasis on the historical complexity of specific situations. But it is hard to write a book about shifting fashions in academic research without linking them at some level to politics and schematic versions of African and world history.

I want to focus here on FC’s treatment of Pan-africanist visions of history and in particular those of CLR James and Frantz Fanon. Then, since I am an anthropologist and we are here in Paris, I will discuss the almost total eclipse of the French Marxist anthropologists from his version of intellectual history, not so much to blame him for this, since he has written at length about them elsewhere, but to try to account for their brief success and long-term failure, as Cooper does not.

Pan-africanism flourished in the first half of the 20th century as the anti-colonial ideology of those who wished Africa to be returned to its original owners. It was in the broadest sense a nationalist movement, but it brought together people from an extraordinarily wide range of societies on both sides of the Atlantic and so it had a universal quality too. In the 1930s, two Trinidadian Marxists, CLR James and George Padmore set up an International Africa Service Bureau in London which recruited young African politicians like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, as well as Marcus Garvey’s widow. James, in an extraordinary burst of publishing that included the first English history of the Trotskyist movement and a pioneering novel of Caribbean urban life, wrote The Black Jacobins (1938), a history of the 1790s slave revolution in what became Haiti. Until then the Haitian revolution had dropped out of history. FC makes over a dozen references to this revolution in the present book, including a sympathetic extended summary of James’ account. Most of the time he makes the same point: the colonies could respond to and did affect political developments in the metropolis. He also finds that many ‘post-colonial theorists’ overlook this in their eagerness to pin the evils of ‘modernity’ on the agency of dominant western classes.

Yet Cooper excises James explicit rationale for writing his book, namely as a stimulus to and prediction of the anti-colonial revolution in Africa, as if this has nothing to do with the brilliance of his writing. For James, the slaves of Saint-Domingue proved that a colonially oppressed people could make a successful revolution by themselves and that Africa would win its independence soon, largely through Africans’ own efforts. This idea was unthinkable at the time and the prediction was correct, allowing for the nuances of who did what to whom that FC has made his stock-in-trade. In the same year of 1938, James published a much shorter book that FC doesn’t mention, The History of Negro Revolt (republished recently and edited by Robin Kelley as The History of Panafrican Revolt) which spelled out the historical relationship between Haiti and the coming anti-colonial revolution in Africa.

Here James traces a sequence of black struggles from Haiti through the American civil war and after, concluding that, if in the 19th century the New World was the main arena for this conflict, in the 20th it had become Africa. It was not just that for colonial apologists the sun would never set on Empire; the European left held that colonial subjects would have to wait for their independence until after the revolution in Europe. James held that capitalism and racial oppression made a dynamite combination conducive to revolution in their own right. The sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue were at once the most advanced industrial formations in the world and the most brutally oppressive. He traced the contemporary struggles of Africans in the South African mines, the Gold Coast docks and the East Nigerian oil palm plantations that spawned the Abba women’s riots to that lethal combination of race and capitalism which would again lead Africans to overthrow the colonial yoke. Apart from its validity as history, where did James get his material from? The answer is from Padmore, who escaped with his life from being Stalin’s main man in Moscow on the colonial question, choosing to quit when his boss switched allegiance to Britain and France and told his team that they should go easy on them while attacking Germany and Japan who had no colonies.

It is unacceptable to detach James’s great book from his political vision. When he argued for the interaction between the imperial metropolis and the colonial periphery, he was articulating a revolutionary vision for Africa, one whose subsequent failure he was quick to acknowledge in the book he wrote about his former friend, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977). James happened to be explicit about his own political motives for writing. But, when we refuse to acknowledge them, they surface anyway; and it is surely the historian’s task to make the link.

This leads me to a second great Panafricanist, Frantz Fanon. FC was never more than lukewarm about Fanon, but in the present book this has hardened into something akin to demonizing him. Not only is he the great advocate of violent rupture from Europe, in contrast with the more accommodating Aimé Césaire, but his Les Damnés de la Terre (1959) “is the most durable of the psychologizing accounts” (of the colonial situation) and “…Fanon’s attempt to redirect the struggle in Algeria served as a substitute for a social analysis of colonialism and of the Algerian revolution” (42-3). Apart from Fanon’s work as a psychiatrist and his last, moving chapter on the mental disorders of the Algerian war, he does provide a social analysis of colonialism and, more to the point, predicts disaster if post-colonial society follows a nationalist path. Like James’s earlier anticipation of the anti-colonial revolution, this prognosis of post-colonial failure is remarkably prescient, written as it was in the teeth of that genocidal war and before independence for most African societies. Fanon is clearly talking here about Africa’s past, present and future as a whole, not the Algerian revolution specifically.

Fanon’s method in this book would obviously not suit a professional historian. He paints an ideal-typical picture of colonialism, its anti-colonial nemesis and post-colonial future; just as James’s sketch of the history of black struggles against racist capitalism used a lot of confidence to overcome the paucity of available material when approaching a subject of such grandiose scope. It may not be to FC’s taste, but psychological it is not. Take the two central chapters, ‘Spontaneity: its strengths and weakness’ and ‘The pitfalls of national consciousness’. The first contains a remarkable analysis of the classes brought together by colonialism in Africa and of the circumstances under which revolutionary urban intellectuals might be placed in a position to learn from the accumulated wisdom of the peasantry. This differs quite markedly from Amilcar Cabral’s program to put unemployed educated youth into the countryside to animate the peasants, for example, and is much more concrete than Gramsci’s theory of the organic intellectual. Revolutionaries too differ in social analysis, history and strategy in ways hardly admitted by Cooper’s stereotype. The second is the heart of the book and its great strength, when we cease to be fixated on the Fanon’s advocacy of revolutionary violence in the opening chapter. Here too the weakness of the African national bourgeoisie is dissected though a detailed and subtle social analysis that was not matched by any academic account of ‘modernization’ at the time or since. It still applies vividly to the counter-revolution in South Africa today.

What unifies the great works of James and Fanon, regardless of their current reception in the academy, is the Panafricanist vision of history they share, a vision that allowed them to overcome scholarly shortcomings in writing inspirational texts. Both men believed that western civilization had conferred great benefits on the inhabitants of Europe and North America. They just could not tolerate the ways that racist imperialism excluded non-western humanity from enjoying those benefits. My final remarks concern a school of writers who briefly lit up the academic firmament, only to be soon extinguished and, if FC’s book is anything to go by, are no longer of any interest for the intellectual history of the last half-century. I refer to the French Marxist anthropologists of Africa (Meillassoux, Terray, Rey and others) about whom FC wrote a substantial review 25 years ago, but can now find little to say. I don’t criticize his judgment, then or now. But I think it is of some interest to ask why they once attracted so much attention in the Anglophone world and so quickly disappeared from view. This too is an implicit criticism of Cooper’s approach to intellectual history and politics in the present book.

Between the late 1960s and early 70s, a structuralist version of Marxism originating in Paris took over large sectors of the Anglophone academic establishment. By the end of the 70s, this cargo cult was just as abruptly over. Why should this small band of men have had such a disproportionate effect? It can’t be that they clarified a number of concepts nor that they wrote a few untranslated monographs. Yet a whole journal, Economy and Society, was devoted principally to disseminating their shorter works; another, Critique of Anthropology, frequently translated important passages from them; and Seddon’s collection of their translated writings was published in 1978. A derivative work by Hindess and Hirst (1975), Pre-capitalist Modes of Production, achieved wide notoriety, if not acclaim.

The success of the French Marxists was owed to the explicitly synthetic position they occupied between German philosophy, including Marxist theory until then, and Anglo scientific empiricism. The principal authors, notably Terray, were explicit about their desire to get beyond the broad historical generalizations of conventional Marxism and emulate the concrete specificity of British social anthropology’s comparative study of kinship. Moreover, Althusser’s modernization of Marx, by incorporating systems theory and dumping the subject, history and dialectic, produced a version of structural-functionalism sufficiently different from the original to persuade English-speakers that they were learning Marxism and similar enough to allow them to retain their customary ways of thinking which had been temporarily discredited by the demise of colonial structures in which they had flourished.

Some things escaped the translation process. Apart from the major monographs which were not translated, the Anglophone audience missed the point that the debates between the French Marxists had more to do with politics in Paris than African societies. Just as Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer (1940) was at one level an allegory based on the Whig myth of Saxon segmentary politics before the Norman conquest, Meillassoux’s L’anthropologie économique des Gouro du Côte d’Ivoire (1964), which held a similar canonical position for adherents, became a parable allowing the expression of rival political positions in France around 1968 and after to be expressed as interpretations of West African ethnography.

Thus one key issue was whether elders’ disposal of young men’s labour should be attributed to control of distribution through marriage exchange (Rey) or rather to the organization of production (Terray). This was in effect a replay of an argument between pro-Soviet and Maoist factions of the communist left in Paris. There the issue was whether the Soviet Union, in maintaining state ownership of the means of production, was a genuine instance of socialism or rather should be seen as a state capitalist society. The Stalinists held that it was indeed socialist, whereas their opponents such as Charles Bettelheim claimed that property relations operated only at the level of distribution and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis would be based on the organization of production. Seen from the perspective of managerial control of the work process, Russian factories were capitalist, not socialist. Not surprisingly, these aspects of debates within French structuralist Marxism passed their Anglophone imitators by.

FC may be right in his claim that intellectual fashions in the academy have causes that are largely endogenous to the class that sustains them, but their relationship to politics at home and abroad is still important. The case of the French Marxists highlights why we would be remiss to ignore the political context of what people write in the name of history or anthropology. My focus on the Panafricanists points up Cooper’s need to address the agenda raised by the unanswered questions of his Conclusions. What is Africa’s place in the history of global inequality, of which colonial empire is such an egregious example? What will it take for Africans en masse to emancipate themselves from this inequality after the false dawns of abolition, national independence and the defeat of apartheid, after so many revolutions and counter-revolutions that have left them still the despised underclass of a racially stratified world society? We need a historical approach that takes off from questions such as these and, for me, the Panafricanists, such as Dubois, James and Fanon, are an inspiration to that end.

It remains anomalous that the most common periodization of African history has as its central point of reference the time when Europeans controlled it directly, lending an almost timeless quality to a structure of racial domination. No wonder Fanon insisted that the mess the United States made of becoming a second Europe after achieving its independence was hardly an encouraging precedent for the idea that Africa should become another Europe too. FC hopes to place the history of colonialism in Africa within comparative knowledge of global inequality; but Africans will be looking for something more if they wish to succeed in achieving the emancipation they have waited so long for.

Paris, May 2006

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