The Flatness of Blackness: Afro-Pessimism and the Erasure of Anti-Colonial Thought
by Kevin Ochieng Okoth | January 16, 2020
Originally published in Salvage, this piece by Kevin Ochieng Okoth, offers a sustained critique of American ‘Afro-pessimism’, noting, in particular, how it erases experiences, including political experiences, of African people living in Africa.
When the term Afro-pessimism began appearing in books, journal articles and, curiously, on activist social media, I was (presumably along with others familiar with the scholarship on African history and politics) slightly perplexed. For decades, ‘Afro-pessimism’ had referred to the unrelentingly negative coverage of Africa in Western news media, especially in terms of its tendency toward arrested development. This discourse, loosely united by an emphasis on the hopelessness of the African continent – and exemplified by the scandalous 2000 Economist headline describing Africa as ‘The Hopeless Continent’ – provided the rationale for the imperialist economic policies of the 1970s’ and 80s’ structural adjustment programmes. Today, it bolsters neo-colonial relations between the Global North and Africa, and is often conjured up as the go-to argument to justify the entirely unnecessary and counterproductive presence of the development industry and its practitioners on the continent.
If we wish to examine a given news headline or academic article for traces of Afro-pessimism, there is a pretty clear set of criteria that can be applied. Afro-pessimist discourses impose a Eurocentric developmental model on the continent, and assess its progress in relation to a set of arbitrary criteria – i.e. Western liberal democracies as the final stage in the progress of world history, epitomised in the ideas of ‘pop-Hegelians’ Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. Within the discourse there is a tendency to view Africa as one big, tragic mess: corruption, cronyism and ethnic conflict are thought to provide the governing logics of politics and other daily experiences. Afro-pessimist representations never actually refer to the continent as a geographical territory; when the term ‘African’ is used, it denotes only those who are (visibly) Black and live in Africa. Unsurprisingly, all non-Black inhabitants of the continent are intuitively treated as non-African.
A recent report on ‘Africa in the Media’ shows just how tenacious the logic of Afro-pessimism really is. Compiled by The Africa Narrative – a research project working out of the University of Southern California – the report suggests that representations of Africa and Africans in US media and entertainment are still ‘overwhelmingly focused on negative stories such as Boko Haram, corruption, poverty, electoral crises, migrants and terrorism’. Of course, little attention is paid to the complex histories and experiences of actual African subjects. In scripted US television, for instance, five countries – Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, the Seychelles and Congo (without reference to which Congo) – accounted for almost half of all mentions of African countries. Six out of ten references to Africa in TV dramas were about crime, terrorism and corruption, while the unspecified use of ‘Africa’ as a country received 27 per cent of all mentions. Clearly, little progress has been made in our collective understanding of Africa. Especially in the US media and entertainment industries, attitudes towards the continent continue to show a lack of engagement or interest, and a predilection for sensationalism and simplistic narratives.
Many scholars, including Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze and V. Y. Mudimbe have argued that the genealogy of this particular mode of thinking about Africa stretches all the way back to Hegel’s philosophy of history, although this is by no means the first instance of exoticised portrayals of Africa as a ‘dark continent’, that exists entirely outside of the world-historical trajectory of Geist. In the appendix to his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel briefly discusses the role of Africa in the world-historical progress of the consciousness of freedom; since history moves from East to West (with increasing degrees of consciousness of freedom), Africa plays no real part in this process. For Hegel ‘man as we find him in Africa has not progressed beyond his immediate existence’ and Africans are ‘animal men’, who have no conception of freedom, God or Spirit (or any absolute Being, higher than the individual self). Moreover, Hegel argues that there is no geographical entity that we can call ‘Africa’. A not very subtle theoretical move enables him to divide the continent into three parts that are culturally and historically distinct: Africa proper (Black Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa), European Africa (North Africa), and the River Region of the Nile (Egypt). While Hegel acknowledges that the River Region of the Nile has contributed to the progress of world history, he claims that it is distinct from the rest of the continent, and that it had few historical or cultural ties to the Black ‘animal men’ south of the Sahara.
This division has been contested by historians and theorists such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Théophile Obenga, and George M. James, whose alternative histories of Africa posit a cultural and historical continuity between Egypt and ‘Black Africa’. They argued that the roots of modern European philosophy can be found not in Greece, but in Egypt, and that the legacy of the origins of philosophy has been wrongfully ‘stolen’ from African people. While such Afrocentric theories can restore pride in Black people whose histories have been erased or denied by Eurocentric scholarship, we must be careful about uncritically embracing these narratives of African grandeur. It is indeed possible to favourably compare the achievements of African civilisations – like Ife/Benin sculpture, the churches of Lalibela, or the pilgrimages of Mansa Musa – to those of Europe in the same period. But this would still leave us measuring the value of African history and life in terms of arbitrary Eurocentric standards. As Walter Rodney argues in The Groundings with my Brothers, we must focus our historical efforts on fostering an ‘understanding of ordinary African life’ to show that it had ‘meaning and value’.
Despite the controversies surrounding the Afrocentric histories of Diop, Obenga and James, it is becoming increasingly unfeasible to deny the historical realities of cultural, philosophical and trade links between Egypt and ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ or ‘Africa proper’ in the face of a growing body of historical scholarship on the subject. As Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne has convincingly argued, one cannot understand the history of philosophy in Africa without reference to Islamic scholarship (including Black Islamic scholarship!) in North and West Africa. His work on the intellectual history of Timbuktu is instructive here: the Timbuktu manuscripts show that Islam and Arabic script were adopted in the region prior to colonialism, and that intellectuals wrote didactic poetry, prose on jurisprudence and theological texts in both Arabic and native dialects (using Arabic script). The intellectual history of Africa, as a geographical entity, is thus not a history of isolation but rather a history of cultural, political and economic interconnection.
Unfortunately, such evidence has only led to superficial changes in the ways in which Africa is perceived in the Global North. The ‘failure to accommodate Africa […] in the concert of humanity’ – to borrow a phrase from Nigerian philosopher Olúfemi Táíwò – ‘illustrates the continuing impact of the reach of Hegel’s ghost’. To theorists as diverse as Afro-pessimists and Western Marxists (or Euro Marxists, or whatever one prefers calling the Eurocentric strand of Marxism) Africans, and particularly Black Africans, remain something essentially ‘other’ and play no role in the trajectory of world history or the history of philosophy.
II. The Flatness of Blackness
Afro-pessimism in this original sense has reflected a disastrous approach to, and had disastrous consequences for Africa and its inhabitants. So how can we understand the bizarre use of this historically loaded term (complete with its own history of colonial and imperialist exploitation) by numerous African-American intellectuals and activists? The use of the term ‘Afro-pessimism’ is symptomatic of the historical ignorance of the Afro-pessimist™ (or what Greg Thomas has recently called Afro-pessimism 2.0), whose grasp of African history is about as solid as that of Hegel. In its initial iteration, Afro-pessimism 2.0 (from now on AP™) is a product of middle-class academia; a framework either consciously or subconsciously created to allow relatively well-off academics to view themselves as the most discriminated and oppressed people in the world. Characterised by misinterpretations and clever appropriations of Black radicals like Frantz Fanon and Silvia Wynter, the theories of the AP™ have spilled over into activist circles, contaminating the global political discourse on race.
The central premise of the AP™ is that anti-Black violence is the structuring regime of the modern world. Drawing on Orlando Patterson’s concept of ‘social death’, Frank Wilderson, arguably the most prominent and controversial AP™ intellectual, asserts that the Black condition is not characterised by oppression or exploitation, like that of the Marxist proletariat or the (neo)colonial subject, but rather by the distinction between the Human and the Slave. For Wilderson, the Black is a priori a slave and therefore we cannot speak of Blackness without reference to the Slaveness that constitutes it on an ontological level. In his essay ‘Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts’, fellow University of California professor Jared Sexton argues that the condition of the Black/Slave is a state of total powerlessness, natal alienation (‘the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations’) and generalised dishonour. In short, Black existence is an ontological absence of sorts, and the Black/Slave is a living dead (non-entity) in the modern world.
In ‘The Black Liberation Army and the Paradox of Political Engagement’, Wilderson offers some further meditations on the concept of ‘social death’, explaining that ‘the point of social death is a condition, void, not of land, but of a capacity to secure relational status through transindividual objects – be those objects elaborated by land, labour or love’. Unlike colonial racisms perpetuated by the rational systems of white supremacy, neo-colonialism or imperialism, or women’s oppression and exploitation driven by patriarchy and capitalism’s need for reproductive labour, anti-Black violence is humanity’s irrational desire for violence against Black people. As Wilderson declares in an interview with C. S. Soong, ‘violence against Black people is a mechanism for the usurpation of subjectivity, of life of being’. What settlers wanted from Indians is land, so they killed Indians ‘in the main’ to get it, whereas what non-Blacks want from Blacks is not land but ‘being’. Anti-Blackness is thus qualitatively different from the regimes of violence that affect the Marxist proletariat; or the non-Black person of colour; or the non-Black woman; or the non-Black woman of colour; or (as Wilderson has famously claimed) Palestinians. Black suffering is incomparable and unique: to speak of any experience of oppression without reference to the ontological disparities between Black/non-Black people is ultimately an act of ‘anti-Blackness’.
But what exactly is it about the makeup of modern society that displaces the Black/Slave from the realm of politics and precludes the articulation of concrete political demands? For Wilderson and Sexton, the very foundations of political discourse are inherently anti-Black. Or, to put it in terms of Giorgio Agamben’s political ontology (of which the AP™ are rather fond), the political – i.e. the ontological character of a political situation that separates it from other social actions – or what he calls ‘the Symbolic Order’, is skewed against the Black/Slave. The Symbolic Order is based on the recognition of the ‘other’s’ humanity, which then enables this ‘other’ to challenge the order on the grounds of, for instance, political economy. Since the Black is a priori a Slave, and Blackness and Slaveness are coterminous, the Black/Slave cannot participate in the Symbolic Order as her status is not that of the Human. And because the category of humanity is founded and relies on the existence of the slave, there is no way the Black/Slave can ever gain the recognition required to assert political demands and identities in the realm of the Symbolic Order. It is for this reason that, as Sexton points out in his essay ‘The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism’, we must posit a ‘political ontology dividing the Slave from the world of the Human in a constitutive way’ and take this as our analytical starting point.
Wilderson’s and Sexton’s work contributes to a wider debate on the nature of Black studies in the United States, which is frequently tied into discussions on Black performance art, evidenced by the titles of Wilderson’s Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms, Kara Keeling’s The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense or Fred Moten’s essays on Black Operations/Black Optimism in musical performance. Despite various disagreements and differences among these scholars, they are united by the common interest in ‘the afterlife of slavery’ – first described by Saidiya Hartman in her 2006 memoir Lose Your Mother. For Hartman – whose project is not that of AP™ and should not be mistaken for this essay’s target – official abolition in the United States did not engender a decisive break with the racialised violence of slavery; in contemporary society, we can see traces of such violence in the ‘skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment’ of African-Americans. The ‘afterlife of slavery’ she describes constitutes Black studies’ object, and loosely ties a range of scholars together into a coherent discourse.
It is worth briefly considering Fred Moten’s work to understand the AP™’s ability to co-opt or usurp other approaches to Black Studies and activism. Moten attempted to counter the AP™ conception of social death by foregrounding Black agency and asserting that it is ontologically prior to the all-encompassing anti-Blackness of the modern world. In the unpublished paper ‘Black Optimism/Black Operation’, Moten attempts to counter the ‘anti-essentialism’ of radical discourses that disavow Black studies’ own object i.e. Blackness. For Moten, this Blackness exists in what he (along with his frequent collaborator Stefano Harney) has famously called ‘the undercommons’ – a space outside of official social structures, where Black people can assert their ‘right to refuse’.
But as Annie Olaloku-Teriba points out in her excellent critique ‘Afro-Pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness’, the AP™ finds a ‘comfortable antagonist’ in Moten, whose Black Ops can be neatly reintegrated into the concept of social death. It is also telling that Sexton, in ‘Ante-Anti-Blackness’, rather successfully merges the AP™ conception of social death with Moten’s Black Ops by arguing that:
A living death is as much a death as it is living. Nothing in Afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonised, of all the things that capital has in common with labour – the modern world system.
Sexton shows that Moten’s Black Ops is nothing other than what he instead calls ‘the social life of social death’. There is no either/or distinction between social life and social death: we can think both together by positing that Black life is lived in the underground. Moten even acknowledges, in ‘Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)’, that the AP™ and Black Ops are engaged in the same theoretical project:
In the end, though life and optimism are the terms under which I speak, I agree with Sexton – by way of the slightest most immeasurable reversal of emphasis – that Afro-pessimism and black optimism are not but nothing other than one another. I will continue to prefer the black optimism of his work just as, I am sure, he will continue to prefer the Afro-pessimism of mine.
For both Afro-pessimists and Black Optimists, the afterlife of slavery is characterised by the social death of the Black/Slave and a heavily distorted version of Fanon’s concept of the ‘fact of blackness’. This assumption, however, precludes the participation of Black Ops in radical politics and confines resistance to spaces of Black performance art.
By confining Black resistance to spaces outside of the anti-Black structures of civil society, and by undercutting the possibility for anti-imperialist solidarity between racialised people across the world, the AP™ theories have opened up a space for the corporate capture of Blackness. We need only recall last year’s Nike campaign, prominently featuring the face of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been blackballed by the league for kneeling during the national anthem. Since the incident, he has taken on the role of radical Black activist, complete with Panther-esque leather jackets, an afro and Afrocentric jewellery. While Kaepernick’s struggle against the racist and exploitative NFL owners and executives is, of course, legitimate and necessary, the co-optation of his struggle by a large corporation is certainly a cause for concern. Nike is notorious for its use of sweatshop labour (including both forced and child labour), and its history of exploitative labour practices has been well-documented throughout the years. By detaching the struggles of African-Americans from those of racialised workers in the Global South, Nike can present itself as a progressive vehicle for Black emancipatory politics, while completely sidelining the plight of non-white workers outside of the US. Here we might recall a powerful statement by Fred Hampton to illustrate just how far from revolutionary Black politics we find ourselves:
We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism […] We’re going to fight […] with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.
Wilderson and Sexton have been captured by corporate interests in much the same way. In their case, however, it is not a large corporation that co-opts Blackness, but rather the neoliberal university. Is it at all surprising that two professors working within the prestigious University of California system promote a theoretical framework that requires no political action from Black writers and activists other than simply being Black? Not only is AP™ a product of the neoliberal university, it also promotes its authors survival and flourishing within the corporate structures of higher education. When asked about his framework for psychological and physical resistance by the hosts of iMiXWHATiLiKE, Wilderson neatly dodges any commitment to radical politics with the excuse that it could cost him his academic job.
This is so much a part of what it means to be a professor. I feel like cussing people out all the time. But if I do, I violate University of California’s civility laws, tenure or not I’m out the door, right? And that tempers my speech. So, I think that what I have to offer is not a way out. What I have to offer is an analysis of the problem. And I don’t trust me as much as I trust Black people on the ground.
Wilderson is aware that the AP™ rely on their activist supporters and social media following to maintain their privileged position within the university – without the activists and organisers on the ground, the AP™ could not prove the market value of its work to the neoliberal institution. By creating a framework for the analysis of race that lends itself to co-optation by corporate interests, the AP™ has certainly demonstrated that it can convert Blackness into profit. All the while, these theorists delude themselves that they are spearheading a truly radical Black movement. In the introduction to a collection of essays on AP™, the editors (who presumably include Sexton and Wilderson) even have the audacity to claim that they are ‘motivated by a desire to contribute to […] bringing these writings out of the ivory towers of the academy’ and that they wish to ‘remove the materials from this sitting place and see them proliferate among those in the streets and prisons’. True, they have succeeded in disseminating a watered-down version of their musings to activists and organisers; but what they have passed on is nothing short of anti-Black, in the sense that it works against the true liberation of Black people of all classes.
Today, such Blackness (and the pseudo-politics that is attached to it) is more useful for academic promotions, Instagram hashtags, and Nike adverts than for any revolutionary or emancipatory politics worthy of the name. The people who truly benefit – or rather profit – from the AP™ brand are the academics and the various university presses and journals who jump at every opportunity to unleash a plethora of AP™ books and articles onto the academic book market. While the AP™ may seem like a niche theoretical discourse, its influence extends far beyond the university: as Olaloku-Teriba argues, the AP™’s theoretical framework provides ‘the structuring logic of various political formations in the era of #BlackLivesMatter’. What is at stake in the debate, therefore, is nothing less than the possibility of a revolutionary Black politics. Maybe African-Americans on the streets or in prison would do well to reach for George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and steer clear of the AP™ and Black Ops.
III. The Afterlives of Slavery
The retreat of the AP™ and Black Ops from politics poses a problem for activists and scholars looking to engage in struggles that take seriously the political economy of race and the need for cross-racial solidarity. But how have these key themes of radical Black movements from the 1960s and 70s – from the Black Panthers to African anti-colonial struggles – disappeared in the AP™’s theories? The erasure of radical Black and anti-colonial struggles rests almost entirely on misreading – or in some cases not reading – Marxist contributions to the study of race, colonialism and slavery. And this unfounded dismissal of the entire Marxist tradition allows the AP™ to kill two birds with one stone: on the one hand, it can position itself as a radical critique of Eurocentric left discourses. On the other hand, it allows the AP™ to disregard a vast body of Marxist scholarship that has ‘raced’ the history of capitalism and developed a nuanced analysis of the relationship between New World Slavery and capitalist accumulation on a global scale. Thus, the AP™ can ignore the specificities of how different Black populations are racialised and displace the study of political economy (and particularly of imperialism) in favour of ontological questions.
In the interview ‘We’re trying to destroy the world: Anti-Blackness & Police Violence after Ferguson’ Wilderson makes the bizarre claim that ‘slaveness is something that has consumed Blackness and Africanness, making it impossible to divide slavery from Blackness’. If this assumption sounds familiar, look no further than the Afro-pessimism of old, with its conflation of Africanness and Blackness and its disregard for the African continent and its inhabitants. But how has an approach that attempts to grapple with the complexities of Black being ended up rehashing the same assumptions and prejudices of Eurocentric discourse designed to dehumanise Black people on the African continent in the first place? The AP™’s theoretical position is riddled with contradictions: how can Blackness be separated from white supremacy, neocolonialism or imperialism and women’s reproductive labour, when these are the mechanisms that structure the quotidien experience of most people racialised as Black on a global scale? Moreover, if the Black/Slave exists in a state of powerlessness and natal alienation – characterised by the loss of ties of birth in ascending and descending generations – how do we theorise the Blackness of those whose ancestors remained in Africa throughout the translatlantic slave trade?
Skimming the AP™’s bibliographies, one can be forgiven for thinking that the sheer number of references to radical scholarship reflects a close reading and consideration of the texts and arguments in question. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In ‘The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy’, Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton claim that Marxist approaches treat racism as merely a divide-and-conquer strategy for class struggle and super exploitation, and that Marxists fail to understand that racism – and anti-Blackness in particular – is not an ideology that can be refuted but is rather ‘fundamental to class relations themselves’. Wilderson’s ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society’ advances a similar critique, arguing that the Black/Slave poses an insoluble problem for the Gramscian discourse on race, since it is not wage labour exploitation but ‘the despotism of the unwaged relation’ that drives anti-Black racism. For Wilderson, this discourse fails to think anything other than capitalism as the ‘base’ structure, from which other superstructural phenomena such as racism emerge. Marxists have thus failed to recognise that ‘Capital was kick-started by the rape of the African continent’ and that it is ‘as close to capital’s primal desire than is exploitation’. The Black/Slave blows apart key assumptions in Marxist thought, which renders it useless to for the analysis of the afterlife of slavery; this is the ‘scandal of historical materialism’.
But Wilderson’s and Sexton’s critique of Marxism is shallow at best. In volume one of Capital, Marx clearly states that ‘the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins’ signalled ‘the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. In a letter to Russian literary critic Pavel Vasilyyevich Annenkov, Marx also writes that:
We are not dealing here with indirect slavery, the slavery of the proletariat, we are dealing with direct slavery, the slavery of Blacks in Surinam, in Brazil, in the southern states of North America
Marx makes a clear distinction between slave labour and wage labour, refusing to conflate both in the category of the proletarian. In the specific case of the United States, he believed that the worker’s movements had been paralysed by the existence of slave labour and their inability to adequately address it. In Capital, he writes, ‘labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’ The possibility of a unified proletarian revolution thus relies on the abolition of slavery. While this may sound as if Marx’ is theorising race as merely a divide and conquer strategy, as many critics have accused him of doing, there is an entire discourse within Marxism that has taken seriously the role that the racial plays in structuring social formations in the Americas. Instead of going back to what Marx did or didn’t say about slavery, however, it may be more constructive to ask in what ways transatlantic slavery forces us to rethink the fundamental categories of Marxist political economy.
Robin Blackburn’s historical studies of the transatlantic slave trade offer a more nuanced perspective that is entirely at odds with the strawman Marxism of the AP™. Blackburn acknowledges that New World slavery was more than just a divide and conquer strategy; it represented an intensification and racialisation of prior forms of slavery. Like early African or Roman slavery, chattel slavery was based on the idea that a person could be bought and sold. But unlike previous techniques, the New World version institutionalised slavery and made it hereditary. Once a person had been enslaved, it was highly likely that their descendants would continue to exist in a relation of bondage. Where Blackburn’s analysis diverges from the AP™ is in his emphasis on the interrelation between slavery, colonialism and capitalism, and his efforts to understand how the racial structures the mode of production in each instance. For Blackburn, New World slavery was a central product of the rise of capitalism, not of an a priori anti-Blackness, and therefore cannot be neatly be separated from the early stages of capitalist accumulation and the violent expansion of European (early Spanish and Portuguese as well as later British) colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Americas. As Greg Thomas argues in ‘Afro-Blue Notes’, Walter Rodney already recognised this, in ‘Slavery and Underdevelopment’ and ‘Plantation Society in Guyana’, when he showed that plantation slavery in America is colonial slavery. In short, ‘there is no system of slavery in any part of these Americas that is not still settler colonial slavery; no settler colonialism without chattel slavery or racial slavery and their neo-slaveries’,
Blackburn and other radical historians of slavery draw on Cedric Robinson’s concept of ‘racial capitalism’, which can be used to refute the claim that slaveness and Africanness are one and the same. In Black Marxism Robinson argues that racism was already present in Western civilisation prior to the flourishing of capitalism. Thus, capitalism and racism grew together from the old order to produce the ‘racial capitalism’ characteristic of the modern world; a new world system relying on slavery, violence, imperialism and genocide for its continued expansion. The value of Robinson’s work lies in its ability to uncover the contingent relationship between slavery and Blackness: he argues that early European proletarians were racialised subjects from oppressed groups, such as the Irish, Jews, Roma or Slavs, who were victims of dispossession, colonialism and slavery within Europe. With the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade, new notions of difference emerged, based on more aggressively racialised conceptions, that were used to justify the political economy of slavery. For Robinson, white supremacy masked itself as an economic rationale, which in turn organised racial hierarchies, with the production of cotton at its core. As Chris Chen writes in ‘The Limit Points of Capitalist Equality’,
the colonial and racial genealogy of European capitalism’ were ‘encoded directly into the economic “base” through an ongoing history of racial violence which […] binds surplus populations to capitalist markets.
There are also several surprising omissions in the AP™ account of slavery that point towards its entrenched African-American exceptionalism, most notably that of the slave trade in the Americas more broadly. Although the African-American experience of chattel slavery is overrepresented in the AP™ narrative, only about 4 per cent of all enslaved Africans, out of over 10 million that were taken to the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, were carried to North America. Close to five million enslaved Africans were taken to Portuguese America (Brazil) alone between 1501 and 1866, and whose labour became the driving force for the sugar economy in the early 1600s, and gold and diamond mining from about 1690 onwards. While the AP™ continue to structure their analysis of Blackness and slaveness around the official abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865, they seem to forget that slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888. But in the AP™’s ‘afterlife of slavery’, these histories don’t play any role. The legacy of US chattel slavery consumes all Black experience, both historical and contemporary.
If the AP™ were to pay attention to the peculiarities of Brazilian slavery, it would have to adapt its concept of Blackness to develop an account of how race has structured a social formation with the second largest Black population in the world. In Nigeria, the country with the world’s largest Black population, the ‘afterlife of slavery’ takes on a completely different meaning than in the US. While slavery had existed in Igbo society before colonisation, it accelerated with the increasing demand for slaves on the other side of the Atlantic. When slavery was officially abolished in many parts of the West, Adiele Afigbo writes in The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southeastern Nigeria, 1885–1950, Igbo slave markets were flooded with ohu and osu slaves, whose descendants to this day retain the stigma of their ancestors – they cannot intermarry with freeborn and are excluded from important community organisations. In a recent New Yorker article Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani argues that:
Igbo discrimination is not based on race, and there are no visual markers to differentiate slave descendants from freeborn. Instead, it trades on cultural beliefs about lineage and spirituality.
Discrimination of slave descendants is thus based on their role as outsiders, since the ohu have never really lost their outsider status in a society where community ties are extremely important. Afigbo’s periodisation also points to another important aspect of slavery in Nigeria: it was only officially abolished by the British in the early 1900s but continued informally for at least another forty to fifty years. What this means is that we cannot understand slavery in Nigeria within the Igbo system with reference to an African-American concept of race, conditioned entirely by the experiences of US chattel slavery. For the descendants of ohu slaves, the afterlife of slavery is not characterised by the condition of the Black/Slave but rather by something quite different. In this case, the equation of the Black/Slave with the African does not hold.
So what can we learn from these different histories of slavery and racialisation? Brazilian academic Denise Ferreira da Silva draws the following conclusion in ‘Facts of Blackness’, her comparative study of race in the US and Brazil,
I was convinced that our shared blackness has been traversed by the particular effects of specific nation, gender and class conditions. Slavery and colonialism composed the historical ground upon which race, gender and nationess have written the various versions of black subjectivity […] That instrinsically multiple quality of black subjectivity demands attention to the specific historical and discursive developments informing a society’s strategies of racial subordination.
In her more recent book Toward a Global Idea of Race, Silva further contends that we cannot comprehend the ‘present global configuration’ unless we ‘unpack how the racial, the cultural and the nation institute the modern subject’ and analyse the context in which the modern subject emerged and was produced. For Silva, racial difference is not an ideological or cultural construction but rather a real category and is responsible for structuring the contemporary global configuration. And precisely because race supplies the discursive basis for the subordination of non-white people, even specific studies of Blackness must be placed in the global historical context in which racialised subjects emerged. In this way, we can avoid US-centric ontological (supposedly universal) conceptions of Blackness while simultaneously emphasising the histories of interconnection between Black populations across the world. In short, the object of analysis is not the afterlife of slavery but the multiplicity of afterlives of slavery and colonisation; the aim is to study how these exist within a global system structured by imperialism.
This is not to say that there aren’t glimmers of hope in the US literary and academic scene. John Keene’s part-historical, part-fictional (and undoubtedly political) retelling of the slave experience in Counternarratives, gives equal weight to the specificities of slavery in Brazil under Portuguese rule and in North America in the pre-Civil War era. Counternarratives weaves together these diverging but interconnected histories to draw out the underlying logic structuring gender, race and class under different forms of slavery and colonisation. Most importantly, however, Keene plays with the engrained Eurocentric prejudices that colonisers used to belittle and ‘other’ colonial subjects. Irrationality and spirituality become sources of power: Keene’s characters actually possess the magical powers that have been attributed to them by the colonisers – these are in turn transformed into a basis for Black insurgency. While Keene opens the collection with a quote from Fred Moten on the relationship between philosophy and slavery (‘The social situation of philosophy is slavery’), his exposition of the lived histories of enslaved peoples in various social formations, moves beyond the realm of simple African-American exceptionalism, and his deconstruction of Eurocentric prejudices more in line with the ‘thin’ and strategic deployment of essentialism than the ‘thick’ ontological essentialism of the AP™.
Wilderson, Sexton and their activist followers frequently erase or distort beyond recognition, the various Black liberation movements that fought against racism, colonialism, and imperialism throughout the Global South, particularly the African liberation struggles of the 1960s and 70s. In the ‘Avant-Garde of White Supremacy’, Martinot and Sexton for instance claim that:
For anti-colonialist thinking, racism is a social ideology that can be refuted, a structure of privilege to be given up, again at the local or individual level. Where liberalism subordinates the issue of racism to the presumed potentialities of individual development, Marxism subordinates the issue of race to class relations of struggle, and anti-colonial radicalism pretends its mere existence as a ‘movement’ is the first step toward eradicating racism.
Anti-colonial discourses consequently ‘subsume the issue of racism in promises of future transformations of the power relations to which racialisation is deferred’ and assume that it will disappear if it is ‘no longer useful to the relations of production or the security of territorial boundaries’. Anti-colonial movements’ (or postcolonial as they are often referred to by the AP™) misdiagnosis of racism, Wilderson argues in Red, White and Black, stems from their fundamentally different positionality in relation to anti-Blackness: while the ‘postcolonial’ can quite literally throw the settler out of her zone, the Black/Slave must throw the Human out of her zone if she is to overcome the condition of social death that characterises Black life. The postcolonial exists as Human in the symbolic order, whereas the Black/Slave can never. This, for Wilderson, is also the difference between the postcolonial Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth and the Black/Slave Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks.
The blatant (mis)use of Fanon is a particularly infuriating example of how the AP™ distorts anti-colonial thought. By selectively reading parts of his early work (Black Skin, White Masks) and disregarding pretty much everything else, AP™ scholars try to incorporate Fanon into the genealogy of their misguided attempt at creating a radical Black discourse. Since Black Skin, White Masks makes for a more comfortable read than The Wretched of the Earth or A Dying Colonialism – the more important Fanon texts for the liberation movements on the continent – AP™ has reached for the young Fanon, and tried to isolate him from the rest of his oeuvre. As Wilderson himself contends: ‘Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth […] does not build upon Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks’. While the AP™ is correct in pointing out that there is a difference in approach between Fanon’s early and later work, this does not mean that we should prioritise the former over the latter. Nor does it mean that Fanon’s early work is necessarily based on the assumption of an ontologically flat conception of Blackness. In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks Fanon concedes that:
Since I was born in the Antilles, my observations and my conclusions are valid only for the Antilles – at least concerning the black man at home. Another book could be dedicated to explaining the differences that separate the Negro of the Antilles from the Negro of Africa.
The appropriation of Fanon by some African-American scholars and activists – who reduce his thought to a hashtag, and make proclamations that Fanon himself would have fundamentally disagreed with – also begs the question of why only Fanon, singled out and isolated from all other anti-colonial thought, has been granted a cushy place in the Ivory Tower. Why is there still very little scholarship on Black revolutionaries such as Amílcar Cabral, one of the foremost anti-colonial theorists and revolutionaries of the twentieth century?
Academia’s aversion to Cabral stems from its lack of interest in the crucial everyday work of revolutionary struggle and its fetishisation of revolution in the abstract. Cabral insisted that we must not only fight the battle of ideas, but struggle for material benefits and improved conditions of life. The revolution can never be separated from the daily needs of the people. Given the elitist and corporate nature of higher education, particularly in the Anglo-American world, it is thus no surprise that the academy has chosen Fanon (‘the prophet of revolution’) over the tireless anti-colonial strategist Cabral. This is, of course, not to dismiss Fanon’s crucial contributions to the study of psychiatry and anti-colonial movements. It is only to say that the perspective of one anti-colonial intellectual does not suffice; instead of decontextualizing Fanon, we must read him in conjunction with other anti-colonial intellectuals who offer valuable insights into fields – such as revolutionary strategy – that Fanon rarely engaged with.
Though it is tempting to blame the AP™ for all that is wrong with the political discourse on race, we must remember that it is only a symptom of a much larger problem. The assumption that there is little difference between African and African-American realities permeates much of the writing on Blackness, and we can already find a sustained critique of these approaches in Fanon’s later work. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon argues there is a fundamental difference between the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-colonial (armed) struggle on the continent. The problems confronting the African-American scholar/activist and the anti-colonial revolutionary only share a single commonality: that they are all defined as Black in relation to whiteness. The difference in objective conditions of struggle that these movements face, cannot be overcome by simply asserting the existence of a unifying Black culture and history. But the AP™ version of Fanon is stripped of such remarks, and presented as a diasporic alienated intellectual par excellence, whose anti-colonialism is swallowed by slavery and social death.
Achille Mbembe’s 2003 essay ‘Necropolitics’ is frequently highlighted as a foundational text for the AP™’s musings on the afterlife of slavery. But this is not necessarily the entire picture, and contrary to popular belief, Mbembe does not fit neatly into the AP™. For instance, David Marriott, another AP™ associate, has criticised Mbembe for his anti-Black concept of Blackness, whereas Mbembe has in turn dismissed the theoretical apparatus for equating Africanness and Blackness. Although Mbembe is a somewhat uncomfortable interlocutor for the AP™, they do share a common distrust of Marxism and anti-colonial thought. What is most interesting about Mbembe’s position, however, is that he somehow manages to conflate three distinct discourses into one, in order to dismiss each approach with the claim that it is inadequate for the study of African subjectivity. Given Mbembe’s status as a leading public intellectual, it is worth interrogating the discourses he dismisses to draw out why and to what effect Mbembe aims to push them aside, and how his critique has influenced the AP™.
In ‘African Modes of Self-Writing’, Mbembe launches an attack on what he refers to as ‘Afro-radicalism’: an amalgamation of two interrelated discourses that have the same disposition, and emerged from African engagement with Marxism and nationalism. For both the nativist and instrumentalist currents, Mbembe argues, history is split into three major historical events (slavery, colonialism and apartheid) through which the ‘African self has become alienated from itself’ and degraded to the status of non-being and social death. Only with reference to these three fundamental historical events can Africans unite and recapture their destiny (sovereignty), and to belong to themselves in the world (autonomy). Mbembe, however, warns us that this is not the case: both nativism and Afro-Marxism (‘the instrumentalist paradigm’) are ‘faked philosophies’ that are more dogma than methods of interrogation. Afro-radicalism’s claim to have created a revolutionary politics that breaks with imperialism and dependence is illusory; all the discourse provides is a ‘mechanistic vision of history, a fetishisation of state power, the disqualification of liberal democracy, and the populist and authoritarian dream of mass society’.
Mbembe’s main argument is that both discourses share the same episteme: They both ‘subscribe to the postulate of difference’, despite claiming to distance themselves from Western ideas of alterity. At its core, Mbembe’s critique boils down to the claim that ‘nationalist and Marxist narratives of the African self and the world’ are superficial and unphilosophical; as political weapons and systems of knowledge these paradigms are entirely outdated and must be replaced by some other philosophical discourse that emphasises the importance of the universal and does not fall into the trap of nativism. While critical of the nativist impulse, Mbembe reserves his most polemical gestures for Afro-radicalism. In a (melo)dramatic passage, he claims:
Expiatory, substitutive, or self-sacrificial, violence was deployed – and death unleashed – in the name of a Marxist telos. Murder itself was commuted and concealed through ascription to a final moral truth, while the proof of virtue and morality lay in pain and suffering.
According to this narrative of anti-colonial struggle, the liberation movements were only concerned with power and the capturing of the state machinery, with other philosophical questions pushed aside. A destructive belief in redemptive violence as a force of cohesion meant these movements could not succeed in creating a social bond in their nations, and failed to ‘refashion’ the African subject.
If it seems difficult to make sense of this critique, it may be because Mbembe is conflating a range of different movements and discourses under the banner of ‘Afro-radicalism’, some of which have very little in common with the other. What exactly is Afro-radicalism? Is it Kwame Nkrumah’s or Julius Nyerere’s African Socialism? Or is it the Afro-Marxist tradition? And what properties does a ‘nativist’ discourse such as Négritude share with Afro-Marxist movements? Mbembe’s politics are often hard to grasp, and his affinity for strawmanning doesn’t make it any easier to discern what the actual aim of his critique is. But surely it is absurd to claim that neither Négritude or ‘Afro-Marxism’ offered any philosophical and political reflections worthy of theoretical scrutiny.
VI. Négritude as Strategic Essentialism
No discourse is without a history or exists in a vacuum, and the AP™ is certainly not the first tradition of Black thought to advance an ontologically flat conception of Blackness. In the 1930s, a group of young emigres from different parts of the French colonial empire set out to develop an aesthetic framework designed to counter historical and cultural narratives that exclusively ascribed the properties of beauty and goodness to anything white and European. In Paris, the metropolitan centre of the French colonial empire, these intellectuals found themselves united by a common experience: as educated and sophisticated évoluées they had not expected to face racial prejudice. For the French, however, they were still colonial subjects, that belonged to a race of people considered uncivilised and in need of guidance. A privileged class position within the colonies could not save these intellectuals from their visible ‘otherness’ in the metropole, and for the first time, they were made aware of what ‘Africanness’ and ‘Blackness’ really meant for the French.
In its initial iteration, Négritude was an artistic expression that sought to re-appropriate the term ‘art nègre’ and strip it of its racist connotations. By poetically appropriating the French language, these intellectuals and artists were deconstructing Western society from within, turning its own language and concepts (French and Surrealism) against it, with the aim of exposing the contradictions in the same norms and values that justified colonial oppression and slavery. As part of a group of non-white Surrealists including Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, Étienne Léro, Yva Léro, Wifredo Lam, René Menil and many others – all included in the anthology Black, Brown and Beige – the Négritude poets asserted the value of a distinctly Black identity that was entirely at odds with the French colonial policy of ‘assimilationism’. The aim was to capture the beauty and vitality of African bodies, culture, and history, and to throw these back in the faces of the French. Western rationality was juxtaposed with African emotion, and the Bergsonian elan vital of the African held up as the creative force behind Black cultural production.
While the Négritude poets had different interpretations of what the movement meant, it is often read through Sartre’s essay ‘Black Orpheus’, and his characterisation of Négritude as ‘anti-racist racism’. Sartre’s essays have frequently shaped how African intellectuals are perceived in both academia and popular discourse. However, like his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, his essay on Négritude should be taken with a pinch of salt. In ‘Black Orpheus’ Sartre essentially reduces the whole Négritude movement to Senghor and his Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. While it is true that Senghor advanced an essentialist ontology that conflated Blackness with Africanness, and posited a unique African worldview that could be read in African cultures and religions, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas refused to extend Négritude into the realm of philosophy and instead emphasised the poetic dimension of the struggle.
In a lecture delivered at Florida International University, Césaire denounces metaphysical conflation of Blackness and Africanness, and clarifies his role as a Négritude poet:
Négritude in my eyes, is not a philosophy. Négritude is not a metaphysics. Négritude is not a pretentious conception of the universe. It is a way of living history within history: the history of a community whose experience appears to be … unique, with its deportation of old beliefs, its fragments of murdered cultures. How can we not believe that all this which has its own coherence, constitutes a heritage?
But Césaire was hardly alone in positing a ‘thin’ essentialism designed to combat racism in France and in the Caribbean. In the 1943 essay ‘Surrealism and US’, Suzanne Césaire writes that:
Thus, far from contradicting diluting or diverting our revolutionary attitude toward life, surrealism strengthens it. It nourishes an impatient strength within us endlessly reinforcing the massive army of refusals. [Tomorrow] millions of black hands will hoist their terror across the furious skies of world war. Freed from a long benumbing slumber, the most disinherited of peoples will rise up from the plaints of ashes. Our surrealism will supply this rising people with a punch from its very depths. Our surrealism will enable us to finally transcend the sordid antinomies of the present: whites/Blacks, Europeans/Africans, civilised/savages – at last rediscovering the magic power of the mahoulis, drawn directly from living sources. Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame. We shall recover our value as metal, our cutting edge of steel, our unprecedented communions.
Along with Suzanne, Georges Gratiant, Aristide Maugé, René Menil and Lucie Thesée, Césaire had also founded the journal Tropique in Martinique in 1941. Only two or so years later, the journal was censored and interdicted by the Vichy regime for its subversive content and for being ‘a revolutionary review that is racial and sectarian’. The editors responded to this provocation in an infamous open letter to Martinique’s Chief of Information Services with the following polemic:
Sir, we have received your indictment of Tropiques. ‘Racists’, ‘sectarians’, ‘revolutionaries’, ‘ingrates and traitors to the country’, ‘poisoners of souls’, none of these epithets really repulses us. ‘Poisoners of souls’, like Racine, ‘Ingrates and traitors to our good country’, like Zola, … ‘Revolutionaries’, like the Hugo of ‘Châtiments’. ‘Sectarians’, passionately, like Rimbaud and Lautréamont. Racists, yes. Of the racism of Toussaint Louverture, of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes against that of Drumont and Hitler. As to the rest of it, don’t expect for us to plead our case, nor vain recriminations, nor discussion. We do not speak the same language.
For Césaire and the other members of the Tropiques, Négritude was a poetic revolt that sought to reclaim a heritage destroyed by colonialism. A common history of slavery, Césaire argued, united Black people around the world – hence the need to assert a common identity to overcome this history of oppression and exploitation. In Césaire’s hands, Négritude transforms itself, from a frame of mind and philosophical worldview, into a political act directed at decolonisation. ‘In other words’, as Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s puts it, ‘there is something about [Césaire’s] Négritude that de-essentialises itself’, ‘something that comes underneath and deconstructs the essentialist language’.
But even if the recovery of lost traditions and idealised conceptions of African culture are a necessary step towards liberation, Fanon warns us, this is by no means the main objective. The recovery of a suppressed history and cultural production fills the native intellectual with a renewed confidence; looking back into African history, the intellectual finds that there is nothing she should be ashamed of, and that in fact, African history and culture are at the very least on par with European civilisations. To counter the narrative of the African savage, Négritude unconditionally affirms African culture, in the same way intellectuals had previously affirmed European culture. But, the frantic search for cultural figureheads that can be compared to those of Western civilisation is, Fanon argues, a futile task. African history can hardly supply the canonical figures that the intellectual is used to, and as Zanzibari Marxist A. M. Babu has similarly stated, it would be a slap in the face to all African workers and peasants, who have fought for a more equitable and classless society, to look for traces of ‘genius’ in African history. In many ways, ‘the past existence of [civilisation] does not change anything very much in the diet of the […] peasant today’.
While Babu’s critique may be a bit harsh, it does raise an issue that has also been a recurring problem for the Western Marxist tradition: the alienation of radical or revolutionary intellectuals from the masses. This is somewhat exacerbated in the case of Black diasporic intellectuals, as there is the additional element of ‘diasporic alienation’ from a romanticised ‘home’. Négritude – by its own admission – owes a huge debt to the Harlem Renaissance, which in principle is no problem at all. But when we consider Damas’ claim that Négritude was founded on a ‘wind rising from Black America’, which expresses ‘the African love for life, the African joy in love, [and] the African dream of death’, we begin to understand how much our collective view of race in Africa is shaped by a diasporic standpoint. In its early stages, Négritude thinking on Blackness was conditioned by both alienation from the revolutionary struggle (expressed in their emphasis on poetic and artistic revolt), and diasporic alienation (as intellectuals in the colonial metropole). One can easily spot such double alienation in the AP™ and its emphasis on ‘natal alienation’ as an inherent feature of Blackness. But this doubly alienated perspective has often drowned out and silenced analyses of race that take seriously the realities and material conditions of Black people on the African continent. Following Ali Mazouri, we must ‘ask ourselves the question of why this particular diasporic view of blackness [Black Orientalism] is always applied globally and no attention is paid to the particularities of race relations on the continent?’
On the other hand, Aimé Césaire’s attack on Roger Callois in Discourse on Colonialism illustrates just how ingrained the cultural exceptionalism of Europe was (is) in many intellectuals’ minds, and just how necessary it was (is) to counter such exceptionalism with a ‘thin’ essentialism of one’s own – even if this expression is mainly poetic. Whereas the AP™ essentialism retreats from the realm of politics, the essentialism of the Césaire’s surrealism takes racism and colonialism head on. This ‘strategic essentialism’ – a positivist essentialism that is critical of the ontological idea, while making use of it for specific political purposes – represents something quite different than the ‘thick’ ontological Blackness of the AP™, who have no political strategy whatsoever! Nonetheless, we must remember that the emphasis in strategic essentialism is on political action; while Césaire focused on achieving the deconstruction of essentialism through poetry and art, we must move beyond the realm of artistic expression and posit a concept of Blackness aimed at the revolutionary transformation of existing social relations.
VII. Remembering a Red Africa
For reasons discussed above, the socialist anti-colonial movements of the 1960s and 70s exist either exist outside of the AP™’s historical scope, or are quickly dismissed along with all other Marxist or feminist discourses. But the AP™ dismissal and erasure of anti-colonial thought is even more bizarre when we consider Wilderson’s biography. How did someone who was a member of the African National Congress’ military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and a fierce left critic of Nelson Mandela create a theoretical apparatus that is incapable of dealing with the realities of imperialism and neocolonialism on the African continent? In the contemporary global configuration, characterised by super-exploitation of racialised workers in the Global South, we should not be so quick to dismiss a discourse that took seriously the need for cross-racial solidarity in the struggle against imperialism and neocolonialism.
The term ‘African socialism’ first emerged in the wake of the independence struggles of the 1950s and 60s, when the newly independent governments sought to create the basis for a new African future, and once and for all break with the racial, economic and political legacies of colonialism. There is much debate around the definition of African socialism and many still argue – as the editors of the 1979 Socialism in Sub-Saharan Africa did in the introduction to their collection – that the ‘passage of time has not led to a precise definition’ or ‘a general consensus of its nature’. However, there is some agreement that African socialism – as a political and intellectual tradition – can be split into two relatively distinct phases: the first wave of humanist African socialism and a second, more radical wave of Afro-Marxism based on the principles of scientific socialism. Although not all socialist anti-colonial movements fit neatly within this categorisation, it can help us develop some broad themes in both waves of African socialism to gain a better understanding of their aims and limitations.
It is somewhat unsurprising that the humanist wave of African socialism dominates both the academic discourse and the popular imaginary. The socialist experiments of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, Sékou Touré in Guinea, Kenneth Kauda in Zambia, Léopold Senghor in Senegal, and Madibo Keïta in Mali provide the most prominent examples of an anti-colonial discourse that was ironically devoid of thorough class analysis. While it is impossible to deduce a cohesive doctrine of this first wave of African Socialism, one can see several overlaps between its diverse manifestations. One such overlap is the argument that traditional communal elements of African culture are inherently socialist and can serve as the basis for a larger socialist programme. As Robin D. G. Kelley points out in his introduction to Discourse on Colonialism,
Césaire’s insistence that pre-colonial African and Asian cultures were not only ante-capitalist…but also anti-capitalist, anticipated the romantic claims made by African nationalist leaders such as Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and Senghor himself, that modern Africa can establish socialism on the basis of pre-colonial village life.
In his 1962 pamphlet Ujamaa – the Basis of African Socialism, Nyerere argued that: ‘We, in Africa, have no more need of being “converted” to socialism than we have of being “taught” democracy. Both are rooted in our past – in the traditional society which produced us.’
But the first wave of African socialism fell short of delivering the radical promises of independence. Attempts at creating idealist humanisms – such as Nkrumah’s Consciencism and Kaunda’s Zambian Humanism – and their appeal to an idealised past culture (or the cultural uniqueness of Africa) only served to mask class relations in their newly independent nations. What the African socialists failed to understand was that this third way was not possible, and that choice between genuine socialism and neocolonialism was then, as it is now, zero-sum. As A. M. Babu argues in African Socialism or Socialist Africa, ‘it is not enough to peddle socialist rhetoric or simply nationalise the means of production and then sit back, in the belief that we have set in motion a socialist trend’. For Babu, the official African socialism could only reproduce dependency, exploitation and neo-colonial relations. It did not suffice to simply posit the inherently socialist nature of African culture; rather, it may have been more helpful to keep only those parts of traditional culture that were emancipatory so as to forge a new culture based on the principles of revolutionary socialism.
This narrative is somewhat complicated by the contradictory positions that many African socialist leaders held, particularly with regards to non-alignment and the need for class analysis. Let’s take Nkrumah as an example. On the one hand, he had advocated a position of non-alignment by claiming that ‘we must face neither East nor West; we face forward’. But in Revolutionary Path, on the other hand he argues: ‘If we are to achieve revolutionary Socialism, then we must avoid any suggestion that will imply there is any separation between the Socialist World and a “Third World”’.
The 1970 Class Struggle in Africa also shows a Nkrumah deeply concerned with analysing how ‘the close links of class and race developed in Africa alongside capitalist exploitation’. He writes:
Slavery, the master-servant relationship, and cheap labour were basic to it. The classic example is South Africa, where Africans experience double exploitation – both on the ground of colour and class. Similar conditions exist in the US, the Caribbean, in Latin America, and in other parts of the world where the nature of the development has resulted in a racist class structure. In these areas, even the shades of colour count – the degree of blackness being a yardstick by which social status is measured.
In the colonial situation, a racist social structure cannot be thought separately from class exploitation and a racist-capitalist power structure. For the Nkrumah of Class Struggle in Africa, capitalist exploitation and racism are complementary – ‘wherever there is a race problem it has become a linked with the class struggle’. Genuine progress in the struggle against imperialism can only be made if intellectuals adopt Marxism and engage with other Communist organisations that encourage a close contact with workers and peasants. African socialists, thus, must align themselves with the oppressed masses and become conscious of class struggle in Africa.
As Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji has convincingly shown in his comparison of the 1964 edition and the 1970 edition of Nkrumah’s Consciencism, his thought developed further towards class analysis after the 1966 US-backed military coup, where his government was overthrown while he was away on a state visit to North Vietnam and China. In the 1964 edition, Nkrumah still emphasised the socialist elements inherent in African traditional culture; in the 1970 edition he is much more cautious with this claim. This shift of emphasis is also strikingly clear in his 1967 paper ‘African Socialism Revisited’, where he sharply criticises the African socialists who have associated it ‘much more with anthropology than with political economy’ and fetishised African communal life by deluding themselves that it was devoid of social hierarchy. Following the military coup, Ghana cultivated a closer relationship with the US (and associated ‘international’ organisations such as the IMF and World Bank), and cut ties with the Soviet Bloc. The coup was, of course, carried out by US-backed neo-colonial forces – and the second wave of African socialism may help us further understand the internal and external forces driving this process.
The second wave of African socialism – or what is frequently called Afro-Marxism – emerged in the mid 1970s, although the period of preparation for the revolutionary struggle began much earlier. This second phase of socialism on the continent was characterised by the adherence to the principles of official Marxist-Leninism with its focus on a vanguard party that leads the way in a socialist revolution, in countries like Burkina-Faso, Somalia, Congo-Brazaville, Madagascar, Libya, Benin and Ethiopia (although the latter was more militaristic in character than revolutionary). The most radical among this wave, however, were the liberation movements in African Portuguese colonies, who were not constitutional nationalist movements – as the previous African socialists had been – but rather revolutionary movements that sought to overthrow the existing social structures and refashion these along socialist lines. Among the most influential proponents of Afro-Marxism are Amílcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, Agostinho Neto of Angola, Samora Machel of Mozambique, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina-Faso. Lusophone Afro-Marxists faced much tougher conditions than those of the previous wave of African socialists: one need only consider the decade long civil war fought by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels in Angola, or the Frelimo’s armed struggle against Renamo in Mozambique, with both rebel groups having received significant funding and support from the US and apartheid South Africa.
Because the second wave of African socialists had studied the mistakes of the first, its leaders were acutely aware of the dangers of internal opposition and the nature of class relations within their respective countries. In Unity and Struggle, Amílcar Cabral sheds some light on the dynamics driving this process of internal opposition. His theory of neocolonialism can help us understand why African socialist experiments, such as that of Nkrumah failed. In the neo-colonial constellation, Cabral argues, imperialist action often takes the form of creating a native bourgeoisie that is loyal to the bourgeoisie of the imperialist nations. This class of native agents emerges from the petty bourgeoisie of bureaucrats and intermediaries in the trading system. Their loyalty to the imperialist bourgeoisie stifles the development of national productive forces, and inevitably leads to underdevelopment. Hence, this class cannot possibly guide the development of productive forces, and cannot be a truly national bourgeoisie. Under neocolonialism, the struggle for the ‘independent’ state (and political power) is thus between the native working class and imperialist capital. As sharp class distinctions emerge, and demobilise nationalist forces, other ties such as tribal solidarity make their way to the forefront of politics; the only escape from this predicament is the destruction of capitalist and imperialist structures ‘implanted in the national soil’.
What Cabral’s analysis can help us understand is why anti-colonial movements were more concerned with the relations of production or the security of territorial boundaries than the eradication of some anti-Black racism. Unlike Mbembe or the AP™, these movements realised that national sovereignty was an indispensible aspect of the struggle against racism (not anti-Blackness) on a global scale. Cabral argued that neocolonialism (as one form of imperialist domination) works on two different levels: both in Europe and in the underdeveloped countries. In Europe, the working class had been pacified through the development of a privileged proletariat that could lower the revolutionary level of the working classes (i.e. labour aristocracy). Similarly, the late Egyptian economist Samir Amin argued that the privileges of those in the Global North, upheld by their control of key monopolies like technology, global finance and media, make it more difficult for an internationalist left to emerge. To be non-Eurocentric, Amin argues, we must address how the ruling classes of the Global North exert control over the South.
Unfortunately, this has failed to happen. The decline of an anti-imperialist left, and the increasing susceptibility of scholars and activists to the pipe dream of a social democracy that doesn’t rely on racism and the super-exploitation of workers in the Global South i.e. what Sandro Mezzadra and Mario Neuman call ‘Wohlfahrsstaat-Populismus’ (welfare state populism) in Jenseits von Interesse und Identität, points towards such failure. In the days of anti-colonial revolutions, class exploitation and racial or national oppression were fused in the imperialist order. Today, the same applies. Racism still plays a significant role in structuring imperialism – we should take seriously those who attempted to analyse this interconnection and put aside ontological and flat theories of Blackness that preclude any struggle against imperialism by severing all ties between those who are racialised as Black and other non-white workers.
In ‘Racial Formation in an Age of Permanent War’, Nikhil Pal Singh argues that racialised groups in the US are incorporated into a system of racialised wage differentials and precarious labour; they represent the relative surplus population in the US. The security state manages ‘civilisational threats to the nation’ (i.e. its surplus population) by deporting immigrant labour, encouraging mass incarceration and militarising the US border, making those who have been racialised more vulnerable to state violence. But in the contemporary imperialist configuration, value created by the super-exploitation of racialised workers still flows from the Global South to the Global North, where this value is appropriated by multinational companies, the nation states they are based in, and the people that reside in these nation states, as Tony Norfield’s The City and John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century show. We must therefore think seriously about how the nation state structures the process of racialisation in the core and in the periphery, and how different national forms of racialisation exist within an imperialist world system.
Given these political-economic realities, the study of race (and consequently also of Blackness) is always enmeshed in a political struggle: this forces us to consider the political implications of our theoretical analysis. True, we can acknowledge that racism has been written into the ‘base’ of capitalism. And, as with the Césaires’ strategic essentialism, there is a space for the affirmation of a positive Blackness directed at challenging colonial prejudices still tied into the national fabric of states in the Global North. Nonetheless, we must also recognise that there is a dire need for anti-imperialist South-South cooperation. It is easy to forget that the global left discourse was once shaped by such debates: the examples of the Panthers in Algeria, Cabral’s visits to Cuba, Cuban support of the MPLA in Angola, and more, illustrate just how many Black people (including African-American organisations like the Panthers and Amiri Baraka’s Congress of Afrikan People) felt the need for a cross-racial push against colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism.
There exists a political and intellectual tradition that has tried to bring the interconnection between race, neocolonialism and imperialism to the forefront of radical politics. The erasure of this tradition – stretching from Sankara and Cabral to Samir Amin – has only served to embolden ontological theories of Blackness and racialisation that take an African-American diasporic and alienated perspective as a priori truth and have no purpose or meaning for those struggling against the realities of imperialist super-exploitation and national oppression on the ground. As Thomas Sankara forcefully put it in his speech before the UN General Assembly: ‘Down with imperialism! Down with neo-colonialism! […] Eternal victory to the peoples of Africa, Latin America and Asia in their struggle! Fatherland or death: we shall triumph.’
This piece first appeared in print in Salvage #7: Towards the Proletarocene.