- Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonisation and the Future of the World by Gary Wilder
Duke, 400 pp, £23.99, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 8223 5850 3
Two of the great 20th-century opponents of colonialism came from a tiny island in the Caribbean that never decolonised. Martinique – the birthplace of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon – was indifferent to the project of national sovereignty, preferring to remain a French ‘overseas department’. Fanon committed himself to the grander project of decolonisation in Africa: The Wretched of the Earth was rooted in his experiences in Algeria. But Césaire, who taught Fanon at school, returned to Martinique in 1939 after his formative years in Paris, going on to become the island’s most powerful politician and the longstanding mayor of its capital, Fort-de-France (a post he held until the age of 87). In Freedom Time, Gary Wilder picks up a lost thread in the story of decolonisation, focusing on the anti-colonialists – chiefly Césaire and his Senegalese contemporary Léopold Sédar Senghor – who, unlike Fanon, rejected the goal of national sovereignty and argued that the best outcome for France’s colonised territories would be a federal arrangement that put all parties on an equal footing. Wilder tells his story of what never happened largely through the writings – and political careers – of Césaire and Senghor.
Césaire was a magnificent anti-colonial rhetorician. In his blistering Discourse on Colonialism, written in 1950, he demolished every justification for the system: it was premised on the destruction of sovereignty, religious communities, long-standing social institutions and artistic heritage. It had destroyed the coloniser, creating a ‘poison’ that was ‘distilled into the veins of Europe’, and fostered ‘relations of domination and submission which turn the colonising man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production’. And yet, at the very time he wrote these words, Césaire the politician was speaking out against Martinique’s separation from France.
Eminent politicians in French-controlled West Africa were campaigning, like Césaire, for their countries to remain legally tied to France. In a referendum across the French Empire in September 1958 – two years before decolonisation in French sub-Saharan Africa – only one country, Guinea, opted for outright independence. Senghor, the future president of independent Senegal and a close friend of Césaire (they had met in Paris as students), called for a federal structure that would bind France and its West African possessions in a new arrangement. Even as events seemed to tip the balance decisively in favour of national self-determination and a clean break – the Algerian war (from 1954), French withdrawal from Vietnam (1954), the independence of Morocco and Tunisia (1956), and Ghanaian independence (1957) – Senghor insisted that federation with France was essential for French-speaking West Africa. In 1955, by which time he had been an overseas deputy in the French National Assembly for ten years, he disparaged independence as an ‘iron collar’ and argued that federalism would herald a new era in which both Africans and Europeans would become full human beings, dispensing with the hierarchies that had divided them.
Other anti-colonialists took Césaire and Senghor’s indifference to sovereign independence as evidence that political office had undermined their radical ideals. Senghor was criticised for his cultural identification with Europe, both before and after independence. During his presidency he translated Hopkins, Yeats and Eliot into French and insisted on maintaining close ties with France; he seemed reluctant to condemn the neocolonial hold European powers continued to enjoy over Africa. On Césaire’s death in 2008, the Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau admitted that he ‘never understood why the author of these writings, which had liberated so many warriors in Africa, was not for the independence of Martinique’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 17 · 7 September 2017
Musab Younis’s review of my book, Freedom Time, is an instance of the reductive understanding of decolonisation that the work of Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire calls into question (LRB, 29 June). Contrary to his assertions, I never simply defend as correct their plan to transform imperial France into a post-national federation. Nor do I reject anti-colonial nationalism as such or treat federalism as a ‘grail’. Rather, I seek to make Senghor and Césaire’s imperfect programme intelligible as a radical response to the challenges of colonial freedom. And I reject the methodological nationalism that leads critics like Younis to dismiss them as imperial apologists because they weren’t revolutionary nationalists.
Younis mistakenly characterises Senghor and Césaire as advocating colonial integration into the French state. But I explain that they sought to explode the republic by creating a transcontinental association of self-governing communities that would be federated within differential unities. This new polity – socialist, democratic and multiracial – would abolish colonialism and supersede the national state. It would disconnect citizenship from ethnicity, turn Europe inside out, and create the basis for an alternative global order.
Both realist and utopian, this programme was certainly not, as Younis suggests, characterised by naivety about French racism and colonialism. It proceeded from the belief that, given global capitalism and imperial politics, de-linking from the West was impossible; mere legal separation would not eliminate relations of socio-economic and geopolitical dependence. Senghor and Césaire thus sought to democratise the transcontinental intersections that imperialism had produced. They also reasoned that European wealth and power was built on colonial resources and labour. They refused to be transformed into foreigners asking for charity from, or the right to enter, a state that already belonged to them, and them to it. They also rejected any attempt to subsume their peoples into the existing republic as non-self-governing minorities unable to protect their distinctive forms of life.
Senghor and Césaire believed that if decolonisation did not also revolutionise social relations in European metropoles, it could never create real freedom. They hoped to overcome the alienating forces that were diminishing human life not only in the global South but also in the West.
Finally, Younis asserts that Senghor and Césaire’s plan was unlikely to be implemented or risked being appropriated by reactionaries. But movements for real political change are always risky, their projects provisional, the danger of appropriation ever present; outcomes are never determined in advance and the chances of success are always minuscule. Given the inability of state sovereignty to ground popular democracy in the world today, it is imperative to invent new forms of self-determination and internationalism that can avoid the pitfalls of parochial nationalism and neoliberal imperialism. Too many anti-imperialists, like Younis, cling to the statist and culturalist pieties that helped bring us to the present impasse. I try to think with Senghor and Césaire about their predicament in order to differently illuminate our own.
City University of New York
Vol. 39 No. 18 · 21 September 2017
It is disappointing that Gary Wilder treats my review of his book as a criticism of Césaire and Senghor, when it was meant as a qualified critique of Wilder’s own commentary on them (Letters, 7 September). He claims that I ‘dismiss’ them as ‘imperial apologists’. In fact, I described Césaire as ‘a magnificent anti-colonial rhetorician’, and did not indicate personal approval of any of the criticisms I reported of Senghor. Neither did I argue that their views were ‘characterised by naivety’, as Wilder claims, but precisely the opposite. I wrote that his ‘reading of Senghor and Césaire … challenges the idea that they were cynical – or naive’.
The central question I raised in my review was not whether dreams of ‘exploding the republic by creating a transcontinental association of self-governing communities’ were sufficiently radical or anti-imperialist in theory, but whether they would have worked in the context of what we know about that historical moment. Questions of political strategy are, as Wilder sees it, ‘reductive’. For those involved in the anti-colonial struggle, they couldn’t be dismissed so easily. ‘Given global capitalism and imperial politics,’ as Wilder puts it, most people across the colonised world understood that ‘de-linking from the West was impossible.’ But recognising that fact, and taking into account the indissoluble histories of coloniser and colonised, did not inevitably lead to the type of political project he outlined.
The question has always been how, exactly, to rectify what the Ghanaian nationalist J.W. de Graft-Johnson called ‘the disequilibrium of human destinies’ that is one of the enduring legacies of the colonial relationship. Other visions existed alongside those in Wilder’s book, including forms of anti-colonial federation and, yes, nationalism that also aimed to achieve ‘socialist, democratic and multiracial’ polities and create an ‘alternative global order’. Needless to say, these possible ways out of empire were all fraught with risks and difficulties. But wouldn’t it make sense to present an accurate view of the range of possibilities, instead of painting imperial federalism as the only visionary project going?
We shouldn’t accept the strange binary that Wilder creates – and repeats once again in his letter – between imperial federalism and what he calls ‘methodological nationalism’. In reality, forms of transnational federalism can end up looking distinctly nationalistic (historical dreams of linking the UK and its former Dominions in a ‘Greater Britain’ are a good example), while nationalisms can work in the service of transnational and global ambitions (think of Cuba). Many of the anti-imperialist projects Wilder dismisses as ‘nationalist’ were, like Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, actually deeply transnational and federal in orientation.