Against Independence

Musab Younis

  • 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’.

Crucially, Césaire and Senghor started out as poets rather than politicians. Along with their friend Léon Damas, from French Guiana, they had become famous in the mid-1930s for their concept of négritude, a powerful, essentialist affirmation of black identity, couched in terms of culture, history and – in Senghor’s case – a claim to specific kinds of cognition that European civilisation had forgotten, or never had. By turning the derogatory term nègre into a badge of pride, they were following in the footsteps of the Harlem Renaissance and an earlier generation of black radicals in Paris that included the Senegalese communist Lamine Senghor (no relation to Léopold), the Malian Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté and Kojo Tovalou Huénou, a self-styled prince from Dahomey. They were products of France’s system of elite colonial assimilation, and their celebration of blackness – and African civilisation – caught the attention of metropolitan intellectuals. In ‘Black Orpheus’, a preface to Senghor’s anthology of ‘new black poetry’ in the 1940s, Sartre argued that négritude was a revolutionary idiom that had turned the French language against its imperialist origins and pressed it into the service of black peoples, allowing poets to ‘speak this language in order to destroy it’. (He also argued that négritude was an ‘anti-racist racism’; Senghor, who had refined his original position, was inclined to agree.) The exponents of négritude saw it less starkly. While they found much to reject in colonialism, Césaire and Senghor didn’t reject France tel quel: it remained a central reference for them in both literary and political terms.

Césaire was reluctant to develop négritude into a formal system: it meant for him ‘the simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture’. Senghor preferred to think of it in philosophical terms, writing about the ‘intuitive’ nature of African reason in contrast to its ‘analytical’ European counterpart, and celebrating the ‘Negro soul’. Both agreed on the centrality of culture to political and moral change – it was ‘the most powerful means of revolutionary action’, as Senghor put it – and both hoped for a future in which Europeans and Africans would continue to interact. Senghor, steeped in the 19th-century French poets, became fixed on the idea of cultural métissage, arguing that cultures become stale if they aren’t constantly exposed to external influences. In Wilder’s explanation, Senghor identified ‘human self-realisation’ as the goal of any society and privileged ‘aesthetic creation’ as a way to achieve it. Césaire, too, saw art as a ‘privileged medium’ that would bring about ‘true decolonisation’.

Césaire developed his position in part, he claimed, from his experience of a sobering counter-example. In 1944, he spent seven troubled months in Haiti as a cultural ambassador for the provisional French government. As Wilder notes, he later admitted that he had been overwhelmed by Haiti’s impoverished and ‘terribly complex society’: ‘I saw what should not be done! A country that had conquered its liberty, that had conquered its independence, and which I saw was more miserable than Martinique, a French colony!’ The same, he felt, ‘could very well happen to us Martinicans’. (The problem of Haiti haunts Césaire’s play The Tragedy of King Cristophe, set during the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, which ended in 1804 with independence and the formal abolition of slavery.) Following his return to Martinique, Césaire used his seat as a Communist Party member of the French National Assembly to push for the full implementation of legislation that would extend all past and future metropolitan laws and decrees to the overseas departments. The ‘departmentalisation’ law was passed, but with crucial revisions – for example, the removal of the provision that all future French laws would be automatically extended to overseas departments – that weakened its impact.

Césaire continued to demand complete implementation of laws, warning that ‘a parody of assimilation’ would not satisfy Martinican demands. But, as Wilder explains, successive prefects of Martinique, appointed in Paris, continued the colonial tradition of authoritarian policing, clamping down on demonstrations, breaking strikes, closing newspapers, imprisoning dissidents. In 1956, Césaire resigned from the Communist Party and rejected departmentalisation in favour of a federal system that would give more autonomy to Martinique. He criticised the party for sidelining the colonial question: Marxism and communism, he insisted, should serve black people, rather than drawing them into the service of the cause. He called for a ‘Copernican Revolution’ in the anti-colonial struggle and expressed his solidarity with the Algerian national liberation struggle. Yet he continued to draw the line at independence for Martinique. Rejecting what he called ‘the autonomy of poverty’, he demanded investment from the metropole and claimed that federalism was an advance on bourgeois parliamentarianism, and invoked Marx, Bakunin, Lenin and Proudhon.

By then Senghor had also been drawn into politics. A soldier in the colonial infantry, he was captured in France by the Germans in 1940, and spent two years in POW camps where he wrote poetry, which he hoped to make his vocation. But politics too was a strong contender. In 1942 he was released and by 1945 he was a member of the French Constituent Assembly in Paris, representing the Senegalese section of the French Socialist Party; he retained a seat in the National Assembly under the Fourth Republic. He hoped that the service of black men in the French army and as résistants would transform metropolitan attitudes towards Africans: he had read Goethe during his internment and taken the ideal of hybrid cosmopolitanism to heart. Wilder is surely right to speak of a ‘deep resonance’ between his aesthetic, cultural and political values.

At the Brazzaville Conference, convened by De Gaulle in 1944, ‘any possibility of evolution outside the French imperial bloc’ was ruled out. Even so there was widespread recognition that France would have to review its relationship with its African possessions. Senghor remained optimistic, challenging France to live up to its promises of reform. ‘We have had our fill of good words – to the point of nausea,’ he declared in 1945. Reforms were undertaken on forced labour, development financing and political representation in the colonies. The first draft of the postwar French constitution was supported by the overseas deputies, including Senghor, but rejected by the French in a referendum in May 1946.

The following month, the Communists lost their dominant position in the Assembly, pro-colonial and settler interests regrouped, and De Gaulle publicly stated his opposition to a federalist union that would compromise metropolitan power and authority. The overseas deputies still hoped for a democratic federation, but they were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. The new draft of the constitution was, as Wilder notes, closer to a blueprint for ‘a federal empire’ than anything else (and this time it was approved by referendum). Undeterred, Senghor continued to push for a ‘Union of French Socialist Republics’. ‘Together,’ he promised, ‘we will create a new civilisation, whose centre will be in Paris.’ Europe could be a ‘third force’ counterbalancing the US and USSR, he argued, with the voluntary association of its African colonies. Senegal’s independence, which came in 1960, marked the end of his hopes for a different type of political arrangement. He remained the country’s president until 1980.

Wilder’s reading of Senghor and Césaire is subtle and engaging, and challenges the idea that they were cynical – or naive. Their shared wish to retain connections with France wasn’t simply the reflex of assimilated elites, he argues, but grounded in the need to ‘invent forms of decolonisation that would secure self-determination without the need for state sovereignty’. They are sometimes mistaken for fawning advocates of empire, yet they (and their fellow travellers) grasped that imperialism, despite the violence and inequality it entailed, ‘had created conditions for new types of transcontinental political association’. Both wanted to end the colonial system, but neither wished to trade it in for ‘unitary republicanism’, which lacked the pluralistic, transnational features of imperialism that they valued. In different ways, Wilder suggests, both men recognised the history of interdependence between metropolitan France and the people it had colonised and hoped to ‘protect the latter’s economic and political claims on a metropolitan society their resources and labour had helped to create’.


But Wilder doesn’t address the central question of what was actually possible between 1945 and 1960 for France’s colonies. In theory, of course, the relationship between an imperial power and its possessions can evolve into federation. Yet the risk that it will simply replicate and update the old order is immense; and Wilder agrees that during the postwar ‘French Union’ with colonial Africa (1946-58) – the pseudo-federal prelude to decolonisation – replication is essentially what happened. It’s a major concession on his part to admit that the only example of the model he favours turned out to be colonialism in another guise. But he dismisses the possibility that Césaire and Senghor were mistaken about the options available to France’s colonial populations after the war.

What would a federal solution have looked like? Tens of millions of dark-skinned people, many of whom didn’t consider themselves French at all, would have become French citizens in colonies where, until recently, they had been subject to arbitrary rule. The inhabitants of Yamoussoukro, Cotonou and Dakar would have been granted the same rights as those of Nantes, Lille and Paris. The centre of French political gravity would have shifted away from Paris towards the former colonies. Would French politicians ever have acquiesced to a truly democratic federal solution along these lines? Wilder insists that ‘French imperialism created conditions for an alternative federal democracy’ and that ‘there are no a priori grounds’ for dismissing Senghor out of hand; the idea of a ‘postimperial polity’ was plausible. But then he backs off: ‘I am not suggesting that Africans could have found a way to accommodate themselves to a reformed colonialism or that decolonisation may not have been necessary.’ So which is it?

Wilder admires Césaire and Senghor because they rejected ‘the doxa that self-determination required state sovereignty’: they refused ‘to conflate popular sovereignty with territorial sovereignty’ and turned away from the ‘nationalist logic of decolonisation’. But many anti-colonial nationalists saw state sovereignty as a strategic necessity, not an end in itself, and understood what Fanon called the ‘pitfalls of national consciousness’. Wilder is so eager to propose pro-French federalism as the lost grail that he casts its African opponents, who opted for outright independence, as doctrinaire nationalists, even though they were well aware of the dangers of the course they had taken. At the same time, he ignores many inflections of the federal idea. There is no mention of the pan-African leaders organised around the Ghanaian head of state Kwame Nkrumah, who argued that their new sovereignty should be dissolved in an African federal structure; no discussion of the union formed in 1958 between Ghana, Guinea and Mali, opposed to the hermetic notion of sovereignty on the one hand and continued imperial ties on the other. In the Caribbean context, the West Indies Federation (1958-62) also goes unexplored, even though it too had a project of anti-colonial federalism.

There is only fleeting mention in Freedom Time of France’s attempted recolonisation of Vietnam after 1945, its bombing of Damascus in the same year, its suppression of the uprisings in Madagascar that began in 1947 and its ‘brutal retaliation’ in Algeria. Nowhere are these episodes (along with others, such as the ruthless destruction of Cameroon’s UPC) weighed against the sanguine vision of Franco-colonial relations proposed by Césaire and Senghor. When voters in Guinea rejected the French Union in a referendum in 1958, there was a ‘punitive’ reaction, Wilder notes in passing, and leaves it at that. In fact, Guinea’s decision – delivered after ten years of grassroots campaigning for a No vote – was met with a French drive to sabotage the newly independent country: civil servants were withdrawn, government files were destroyed, the French secret service flooded the country with fake banknotes, shipments of food and medicine were diverted, even the lightbulbs in government buildings were removed. Guinea’s experience provides a sharp counterpoint to Senghor’s lofty vision of France as an orchestra with a part for even ‘the smallest African flute’. It also alerts us to the possibility that Senghor had learned from Guinea what the consequences of an anti-federalist position could be for Senegal.

Wilder tells us, at the end of his book, that France went on to develop a ‘criminal system of neocolonial control over African states that became known as la Françafrique’.[*] It involved ‘corrupt alliances with authoritarian rulers of anti-democratic governments’ and ‘financial and military pressure on nation-states it treated as quasi-colonial outposts with protected markets for French business interests’, supported ‘by a corrupt extra-legal network of spies, covert operatives, mercenaries, arms dealers and corporations, especially oil companies’. This sudden revelation comes as a surprise after Wilder’s cheerful vision of ‘a decentralised democratic federation that would include former colonies as freely associated member states’. The racial attitudes enshrined in Françafrique echo those of the preceding imperial age, and the colonial wars of the Fourth and Fifth Republics: they would have led to fiercely racialised struggle in any democratic post-colonial federation, which would have included not territories like Martinique, with a population smaller than present-day Bristol, but tens of millions of Africans.

Recent scholarship has sunk the idea that, unlike Britain, Germany or the US, France between the wars was colour-blind in its citizenship policies. With the arrival of non-whites in the metropole after the First World War, a defensive, institutionalised racialism set in and quickly compromised the notion of citizenship. In the interwar period, France developed the world’s largest and most sophisticated immigration service to process waves of colonial workers and refugees from fascism. The eugenics movement took root: prominent public officials warned of the threat of outsiders, some of them black, brown and Asiatically ‘yellow’. The radical pan-Africanist group in interwar Paris that gathered around Lamine Senghor argued that it was pointless trying to ‘assimilate’ because France would never allow a ‘rising tide of colour’ to challenge white supremacy in the metropole.

Today, almost a century later, the Front National has become a major party whose leader, Marine Le Pen, made it to the run-off in the recent presidential election. She speaks of citizens beyond her own tribe as ‘people whose beliefs, values and practices are not ours, who don’t have a vocation to be in France’, and in the election campaign she promised to cut immigration, increase deportations, strip bi-nationals of citizenship, institute preventive detention and increase the prison population. Senghor dreamed of a federal, democratic France that incorporated its former colonies as free and equal members. His critics warned that he was in for a long struggle with institutional and popular racism in the metropole. They had a point.

[*] Stephen W. Smith wrote about Françafrique in the LRB of 11 February 2010.