Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"A Palimpsest of Contradictions": Ethnicity, Class, and Politics in Africa

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"A Palimpsest of Contradictions": Ethnicity, Class, and Politics in Africa

Article excerpt

John Lonsdale's use of the striking metaphor, "a palimpsest of contradictions," to describe the colonial state in Kenya in our first joint paper sent me running to the dictionary. A palimpsest is simply "a manuscript written over a partly erased older manuscript in such a way that the old words can be read beneath the new."1 It vividly makes a similar point to two of Karl Marx's most famous aphorisms. The first deals with the relationship between social structure and human agency in history: "Men make history, but not actually as they will, but under conditions given and determined in the past. The ghost of all dead generations weighs upon the conscience of the living like a nightmare." The second is his characterization of the state, not the incessantly quoted and often misleading characterization of it as the "executive committee of the bourgeoisie," but his more profound description of the state as the "résumé of society." For twenty-five years the two of us have worked to translate these vivid images into an approach to the method and theory of studying the political economy, state, and culture in Africa, both historical and contemporary.

In 1992 we produced a book recording the first dozen years of that collaboration, and in reviewing its development we concluded that "we must again take seriously the subjective cognitive dimensions of colonial and contemporary Africa-the construction of meanings as well as structures-contained in knowledge and belief, ideology and culture among Africans as well as Europeans, as they acted within and against the constraints of their times," and noted this required "that we reassess some of the most basic and taken-for-granted concepts in African studies-such as nationalism and the secular industrial nation-state as the inevitable end of development, and even more important, African custom and tradition-as socially constructed artifacts that reflect particular social and political interests and continue to shape vital and living African histories."2 This thinking has led us to a focus on three particular areas of concern: the relationship between the state and society in colonial and postcolonial states, the cultural response of African societies to capitalist modernity as it was imposed upon and experienced by them, and the relationship between African political cultures and the modern development of ethnicity and class. In each of these areas we have attempted to combine the analysis of culture, cognition, and human agency with the analysis of social structural forces of material property, production, and class to produce explanations of historical complexity and diversity. The present essay reviews our work over the past dozen years and, in particular, pays tribute to John Lonsdale's remarkable combination of wide historical erudition, deep cultural understanding and theoretical creativity. While we have applied our efforts primarily to the study of colonial Kenya, the method and theory are of wider application in Africa and, indeed, elsewhere for understanding the varied local experiences of the political economy, politics, and culture of colonialism and modernity. Lonsdale's work has, in particular, opened the way towards deeper understanding of the development and internal conflicts of African ethnicity, class, gender, and generation; the development of African political discourse, including indigenous constructions of history; and the turbulent confrontations of these factors with disparate elements of capitalism and the state.

Method and Theory in the Study of African History and Politics

The study of Africa (and, indeed, the rest of the world) has been undermined by attempts to develop and apply theories that claim universal relevance as "objective" science, whether neoclassical economics, rational-choice theory, dependency theory, or some versions of Marxist theory. Such efforts at a scientistic universalism leads to "one size fits all" theorizing that we have found historically fallacious, intellectually misleading, and politically disastrous. …

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