A Poetics of Anticolonialism

By Kelley, Robin D. G. | Monthly Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview

A Poetics of Anticolonialism


Kelley, Robin D. G., Monthly Review


Author's note: Mad props to Christopher Phelps for inviting me to write this essay; to Franklin Rosemont for passing along key documents, commenting on and correcting an earlier draft, and for his untiring support; to Cedric Robinson for forcing me to come to terms with Cesaire's critique of Marxism in the first place; to Judith MacFarlane for her wonderful and exact translations; to Elleza and Diedra for cultivating the Marvelous. This essay is dedicated to Ted Joans and Laura Corsiglia with love and gratitude for our "Discourse on Theloniolism."

Aime Cesaire's Discourse on Colonialism might be best described as a declaration of war. I would almost call it a "third world manifesto," but hesitate because it is primarily a polemic against the old order bereft of the kind of propositions and proposals that generally accompany manifestos. Yet, Discourse speaks in revolutionary cadences, capturing the spirit of its age just as Marx and Engels did 102 years earlier in their little manifesto. First published in 1950 as Discours sur le colonialisme, it appeared just as the old empires were on the verge of collapse, thanks in part to a world war against fascism that left Europe in material, spiritual, and philosophical shambles. It was the age of decolonization and revolt in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Five years earlier, in 1945, black people from around the globe gathered in Manchester, England, for the Fifth Pan-African Congress to discuss the freedom and future of Africa. Five years later, in 1955, representatives from the Non-Aligned Nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss the freedom and future of the third world. Mao's revolution in China was a year old, while the Mau Mau in Kenya were just gearing up for an uprising against their colonial masters. The French encountered insurrections in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon, and Madagascar, and suffered a humiliating defeat by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Revolt was in the air. India, the Philippines, Guyana, Egypt, Guatemala, South Africa, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Harlem, you name it. Revolt! Malcolm X once described this extraordinary moment, this long decade from the end of the Second World War to the late 1950s, as a "tidal wave of color."

Discourse on Colonialism is indisputably one of the key texts in this "tidal wave" of anticolonial literature produced during the postwar period - works that include W.E.B. DuBois' Color and Democracy (1945) and The World and Africa (1947), Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952), George Padmore's Pan-Africanism or Communism?: The Coming Struggle for Africa (1956), Albert Memmi's The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), Richard Wright's White Man Listen! (1957), Jean-Paul Sartre's essay, "Black Orpheus" (1948), and journals such as Presence Africaine and African Revolution. As with much of the radical literature produced during this epoch, Discourse places the colonial question front and center. Although Cesaire, remaining somewhat true to his Communist affiliation, never quite dethrones the modern proletariat from its exalted status as a revolutionary force, the European working class is practically invisible. This is a book about colonialism, its impact on the colonized, on culture, on history, on the very concept of civilization itself, and most importantly, on the colonizer. In the finest Hegelian fashion, Cesaire demonstrates how colonialism works to "decivilize" the colonizer: torture, violence, race hatred, and immorality constitute a dead weight on the so-called civilized, pulling the master class deeper and deeper into the abyss of barbarism. The instruments of colonial power rely on barbaric, brutal violence and intimidation, and the end result is the degradation of Europe itself. Hence Cesaire can only scream: "Europe is indefensible."

Europe is also dependent. Anticipating Fanon's famous proposition that "Europe is literally the creation of the Third World," Cesaire reveals, over and over again, that the colonizers' sense of superiority, their sense of mission as the world's civilizers, depends on turning the Other into a barbarian. …

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