Monday, 17 March 2014

Anti-Colonialism and Alienation: Reading Marx in Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism

by Paddy O'Halloran

In reading anti-colonial literature of the mid-Twentieth century, it becomes apparent that there was a close relationship between anti-colonialism and socialism-communism; one that was both practical and ideological.  Why did anti-colonialists draw so much on these political ideologies, and why were so many anti-colonialists also socialists or communists?  One answer would explain the relationship as a matter of strategy: In the 1950s and 60s, the governments of the imperial metropoles were in direct antagonism with a communist superpower, which made political association with the Soviet Union attractive for anti-colonial political parties, movements, and armies; and support for these groups, in Cold War logic, could benefit the Soviet Union by destabilizing and dismantling the Western empires.  However, that answer seems superficial.  In developing a deeper understanding of the relationship between anti-colonialism and communism, the writing of Aimé Césaire proves useful. 

          Césaire defined colonialism, firstly, in economic terms, and emphasized that colonialism not be obscured by religious, legal, or philanthropic misunderstandings.  ‘[W]hat fundamentally is colonization?’ he asks, and answers that it is designed ‘to extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies’, that is, capitalism ([1955]1972, 2).  Therein, capitalism can be equated with the European colonial projects.  The equation is a damning one to Césaire, who extends it by writing that at ‘end of capitalism […] there is Hitler’ (1972, 3); the understanding is that capitalism, though an economic dispensation, has moral and social implications as well, namely racism, exclusion, and violence.
     This introduces an idea that appears quite frequently in Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, and in which the strong connection between communism and anti-colonialism is to be found: alienation.  Marx first wrote of economic alienation in 1844, in an essay that demonstrates the objectification of labor, and the process by which labor ceases to belong to the workers (1844, np).  Césaire adopts the same idea to the anti-colonial ideology.  He writes, ‘Between the colonizer and the colonized there is room only for […] relations of domination and submission,’ relations which ‘turn the indigenous man [sic] into an instrument of production’ (1972, 6); that colonialism is a process of ‘proletarianization and mystification’ of societies that were ‘communal’ and ‘not only ante-capitalist […] but also anti-capitalist’ (1972, 7).

          However, to this point, Césaire, a communist, could merely be targeting colonialism as an aspect of capitalism and attacking it through a communist interpretation.  Indeed, there are many other passages in the Discourse that could be read in this way. However, the concept of alienation for Césaire, and for others opposed to imperialism, extends deeper than the economic terms in which Marx wrote.  Colonialism involves alienation of labor, but also alienation from the land, from the fruits of the land, from pre-colonial political institutions and cultures, from individual and collective identities, and from, above all, humanity—both locally, in the treatment of the colonized as less than human, and globally, in that the colonized are barred from joining the civilized, ‘human’ world which prospers through their alienation.  

          A large portion of Césaire’s Discourse is devoted to quoting the racist remarks of European intellectuals, and the various terms in which they deny colonized peoples (black people, in this case) both the rights and the capacities of being human.  One particular example from a Belgian clergyman seeks to co-opt what he calls ‘Bantu’ theology into the colonial order (1972, 14), a feat that demonstrates the profound pervasiveness of colonialism’s alienating tendencies; it bereaves the colonized not only of practical considerations like land, but of their metaphysics, as well.

In all events, the result is that the colonized become ‘things’, ‘objects’ in both the Marxian economic definition and in subtler ways.  In the essay on alienation, Marx wrote, ‘the human being (the laborer) does not feel himself to be free except in his animal functions’, to the extent that ‘[t]he animal becomes human and the human becomes animal’ (1844).  It is in this, the alienation of people from their humanity, that anti-colonialism finds itself in communism; ‘the laborer’ in Marx is easily replaced by ‘the colonized’ in Césaire. 

          Until Césaire’s middle age, the communists and socialists were those speaking in these terms of alienation that appealed to and were understood by those who also held anti-colonial convictions.  Colonialism, though an aging, possibly stricken, beast through the first half of the Twentieth century, was not in full collapse until the 1950s.  Throughout the former period, it was communists and socialists who spoke of revolution, possibly in the only political rhetoric into which black, colonized peoples could transpose themselves.  For Césaire, at least, and probably others, it is important that socialism and communism are revolutionary in that they seek to transform society, but do not have national independence as a goal.  Césaire was of a like mind; he probably would have considered black nationalism to be as rife with alienating tendencies as the white model.  In writing Discourse on Colonialism, he was not expressing a desire for independence in the colonies, but for equality of colonial people with French people—an end to alienation.

The conclusion to Césaire’s Discourse writes the anti-colonial struggle into the communist-socialist revolution: ‘the Revolution’.  In fact it goes so far as to utterly ignore the colonies and talk about ‘the salvation of Europe’ (1972, 24).  There is a weakness in that, which Césaire himself recognized, later calling it ‘abstract’ communism that did not address the ‘Negro problem’, and talking of the need to ‘complete Marx’ (1972, 27).  He had similar reasons behind his resignation from the French Communist Party in 1956 because of European, and particularly Stalinist, racism.  Black people had a ‘singular’ history, for which they had to take responsibility—‘Europe’ he wrote, can ‘only perfect our alienation’ (1956, np).  It was not a perfect relationship between socialism-communism and anti-colonialism (though the connection continued to be a strong one in many liberation struggles), and Césaire’s writing has a clear place in understanding the reasons behind the relationship, and how it can be problematic.


Césaire, Aimé. ([1955]1972) Discourse on Colonialism, trans. J. Pinkham. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.

Césaire, Aimé. (1956) ‘Letter of Resignation to the French Communist Party’, trans. Chike Jeffers. []

Marx, Karl. (1844) ‘The Alienation of Labor,’ in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844, trans. R. Hooker. []