Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Cesaire and postwar France

Césaire, Aimé. Discours sur le colonialisme. Présence Africaine, 1989. [1950?]

Reading Aimé Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme (1950) has affirmed my belief that products of the post-war Parisian intelligentsia need very much to be contextualized. I bought my copy of Césaire’s famous pamphlet used; they had several copies, probably it had been assigned in a class. The library has a similar edition. The original date of publication isn’t even to be found anywhere (instead we get a 1989 Présence Africaine copyright). The austerity of this edition should be compared to the more recent English-language translation, which has a flashy cover and an introduction.

This is an excellent opportunity to practice what I have recently come to think of as one of the main techniques, or perhaps the central imperative, of contextual intellectual history: to push back down into the muck of context any text that attempts to transcend the circumstances of its production and reception. One may say, generously, that it is only by assiduously contextualizing that it is possible to see the true value of any given work; the true value meaning the degree to which it is able to escape from its context. Put in more Lacaprian terms: certain texts resist the reader more than others, these are the texts to which we return, which challenge us—which are valuable. I’m a bit suspicious of this rarely-articulated valorization of transcendence and resistance.

At any rate, to Césaire. In 1950 Césaire was a member of the PCF, and this to me is the loudest voice in the Discours. His position is difficult, because he wants to demonstrate both the utter bankruptcy of European civilization, but also to save certain elements of it. This is, I think, typical both of the French-educated anti-colonialists of this period, and also for the most part of the Communists. Colonialism and racism aren’t put in a causal relationship here, as far as I can tell, but they are both barbarous; it is by way of the bridge-head of barbarism provided by colonial culture that racism enters Europe at its very heart, and leads, ultimately, to Hitler. Colonialism is a poison at the heart of European civilization, which has rendered it weak and decadent.

In a remarkable feat of historical parallelism, Césaire argues that just as Rome ultimately opened its gates to barbarians by destroying all the other civilizations around it, so Europe is failing because it has so relentlessly snuffed out the civilizations around it. I’m paraphrasing here, but the language of civilization, Europe, decadence, barbarism, poison...this is all very much Césaire’s. In the final pages, Césaire asserts that in order to save itself, Europe must put everything it has in the service of the proletariat Revolution that is in process in the areas it previously colonized. Save itself from what?

Et alors, je le demande: qu’a-t-elle fait d’autre, l’Europe bourgeoise? Elle a sapé les civilisations, détruit les patries, ruiné les nationalités, extirpé ‘la racine de diversité.’ Plus de digue. Plus de boulevard. L’heure est arrivée du Barbare. Du Barbare moderne. L’heure américaine. Violence, démesure, gaspillage, mercantilisme, bluff, grégarisme, la bêtise, la vulgarité, le désordre. (57)

That’s quite a list. So it’s the Americans, as the new avatars of capital, that must now be fought. Indeed, in the next lines we go directly from Wilson being asked what America will do now that it is about to control the world (in 1913!), to Truman’s generous offers of assistance to a ruined Europe. There’s a certain amount of controversy in the historiography right now about Truman, the Marshall plan, and American involvement in Europe in the postwar period. Did the Marshall plan really restart the European economy? In what sense? There is evidence that well before American capital began to flow into Europe, things had begun to get better—so perhaps it is hope that the US imported, before dollars? The relationship between hope and money is not, I think, likely to be understood soon, though perhaps closer attention to 1945-1955 in Europe isn’t a bad way of looking into it. This aside, it is possible to look, without much trouble, at the front pages of L’Humanité and other leftist newspapers in this period, and you’ll find plenty of anti-American vitriole. Graphs demonstrating how basic foodstuffs are becoming more expensive as a result of the Marshall plan, which was broadly accused of being a form of colonialism—after all, the story would go, we Europeans certainly know what economic domination looks like, having practiced it for long enough. So in this sense Césaire isn’t stepping very far from the PCF platform.

Much of the Discours is taken up by quotes or critiques of various writers, from Renan to Roger Caillois. (The former more or less equals Hitler, for Césaire—I wonder if Said draws much on Césaire for his treatment of Renan in Orientalism? Probably not). The critique of Caillois is interesting for several reasons, and a nice way to discuss the smallness of the Parisian world. Caillois is exactly the same age as Césaire, and also attended the lycée Louis-le-grand, though they may not have overlapped there. Caillois, in the 1930s, was a student of the cutting edge of academic ethnography in France (Dumézil, Mauss), and also (not coincidentally) with certain offshoots of the Surrealist camp. He was involved with Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris in the creation of the short-lived Collège de sociologie. He was a hard-left anti-fascist, but (especially like Bataille) strange and scary, interested in limit experiences. During the war, Caillois goes to Argentina. He becomes something of a literary power-broker after the war, and is instrumental in bringing various South American writers to the attention of Paris, most notably Borges. But he also, after the war, repudiates the Communism of his younger years. In 1951, he published a pamphlet called Description du marxisme, that attacked Marxist dogmas of various kinds, generally accused it of being incoherent and, as a description of social reality, simply rendered obsolete by more recent sociological work. The young Roland Barthes wrote two extremely negative reviews of the booklet in leftist papers. (Barthes, by the by, may actually have been at Louis-le-Grand at the same time as Césaire).

So if one asks why it is that Césaire devotes 7 pages of a 60 page pamphlet to Caillois, we can perhaps respond by putting the Discours next to the broader policy of hard-left French intellectuals in the postwar of reflexively and viciously attacking anyone who criticized Marxism as a way of understanding the world. There are shades here—not everyone is actually PCF, and people still have differing views about what things are like in the USSR, but we can divide the great mass of the French intelligentsia in the years just after the war between the harder left (Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror) for whom the historical destiny of the Soviet Union must be defended unconditionally, and the softer left, for whom, at the very least, one can safely speak of the moral equivalency of the USA and the Soviet Union (Barthes, and others). It is this last position, really, that Tony Judt, for instance, is so intent on overturning. Cesaire should really be seen in terms of this debate, and his critique of colonialism should be seen as involved, at least instrumentally, with the ‘larger’ debate about Revolution and the Proletariat (both emphatically capitalized) going at this time.

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