Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In what has been described as a “shocking upset,” Aimé Césaire, a Communist Party member, was elected to the municipal council of Fort-de-France shortly after the close of World War II and was chosen by the members of the council to be the mayor of the city. This made him a member of the French Prèmiere Assemblée National Constitutante, the body responsible for the formation of the Fourth Republic. As a deputy in the assembly, he was able to combine his solid educational background in literature and history with the immediate experience of parliamentary debate and deliberation and to hear all of the arguments that were made by French politicians for the continuation of the foreign empire that France had maintained for several centuries.

Although he was never a dogmatic Communist and broke with the party after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Césaire was interested in Marxist thought and felt that the tide of history was running against all of the old colonial arrangements. The revolutionary activities of the Viet Minh in Indo-China had already made it clear that armed resistance to a colonial government would not be easy to suppress, and French colonies along the Mediterranean coast, particularly Algeria, had begun to demand changes in their governmental arrangements. Césaire’s visit to Haiti in 1944 also contributed to his conviction that political independence and cultural autonomy for a colonial state was a real possibility. On the other hand, when the government of the United States, at the insistence of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, backed away from a promise made at the Geneva Conference of 1954 to support free elections in French Indo-China, Césaire felt that the United States might be moving into a position of control just as the old colonial powers were beginning to loosen the grip they had on territories in the Third World. Césaire knew and admired the work of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and recognized aspects of the same racist attitudes he had heard in the French Assembly in the bigotry that American writers such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay described in their works.