(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.

Civilization Destroyed

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Césaire begins his indictment of colonialism with a series of defining statements pointing to a serious flaw in Western civilization. Asserting that a civilization unwilling to recognize its problems, incapable of solving them when they are impossible to avoid, and then duplicitous in attempting to camouflage them is “decadent” and “dying,” Césaire declares that “two centuries of bourgeois rule” have led to a situation that is “morally, spiritually indefensible.” To support this judgment, he refutes the claim commonly made by representatives of colonial powers that their regimes are intended to be philanthropic enterprises or evangelical missions and shows that these regimes are mercantile endeavors designed to extend the economic structure of their own societies. Contact between civilizations that have followed different paths of development are crucial in sustaining healthy growth through a juxtaposition of varying perspectives because “a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies,” but throughout history, Césaire claims, not “a single human value” has been the result of colonial expeditions.

At the crux of his critique of colonialism is the effect the process has on the colonizing country. Césaire interlaces his commentary with examples of atrocities committed by colonial regimes, assuming that the evidence he cites is irrefutable, but in enumerating the ways in which these atrocities “decivilize the...

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A Call to Action

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The second part of the discourse is a call to action. Césaire, basing his economic analysis on a Marxist construct common to the French intellectuals (including Jean-Paul Sartre) who were his contemporaries, sees colonialism as a part of a capitalist social order that by its nature excludes most people from the rewards of their labor. Assuming that his audience shares his basic assumptions, he directs his words to the attentive “comrade” who is ready to challenge the “enemies” of a genuinely civilized society.

Continuing in the poetic mode he finds comfortable, Césaire identifies these “enemies” in a colorful catalogue of invectives, excoriating “venomous journalists, goitrous academician . . . the hoodwinkers, the hoaxers, the hot-air artists, the humbugs” among others, supporters of “plundering capitalism” who he insists are “answerable for the violence of revolutionary action.” Balancing solid scholarship with exhilarating bursts of vivid language, Césaire continues his citation of prominent sociologists and academicians whose theories about the Bantu need for dependence, or the Madagascan rejection of personal responsibility are justification for the “Occidental obligation” to these people. Lacing his remarks with a withering sarcasm, Césaire applauds the efforts of these men to keep under control the more vicious methods of colonialist administrators who are “less subtle and more brutal,” but ruefully observes that those who resort to force to compel obedience have become less interested in appeals to world opinion and that Hitler is the culmination of the colonialist program. This leads him back to his initial position that modern European civilization has been seriously compromised and corrupted by two centuries of colonialism.

Descent into Darkness

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Recapitulating, Césaire restates his fundamental position that colonialism “cannot but bring about the ruin of Europe,” and then moves toward an affirmative conclusion by counterposing the work of ethnographers (who respect the cultures they examine) with theoreticians of imperialism (whose preconceptions about the cultures they describe results in racist dismissal). Deftly selecting passages that effectively illustrate the biases of the defenders of colonialism, Césaire sees them as proof of his contention that “the West has never been further from being able to live a true humanism,” and warns that the United States may pose the greatest threat to a restoration of humane values as “American high finance” replaces European soldiers to “raid every colony in the world.”

In a sense, Césaire is using the United States as a symbol of the mechanization of the modern world in accordance with its ascendance as a superpower after World War II. His hope is that Europe (by which he means the West) will become what he calls “the awakener of countries” in the spirit of the great achievements of the Enlightenment that formed the basis for his own classical education. If not, he foresees a descent into “the pall of mortal darkness” for European civilization and maintains that the only way that Europe can redeem itself is through revolution—an idea that he does not discuss in detail but which was a part of his continuing commitment to a Marxist view of history that persisted even after he rejected the dogma of the Communist Party.

The Legacy of a Pioneer

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism was a groundbreaking venture into previously unmentionable territory, introducing an issue that was not regarded as appropriate for consideration by the Western powers before World War II. It was a sensitive subject immediately following the war because of fears of Soviet expansion into a power vacuum, the unease felt by countries such as France and Great Britain, which had been devastated by the war, and by countries such as Germany and Japan, which had temporarily lost any influence they might have had in global politics. The principles of democracy that had theoretically guaranteed the autonomy of all people were not always actually applied in terms of international politics as the Cold War made the West cautious about radical changes in governmental arrangement. Nonetheless, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Great Britain and France to justify a continuataion of their colonial empires, and the end of British rule in India set a precedent for change.

Colonialism had been under attack prior to Césaire’s essay, but many of the more persuasive critics were dismissed as Communist sympathizers, a charge made easier by what was often a Marxist foundation (or parallel) to their critique. Césaire’s essay was so singular in its style that it attracted immediate attention, although some who agreed with the thrust of his attack were unsettled by the vituperative nature of his language and imagery, and...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Arnold, A. James. Introduction to Césaire’s Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, by Aimé Césaire. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Provides a succinct introduction to Aimé Césaire’s life and work. Offers critical observations that supplement and extend many of the readings in Arnold’s important Modernism and Negritude.

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This work is certainly the definitive study of Césaire’s poetry and its relationship to both negritude and modernism. Highly readable and elegantly written.

Davies, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A generally chronological examination of the evolution of Césaire’s poetic and intellectual development and its connection to his aesthetics and politics.

Frutkin, Susan. Aimé Césaire: Black Between Worlds. Coral Gables, Fla.: Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, 1973. A short but clearly written document on Césaire’s career. Frutkin covers the biographical details, both actual and intellectual, in a thoroughly convincing manner. While pointing out Césaire’s undeniable contribution to various African American movements, she places him accurately between the two worlds of his French heritage and his black identity.

Kennedy, Ellen Conroy, ed. The Negritude Poets. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An excellent collection of translations of French poetry written by black writers from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean area. Kennedy’s preface to Césaire’s work serves as an informative introduction to his work, his career, and his literary significance. Although purists may wince, her abridgment and summary of Return to My Native Land might make Césaire’s difficult work more accessible to the beginner.