Is Afrocentrism a necessary step?

Interview with Sophie Bessis, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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In her latest essay published with Editions la Découverte entitled L’Occident et les Autres: histoire d’une suprématie (to be published by Zed Books in English in December 2002 under the title of Western Supremacy: The Triumph of an Idea) Sophie Bessis paints a historical, economic, geopolitical and cultural portrait of the West’s relationship with the Other. Her analysis extends from the Renaissance through to today, which enables her to examine the South’s reactions to Western supremacy. Bessis also provides several suggestions for how to best live together and recommends that the South appropriate the universal values of the West but indigenise them. Her advice to the West is to be less arrogant.

You start your essay with an autobiographical note. Academic authors don’t usually tell us where they’re coming from!
This is the first I’ve used « I » in a book, for two reasons. Firstly, this book is the fruit of a range of experiences, some of which are individual. Secondly, I believe in the psychoanalytical formula you cited (that is, knowing where we’re speaking from) because it makes sense.
Were you influenced by Tears of the White Man by Pascal Bruckner (1987)?
I don’t think so. I found it interesting, which is an entirely different matter – even though I’m fairly critical of his reading of the colonial relationship. What most prompted the « ‘I » at the beginning of my book is the individual element in my career path, which actually laid the foundations for my career choices. I am a Jewish North African, and am therefore in a minority, which is always an unusual position in society. Furthermore, from adolescence I have had experience of Sub-Saharan Africa – a very rare thing for North Africans. It is this mixture that gave rise to the book.
It makes me think of Alice Cherki’s book on Frantz Fanon (2000). This generation seems to want to review decolonisation.
Alice Cherki was already an adult at the time of the Algerian war, whereas I was still a child. I belong to the generation born during the colonial period but that lived through the euphoria and disappointments of the independences. I also belong to the last generation of internationalist Marxists. After us came people who were more marked by the issue of identity. In fact, my generation was on the cusp. That’s the reason why I have undertaken this examination of the past.
Have you thought of comparing your path with that of Albert Camus?
No! Firstly, he wasn’t from the same generation at all. Secondly, I think the French often lump all pieds-noirs together. Camus is a real pied-noir, who viewed himself as such. He did not suffer his situation but rather assumed his role. His culture and points of reference were different from those of the old North African Jewish heritage that I’m part of and which is as old as North Africa itself. This culture wasn’t brought with the West’s arrival in Africa, whereas the pied-noir community is a product of that intrusion.
How about Albert Memmi then?
Yes. Memmi is a Tunisian Jew, like me. Portrait d’un colonisé et du colonisateur (1957) (due out in English under the title of Colonizer and the Colonized in September 2002) is an all-time favourite of mine.
You write at the beginning of your essay that « The Western paradox resides in the faculty to produce universal values, to raise them to the rank of absolutes, to violate their principles with a fascinating sense of order and then to feel the need to elaborate theoretical justifications for these violations »*. Where, in your opinion, does the West’s ambiguity come from?
From its very history. The Wests is unique for having produced thinkers that have constantly criticised it. This also explains its greatness. Marxism has produced an economic explanation for the ambiguity of the West. According to Marxism, the West has elaborated universal ideals, but by wanting to exploit the entire planet it cast them aside in order to periodically fell the earth’s wealth. To reduce the Other to slavery, the West had to say that the Other was different, inferior. I also think that one of the factors contributing to this paradox can be found in the period before secularisation. At the time people who didn’t believe in the Revelation were not entirely human. From the 16th Century onwards, Western Europe has always had a hegemonic way of projecting itself elsewhere. It was obliged to cast aside its principles in order to exploit other parts of the world. However, it also made absolutes of these principles and therefore couldn’t violate them in all impunity! So, the West had to create a whole set of theories to give itself the authority to break them. That’s how the principle of equality between all humans coexisted with slavery and colonisation. You could say that the West doesn’t constitute a single civilisation that reduced the others to slavery. At one time in History this was generalised commercial practice. However, since the Others didn’t claim to have these principles of equality, slavery wasn’t so scandalous.
Octavio Paz or the Iranian historian, Daryush Sheyegan, think that despite the violence of the West it was the only civilisation to produce modernity. Is this kind of courageous reflection missing in North and Sub-Saharan Africa?
Absolutely. Latin American societies are born of the West and are a product of the fact that the indigenous populations were reduced into servitude. Because of this heritage, Latin American intellectuals are, in my opinion, much closer to Western thought than intellectuals from other continents. Therefore, Latin American intellectuals, except for the Indigenist minority, are at ease with Spanish and Portuguese cultures, making it easier to attribute modernity to the West. Persia on the other hand produced great thinkers and had an immense influence on Arabic thinking. The explanation for Daryush Sheyegan’s position may be this historical density, this conviction that they have nothing to envy of Western civilisation. The West has never contested the fact that Persia was a civilisation. You could say that only societies that were either born of the West (the Latin Americans) or whose civilisation was never questioned by the West can allow themselves the generosity of accrediting the West as the sole producers of modernity. Which, in my opinion, isn’t wrong. The reason why there aren’t any such thinkers in Africa and the Arab world is that they are possibly the two regions whose cultural structure has been the most torn apart by contact with the West. However, I think that in Sub-Saharan Africa today, and in the Arab world, it is time that thinkers step outside what I call « reactivity » to address the issue of modernity.
Marxist universalism did not escape Western paradoxes that the Marxists attribute to the thirst for capital gain. This is a very fraternal ideology, with people who sometimes gave of themselves…
That’s true. There were people who gave their lives out of solidarity with the colonised peoples. That’s undeniable. In this respect, we have a debt to them. Here again, is an example of the Western paradox – what I call the culture of supremacy contains both a pretensions towards hegemony and messianic pretensions, although it is more an a-religious messianism here. Communism bears witness to an amazing conviction of equality of all in the world’s peoples right to dispose of themselves as they see fit and at the same time to shout loud and strong that the liberation must be driven by the European proletariat. I think that Communist thinkers, whether internationalist and convinced of the equality of all humans and of their right to freedom, were first and foremost products of Western culture. When you read Marx, you realise how much his ideas are both born of Hegel and Western narcissism.
Were they right in thinking that they had an obligation to guide the others to happiness?
Firstly, you can’t make people happy against their wishes. Secondly, you can’t make people happy without their involvement. As long as people are not the makers of their own History, they can’t really enter History. The error of Western both hegemony and communism, being its offspring, is to deny the Others the making of their own History. When we’re simply spectators of our own story, we’re destined to make errors, just as Communism was – someone else thinks for you and liberates you. To cut a long story short, your told that you’re the brawn, and they’re the brains. As long as this dichotomy exists, freedom isn’t possible, because freedom is when you’re both the brawn and the brains!
This paternalistic attitude still exists today! It’s as if we hadn’t learnt anything from History.
That’s what I’m trying to demonstrate in my book, even if this attitude has taken many different forms throughout history. Okay, so Western societies aren’t monolithic. There are people who question. There are North-South influences. What would Western culture be today without the South’s influence in music and fine arts, etc. Despite the richness of Western intellectual thinking on the relationship with the Other, the West still can’t think of itself outside of its supremacy.
The second part of your essay is entitled « le temps du backlash » [a time of backlash]. What is the significance of the term « backlash »?
Backlash: the undeclared war against American women is a book written by American feminist Susan Faludi. I re-used her feminist terminology that could also be translated by the « return of the cudgel ». At the time of the so-called « decolonisations » and during the period immediately following, intellectuals from the colonising countries saw that the Others were emerging on their own by fighting for their freedom. This intrusion of the Other into the public space, into politics, into society, into discourse, and so on – Nehru, Lumumba, Cabral, etc. – raised very real questions. Why is it that we wonder so much less about them today? Maybe it’s because the Other is now at home. For the average Westerner, the Other essentially represents what Westerners consider their threatening aspects, that is, through immigration, terrorism, etc.
If there isn’t a single monolithic West why did you entitle your book, L’Occident et les Autres in French (in English, The West and the Others)?
I admit that the title is a little extreme. Nevertheless, even if there are distinct, conflicting and varied schools of thought, even if the West has diverging interests, I do think that (to use an old Marxit term) these are all secondary contradictions. The West thinks of itself as such. I have neither invented the term, nor its content.
There’s still the question of Lenin. What about that?
At the end of my book, I tried to provide several possible – utopic – avenues. To my mind, utopia is essential. However, to achieve it we need to go beyond reactive reflexes such as Afrocentrism and Arab nationalisms. In my opinion, they are the archetypical manifestation of what I call reactive thought. In other words, « since you say we’re inferior, we’re telling you we’re superior ». It’s exactly the same logic, what Maxime Rodinson calls the culture of resentment. What characterises current thought in the South (in many countries), is that the thinking isn’t autonomous with respect to Western thinking. Whether we want it to be this way or not, whether we like it or not, there is no autonomous intellectual creation, there is only reactive thought. I would even go so far as to say that the fact that there isn’t any autonomous thought doesn’t necessarily bother me. A writer once said that the worst thing for a society is for it to be left alone with itself. And this is currently the problem with identitarian separatist movements. For the elite of these countries to go beyond reactive thinking, they need to appropriate the universal and profane principles of the West but « de-westernise » them and render them truly universal. The globalisation of universal principles is, to my mind, a desirable thing but it is often confused with an undesirable westernisation of the world.
Serge Latouche would tell you that westernisation has never been greater than since the retreat of the colonial empires.
I agree with Latouche. I think that the universal principles, in order to remain universal, need to be indigenised. Human rights organisations that have emerged over the past 10 years in the South have raised new issues and claim universality while sometimes trying to appropriate it by indigenising it. To facilitate this type of approach, the West needs to move onto post-hegemony. I’m not sure that Western thinking is capable of this today.
Edouard Glissant avoids this culture of resentment by trying to think of the world in terms of relationships.
Yes. Glissant is first and foremost a great poet, as well as being a novelist and essayist. If I had to adhere to any one school of thought, it would be that of intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Franon, who believed in universality but was also extremely critical of Western hegemony. I want universality rather than identitarian ideals or the individual. In a text I wrote for a collective text, entitled Un très proche Orient (coordinated by Moroccan singer Sapho), I speak out about the groups I belong to and refuse the identities that people try to limit me to. This is why embraced negritude, even if it was subsequently criticised by Wole Soyinka, Adotevi and others. Underneath it all, what did negritude really stand for? Its intellectuals, with the language of the time, wanted to find themselves, in order to participate in the universal once again. Finding oneself was not the end but simply the means.
Alas, we have moved from Negritude to Afrocentrism. Could we have prevented it?
I don’t know. In 1981, when Cheick Anta Diop wrote his book entitled, Civilisation et barbarie (1981), I wrote a long article in Jeune Afrique, in which I positioned myself more as a historian than a journalist and I strongly criticised the book. Among other things, I said that he wasn’t on the right track. I received a lengthy reply, using every insult under the sun. I’ll formulate your question differently: Is afrocentrism a necessary step? Can we skip any steps? Supposing we can’t, we just have to hope it won’t last very long! Maybe this step is necessary in order for Africans to be reconciled with themselves. They’ve been so incredibly denigrated! Maybe there’s be a time in History in which they have to be able to say that they’re the best. But it shouldn’t last too long because that would be just as much of a handicap. It reminds me of a very good Ivoirian friend of mine, the poet Noël Ebony, who often said, « Okay, Africans are the roots of humanity, but now we have to try and understand how they’ve got to where they are now! »
Are Africans in need of a re-reading?
I think we need to get it started. It may already be starting. I don’t know enough about English-speaking African intellectuals, especially South Africans, Nigerians, etc. In his essay, Et demain l’Afrique (1982), and in particular, in the chapter entitled, « Les siècles obscurs de l’Afrique » [Africa’s dark centuries], Edem Kodjo wrote that the black slavery practised by the West was horrifying but that this terrible crime wouldn’t have been so enormous without the African slave-trading kingdoms. We need to understand and accept that in saying that we’re not making excuses for slavery – it’s still an atrocity. For many people, explanation is synonymous with justification. Why was slavery so easy? Once upon a time the term « colonisability » was used. It has been said that because the North Africans were colonised, they were colonisable. This is debatable. The history of populations and civilisations loses its bearings at times, with systems of production that may explain involuntary history.
Jacques Marseille’s book, Empire colonial et capitalisme français (1984), was almost unanimously praised by historians. You’re less enthusiastic?
Jacques Marseille’s theory is very informative in many regards. He distinguishes between the State and private interests in the process of colonial exploitation. However, what I would reproach is that he makes a semantic alteration. He moves from a well-argued theory in which the Empire delays the necessary modernisation of the French economy, to a historical simplification whereby they didn’t gain anything from the colonies. Today there is an entire school of thought that could be called « revisionist » that says that there’s not too much to feel guilty about. We need to be very careful about this kind of statement because, once again, we need to take responsibility for all our history. Yes, the colonial empires did exploit their colonies. Yes, they did get rich from their colonies. Just because the economic processes were different in colonising countries and non-colonising countries, doesn’t justify us in saying that they didn’t gain anything from them. This is sort of what I mean when I talk about a « backlash ». After admitting guilt for the crimes of colonisation – what Pascal Bruckner calls the tears of the white man – comes exoneration. After all, we’ve not that responsible after all, so we’re not going to make a big fuss about it!

* Translated for the purposes of this article by Africultures.Sophie Bessis is a historian and journalist. She is the author of L’arme alimentaire (1979), La dernière frontière (1979) and Western Supremacy: The Triumph of an Idea (Zed Books, 2002).///Article N° : 5258


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