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Discourse on Colonialism and Conservatism
Aemé Césaire and Russell Kirk invite us to poetry.
This weekend, I read Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire. I couldn’t put it down, finished it in a matter of hours. Since its French publication in 1955, Discourse has become a classic in postcolonial literature, and a foundational text in understanding the effects of colonization and the call to decolonization. It explores European colonial rule over peoples throughout the world, its lasting impacts, and how to move beyond colonial oppression towards true liberation.
Interestingly, one can find many parallel lines of thought between this Discourse and Russell Kirk’s intellectual history of Conservatism, The Conservative Mind. Kirk published The Conservative Mind in 1953, just three years after the original 1950 publication of Discourse. Though the texts likely had little direct influence on one another, one can see a shared history of concerns, and a surprising amount of overlap in perspective. Both Césaire and Kirk identify ways in which colonialism weakens the mind of the colonizer, emphasize the need to respect the particularity of cultures, and turn to poetry as a key to a future of greater vitality.
Contact and the colonizers
Discourse is written as the type of work praised by the Critical Race Theory movement: it does not function as a sort of removed argument in dispassionate language. Rather, it reads as poetic prose, bringing to life a spirit rather than simply providing a thesis. This style of writing is not simply form, but has its own substance, as will be discussed later. Césaire begins with three statements:
“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.
A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization.
A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.”
Here, one might wonder whether Césaire had influenced the writings of Pope Benedict XVI on the failings of Europe. In Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, Benedict writes that “the growth of our possibilities is not matched by an equal development of our moral energy.” Benedict criticizes a contemporary view of man as “the product of our activity,” a view of man which limits his aspirations to “positive reason” and thus “entails a mutilation of man if it is generalized.” He criticizes an “Enlightenment philosophy” that “consciously cuts off its own historical roots, depriving itself of the powerful sources from which it sprang.”
Césaire also criticizes the time period during which Enlightenment philosophy flourished and then sought to perpetuate itself across the globe. He critiques “two centuries of bourgeois rule” in Europe. He writes in Discourse:
“Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of ‘reason’ or before the bar of ‘conscience’… [I]ncreasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.”
But Césaire differs from Benedict by identifying the roots of his ideas firmly in Africa, rather than in Christianity. If one identifies in Césaire affinities to Marxism, surrealism, or Christianity, these might be more due to a shared world and mutual concerns than to direct genealogy.
Discourse has sharp words for Christianity and its role in colonization. Both Christianity and Europe had squandered opportunities for life-giving enrichment because of their participation in colonizing efforts. Césaire states that it is good for different civilizations to come into contact, for cultures to exchange, which “is oxygen.” He says that it is “the great good fortune of Europe… to have been a crossroads.” But he says that what happened with European engagement with other cultures was not truly “contact.” Rather, it was the pursuit of dominance. He sees European Christianity as a co-conspirator with European political opportunists, noting that early Christian colonizers did not send missionaries in their first ships, but warriors and thieves: “they plunder… they have helmets, lances, cupidities… the slavering apologists came later.” According to Césaire, the priests and missionaries came after the cultural crimes, as a way to justify them.
But among the most influential ideas in the Discourse is Césaire’s discussion of the effects of colonization upon the colonizer. Colonization reduces human relations generally to relations of dominance, bureaucracy, and technocratic management:
“No human contact, but relations of domination and submission, which turn the colonizing man into a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument of production.”
But colonized peoples have an advantage over the colonizers:
“The colonialists may kill in Indochina, torture in Madagascar, imprison in Black Africa, crack down in the West Indies. Henceforth the colonized know that they have an advantage over them. They know that their temporary ‘masters’ are lying.
Therefore that their masters are weak.”
The colonized peoples have a strength over their “masters,” in that the colonized can see the truth. They can see the lies that the “masters” make and participate in but often cannot see themselves. So while the liberation required for the colonized may be a physical and cultural freedom, the liberation required for the “colonizer” to be free is much deeper and more challenging to achieve. The “colonizer” is not trapped in a physical prison, but a spiritual prison which he is often unable to even see.
Though in perhaps weaker terms, Kirk similarly emphasizes how the institution of slavery had warped Southern United States sensibilities and inhibited the ability of the South a to maintain a principled Conservatism. The historical reliance of the South upon slavery not only warped the Southern economy, but also the Southern mind. Kirk elaborates on this as he gives one of the four “assumptions or characteristics… which give the Southern conservative tradition its curious tenacity”:
“An uneasy awareness—sometimes bursting into defiance, sometimes rocked into somnolence—of the immense problem which must exist whenever two races occupy the same territory. The South had to live with the negro; the numbers of the blacks must increase, not diminish [due to the reliance of the Southern economy on slavery]; and the menace of a debased, ignorant, and abysmally poor folk, outside the protection of the laws (except as chattels)—this must always be at the back fo the mind of every white Southerner. Upon the ramifications of the economic problem which slavery presented, one cannot enter with any adequacy here. But the riddle of a slave-class, potentially discontented with the whole fabric of established society, must tend to produce in the minds of the dominant people an anxiety to preserve every detail of the present structure, and an ultra-vigilant suspicion of innovation.”
The Southern economy relied upon a sharp distinction between two races: black and white, with the former being seen as “debased, ignorant, and abysmally poor folk, outside the protection of the laws.” The steady preservation of a race-based slave class proved to be more challenging than many Southern leaders had hoped. And the maintenance of this class, with the delicacy of whatever equilibrium the South had been able to achieve, proved to stint the Southern mind. It inhibited openness to any change in society, and hardened into a sort of bastardized and unprincipled form of Conservatism, where “the slavery controversy confuses and blurs any analysis of political principle in the South.” Kirk has harsh words for the post-Civil War South:
“Only vague cautionary impulses guided the South after 1865, combining with popular distrust of the negro, and lack of material resources, to slacken the rate of social alteration. The modern South cannot be said to obey any consciously conservative ideas—only conservative instincts, exposed to all the corruption that instinct unlit by principle encounters in a literate age.”
The institution of slavery drained the vitality out of both the Southern economy and the Southern mind, inhibiting the growth and development of either. But Césaire argues that colonization, whether foreign or domestic, will do more than this. He argues that ultimately the oppression of colonization will “boomerang” back upon the colonizer to dehumanize and oppress him:
For my part, if I have recalled a few details of these hideous butcheries, it is by no means because I take a morbid delight in them, but because I think that these heads of men, these collections of ears, these burned houses, these Gothic invasions, this steaming blood, these cities that evaporate at the edge of the sword, are not to be so easily disposed of. They prove that colonization, I repeat, dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.”
And eventually all will be subject to the myriad of oppressions of colonization, even those among the colonizers at the highest levels. Césaire gives the reign of Hitler as a prime example of what happens when the ideologies of colonization are allowed to unfold to their logical conclusion. It is not the colonized, but the colonizer, who becomes a beast and consumes himself.
Conservatism and colonialism
Conservatism has spoken directly to the question of colonization from its beginnings. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk discusses the founder of Conservatism, Edmund Burke (1729-1797). For Burke and early Conservatism, British colonizing of India and other countries came from among the worst liberal and “innovative” impulses. Kirk writes:
“Burke must have seemed to Paine and Mirabeau and Cloots the most natural leader imaginable for making a sweep of the old regime in Britain. For decades he had been denouncing men in authority with a vehemence which no one in France, even Voltaire, dared imitate: Burke had called the king of England a scheming tyrant and the conqueror of India an unprincipled despoiler. But what Paine and Mirabeau and Cloots forgot was that Edmund Burke fought George III and Warren Hastings because they were innovators. He foresaw in the Age of Reason a scheme of innovation which was designed to turn society inside out, and he exposed this new menace to permanence with a passion of loathing that exceeded all his invectives against Tories and nabobs. For the great political spokesman of the Whigs knew more of the wants of mankind than did all the galaxy of French economists and men of letters.”
Burke and early Conservatism saw the links between land, culture, language, religion, and history. In contrast, the “liberals” (following many of the prominent thinkers behind the French Revolution) sought to implement a perfected vision of the human person and society. Colonizing, for those “liberal innovators” (as Kirk would put it), aided in the implementation of that vision.
Burke seems to treat the modern thirst for “innovation” in the way many contemporary anti-colonialists treat “capitalism.” While both condemn the practice of colonization, they see colonization more as a symptom than the true problem. They identify deeper problems with the contemporary economic and cultural appetite, the tendency to reduce human relations to consumption and production, dominance and universalization, ahistorical and acultural rationalism. (It’s worth noting that, for much of its history, Conservatism opposed capitalism.)
Early Conservatism believed in the embeddedness of what was greatest about human culture. Similarly to Césaire, Burke thought contact would elevate cultures. But attempts to replace cultures would result in degradation. Kirk writes later in his text:
“Everyone compares Macaulay with Burke, and of course their talents and careers are interestingly similar. Among other coincidences, both had a great deal to do with India, and both as reformers: but reformers of a different stamp. Burke’s reforms were intended to purge the English in India from the diseases of arbitrary power and avarice, to secure to the Indians their native laws and usages and religions. For him, prescription was as valid in Madras as in Beaconsfield. This catholic tolerance was not Macaulay’s; and with a precipitancy frequently encountered among liberals, Macaulay presumed that institutions and ideas suitable for one people readily may be grafted—or riveted—upon another people, who are conspicuously different.”
In some ways, early Conservatism is much more aligned with Critical Race Theory and the movement concerned with “decolonization” than with contemporary Republican politics. And I’d say the same for much Catholic political philosophy. Of course, there is still racism to be teased out of Kirk’s thought. Other parts of The Conservative Mind are baffling in their inability to see racism as it is. But one can find strong alignment with Césaire in many passages. In another section of Kirk’s text:
“Progress, said Maine, is rare in the procession of history; but it is real. Therefore—although never active in British practical politics—he commenced as a moderate Liberal, in the tradition of Burke, endeavoring to promote cautious reform, reconciling old interests with new energies, preparing society for necessary change, preserving what is best in the ancient order. His Indian career displays this influence of Burke, this respect for native custom and culture, this calm devotion to a society that is a spirit or a living thing, not a mere mechanical contrivance.”
In a perhaps oversimplified reading, Kirk compares the ends of human endeavors for Marx, as opposed to great “conservatives,” such as Benajmin Disraeli and John Henry Newman. Kirk writes:
“For Marx, the end of human endeavor was absolute equality of condition… The imagination, and the ends, of Disraeli and Newman were of another nature. Their end was Order; order in the realm of spirit, order in the realm of society. In religious faith, a belief which recognizes the divine character of the church, an immortal corporation independent of the state; in politics, a system which admits social diversity, hierarchy of rights and duties.”
In contrast to a sort of flat approach to humanity which Kirk sees in Marx, Disraeli and Newman present a dynamic model which relies on complex relations that empower and raise the spiritual life of man. Kirk orients his vision of Conservatism towards the spiritual and creative life of man. This is partly why he closes his book with “conservatives’ promise” and “the conservative as poet.”
The promise of poetry
In the final section of The Conservative Mind, Kirk discusses the poetry of T.S. Eliot. He writes:
“Society’s regeneration cannot be an undertaking wholly political… How to restore a living faith to the lonely crowd, how to remind men that life has ends—this conundrum the twentieth-century conservative faces… Triumphant social boredom is at once death and hell for a civilization. So the conservative seeks to look beyond humanitarian sociology.
Not to the statistician, then, but to the poet, do many conservatives turn for insight.”
(Césaire similarly holds as enemies “goitrous academics,… ethnographers who go in for metaphysics,… the agrarian sociologists,… all of them tools of capitalism.” He gives examples of modern thinkers and societal experts who “perform as watchdogs of colonialism,” including “[f]rom the psychologists, sociologists, et al, their views on ‘primitivism,’ their rugged investigations…”)
Kirk writes that, though poets may be forgotten more than politicians, they have no less of an important role in society. Good poetry will “reinterpret and vindicate the norms of human existence.” The poet will see himself as situated in a tradition, calling to mind his past and summoning forth what we need for the future.
This is a very different vision from that of many contemporary “conservatives,” who function primarily to give social critique. The contemporary focus may indicate that conservatives have lost their vitality. Minnesota author Brenda Euland writes:
“It is plain from the history of architecture, painting and sculpture, that men begin to theorize critically only when inspiration has died down. But inspiration has only died down because the theoreticians, the horses of instruction, begin to dissect, analyze, and then codify into rules what yesterday’s great artists did from their true selves.
Another reason I don’t like critics (the one in myself as well as in other people) is that they try to teach something without being it. They are like all those feeble, knock-kneed women afraid of bugs and burglars, who say to their husbands… ‘Go out and fight, you coward!’ They are second-eaters who have not the courage or the love to make anything themselves. Or they are like big game hunters, killing from a great, safe distance, with great ego-satisfaction (though they are entirely safe themselves and the shooting requires no muscular effort and not much skill) some nice little creature.”
So it is with many conservatives today, and so it may also be with many who seek to engage in “decolonization.” There is merit to the process of identifying and diagnosing colonization, which Césaire does throughout his text. He does not shy away from harsh critique. But there is a danger in mistaking the ultimate aim of Césaire in the work of decolonization. To place as the primary task to identify, diagnose, and trample down colonization is to lose ultimate vitality. When one has nothing to create, one gets stuck on critique.
Instead, Césaire calls upon the awakening of spiritual energies to bring about a new world. In an interview with Robin D.G. Kelley, Césaire asserts “that our Negro heritage was worthy of respect, and that this heritage was not relegated to the past, that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world.” He argues that the field “was not dried up,” that “it could still bear fruit if we made the effort to irrigate it with our sweat and plant new seeds.” He emphasized that Africa has “things to tell the world,” and that what will be needed to supplant the oppressions of colonization is something new.
Césaire was himself known first and foremost as a poet, something which Kelley reflects on in his introduction to Discourse (titled “A Poetics of Anticolonialism”). Kelley writes:
“Césaire’s essay, ‘Poetry and Cognition’… represents one of his most systematic statements on the revolutionary nature of poetry… [He] attempts to demonstrate why poetry is the only way to achieve the kind of knowledge we need to move beyond the world’s crises. Césaire’s embrace of poetry as a method of achieving clairvoyance, of obtaining the knowledge we need to move forward, is crucial for understanding Discourse… If we think of Discourse as a kind of historical prose poem against the realities of colonialism, then perhaps we should heed Césaire’s point that ‘What presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.’ This means everything… Consider Césaire’s third proposition regarding poetic knowledge: ‘Poetic knowledge is that in which man spatters the object with all of his mobilized riches.’”
Kirk and Césaire in many ways appear to be at cross-purposes, Kirk concerned with “conserving” much of the existing order and Césaire with ushering in a new order. But both identify the ways in which early modern liberalism led to the physical oppression of many and the spiritual oppression of all. And both ultimately seek after a renewed vitality for the human spirit, a creative life that can be found in the art of poetry. Both writers speak of the historic promise of their peoples. But Césaire offers something more: a new freedom, and riches of Africa that may change the world but have yet to be found.