Previous entries in this series were concerned with the question of form. What is the best theoretical entry-point to study the relationship between white capital and Black people? We have argued that the historical materialist school, advanced by Marxists of all races, and the racial capitalism school, in the specific formulation of Cedric Robinson and his students, each have their own heuristic value for thinking through relationships between capitalism, colonialism, slavery, and racism. We have further argued – this time with Robinson, against the grain of much Black radical historiography – that racism is not the product of modern capitalist relations, but already existed as an ideological force that was integrated into the world capitalist system from its very foundations: assisting the massive, one-sided transfers of wealth to Europe, via slavery and colonialism, that Marx refers to as primitive accumulation.
In the next two installments, we look more exhaustively at the historical content of the under-developing relationship between Africa and the Western nations. We will note those accidents of history and geography that entwined with the rising profit motive in Europe, to make the African continent into the “warren for the commercial hunting of black skins” that Marx describes in Chapter Thirty-One of Capital. We will note how much was lost, in the march of capital through the Motherland, of her natural wealth, of the sovereignty and dignity of her peoples; of the integrity of their social and cultural institutions; of their family structures, of their very lives and limbs.
We will see how through slavery and colonialism, the European powers tried to arrest the internal dynamism of African societies: their innate capacity to develop progressively into freer, more democratic, and more technically advanced social configurations. We will try to fill in some missing pages of primitive accumulation, that escaped even the notice of Marx; yet are indispensable for any serious account of the rise of the modern world system.
But as we will show in the conclusion of our series, the Black masses were never passive material for the forging of world history. They resisted and revolted, and made revolutions against their condition, even in the heartland of the greatest empire. In so doing, they remade world history, progressively on their own terms.
We will further affirm that Black revolt is not just conducted on negative lines – concerning everything that capital has stripped from us – but that it also moves on the positive basis of an emergent cultural unity, an African group consciousness of the cruel and heroic past, and of our linked fate. One that grew in the lower depths of class oppression; that seized on, synthesized and reworked many models of race unity in the fight to break Western hegemony, which treats Blackness like the absence of all value.
With Robinson, Wynter, and Fanon, we will argue that though this emphasis on the role of self-consciousness in the Black revolution, might appear “metaphysical,” in the derogatory, Marxist sense, without it we cannot fully account for our people's fight against capitalist irrationality.
On Monumental History: Warnings from Rodney and Fanon
This article, which is dedicated to the Senegalese historian, scientist, and politician Cheikh Anta Diop, will discuss the historical falsification of Egypt by the imperialist world, and its consequences for the understanding of precolonial African society.
At the risk of losing some readers, though, I have to preface the historical discussion with a political note of caution.
Pioneering Black historians, like Du Bois, J.A. Rogers, and George Washington Williams, were often anxious to prove to the white public that Africans, too, had achieved glorious empires to rival those of the Mediterranean and Near East. Their writings on the wonders of Kush, Ethiopia, and the Western Sudan, were launched at the prevailing view of bourgeois thinkers, such as Hegel and Hume, that Black people had contributed nothing to world history.
To support that myth, imperialist academics like Karl Muller and Champollion-Figeac had crafted an entire school of historical falsification, that tried to erase or explain away the patently “Negroid” character of ancient Egypt, Carthage, Andalusia – of any old civilization that could have had a formative influence on the Mediterranean, newly recast as the cradle of white civilization.
In addition, Western anthropology would look to external racial influences – from Asia, from Europe – or else invent non-black ethnic groups from whole cloth, like the fabled Hamites, to explain away signs of sophisticated material culture below the Sahara. Surely the “Negroes” that are now crushed under the heels of Britain, France, Portugal, were not responsible for the artistic and technological feats on display in sites at Meroe, at Nok and Monomotapa. "Blacks can only imitate, not innovate,” was the received wisdom, that was challenged by these early attempts to reclaim African history for Africans.
This early work of Du Bois and his peers resembled history of the monumental type, in Nietzsche’s sense. It highlighted those features of Black history that would give our people the needed self-esteem to face imperialism on its playing field, without embarrassment, and shout, "We once did great things, too!"
And in fact it did play a key part in Black resistance to the enemy’s ideology in the last century. It gave our fledgling intellectual class the confidence to shake their dependence on Europe, in matters of both politics and culture. In the hands of Garvey and the UNIA, it assumed a popular form, giving ideological coherence to mass organization and rebellions throughout the Black world. With Garvey’s decline, it supported smaller movements that played their own substantial roles in Black revolt, like Rastafari and the Nation of Islam.
But one problem with histories of this type is that they downplay those facts that seem useless to a given discourse in its contemporary power struggles. Writing Black history has thus often meant extolling the greatness of monarchs, of empires sprayed with gold dust. It has meant too little attention paid to the triumph and tragedy of the African masses, whose everyday labors gave rise to enormous wealth, and also to the resulting contradictions of class and caste that eased the path for colonial rule.
As the celebrated Guyanese historian and revolutionary, Walter Rodney, once put the problem:
“Scholars interested in African history have exhibited a preoccupation with the highly developed political state, which has led to the casual treatment of the smaller states or the so-called ‘stateless societies’, where there is no politico-economic entity wider than the family. Even within those kingdoms the historical accounts often concentrate narrowly on the behaviour of elite groups and dynasties; we need [additionally] to portray the elements of African everyday life and to comprehend the culture of all Africans, irrespective of whether they were resident in the empire of Mali or in an Ibo village” (Groundings With My Brothers, 55).
Furthermore, according to the revolutionary psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, colonized people face another, far more urgent problem than distortions of ancient history. Our main fight with the imperialists is not for ideas, but for bread, land, and housing, for our actual lives. It has to be waged not with historical treatises, but with communist organizing, ultimately with bullets and bombs. What relevance, if any, should the Black struggle today attach to the remote past?
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon notably rejects historical Negritude, the search for proof of high civilizations in the Black past, as a flawed attempt by the colonized to preserve our self-esteem in the face of Europe's achievements in modern science and social organization (130-132). What does it matter, he asks, that literate and well-organized states rose and fell centuries ago, in West Africa; when today, in those same lands, French policy starves Black children into stupefaction?
According to Fanon, Black people who want to get free can’t expect help from Schoelcher, Frobenius, and sympathetic historians in their mold, whose works were eagerly taken up in Black intellectual circles, like that around the journal Presence Africaine. In excavating the Black past, these reformist authors had hoped to convince a rational public that, after all, Africans are human beings, too; are capable in theory of doing great things now, since we had done so in the past.
What they didn’t know – what was constantly driven home by Fanon’s lived experience of the French metropole – is that the only rationality Europe honors is coiled in the hard sciences; where it waits to spring forth in the industrial output with which whites conquer nature, and conquer too the non-white world – which sinks back down to nature, under the white gaze.
Forget proving your humanity to the inhumane, Fanon is saying. At gunpoint, the colonizer pushes us down into a zone of non-being, a "geography of hunger" dotting the world map with racially segregated, impoverished, and highly policed communities; whose resulting dangers and defeats only confirm the colonizer's ideas on our inhumanity, confirming his own exemplary humanity at the same time. The West orchestrates anti-black violence on a local and global scale, to keep us frozen in the imago of beggar, thief, timeless servant, so it won’t have to recognize our humanity as it works us to death and robs our lands. It maintains that status quo not with lofty words, but with big guns, and by organizing against us the wealth that it steals from our hands, right now:
“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples” (Wretched of the Earth, 59).
For Fanon, the strategy of reinforcing the Black ego by plunging it in the stream of a monumental past has to fail, like every purely psychological defense, to protect us from what needs to be done if we want to end our bondage by colonialism, capitalism, racism. Anti-black beliefs are too closely tied with the material privileges, the hidden psychic life, the technocratic ideas of progress and collective bad faith, that together bolster white group esteem. For every one colonizer that is “enlightened” by learning of Ahmed Baba of Timbuktu, or reading Arab historians on the glories of Bilad es-Sudan (“Land of the Blacks”), thousands more will be flooded with mass-produced images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben; with tales of Black backwardness and stupidity, of drunkenness, of illogical and sex-crazed violence; with the subconscious markers of our acceptable violation.
These sociogenic factors in the mother-country psychology can't be uprooted by anti-racist education; not even by anti-racist therapy, as Fanon knew well from his clinical treatment of racist whites. The only path to the future will be cleared with superior counter-violence, in national revolutions with a socialist aim, that will restore power to our homelands.
Fanon's critique of historical Negritude raises too many questions about the status of Black historicism for this essay to answer. In my opinion, his argument should be taken as an activist warning against an intellectualist, petty-bourgeois approach to Black history, instead of a total admonishment against its study.
Maybe Rodney should have the last word, since he grasped the importance of recovering the Black past, but also knew that we needed to pick up more than books to beat the oppressor:
“[Africans] are virtually forced into the invidious position of proving our humanity by citing historical antecedents [of our greatness]; and yet the evidence is too often submitted to the white racists for sanction. The white man has already implanted numerous historical myths in the minds of black peoples; and those have to be uprooted, since they can act as a drag on revolutionary action in the present epoch. Under these circumstances, it is necessary to direct our historical activity in the light of two basic principles. Firstly, the effort must be directed solely towards freeing and mobilising black minds. There must be no performances to impress whites...Secondly, the acquired knowledge of African history must be seen as directly relevant but secondary to the concrete tactics and strategy which are necessary for our liberation” (Groundings, 55).
It’s no secret that the African continent, where humanity has undergone its longest development, displays the widest variety in forms of political, economic, and social organization. Any romantic and reductive fantasies about “the” African way of life must instantly fall apart on contact with this long historical reality, marked by continual starts and stops in the development of its native economies, and its attendant political and social forms.
The tableau of Africa’s past spreads over five millennia or more. It boasts likely the first farming settlements and monarchies; the first recorded uprising of the poor; the earliest experiments in social reform, and in the administrative centralization of national production and land ownership – what today might be called state socialism. It shows hunter-gatherer communes that resist foreign rule for centuries, through small-scale warfare, or the preferred method of migration. It traces thousand-mile trade routes, loping the continent’s length to meet local needs; it stops briefly, portentously, to gape at the result, the fabled wealth of kings, with a growing fondness for European goods.
It pauses then to weep at slave-trading despots, and the rise of literal slave states: puppet kingdoms like Kasanje, built with guns, rum, and the trickery of whites. It opens onto the bustling markets of stateless nations, like the Igbo of eastern Nigeria. It casts new shadows on empires just climbing from the forest shade, like the Ashanti kingdom: groaning from the pressure of indigenous merchants, nervous from the threat of class revolt, just before British conquest halts the natural development of the Gold Coast.
Behind all this apparent difference, there are certain features of precolonial African life that are more or less constant; that would later be enlisted by the Black masses in the fight against imperialism. Yet just because it recognizes our unity as a threat, imperialist ideology has done all it could to dissolve the interconnected and mutually determining bonds between African peoples.
To give the widest historical basis for this claim, we turn now to discuss the imperialist falsification of Egyptian history.
Paleskin Isis: The Historical Falsification of Egypt
There are few topics in archaeology and ancient history that are as contentious as the racial character of classical African civilizations, such as ancient Egypt (Kemet); Carthage (in modern Tunisia); Nubia and Somalia (Kush and Punt); or the Stone Age cultures that flourished in the Sahara, prior to its long period of desiccation (beginning around 4000 BC). Because of its uniquely formative influence on both African and European history, we will concentrate on ancient Egypt as the victim of a centuries-long whitewashing campaign.
In the middle of the last century, the Senegalese polymath, Cheikh Anta Diop, startled the academic world with his compelling demonstration that not only were the ancient Egyptians a Black people (by the standards of modern ethnography); but that today’s West Africans share powerful cultural links, and perhaps even blood ties, with the peoples of the Upper Nile.
In works like The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality?, and The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, Diop marshals linguistic, anthropological and historical evidence for his thesis. He shows remarkable parallels in Egyptian and sub-Saharan African culture and customs, cosmology, language, dress, gender relations and family structures, political constitutions. He invalidates alternative theses on the provenance of the early Egyptians, by showing their marked dissimilarities with Asian and Mediterranean counterparts. He builds on the authority of such sources as Herodotus and Diodorus, C.F. Volney and Champollion the Elder, who freely testified to the African character of Egypt –before the Ancient Model of Mediterranean history was supplanted, by what Martin Bernal has usefully called the Aryan Model, to meet the ideological needs of the imperial West.
Without endorsing every one of his arguments, we will affirm the general truth of Diop’s conclusions on the racial character of ancient Egypt (African Origin, 134-136). Subsequent archaeological research has tracked pre-dynastic, pharaonic culture down to the Black Sudan. The 1964 excavations of the Abu Simbel site by Keith Seele and Bruce Williams, for instance, yielded Nubian artifacts of an undeniably “Egyptian” character, but that long predate Narmer’s unification of the Two Kingdoms (circa 3200 BC). A level of astronomical knowledge that is consistent with a settled, agrarian culture is in evidence some sixty-two miles away from that site, in the stone configurations at Nabta Playa, part of a complex which dates back to 7500 BC: supporting the view that the rudiments of Egyptian culture were first developed in Nubia, and later migrated “southward” (for ancient Egyptians, the “North” lay to the south, toward the source of the Nile). And archaeologists have known at least since Du Bois wrote The Negro (1905), that the preponderance of surviving remains for Egypt’s proto-dynastic peoples, the Tasians and Badarians, present a decidedly African morphology.
Then there is the fact that in times of peril, it was always from the South, near the border with Nubia, that the nation was revived: to rebuild the monarchy, under the Mentuheteps, after the fall of Memphis (Men-Nefer), the old capital; to rally against the seizure of the North by foreign Hyksos, whose defeat by Ahmose and Nefertari ushered in the New Kingdom, and all its superlatives; to let out a last gasp of local rule, in the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, before the Assyrians finally clasped their hands round Egypt's destiny (African Origin, 208, 209; 219-221). Not for nothing did the Egyptians refer to the south of their country as "Upper Egypt."
Intermittent trade with Punt (in the neighborhood of modern Somalia) carried on from at least the Fifth Dynasty, providing Egypt with a southerly source of gold, myrrh, ebony, ivory, and sacred animal skins (Davidson, Lost Cities of Africa, 30-34). Here it was that the Egyptians believed many of their Neteru (gods) were born, earning the country the title of Ta-Neter (“Land of God”). When in the Eighteenth Dynasty, the woman-king Hatshepsut conducted an expedition to Punt to re-establish long-lost trade relations, the trip added immensely to the prestige of her reign, further cementing her legitimacy as the daughter of Amen-Ra (Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. II, 252-288). Here too was a sign of the incipient trans-continental trade that recurs through Africa's history, facilitated in this case by the time-worn, yet still relevant cultural links of the two nations.
We see then that Egypt constantly turns “up south” to replenish its national life; to regather its forces against foreign invaders, like the Hyksos and Sea Peoples; to revitalize trade, by making pilgrimage to the oldest sources of their faith. We might further point to the African physical features of Egypt's rulers, according to their own depictions throughout its long history: the ancient bust of Narmer, consistent with a sub-Saharan physiognomy; the black hues of the Mentuheteps of the Middle Kingdom, or of Ahmose-Nefertari, the deified Queen Mother of the Eighteenth Dynasty. And then there are the parallels between Egyptian and sub-Saharan folkways and ethics, ideas on religion and government, are the subject of an immense literature, that is by no means monopolized by Black authors. EA Wallis Budge, one of the leading Egyptologists of his day, argued as far back as 1911 that Egyptian culture and religion are closely related to Black Africa (in Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection).
But there is something too academic and even ridiculous about settling the matter in this way. It moves on the assumption that we can’t visit and speak to direct descendants of the indigenous people of Egypt today. Any visitor to Upper Egypt and Sudan can see for themselves what racial group has constantly supplied the human material for the rebirth of Egypt. The Nubians and Upper Egyptians have not gone anywhere; they have just been ignored by Eurocentrists. The people have never stopped being Black.
In truth, the reason for this controversy has less to do with archaeology, with anthropology and history, or with common sense, than with what Du Bois once called the propaganda of history. White supremacy becomes much harder to justify, if the white world’s self-concept were at any point tainted by the influence of darker races, whom they now exploit and kill. Since Eurocentrism gives a Greco-Roman backstory to the rise of Western modernity – the spirit of free inquiry that informs its scientific method, and the democratic and liberal principles behind its ideas on government and law – it became necessary for historical propaganda to deny these influences outright.
In the case of Egypt – whose advances in science, medicine, architecture, mathematics, and political organization, are matters of universal record; whose civilizing influence on the Greek city-states and colonies is quite casually admitted by sources like Herodotus, the so-called “father of history” – the propaganda war had to be fought on two fronts.
On one front, the propagandists would deny the African character of Egypt's population – also testified by Herodotus, and many of his near-contemporaries – and they were re-imagined as Asians, or even as Greeks.
On a second front, it would devalue Egypt’s achievements: denying, for example, that Egyptians had the same capacity for abstract, philosophic thought as the Greeks; freezing them in a pre-philosophic attitude that is religious and static, very different from the spirit of discovery that supposedly drives Greek thought.
This despite the evidence of texts like the Memphite Theology, which states that the creator-god Ptah engendered the world purely through an act of speech, according to a conscious plan transcribed in his heart: showing that Egyptian cosmogony quite early grasped the intelligible basis of the universe, the basic idea in philosophical rationalism (see Jan Assmann, “Creation Through Hieroglyphs: The Cosmic Grammatology of Ancient Egypt,” 24).
One can easily compare this to the generative role of Logos (the Word, or speech) in the cosmologies of the Hellenistic world; and in the New Testament Book of John, which was doubtless influenced by Greek rationalism. Yet it’s clear that this document (taken from the Shabaka Stone, a Twenty-Fifth Dynasty reproduction of an older text), draws on New Kingdom materials that antedate Greek philosophy by more than a thousand years.
Again, the Aryan Model was maintained in apparent ignorance of the wanderings of Presocratic philosophers like Thales, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras, who were widely known in their time to have traveled through Egypt. Here they likely first encountered the idea that simple substances – or elements – like water or fire, were the substantial basis for the phenomenal world, that appears to us as a multiplicity of distinct beings (Bernal, Black Athena, Vol. I, 140-141; Dussel, Ethics of Liberation, 6-7).
Two thousand years before Thales, it seems that the priests in Memphis had posed the crucial distinction between Appearance and Essence; had considered the problem of emergence of the Many from One; had held that the primeval waters of Nu preceded the rise of Ptah, the creator-god who personifies rational planning, in perhaps history’s first attempt to reconcile materialism and idealism.
Four thousand years hence, and the Western mind will no longer allow that Egyptians were capable of abstract thought, let alone that they imparted philosophy to the Greeks. So whereas Plato in his time paid tribute to Egypt, as the nation that first organized the social division of labor – giving rise to a class of priests, whose freedom from work allowed them to pursue skhole (philosophic learning, synonymous with “leisure” in Greek); whereas Aristotle, in Book X of the Metaphysics, could credit Egypt with the invention of mathematics; bourgeois thinkers today strive to present Plato’s Republic, and the contributions of Thales, Pythagoras and Euclid, as exclusive products of Greek ingenuity (Black Athena, 103-110).
Ironically, in its double move to isolate Egypt from Africa, and to insulate Greece from Egypt (as the self-contained result of a "European miracle"), Western propaganda has done with Egypt what it does with all African societies like it: deny their capacity for internal development.
As we will see in the next section, that error was not limited to bourgeois historians.
Egypt: An Asiatic or an African Mode of Production?
The Argentine-Mexican philosopher and theologian, Enrique Dussel, describes the “European miracle” as follows:
“[The European miracle] states that the phenomenon of Modernity is exclusively European; that it develops out of the Middle Ages and later on diffuses itself throughout the entire world...Europe had, according to this paradigm, exceptional internal characteristics that allowed it to supersede, through its rationality, all other cultures” (Ethics of Liberation, 24-25)
Dussel’s targets were Hegel and Max Weber, the preeminent Western thinkers on the philosophical theme of modernity. But it should be noted that despite his many radical credentials, Karl Marx is not exempt from Dussel’s critique, either.
Like his bourgeois counterparts, Marx had embraced the view that non-Western nations lack their own impetus toward social rationalization and scientific progress.
Unlike Hegel and Weber, he did not think that this was solely because of a cultural deficit in African, Asian, and New World nations. Instead, as a materialist, Marx blamed the apparent indolence of the nonwhite world on what he termed the Asiatic mode of production, which he first describes in his newspaper articles on "British Rule in India" (1853).
The Asiatic mode of production (hereafter AMP) – which is supposedly common to Egypt, India, and other “Oriental” civilizations – is characterized by the need of early agricultural peoples for a strong centralized state, that would assume responsibility for irrigation of the soil, extract its tribute from the farmers, and leave them alone to practice small-scale cultivation and patriarchal forms of local government, according to the timeless custom of the so-called “village system”:
“Climate and territorial conditions, especially the vast tracts of desert, extending from the Sahara, through Arabia, Persia, India, and Tartary, to the most elevated Asiatic highlands, constituted artificial irrigation by canals and water-works as the basis of Oriental agriculture. As in Egypt and India, inundations are used for fertilizing the soil in Mesopotamia, Persia, &c.; advantage is taken of a high level for feeding irrigative canals. This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water, which, in the Occident, drove private enterprise to voluntary association, as in Flanders and Italy, necessitated, in the Orient where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of Government. Hence an economical function devolved upon all Asiatic Governments, the function of providing public works…”
The resulting balance struck between a monstrous state apparatus, that lives parasitically on agricultural surplus, and an obedient peasantry, leading a timeless and vegetative existence in the countryside, is enough to arrest "Asiatic" societies in their lethargic pattern, outside the forward movement of history. Over the centuries, the subjects of “Oriental despotism” could watch the rise and fall of kingdoms, without seeing an appreciable change in their social condition; in their miserable living standard; in their awareness of world culture, or their mastery of nature.
For this reason, Marx takes an almost apologetic stance toward imperialism in India, arguing that the breakdown of traditional society under British capitalism is a positive development, that pulls an unwilling country into modernity's tide. His remarks on the character of Indian society are instructive enough to quote at great length:
“Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man as the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”
These inaccurate and offensive comments could be simply dismissed as journalistic hyperbole, since Marx was writing for a popular audience (readers of the New York Tribune). Except we notice that he holds to the same basic evaluation of “Asiatic” society years later, in more theoretically serious writings.
In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), where he summarizes the guiding assumptions of historical materialism, Marx sets the AMP at the beginning of a story about our species’ progressive development toward a human society (as opposed to class society, which he does not hold to be properly human):
“In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation” (13).
Like Hegel, Marx places the "Oriental world" at the beginning, in the supposed infancy of the species.
Again, in 1867, speaking on so-called “Asiatic” and other forms of pre-capitalist society, in one of the most celebrated sections of his most celebrated work:
“[T]hey are founded either on the immaturity of man as an individual, when he has not yet torn himself loose from the umbilical cord of his natural species-connection with other men, or on direct relations of dominance and servitude. They are conditioned by a low stage of development of the productive powers of labour and correspondingly limited relations between men within the process of creating and reproducing their material life, hence also limited relations between man and nature. These real limitations are reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in other elements of tribal religion” (Capital, Vol. I, 173).
In other words, the consciousness of societies that are not based on commodity production is dominated by an enchanted, childlike view of the relationship between humanity and nature – the result of their technological primitiveness, and the source of their religious fatalism. This of course leads to a mystified view of social relations, that binds these societies to ancient-communal, or to feudal notions of property, the rights of the collective over the individual, and the legitimacy of existing institutions. The resulting politics are patriarchal and nostalgic, fearful toward authority, and resistant to economic and social change.
All of this marks them off from authentically capitalist societies, where goods are produced for general social consumption by wage workers, who are now freed from the superstitious countryside, and individuated by the capitalist labor market. For the first time in history, in capitalist society – at least potentially – human beings are capable of grasping the real basis of their relations: the material production and reproduction of human life, through economic activity. They are able to recognize “human nature” and society as the historical products of their own labor. Unlike their "Oriental" counterparts, the modern proletariat are no longer the victims of preternatural forces, that set absolute limits on our capacity to transform the world, according to the specifications of Man. Severed from the "motley ties" of feudal life, they are the first historical class that can reconcile individual freedom with collective social action, on the basis of conscious cooperation for the overthrow of class society.
In these two works from his mature period, Marx shows his basic allegiance to a Hegelian idea of world history, that advances through progressive stages of social development, increasingly toward the goal of self-determination for the species. Unlike Hegel, his theory of causation extends upward, from the economic base to the guiding ideas of society, to explain that this historical progression is determined primarily by material rather than ideal forces. But Marx’s teleology follows essentially the same geographic coordinates as Hegel’s philosophy of history. It is from the advanced industrial societies, which for Marx are only incidentally European, that we should expect the really productive contradictions in the world to give rise to communist revolution – the first step toward realizing modernity’s promise.
That is why, during the 1857 Indian revolts against British authorities, Marx took the stunning position that these revolts were reactionary (Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, 317-318). Though he felt that a national revolution in India was ultimately desirable, and would one day be possible, he didn't think this could take place until British rule had thoroughly uprooted the features of Asiatic production, creating the preconditions for the rise of an indigenous bourgeoisie and proletariat.
In other words, Marx simply did not believe that societies of the "Oriental" type had undergone the appropriate stages of internal development, politically, economically, or culturally, to make class interest into the basis for revolution; though perhaps they could advance down that road more rapidly under the instruction of capitalist nations. This view led him to mount a defense-by-dialectics for the colonial oppression of India.
The celebrated Marxist economist and historian, Samir Amin, rejected this stagist interpretation of historical materialism. Although he was unclear whether the original fault rests with Marx, and seemed to cosign the Western-capitalist origin of modernity (in Eurocentrism and other works), Amin nonetheless took dogmatic Marxists to task for failing to challenge the Eurocentric schema that frames the AMP thesis:
"I have...rejected the supposedly Marxist version of the two roads. More precisely, I refuse to consider that only the European road (slavery-to-feudalism) would pave the way to the invention of capitalism, while the Asiatic road (the supposed Asiatic mode of production) would constitute an impasse, incapable of evolving by itself" (Global History: A View From the South, 13).
But one of Marx’s less appreciated critics in this connection was Diop himself, who also found the AMP thesis inadequate to explain the conservative features of traditional African societies.
Behind this was a political intent. For in addition to being a scholar, Diop was also a socialist politician, affiliated with Senegal’s Bloc de Masses. In that capacity he was a vocal critic of Leopold Senghor’s neo-colonial government, which justified itself with a form of historical Negritude that obscured class struggle – that melted down pre-colonial life, with its rich social contradictions; until it resembled a “socialist” utopia that could be revived, simply by putting Black men back in power.
Diop had stronger affinities with Marx and Engels’ historical program, which emphasized class struggle as the great motor of social change. Because of this, when discussing African life, he often explicitly uses historical materialist categories; and the framing ethical assumptions of his historical studies identify progress with class revolts and revolutions, which were stifled in various ways by the nature of precolonial society.
But at the same time, he was not a dogmatist. Where the AMP thesis seemed to drain Black history of its own living momentum, Diop was willing to call Eurocentric Marxism to task for being insufficiently concrete.
In Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, Diop starts by rejecting the name "Asiatic". He explains that if the ancient Egyptian state in fact exemplified the state that Marx identified as “Asiatic”, then states on that pattern should instead be understood as developing from an African mode of production (129).
He then goes on to distinguish these states from some of the others with which they were carelessly grouped, according to Marx’s schema. Unlike India and some other Asian empires, the Egyptian state was not founded on an original act of foreign conquest, resulting in a slave economy or an oppressive caste system, that required a strict military ethos to enforce unity between contending classes.
Rather, the pharaonic state grew more conservatively, on the basis of cooperative agriculture between indigenous tribes in the region, which soon gave rise to specialization of labor by clan. From here, it was a small step to the idiosyncratic form of caste taken up in the Old Kingdom – which was distinct from caste in India, since it did not saddle the "lower" castes with extreme social disabilities, or grant the "upper" castes the power of life and death over the lower, or the right to exploit their labor (130).
For a while, class conflict was obscured by the impressive degree of unity in the Old Kingdom. But the caste-based division of labor, that separated the bureaucratic and religious elites from the peasants and artisans, soon gave rise to unequal wealth accumulation, and to resulting class inequalities, that made national unity less tenable with each generation. By the end of the Sixth Dynasty, widespread poverty, mingling with hatred of aristocrats and the state bureaucracy, sparked a mass revolt in Memphis; that then spread through the country, ravaging the nobility and government functionaries, and nearly overthrowing the state as it went (141-142).
This episode – the first mass uprising in recorded history – is recounted in grisly detail in the Admonitions of Ipu-Wer, a retrospective document on political justice, composed during the Middle Kingdom. The class grievances of peasants and artisans scream loudly through the text, which even recalls lower-class plots to kidnap the king.
Diop argues that these antagonistic social forces, that caused the fall of the Old Kingdom, were suppressed from the Middle Kingdom onward by what he calls the Osirian revolution: a revolution instituted from above, in fact a reformist compromise with the peasant and artisan masses, that accorded inalienable citizenship rights to the Egyptian people, and democratized the national religion – extending the doctrine of the soul's immortality to all human beings, where this once was an exclusive privilege of the pharaoh. Such measures helped restore some of the equilibrium of the Old Kingdom, that had been broken by the private accumulation of wealth.
Though he regrets that the monarchy was able to preserve itself through these measures, and argues that any class revolution was foredoomed by the immense size of the kingdom and of its state apparatus, and by the absence of a substantial slave population, capable of achieving a coherent class standpoint (like the Helots, or the Haitians) – Diop is nonetheless clear that the Middle Kingdom reforms were a response to violent pressures from below, spontaneous revolts generated by contradictions of class and caste.
The classical African civilization par excellence was not the bastion of "Oriental despotism" and peasant backwardness that Marx had imagined. In fact its very stability resulted from rather modern influences, introduced early in its history: on the one hand, the consciousness of everyday Egyptians of their rights as citizens; on the other hand, the fear of political and social elites of the multitude's capacity for social violence, that could potentially overrun the state.
In Precolonial Black Africa (1-2), Diop further develops the argument that in African history, the pressures that result from class inequalities were mitigated by the special function of caste. Unlike lower-caste persecution in India, or the prerogatives of feudal nobility in Europe, caste society in West Africa tends more to balance than to exacerbate social conflict. Here, the upper castes are bound by constitution and convention to accord various forms of social recognition and even to subsidize the lower castes.
In a technical sense, for example, the ger, or nobles and free farmers of Senegal, are socially superior to the neno, or the artisan castes, who are bound to their crafts by heredity, and forbidden from marrying the ger. Yet unlike the brahmins, the ger are not allowed to exploit the labor of the artisans; in fact they meet with strong sanctions from members of their own caste if they do so. Furthermore, they are bound by tradition to give financial gifts to any artisan who requests them; even those artisans who are wealthier than them, which is made possible by the fact that there are no caste prohibitions on accumulating wealth. Since their labor was not regularly exploited by members of the upper caste, and they could even extract wealth from the dominant group through manipulating social customs, there was little economic basis for the rise of militant class consciousness among the lower castes in traditional Wolof society.
Additionally, as was the case in the Mossi kingdoms of the Upper Volta region, each caste and profession, and even the various classes of slaves, had representative powers in the governments of many precolonial nations (42-43). These caste and class realities tended to curb the development of revolutionary class struggle in West Africa: not because of their incapacity for internal development, according to the AMP, but precisely because of the density of social and economic mediations formed around caste.
Of course, as a revolutionary socialist, working in the African context, Diop believed that African societies today are capable of bringing class struggle to the foreground, in the conflict with colonialism.
For Diop, what is decisive today for making revolutions is the reduction of entire nations to virtual or real slavery:
"In sum, it suffices for societies with an [African] mode of production to be reduced into slavery...for them to insert themselves into the historic cycle of humanity [by making social revolutions]. The worldwide emancipation of all the former European colonies which, without exception, were dependent on that means of production, illustrates this idea. It was slavery, in the Western sense, that made a Prometheus of Toussaint Louverture." (African Origin, 225-226)
In the next installment, "From Timbuktu to Babylon," we will describe those dual processes of slavery and colonialism that brought Toussaint's people to the West in chains, and created the conditions back home that made a Prometheus out of Diop himself.