[News] Culture, power and resistance - reflections on the ideas of Amilcar Cabral

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Feb 7 11:58:37 EST 2017


  Culture, power and resistance - reflections on the ideas of Amilcar Cabral

Author Firoze Manji

Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon are among the most important thinkers 
from Africa on the politics of liberation and emancipation. While the 
relevance of Fanon’s thinking has re-emerged, with popular movements 
such as Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa proclaiming his ideas as 
the inspiration for their mobilizations, as well as works by Sekyi-Otu, 
Alice Cherki, Nigel Gibson, Lewis Gordon and others, Cabral’s ideas have 
not received as much attention.

Cabral was the founder and leader of the Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde 
liberation movement, /Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo 
Verde/ (PAIGC). He was a revolutionary, humanist, poet, military 
strategist, and prolific writer on revolutionary theory, culture and 
liberation. The struggles he led against Portuguese colonialism 
contributed to the collapse not only of Portugal’s African empire, but 
also to the downfall of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal and to the 
Portuguese revolution of 1974-’75, events that he was not to witness: he 
was assassinated by some of his comrades, with the support of the 
Portuguese secret police, PIDE, on 20 January 1973.

By the time of his death, two thirds of Guinea was in the liberated 
zones, where popular democratic structures were established that would 
form the basis for the future society: women played political and 
military leadership roles, the Portuguese currency was banned and 
replaced by barter, agricultural production was devoted to the needs of 
the population, and many of the elements of a society based on humanity, 
equality and justice began to emerge organically through popular debate 
and discussion. Cultural resistance played a critical role in both the 
defeat of the Portuguese and in the establishment of the liberated zones.

Cabral understood that the extension and domination of capitalism 
depends critically on dehumanizing the colonial subject. And central to 
the process of dehumanization has been the need to destroy, modify or 
recast the culture of the colonized, for it is principally through 
culture, “because it is history”, that the colonized have sought to 
resist domination and assert their humanity. For Cabral, and also for 
Fanon, culture is not some aesthetic artefact, but an expression of 
history, the foundation of liberation, and a means to resist domination. 
At heart, culture is subversive.

The history of liberalism has been one of contestation between the 
cultures of what 
to as the sacred and profane spaces. The democracy of the sacred space 
to which the Enlightenment gave birth in the New World was, writes 
Losurdo, a “/Herrenvolk/ democracy”, a democracy of the white 
master-race that refused to allow blacks, indigenous peoples, or even 
white women, to be considered citizens. They were regarded as part of 
the profane space occupied by the less-than-human. The ideology of a 
white, master-race democracy was reproduced as capital colonized vast 
sections of the globe. Trump’s victory in the US and the establishment 
of his right-wing, if not fascist, entourage, is in many ways an 
expression of the growing resentment and antagonism among significant 
sections of white America towards the perceived invasion and defiling of 
the sacred space by indigenous people, blacks, “latinos”, Mexicans, 
gays, lesbians, organized labor, immigrants and all those profane beings 
that do not belong in that space. We can safely predict that Trump’s 
presidency will see efforts to mount an assault on the cultures, 
organizations, and organizing capacities of those they view as the 
detritus of society, to remove them from the privileges of the sacred 
space and to “return” them to the domain of the dehumanized. At the same 
time, we can predict that there will be widespread resistance to such 
attempts, in which culture will be an essential element.

In this context, Cabral’s writing and speeches on culture, liberation 
and resistance to power have important implications for the coming 
struggles not only in the US, but also in post-Brexit Britain, and in 
continental Europe, where fascism is once again raising its ugly head in 
several countries. Drawing upon Cabral’s works, I look at how 
colonialism established and maintained its power through attempts to 
eradicate the cultures of the colonial subject, and how culture as a 
liberatory force was essential for African people to reassert their 
humanity, to invent what it means to be human, and to develop a 
universalist humanity. I discuss how neocolonial regimes have attempted 
to disarticulate culture from politics, a process that neoliberalism has 
exacerbated. But as discontent after nearly forty years of austerity 
(a.k.a. “structural adjustment programs”) in Africa rises, as 
governments increasingly lose popular legitimacy, there is a resurgence 
of uprisings and protests, and once again culture is re-emerging as a 
mobilizing and organizing force.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Hegel, considered that 
Africans had no history. But what was the “African” that they were 
referring to? It was only in the 15th century that Europeans began to 
use the term “African” to refer to all the peoples who live on the 
continent. The term was directly associated with the Atlantic slave 
trade, and the condemnation of large sections of humanity to chattel 
slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. To succeed in subjecting 
millions of human beings to such barbarism depended on defining them as 

The process of dehumanization required a systematic and 
institutionalized attempt to destroy existing cultures, languages, 
histories and capacities to produce, organize, tell stories, invent, 
love, make music, sing songs, make poetry, create art — all things that 
make a people human. This was carried our by local and European 
enslavers and slave owners and all those who profited from the trade in 
humans, not least the emerging European capitalist class.

In essence, the word that encapsulates this process of dehumanizing the 
people of this continent is /African/. Indeed, anthropologists, 
scientists, philosophers and a whole industry developed to “prove” that 
these people constituted a different sub-human, biological “race”. 
Africans were to be considered as having no history, culture, or any 
contribution to make to human history. As slaves, they were mere 
chattel — property or “things” that would be owned, disposed of and 
treated in any way that the “owner” thought fit.

This attempt to erase the culture of Africans was a signal failure. For 
while the forces of liberalism destroyed the institutions, cities, 
literature, science and art on the continent, people’s memories of 
culture, art forms, music and all that is associated with being human 
remained alive, and were also carried across on the slave ships to where 
African slaves found themselves, and where that culture evolved in their 
new material conditions to become a basis for resistance.

The Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery were the cornerstones of 
capital accumulation that gave birth to capitalism, as were the 
concurrent genocides and mass killings of indigenous populations of the 
Americas and beyond. The systematic dehumanization of sections of 
humanity — racism — was intimately intertwined with the birth, growth 
and continued expansion of capital, and remains the hallmark of its 

Cabral understood that separating Africa and Africans from the general 
flow of common human experience could only lead to the retardation of 
social processes on the continent. “When imperialism arrived in Guinea 
it made us leave our history … and enter another history.” This process 
was to continue from its origins in the European enslavement and forced 
removal of people from Africa to the expansion of Europe’s colonial 
ventures to the present day. The representation of Africans as inferior 
and sub-human justified the terror, slaughter, genocides, imprisonments, 
torture, confiscation of land and property, forced labor, destruction of 
societies and cultures, violent suppression of expressions of discontent 
and dissent, restrictions on movement, and establishment of “tribal” 
reserves. It justified the division of the land mass and its peoples 
into territories at the Berlin Conference in 1884-’85 by competing 
European imperial powers.

The faith in the superiority of the culture of the sacred space combined 
with Christianity’s missionary zeal laid the foundations for empire and 
the spread of Christendom. “After the slave trade, armed conquest and 
colonial wars,” wrote Cabral, “there came the complete destruction of 
the economic and social structure of African society. The next phase was 
European occupation and ever-increasing European immigration into these 
territories. The lands and possessions of the Africans were looted.” 
Colonial powers established control by imposing taxes, enforcing 
compulsory crops, introducing forced labor, excluding Africans from 
particular jobs, removing them from the most fertile regions, and 
establishing native authorities consisting of collaborators.

Cabral pointed out that whatever the material aspects of domination, “it 
can be maintained only by the permanent and organized repression of the 
cultural life of the people concerned.” Of course, domination could only 
be completely guaranteed by the elimination of a significant part of the 
population as, for example, in the genocide of the Herero peoples in 
southern Africa or of many of the indigenous nations of North America, 
but in practice this was not always feasible or indeed seen as desirable 
from the point of view of empire. In Cabral’s words:

    The ideal for foreign domination, whether imperialist or not, would
    be to choose: either to liquidate practically all the population of
    the dominated country, thereby eliminating the possibilities for
    cultural resistance; or to succeed in imposing itself without damage
    to the culture of the dominated people — that is, to harmonize
    economic and political domination of these people with their
    cultural personality.

By denying the historical development of the dominated people, 
imperialism necessarily denies their cultural development, which is why 
it requires cultural oppression and an attempt at “direct or indirect 
liquidation of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated 

“Of the African population of Angola, Guiné and Mozambique, 99.7 percent 
are classified as uncivilized by Portuguese colonial laws,” wrote Cabral 
in an assessment of the Portuguese colonies. “The so called 
‘uncivilized’ African is treated as a chattel, and is at the mercy of 
the will and caprice of the colonial administration and the settlers. 
This situation is absolutely necessary to the existence of the 
Portuguese colonial system. He provides an inexhaustible supply of 
forced labor for export. By classifying him as ‘uncivilized’, the law 
gives legal sanction to racial discrimination and provides one of the 
justifications for Portuguese domination in Africa.”

The use of violence to dominate a people is, argued Cabral, “above all, 
to take up arms to destroy, or at least neutralize and to paralyze their 
cultural life. For as long as part of that people have a cultural life, 
foreign domination cannot be assured of its perpetuation”.

The reason for this is clear. Culture is not a mere artefact or 
expression of aesthetics, custom or tradition. It is a means by which 
people assert their opposition to domination, a means to proclaim and 
invent their humanity, a means to assert agency and the capacity to make 
history. In a word, culture is one of the fundamental tools of the 
struggle for emancipation.

Haiti’s slave revolution in 1804, which established the independent 
black republic, constituted one of the first significant breaches 
against racial despotism and slavery. Toussaint Louverture, the first 
leader of the rebellion, drew on an explicit commitment to a universal 
humanism to denounce slavery. In Richard Pithouse’s succinct summary: 
“Colonialism defined race as permanent biological destiny. The 
revolutionaries in Haiti defined it politically. Polish and German 
mercenaries who had gone over to the side of the slave armies were 
granted citizenship, as black subjects, in a free and independent Haiti.”

In Guinea-Bissau, Cabral was commissioned by the colonial authorities to 
undertake an extensive census of agricultural production, enabling him 
to gain a profound understanding of the people, their culture and forms 
of resistance to colonial rule. He recognized that building a liberation 
movement required a “reconversion of minds — a mental set” that he 
believed to be indispensable for the “true integration of people into 
the liberation movements”. To achieve that required “daily contact with 
the popular masses in the communion of sacrifice required by the 
struggle”. PAIGC cadres were deployed across the country to work with 
peasants, to learn from them about how they experienced and opposed 
colonial domination, to engage with them about the cultural practices 
that formed part of their resistance to it. “Do not be afraid of the 
people and persuade the people to take part in all the decisions that 
concern them,” he told his party members. “The leader must be the 
faithful interpreter of the will and the aspirations of the 
revolutionary majority and not the lord of power.” And, “To lead 
collectively, in a group, is to study questions jointly, to find their 
best solution, and to take decisions jointly.”

For Cabral, culture has a material base, “the product of this history 
just as a flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it 
is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive 
forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the 
physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and 
reflects the organic nature of the society.”

Culture, insists Cabral, is intimately linked to the struggle for 
freedom. While culture comprises many aspects, it “grows deeper through 
the people’s struggle, and not through songs, poems or folklore. … One 
cannot expect African culture to advance unless one contributes 
realistically to the creation of the conditions necessary for this 
culture, i.e. the liberation of the continent.” In other words, culture 
is not static and unchangeable, but it advances only through engagement 
in the struggle for freedom.

National liberation, says Cabral, “is the phenomenon in which a 
socio-economic whole rejects the denial of its historical process. In 
other words, the national liberation of a people is the regaining of the 
historical personality of that people, it is their return to history 
through the destruction of the imperialist domination to which they were 

Or, as Fanon put it: “To fight for national culture first of all means 
fighting for the liberation of the nation, the tangible matrix from 
which culture can grow. One cannot divorce the combat for culture from 
the people’s struggle for liberation.” Furthermore: “The Algerian 
national culture takes form and shape during the fight, in prison, 
facing the guillotine and in the capture and destruction of the French 
military positions.” And, “National culture is no folklore … [it] is the 
collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol 
the actions whereby they have joined forces and remain strong.”

If being cast as African was originally defined as being less than 
human, the resounding claim of every movement in opposition to 
enslavement, every slave revolt, every opposition to colonization, every 
challenge to the institutions of white supremacy, every resistance to 
racism, every resistance to oppression or to patriarchy, constituted an 
assertion of human identity. Where Europeans considered Africans to be 
sub-human, the response was to claim the identity of “African” as a 
positive, liberating definition of a people who are part of humanity, 
“who belong to the whole world,” as Cabral put it. As in the struggles 
of the oppressed throughout history, a transition occurs in which terms 
used by the oppressors to “other” people are eventually appropriated by 
the oppressed and turned into terms of dignity and assertion of humanity.

It was thus that the concept of being “African” became intimately 
associated with the concept of freedom and emancipation. The people 
“have kept their culture alive and vigorous despite the relentless and 
organized repression of their cultural life,” wrote Cabral. Cultural 
resistance was the basis for the assertion of people’s humanity and the 
struggle for freedom.

With the growing discontent with the domination of the colonial regimes, 
especially following the second world war, many political parties were 
formed, many of which sought to negotiate concessions from the colonial 
powers. Colonialism had been reluctant to grant any form of pluralism to 
black organizations, but as popular protests grew, so there was a 
grudging opening of political space, often involving favors to those who 
were less threatening to colonial rule.

But such associations with freedom were, tragically, not to last for 
long beyond independence.

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