From International Socialism, No.67, March 1974, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Africans: An Entry to Cultural History
Penguin African Library, 60p.
BASIL DAVIDSON has been writing on Africa for the last 20 years, and has largely been responsible for informing the English-speaking world about Portugal’s atrocious colonial wars. It is perhaps thanks to his constant travelling over most of black Africa that he has avoided the blinkered academicism of a specialist. It is exactly this width of vision which he displays in this fine book.
The book attempts, as the subtitle suggests, to acquaint the western reader with African culture. Davidson has digested for us the often unpalatable works of the archaeologists and anthropologists, and brought to them a dash of history to add depth to their timeless accounts of an allegedly unchanging tribal life. In so doing, he voraciously attacks the twin myths of European racism: that African culture is simple and naive; and that the African is hopelessly superstitious and fanciful in comparison with the rational white man.
When the explorers of the Age of Discovery first made contact with the African world, they in many ways met cultural equals. The great empires of Mali, Ghana and Songhai, the stone city of Zimbabwe, the kingdom of the Kongo, had all flourished before the European arrived. Many sea-captains trading with African towns assumed that they were dealing with civilisations as developed as those of the Mediterranean. One factor differed, and that was the incomparably higher development of the means of production of the invader over the iron age African. And it was precisely this factor which enabled the colonialist to establish both physical and cultural dominance.
The European who could persuade the African to part with gold or ivory for worthless trinkets could afford to jibe at ancestor worship – the belief that the tribe’s forefathers were descended from the Gods, and could therefore mediate between heaven and earth. Yet only 300 years ago, John Locke, the English bourgeois philosopher, found it necessary to devote a major work to refuting the claim that the Stuart monarchy was entitled to absolute sovereignty – because it was directly descended from Adam to whom God gave all things!
Likewise, it is easy to sneer at the witch-finding, the belief in magic and the Messianic cults which sweep areas of Africa. Yet look around at the St Christopher medallions, the Copper bracelets, or at the literature published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. After all, which is more reasonable: the millionaire press which attributes the ills of modern capitalism to ‘troublemakers’; or the African of an over-populated Bantustan in South Africa who blames sorcerers for his dying cattle?
Davidson, unlike most ‘Africanists’, is prepared to compare present-day Africa in the turmoil of imperialism and industrialisation, with Europe of the Industrial Revolution. Both are worlds turned upside down. Africans adapt lineage-groups to act as the 19th century friendly societies did in Britain. Religious prophets warn of Armageddon, and preach salvation, just as the Ranters, or Joanna Southcott who roamed Britain in the early 19th century. The forms may be different, but the content is the same: the resistance of the integrated organic community of the village to the blind onslaught of individualistic, atomising capitalism.
However Davidson runs the risk of bending the stick too far. It is an essential task to defend black culture against the racists who deny its very existence. It is vital to understand the often incoherent forms of the anti-capitalist revolt of the village, and that the future workers’ revolution will be built on the specific structures of African society. (Isaac Deutscher has given excellent examples of leaflets written by Trotsky, addressing Russian peasants in their Biblical language and metaphors, using this form of speech to put revolutionary demands.)
But equally these structures must be examined to probe their weaknesses. There is more than an element of Luddism in ‘African Socialism’, while the puritan asceticism of the fundamentalist Islamic regimes diverts political struggle on to a religious plane. English radicalism from the 1790s through to the Chartists was dogged by a backward looking ideology, in which the ‘Norman yoke’ would be overthrown, and a return made to the’Anglo-Saxon freemen’. When we remember that there are over 3000 different churches in South Africa alone, we begin to see the possibilities for religious withdrawal rather than political struggle. In one notable case in East London, a church leader is the former organiser of the trade union there. Davidson shows us how to understand the African mind, but not how to change it.
Yet if you want to know more of the ‘African mind’ – the force behind the Congolese ‘Simbas’, the Lumpa Church of Alice Lenshina in Zambia, or the witch-hunting of the Transkei – then there is no finer introduction.
Last updated on 1.1.2008