In January 1966, Amilcar Cabral, who led the war of independence against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, gave an address at the Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana, Cuba. Titled The Weapon of Theory, the speech has become a classic text in the canon of radical thought.
Cabral said the world’s progressive forces and revolutionary organisations must crush imperialism. But insofar as many of these forces and organisations had the petit bourgeoisie at their helm, they would need to fight a potential enemy from within – themselves. In 1961, Frantz Fanon had made a similar point. But it was Cabral who introduced the famous injunction that the elites among the colonised faced an existential choice to “betray the revolution or to commit suicide as a class”.
Cabral was a 20th-century phenomenon. He was born on 12 September 1924 in Guinea-Bissau and assassinated in 1973, before the independence of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. There was a time, however, when he was just a student with principles and ideals. In Paris in the 1930s, figures such as Aimé Césaire, Jean and Paulette Nardal, Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas gravitated towards a kind of cultural negritude. There was a similar phenomenon in Lisbon, where Africans from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea and São Tomé inclined to a kind of Lusophone African pride heavily influenced by intellectual currents in France, Cuba, the United States and West Africa. During the day they studied agriculture, medicine and engineering, subjects necessary to build a technocratic class that could uphold colonialism. At night and on the weekends, they studied Karl Marx, Marcus Garvey, CLR James and Richard Wright.
Like George Padmore, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah and others in Britain and the US, they had been sent to the metropole, to the heart of the empire, with one mission: to uphold colonialism. There they were confronted with a clear choice: comply or rebel? They rebelled.
The relationships forged between people from across Africa and the Caribbean in metropolitan cities would prove pivotal in the struggles to come. In Lisbon, the founders of the Angolan Communist Party, the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) and the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) all knew each other and were part of the same clandestine circle – the study group they called the Centro de Estudos Africanos.
At this point the idea of class suicide was not a profound existential crisis. It seemed that all that was required was to read the right books and be a little patriotic. It was a theoretical possibility that had yet to be tested.
The concept of class suicide has often been reduced to a personality trait, an attitude, a kind of idealism that betrays the Marxist analysis that brought it to be. It is often assumed that a simple change in the mindset of the petit bourgeoisie will lead to an alliance with the workers, peasants and urban impoverished. Even today, the petit bourgeoisie will be considered to have committed class suicide if, every once in a while, they leave their offices in the high-rise skyscrapers that pierce the polluted skies of the postcolonial metropolis to come and sit on the ground and eat with the people living in shacks. But this is not class suicide.
Cabral didn’t offer the idea of class suicide as a virtue, it was a warning. The best way to think about it is like this: the national petit bourgeoisie, in the colonial context, has a natural propensity to betray the national aspirations of the working class, even if they have developed the cultural and technical capital to become the leaders that negotiate with, and barring that, physically fight against colonialism.
But the petit bourgeoisie’s interests as a class are to become the kind of bourgeoisie that some of the colonisers already were in the colonial period. This point is echoed by Fanon and Steve Biko, who both made the point that for some among the colonised, the point of the struggle is to replace the coloniser rather than to develop fundamentally different social relations.
For Cabral and other liberation struggle leaders cognisant of the class question, the petit bourgeoisie have a dual character. On the one hand, they had skills that were indispensable to the national liberation struggle. But on the other hand, their short-term class interests would often come to trump their long-term existential interests in national liberation. They were, in other words, simultaneously essential to national liberation and its biggest threat.
For Cabral, they must “reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois”. In Fanon’s words they should “put at the people’s disposal the intellectual and technical capital” that they have “snatched when going through the colonial universities”, but they will more often choose the anti-national path instead, one that is “stupidly, contemptibly, cynically bourgeois”.
The problem with the national bourgeoisie, Fanon wrote, is that it “uses its class aggressiveness to corner the positions formerly kept for foreigners”. Meanwhile, under a form of black nationalism, “the working class of the towns, the masses of unemployed, the small artisans and craftsmen for their part line up behind this nationalist attitude; but in all justice let it be said, they only follow in the steps of their bourgeoisie”. The end result is violent, xenophobic attacks in the streets.
In place of the coloniser
Cabral’s warning proved prophetic. From Guyana to Sudan, the end of colonialism seemed to disprove the hypothesis that “class suicide” was possible in the postcolonial period. The petit national bourgeoisie failed that test and became the bourgeoisie. In many cases, this simply meant taking the place formerly occupied by the coloniser.
The capture of national liberal struggles by the petit bourgeoisie also had serious political consequences as organising in support of popular aspirations was met with serious pressure as postcolonial states acquired a despotic character. Intellectuals who remained on the side of the people were often jailed or assassinated. In Kenya, Maina Wa Kinyatti, a renowned Marxist historian, was jailed by Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorship for more than six years, most of it served in solitary confinement. In Guyana, Walter Rodney, a major intellectual who was particularly attentive to the way the new bourgeoisie was seeking to steal the postcolonial moment, was assassinated in 1980.
Fanon’s fears proved to be right – many of the national petit bourgeoisie were not against colonialism. The real problem they had with colonialism was that they weren’t the ones in control. In Guyana, the process of taking up the colonial machinery meant the division of the bourgeoisie into national blocks, with the descendants of African slaves under the PNC (People’s National Congress) and the descendants of Indian indentured labourers under the PPP (People’s Progressive Party). Both camps disingenuously called themselves socialists because the workers had not yet given up on socialism.
The elite spoke on behalf of abstract “communities” and divided them in ways that would have made their former colonisers envious. Race riots, massacres and lynchings became permanent horrors in the sociopolitical landscape of the postcolonial state. In contemporary South Africa, African and Asian migrants are regularly attacked on the streets.
In many postcolonial societies, including all the southern African states ruled by former national liberation movements, rapacious and repressive national bourgeoisies of the 21st century are able to continue to hide behind the mask of a national liberation phase, a phase that seems never to come to an end. Some of these elites have even made common cause with so-called workers’ movements and attached themselves to the land question, appropriating it to hide an alliance with a new generation of “socialists” who are aspiring capitalists themselves.
Cabral’s thoughts on class suicide remain as urgent today as they were in 1966.