Decolonization : Seloua Luste Boulbina

Rachel Sussman / The Poetics of Space
Rachel Sussman / The Poetics of Space

Decolonization : Seloua Luste Boulbina


Translated from the French by Isis Sadek and Jacques Lezra

“To confront the temporality of the victors, one can weave a temporality that is not that of the victims, but that of those unvanquished.”
—Rancière, Les bords de la fiction.1


How—from the North—does one lose direction [comment . . . perdre le nord]? It is hard to keep count, from the perspective of the post-empire, of the number of objects to which “decolonization” is applied today. It is as if it were necessary to decontaminate profoundly toxic ways of being, of acting, and of thinking. Decolonization, as a concept, seems to have found its predicates, its direct objects—bodies, minds, imaginaries, fiction, gender, sexuality, collections, etc., which must all be decolonized. This drift, like some sort of low-cost decolonization, is typically post-imperial. It is proper to the ancient metropolis and ancient societies, which apply the idea to objects rather than to social and political structures. Can this drift toward decolonization’s direct objects also obtain in African postcolonial societies—with the exception, perhaps, of Apartheid (1948–1991) in South Africa? Even if examining these objects is of secondary importance with regard to the concept, it remains a significant task. Artists and intellectuals overvalue the symbolic dimension of decolonization, because that is where their talent lies. The libido sciendi is certainly easier to temper than the libido dominandi. Decolonization may be understood as a desire for change, or as a need for change; nothing about the concept tells us, however, what this change should be. There is no orienting grid to give us directions in advance.

Responding to the invitation to propose a concept, I chose that of decolonization, a matter to which I have been attending for some time now from a postcolonial perspective, and especially from an African one rather than a post-imperial point of view (I will return to this distinction below). Allow me a few preliminary remarks on method. The object of a concept is modeled, philosophically, as if it were a soft paste that one kneads and molds in one or another direction. A concept’s object is not a marble block, despite the need we may often feel to cut and break it. I will not, then, perform any sort of “cutting.” I am taking the opportunity to clarify and to synthesize a critical perspective—without, to paraphrase Rousseau, setting aside all facts. For if there is some matter to be decolonized, what or which is it? In conceptual matters, there is nothing worse than “generalities.” They have served to impose a certain order on the world, neither free nor equal. How can we forget? Conceptualization must be simultaneously general and detailed. The concept of decolonization does not have—this is crucial—the same content in all situations. Although a general concept, it applies differently, from the postcolonial vantage, to America and to Africa. Nonetheless, the questions raised in a reflection on the concept of decolonization bring into dynamic relief the diversity and intensity of the issues at stake. No sphere of being is spared. Often, the feeling of pleasure and pain remains exposed. This is why the notion of decolonization has been diffracted and disseminated in many different directions.

I have chosen here, in theorizing, to retain the historical thickness of a questioning, rather than to let it appear, by implication, that decolonization can only be thought through abstractly; recently; only in relation to specific, parceled-out objects (the decolonization of this or that); and only from the cloisters of US universities. In order to weave a time of the unvanquished, a time that will stand up to the time of the victors (if it is really even possible to do so today), I will proceed to construct the concept by tracing the genealogy of a notion that is first and above all political-historical, and by following the migration of ideas. I will proceed classically, from simple to complex, from the particular to the general, and from the known to the unknown. Decolonization was first a political notion, then a historiographical one. How can it be philosophically determined? I have chosen to proceed in a way that will take the measure of this question in its two dimensions: temporal and spatial, which will link decolonization to the formation in which it originates, the colony. Politically, the question extends distinctly on both sides of an imperial-colonial line that I wish to highlight, in order not to conflate problematics that are totally different. But attempts to think through the concept of decolonization along historical lines lead to aporias, if not to contradictions. Is it something past, a past, or a future? Every teleological perspective must be very explicitly rejected.

I will also show, again from a philosophical perspective, that there is no conceivable decolonization without the correlation of a society’s political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions, particularly on the postcolonial side. How do these dimensions imbricate one another, in a sort of layering-enfolding of each in the others? The complexity of an uncertain form hails us here. For the stakes and issues of decolonization are always plural, entangled, interlocked. They are geopolitical and historiographical, but also semantic. To grasp them fully, to disentangle them, and to know what a decolonization might be, it is therefore best not to approach the matter only objectively, but also as a subjective phenomenon, and as one granting the real the status of subject And on an intersubjective plane as well: neither Fanon nor Cheikh Anta Diop met, in their time, the French academic expectations of the psychiatric establishment (in Fanon’s case) or of anthropology (in Diop’s case) were too restrictive. Too much of this, not enough of the other. Here, judgment is the weapon of the stronger, the actual legitimation of his power. They were too original for their time, and for the locations in which they expressed themselves. This lesson should still be remembered.

In the interest of simplicity, I will use the terms “colonizers” and “colonized.” I have also chosen to associate a time and a place to everyone I mention here—as a way of undoing colonially instituted references and codifications. For me—who has inherited, in my innermost, from Algerian independence, from its hard-won victory, from its battles, from its contradictions, from the strategy of the break, from the mishaps of recognition, from double consciousness, from the sundering of familiar standards, from the insubordination of forms, from the fragmentation of perspectives, from the discontinuity of times, from the betwixt- and between-ness of the postcolony, from war and from peace—decolonization begins, practically, with freedom, which I understand here as freedom to act and freedom of expression. For as regards matters of theory, writing, and formulation, the North’s hegemonic imposition of academic codes and norms is always with us. And this might be another way of stating that “to decolonize” should be first and above all conjugated in the first person, and means “to decolonize oneself.” Who better than the unvanquished—beyond scholastics and rhetoric—to say it?

Before reflecting on decolonization, and before seeking to envisage in what it consists, the very idea of “colonization” should call us out, since “decolonization” makes sense only in response to that idea. It expresses the point of view of the colonizer; there is no “colonization” except from the colonizer’s perspective. In France, the abolition of slavery in 1794 during the French Revolution leads immediately, through Talleyrand’s initiative, to the quest for new colonies. The failure of the campaign in Egypt prompts Napoleon to reinstate slavery and . . . to lose Saint-Domingue. This, in turn, justifies the colonial venture in Algeria, itself a particular sort of colony, intermediate inasmuch as it is heir to the “older colonies,” but does not inherit slavery. When the French Tocqueville (1805–1859) refers, in 1847, to introducing the “conquering population” on Algerian soil, that is, to “settlement,” he claims that he wants to avoid repeating the conquest of America: no near total extermination of the indigenous peoples or introduction of slavery. In this differentiation between conquest and colonization, Tocqueville theorizes “colonization” in Algeria. Conquest corresponds, in principle, to wartime and is military; colonization is a time of peace and is civil. The French associate colonization with notions of “cooperation,” “association,” or “assimilation.”

Colonization creates the colony itself and those who are colonized (as well as colonizers, the colonist, and the colonial). The term “colonization,” still largely in use, unveils a singularity, as it shows how colonization is unending. War never effaces itself in the face of peace, nor does the military in the face of what is civilian. The colonizer’s work of transforming the country or the region is never completed: so long as “indigenous people” remain, this task cannot be completed. This is particularly true when colonization is undertaken in the form of settlement. In the colonizer’s eyes, the territory is never sufficiently colonized; it is always too foreign, too “backward.” For those colonized, this is a forced migration: he will live under foreign law, in a land no longer his. A foreign tongue will be forced on him. Because he is no longer at home, the country is always too colonized. Those who are colonized live, or rather, survive —economically, socially, politically, culturally— in a colony, an occupied territory. How many resistances or struggles have been undertaken to fight for the conservation of a piece of land, to safeguard riches, to preserve a way of life, etc., within a given colony? The illusion that (the colonizer’s) domination is total veils the fierceness of the struggle (of those colonized).

The idea of decolonization initially operates from this point-of-view. It is initially European; it comes into being as the counterpoint of the notion of colonization. The term “decolonization” is born not in the twentieth century, as is often thought, but in the prior century. It is initially a political term. It is used as early as 1836, when the French journalist Henry Fonfrède (1788–1841) writes about Algeria. His manifesto, The decolonization of Algiers (Décolonisation d’Alger), depicts colonization as “an impossible and shameful effort,” a “ruinous folly,” that its partisans view as a “point of honor.”2 In his eyes, the greatness or the honor of a country is but smoke and mirrors. He recommends that the French settlers evacuate Algeria. Fonfrède’s new word is then taken up among the “anti-colonists,” as well as those who opposed colonization, and by the adversaries of “colonists.” But as imperial victories carry the day, the term “decolonization” falls into disuse. “Decolonization” is therefore initially an idea expressed by Europeans who constitute a political minority in their opposition to colonial expansion. It is, at the outset, a political idea that is correlative and contemporary to the idea of colonization. Colonization and decolonization are thus tightly matched.

Almost a century after that initial usage, when the British, the Germans, the Portuguese, the French, and others, have once again extended the reach of their power—this time in Africa—the notion of “decolonization” resurfaces elsewhere, in a British colony, this time referring to struggles for independence. Indian Communists are responsible for reintroducing this notion. In 1928, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887–1954) writes, in Socialism and the Empire, “the denial of the right of self-determination to India is dictated by the interests of British capitalism.”3 This argument turns decolonization into a question of “self-determination,” which is pitted against national/imperial capitalism. The term “decolonization” quickly becomes synonymous with political independence and anti-capitalism. Still, the Sixth Conference of the Communist Internationale, held in 1928, bans the use of the word “decolonization,” adducing that this word designates a recuperation by the colonizer of the pro-independence nationalism defended by that very colonizer.4 This is an interesting argument, worth further study—for it is not the case, today, when “cultural appropriation” transforms the problematics of the “postcolony” into the intellectual accessories of an aging Western modernity.

In Europe, at more or less the same time, the German Julius Moritz Bonn (1873-1965), uses the word Entkolonisierung to refer to the retreat of the imperial powers from their colonies, then, as an immigrant to Great Britain, the word Dekolonization. In an article titled “Imperialism” and published in 1932 in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Bonn establishes the idea of “decolonization”: “All over the world a period of countercolonization began, and decolonization is rapidly proceeding.”5 In 1938, he publishes The Crumbling of Empire: The Disintegration of World Economy. There, he thinks of the dissolution of colonial empires as a disintegration of the global economy: a revolution. Indeed, colonies had to remain incapable of economically competing with the metropolis. Production and exchanges were therefore aligned with the metropolis’s ambition to preserve its monopoly, its dominant position, and its wealth: its hegemony. The French doctrine of a “colonial pact” was established on the basis of an eloquent division: the metropolis was destined for industrialization, whereas colonies had to provide raw materials. Form for the first; matter for the second; mind to one, body to the other; the shaping line, the contour, to the metropolis, color for the colony. Metaphysics cannot be separated from politics.

Because the colony is consubstantially tied to property (mancipium)—inasmuch as is first an act of appropriation (of the ground and of what lies below ground), decolonization is generally defined as the “process of emancipation of colonies from the metropolis.” The disappearance of empires is not exactly a process, unless it is viewed from above, from the vantage of an “impartial spectator.” If it is examined from below, from the position of its actors, it comes into view as the result of a struggle, one that may have espoused the violent forms of what the colonizer calls “insurrection” or “rebellion” and that, in the eyes of those who are colonized, is “revolution.” The formation of new independent states was not brought about through discussion or peaceful negotiation. When colonization is understood in this way, it manifests the will of those colonized to overthrow the world’s political order, which is sometimes –most often, in fact— accompanied by a will to overthrow the world’s economic order (capitalism). This is why the Franco-Algerian Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), when writing about Algeria, refers to an “agenda for total disorder.” In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), he writes: “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.”6 For the order of the world, as it existed during that period, constrains peoples and individuals to a subalternity that is total: political, economic, social, and cultural.

The restless, traveling notion of “decolonization” thus underwent a double displacement: on the one hand, from the metropolis to the colony and then from the colony to the metropolis; and, on the other hand, from the political field to the academic. This is how the idea of “decolonization” becomes associated, and then conflated, with the dissolution of the European colonial empires in Asia and Africa and the subsequent emergence of new independent states. Within the academic field, this idea continues to migrate toward historiography. Because of this particular migration, the term “decolonization” continues to refer to a past, particularly among historians. In 1969, Xavier Yacono (1912–1982) authors a volume in the “What do I know?” [“Que sais-je?”] collection of introductory, popularizing texts, titled The Stages of French Decolonization [Les Étapes de la décolonisation française].7 The title is telling. It manifests how the metropolis appropriates a term that refers to the attainment, through greater or lesser hardships, of independence, that is, of political sovereignty. In Yacono’s title, “decolonization” is “French.” The territories formerly occupied are discussed as peripheries that exist in relation to the center, the former metropolis. As the concept migrates, it becomes increasingly ambiguous.

In this regard, it is vital to examine historians from a sociological perspective. Xavier Yacono is a “Frenchman from Algeria.” He initially taught in Algeria, on “the history of colonizations.” Then, after (so to speak) “repatriating” to France, he developed an interest in “decolonization.” Up until recently, “the history of colonizations” was taught at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po.). Far from focusing on the colony, this course focused on the metropolis. This singular and long-standing centering has been, from its beginnings, thought through and criticized in the writings of Algerian Mohamed Sahli (1906-1989) who, in 1965, publishes Decolonizing History [Décoloniser l’histoire] with Maspero. Sahli evidently does not understand “decolonization” in the same way as Yacono, nor does he apply the idea to the same object. Whereas Yacono speaks of the history of events, Sahli speaks of the very writing of history. Sahli was born an indigène and became a “French Muslim.” A philosopher by training, Sahli committed, from 1937 onward, to his country’s struggle for independence. In his book, he calls for a “Copernican revolution” to put an end to the idea that Europe is the center of the world. He proposes to “revise the intellectual tools, to enrich, broaden, or renew premises, notions, definitions, theories, and values.”8 He aspires to “provincialize” Europe, as some would later say. There is no doubt that the very writing of history can only be thought through, reflected upon and in, the unvanquished. Nonetheless, after independence the former colonizers will continue to try to impose their views on the epistemic plane. It becomes evident that the idea of decolonization is traversed by the imperial-colonial line. It is polemical.

We should observe that what one of these historians views as an ending is what the other considers a beginning. The meaning of “decolonization” will deepen in the space between those who view it as a “historical period” and those others for whom it is a reconquering of their history and their “destiny.” This dissymmetry manifests itself equally in time as it does in space. While the former metropolis has a past, the former colony has a future. The symbolic and discursive dimension of this future is plain to see. What comes to light is the necessity that one conceive of oneself [se penser] in order to project oneself—conceiving of oneself on one’s own terms, outside of the categories that colonizers use to interiorize, subalternize, minimize, or invalidate those who are colonized. Europeans view the majority of colonized people as “backward” whereas a minority—that is, an “elite”— is “evolved,” that is, Europeanized. The internalization of this division becomes a factor, as this “Europeanized” elite will be the one to question “decolonization,” both politically and intellectually. This is most notably the case, from the independences onwards, when this elite, particularly philosophers, asks itself what avenues to follow in seeking to foster the decolonization of knowledges.

Is decolonization a historical “period”? Every periodization of history is problematic. Decolonization is generally viewed as a period that begins either in 1945 with the end of World War II, or in 1955 with the Bandung Conference. Between these dates, there is the War of Indochina (1946–1954). The 1960s, when the formal transfer of sovereignty (independence) occurs, are typically taken to close this period: after this formal transfer, “decolonization” no longer occurs. This periodization is visibly Eurocentric: it focuses on the loss of colonies and the demise of colonial empires. Hence the commonplace definition: “The decolonization of Africa corresponds to the withdrawal of the colonial powers from Africa.” Further, it should be noted that the periodization proper to “decolonization” works backward, from the end. If this were not so, there would be no periodization: the period begins with an endpoint from which it proceeds backward. Medievalists, much more than specialists in contemporary history, are the ones who have put forth the most radical questioning of these accepted periodizations. On a philosophical level, this periodization is clearly oriented toward a finality: it is inevitably teleological.

The point should be examined in greater detail, as it is decisive. It is precisely during the 1960s that (among the French) Michel Foucault (1926–1984) criticized what he referred to as “the age of history.” For Foucault, historiography was a philosophy. In The Order of Things [Les Mots et les choses (1966)] he characterizes this particular European “age” as being at once epistemological and metaphysical. As an epistemology, historiography is based on the two principles of analogy and succession. On a metaphysical plane, historiography is founded on a double equivalency: between the being and the phenomenon, and between time and existence. “History becomes so soon divided, in accordance with an ambiguity that is probably impossible to control, into an empirical science of events and that radical mode of being that prescribes their destiny to all empirical beings, to those particular beings that we are.”9 In other words, in this “age of history,” historiography cannot exist without teleology. The latter conditions the writing of historiography. This is why Foucault emphasizes that the “objectivity of historians embodies their belief in providence, in the existence of final causes, and finally, in teleology. Teleology can be said to condition the possibility of a narration.”10 In that sense, decolonization, qua historical period and teleological ordering of the past, is a modern idea. As Jean-François Lyotard demonstrated, “the periodization of history responds to an obsession that is characteristic of modernity.”11

It is useful to recall that the imperial-colonial dividing line is one of the major differentiations that should be introduced in a reflection on decolonization. The meaning of this differentiation changes according to each of the two positions we have described. The former metropolis does not need to invent institutions; they are already there. Those same institutions have, through different means, produced the colonies. The former colony must invent it all. It is a second, voluntary migration toward an “unknown” country. Local political forms have, to a greater or lesser extent, been done away with by the colonizer and by the imposition of a colonial modernism (successor to classicism built on slavery) –an imposition that must, of course, be relativized. The former colony must therefore invent on its own the model inherited from the former colonizer as a universal, as the only valid political form: the nation-state. In this task, the aim is not for the former colony to exit backwardness, but rather, to extricate itself from the ideology of backwardness, carefully cultivated by the former colonizers on a racial basis. This imperial ideology did not disappear with independences. Quite the contrary: it perpetuated itself in the idea of underdevelopment, which immediately devalued the independences by turning them into victories that were of little consequence from the point of view of “economic development.” Although a new “cooperation” and new forms of “aid” were established, they did not bridge the gap between raw materials and manufactured goods, between resources and exploitation, between inheritors of the colony (those deemed to be “underdeveloped”) and those of the empire (those deemed to be “developed”). This power dynamic is key to the meaning of decolonization.

A second distinction must be made here. The slave-based former colonies of the Americas, all rooted in a settler model, must be differentiated from the last “modern” colonies of Africa, which are not, except and particularly Algeria, settler colonies. The independent states of the Americas must also be differentiated from African independent states. To put these matters schematically: the independences of the American continent have benefitted Europeans, with the exception of Haiti, which became the first “black republic” in 1804. The independence movements across the African continent benefitted the autochthonous populations, with the notable exception of South Africa, which only held its first “multi-racial” elections in 1994. In this continent, Algeria is the only former settler colony to have been entirely vacated of its European population. What is at stake in sovereignty is shaped to a large extent by the date of independence—those of the nineteenth century or the most recent ones achieved in the twentieth century—and by the presence or absence of Europeans (or of American Europeans). I set aside the “old colonies” whose status has changed but that remain dependent upon the metropolis.

The states of the Americas are more similar to the European post-imperial countries (former metropolises) than to the postcolonial African countries (former colonies). Their populations are severely racialized and indigenous peoples face daily restrictions. The United States are emblematic of this, as political independence attained in 1776 did not bring with it equal rights or deracialization. If the victory of the Civil Rights Movement can be likened to a form of relative internal independence, this is not the case for “Native Americans.” In 2012, the United Nations stated that these populations “face significant challenges that are related to widespread historical wrongs, including broken treaties and acts of oppression, and misguided government policies, that today manifest themselves in various indicators of disadvantage and impediments to the exercise of their individual and collective rights.”12 Tocqueville, who examined the present and speculated on the likely future of the “races” inhabiting the US territory, had shown that this country was a restricted democracy as it excluded “Indians” and “Blacks.”13 He posed questions about the future of these three “races” that inhabit the US territory. Today, still, to what extent do Native Americans, confined to reservations,14 benefit from the U.S.’s independence or its democracy? Over two centuries since its independence, to what extent is this great country actually decolonized?

It can be understood from this that external independence must be dissociated from what would amount to an “internal decolonization.” If the subalternization of populations still considered “backwards” persists, then colonial prejudice has not vanished, nor has the colonial structure founded on the basis of the racialization of minorities. This is what has led Latin American thinkers to develop the idea of coloniality which, after establishing as a premise the existence of internal colonialism, they endow with ontological, political, and gnoseological meanings. Peruvian Anibal Quijano (1930–2018) demonstrates how every dimension of a society is impregnated by “race,” which, in his understanding, is both the mode through which colonial domination occurs, and its result. Mexican-Argentine Enrique Dussel (1934–), one of the founders of the philosophy of liberation, voices a pluralist tribute to the periphery that counters the notion of “center.” His broader aim is to find ways of thinking from within the colony. Dussel refers to the notion of “colonial being,” as described by Cameroonian thinker Fabien Eboussi Boulaga (1934–2018), to truly think through the being as being, that which Fanon named “the total man.” These efforts toward “internal decolonization” reveal how the former metropolises are also considered to be marked by coloniality.

It is clear that the situation of African countries is not comparable to that of the former colonies of the Americas, with the exception of South Africa. They are not a terre de déportation, a sort of penal or convict colony as Australia was for Britain, nor a territory whose autochthonous population has been exterminated, with the exception of the Hereros and the Namas, who were systematically killed by the Germans between 1904 and 1908 in the first genocide of the twentieth century. We should also avoid reducing decolonization to independences. On a symbolic level, the task will be to recover those human capacities that have been stymied or destroyed, those capacities through which humans become speaking, political, and mimetic beings. Colonies are indeed established on the basis of the desymbolization of individuals, which is either total (slavery) or partial (non-slave-based colony)—on a desubjectification. This accounts for the argument voiced by successive French governments prior to the Evian accords when they claimed that they had no “valid interlocutors” in Algeria. What to make of the continued usage—up until October 1999—in France’s official discourse of the expression “the events of Algeria”? If war is the continuation of politics through alternative means, then those who are presumed to be incapable of politics (those colonized) cannot truly wage a war. This also accounts for a particular facet of newly independent countries: because the defenders of colonization argued that it was a form of modernization, newly independent countries view their ability to become “modern” without relying on colonizers as a point of honor, but according to the very same schemes valued by the colonizers—as if to mourn the lost colony voluntarily and sped-up. Perhaps this is one more mirage.

Among the multiple possible paths to achieve desymbolization, the imposition of new names and other languages than those locally in use are favored. In Algeria, the name SNP (for sans nom patronymique or “without a patronymic name”) is frequently seen. The autochthonous peoples of Senegal were taught a language known as petit nègre (“little negro,” or Français tirailleur, Petinègue or Forofifon naspa), a pidgin version of French. Through means such as these, the linguistic question will become the postcolonial question par excellence. As independence does not do away with English, French, or Portuguese, politics are exercised in languages that are not necessarily always learned, understood, and spoken by everyone. None of Burkina Faso’s vernacular languages is an official language. The African continent presents a high degree of linguistic fragmentation. Over 500 languages are spoken in Nigeria, where English is the official language and the Haoussa, Igbo, and Yoruba languages are considered to be major languages. We know the extent to which the nation-state is edified on a politics of language—French in France or English in the UK—, for which schools are the spearhead. How can those who know that this nation-state has oppressed minorities and that it is based on the imposition of a major language address their condition as inheritors of this nation-state? Which language(s) should be spoken? These questions are genuinely postcolonial. Beginning in 1977, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938–) wrote in Kikuyu. The performance of his play in that language earned him time in prison. He analyzes this choice in Decolonizing the Mind (1986).15

It is a challenge and an act of defiance for one to proclaim one’s self in the language of the other. This facet of decolonization should be understood, as an “entry,” a break-in, into language (parole), into politics, into history as it has been defined by Europeans. It must be understood as the restitution of a humanity that has been lost to subalternity. Initially, it should be understood as the full and complete affirmation of the subjectivity of those colonized: as a subjectivation. Literature has played the main part in allowing those colonized to assume themselves in the first person. Literature is the main and chosen path for decolonizing knowledges. It is the remedy for the racial-colonial poisons. Literature operates as a counter-poison. It is the art of narration, the inventor of fictions; it opens on to a space on the other side, alongside of him or her who was once “the other.” Is it because the name “the Arab” in The Stranger [L’Étranger, 1942], by the French writer Albert Camus (1913–1960), is as defamatory as it is dis-individualizing that Algerian Kamel Daoud writes Meursault, Contre-Enquête (2013)? No, it is not only because of that. The Western world continues to be totally immersed in the colonial categories that it invented and continues to uphold. The independences weakened none of the pejorative meaning or noxious power of the categories “Blacks” or “Arabs.” This is an additional difficulty.

In light of the situations that precede independence, the latter appear to be a victory. Yet independence introduces new hardships. The nation, put forward by independence, is bounded. It is contained by specific borders, by the dividing lines that European powers traced. Vis-à-vis other nations, sovereignty should protect a nation from interference in its internal affairs. This is not always the case, nor does it obtain everywhere. France suggested the idea of a “right to intervene” [droit d’ingérence] in relation to Africa, in the specific context of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) that ravaged the Biafra region.16 The African continent gives the lie to the “Westphalian” principle of the sovereign equality of rights of States enshrined in international law: following the independences, the African continent has witnessed multiple interferences or interventions from outside forces, ranging from humanitarian interference to military action.17 Here, and as with “development,” the independence granted (on one side) or removed (on the other) remain in dispute—a matter of litigation, differends, misunderstanding. We should clear up our terminology.

Colonialism is the ideology that legitimates European expansion beyond the region’s borders. Those who speak of postcolonialism inevitably locate themselves (again) in the wake of the (former) colonizers, the same ones who develop or have developed a colonialist policy and colonialist notions of the world. As for me, I never use the term, so unthought does it appear to me—a junk brand. As for neo-colonialism, it is the ideology that upholds, after independence, the passage from the “determining” influence to new “informal” forms of empire. Ghanaian thinker Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) developed this idea in 1965, in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. For him, economics are the thorn in the side of decolonization: what does political sovereignty mean without economic independence? In a global system of states that is built on unequal structures and on the gap between “rich” and “poor” countries, the imposition of specific national interests as universal remains the privileged mode of imperialism. In “poor” countries, the primitive accumulation of capital could only occur at a late phase, following independence.

Political sovereignty, when understood as a general will, can seem hollow and empty. Its substance is related to the context in which, and the political or military means through which, it was obtained. Since nationalism is the ideology of sovereignty, it has been a force in nations’ efforts to obtain sovereignty. Yet, when exacerbated to a greater or lesser degree, it became a problem, to such an extent that it hampered decolonization, that is, the disappearance of the structures, behaviors, and representations that contributed to colonial oppression. On an international level, this nationalism hindered attempts in Africa to constitute federations of states and to relax the previous colonial borders. The colonial categories, founded on ethnicity, did not disappear with independence. Divide et impera: acting in a manner opposite to internal federalism, this political recipe draws from colonial divisions, going so far as to risk secession. In this specific context, the single party can be considered as ensuring a form of Jacobinism, that is, of national unity. It is sometimes seen as a means of establishing pan-Africanism.18

How does one prevent “independence” from becoming an empty expression? When Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) wrote, in France, on “The Political Thought of Patrice Lumumba” [“La pensée politique de Patrice Lumumba”] in 1963, he distinguished, with Lumumba, “political decolonization” from “economic and social decolonization.” For Sartre, however, this distinction “aim[s] to reserve the same fate for the black continent as that of Latin America: weakness of central government, an alliance of the bourgeoisie (or remaining feudal landowners) with the Army, a super-government of multi-national corporations.”19 This illustrates how the concept of decolonization is put into practice according to three predicates: the political, the economic, and the social. Cultural decolonization is not at issue. The idea of decolonization accordingly acquires its substance in the definition of a task or a politics that follows political independence. This task seems more difficult, thornier, than political independence. This is why the nationalization of foreign enterprises may have seemed to offer a solution. As Sartre emphasizes so appropriately in the text cited above, “in politics, what is necessary is not always what is possible.”20 This is also why the “Africanization” of cadres seemed inevitable—and ended up substituting colonial competency with revolutionary incompetence. Finally, this is also why opposition was likened to a betrayal. A cult of collective sacrifice in the name of the common good comes to mask the diverging interests of individuals. As can be seen, decolonization does not happen without paradoxes and contradictions. Nor does it happen without infrastructures.

Whether as a global project or as a politics, decolonization is unacceptable—for many, if not for all. African oligarchies end up reproducing previously existing dynamics. They are dependent upon autocratic governments that are often decades old, and they are linked to the foreign companies “established” there. Repression is the counterpart of corruption. In 1972, when Cameroonian Mongo Beti (1932–2001) delivers his “Autopsy of a decolonization” [“Autopsie d’une decolonization”], the first part of his book’s title is Cruel Hand on Cameroon [Main basse sur le Cameroun]. There is no talk of a bright future here. The use of autopsy is significant. Etymologically, it literally consists in seeing with one’s own eyes. Surveying the fragility and precariousness of life in a country that had achieved independence at such a terrible price was, perhaps, what lay behind the fragility of life in Cameroon after “decolonization.” Mongo Beti emphasizes the role of bureaucracy. His compatriot Achille Mbembe will later name this “necropolitics,” referring to a singular combination of bureaucracy and massacre.21 There is, furthermore, no monopoly on violence. There is, however, creation of dependency through debt. As the historian emphasizes, a “concentration of activities connected with the extraction of valuable resources around these enclaves has, in return, turned the enclaves into privileged spaces of war and death.”22 This is a predatory economy that turns some “war machines” into perennial realities.23

The quasi-ontological difference between colonizers and those colonized was formulated as a historical difference or as an irreducible dyschronia. Racialization attributes to nature what de-rationalization connects to history. To decolonize means to cross, in a sense, this double breach. One should however avoid any temporalization or globalizing historicization of African postcolonial history. Thus, in On the Postcolony Mbembe affirms—quite apart from any diagnosis of the gesture as “Occidentalization” or “modernization,” and against the umbilical connection between modernity, rationalism, and Occidentality—as his central hypothesis that “the peculiar ‘historicity’ of African societies, their own raisons d’être and their relation solely to themselves, are rooted in a multiplicity of times, trajectories, and rationalities that, although particular and sometimes local, cannot be conceptualized outside a world that is, so to speak, globalized.”24 From the perspective of the clichés of modernity, the African nations that were subjected to European colonization in the 20th century are viewed—after their independence—as countries in which modernity has failed. This amounts to conflating time with history. Evidently, numerous such aporias ensure that analytical tools, as well as the representations associated with them—which I refer to as a language—are, in fact, more opaque than they seem. This includes the idea of emancipation.

From my perspective, decolonization consists, again, in mourning, in practice, not just a colony, but also a certain subject, a certain world, or a certain order. If modernity is a keyword of colonization, then decolonization will inevitably have as its object, on a theoretical level, not making the term a master-word, or (as one says, borrowing from building practices where walls do and don’t bear weight) a bearing word. After having been the alibi of colonizers (both colonizers and colonial inhabitants), the term “modernity” can play that same role for postcolonial authorities, functioning to mask new endeavors of domination and spoliation. In 1984, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998) was invited to speak at Johns Hopkins University. In that talk, he interrogates “the idea of a universal history of humanity.” He argues that “the multiplication of struggles for independence since World War II and the recognition of the names of new nations seem to point to a strengthening of local legitimacies and to the dissipation of a universal horizon of emancipation.”25 For Lyotard, this represents the death of the universal, of the “we,” of the intellectual, of the subject. He considers that the “modern” subject only exists within a horizon of “emancipation.” This amounts, for him, for the French philosopher, to an inevitable abandonment of the “ontological model of the political” based on “the linguistic structure of communication (I/you/he/him).” From then on, who can anticipate “today what tomorrow’s free humanity should be?” This is not the place to discuss Lyotard’s theses at length. But a few observations can be put forth. Is this turn away from the “ontological model of the political” the effect of the emergence of humiliated minorities on the theoretical stage?26 The concerns of these minorities are clearly not the same as those expressed on that stage.

The reflection on decolonization is not about the philosophy of history. It is, contrary to the typical concerns of modernity, an analysis of the present time. In a context in which the future does not necessarily guarantee a better tomorrow, only the now matters, even if it is the carrier of an absent, distant past. The postcolonial situation seems to considerably affect the perception of lines of flight or horizons. But this is not the place to ask whether decolonization is the future of the world. This question must be posed in relation to the imperial and the post-imperial. When linked to those coordinates, decolonization must be thought through from the point of view of the death of the idea of progress, of a universal (or world) horizon and, of finality. In a presentation for the magazine Jeune Afrique of Les Alouettes naïves, Assia Djebar wrote, upon the book’s publication in 1967,

Because we are constantly doing splits between the past that is paralyzed in the present and the present that is pregnant with future, we, Africans, Arabs, and probably others from other places, walk, limping, when we believe that we are dancing, and vice-versa. This is why we wonder whether we are moving forward.27

Limping always signals a malaise, a difficultly, a resistance. Decolonization is not a homogeneous or uniform trajectory. It is not a history; it is a time and space. Decolonization, as a concept, is, in this way, a laboratory for thinking.

Can Africa claim its place in the 21st century? This question, which gives its title to a report prepared by the World Bank, is far from a quip. In 2000, rapporteurs agree that all African countries “must commit to a coherent and comprehensive vision of development and nation-building.”28 Under-development, the ghost of postcolonial modernity, haunts this view. The substance of emancipation, which functioned as a means to grasp, in the South as in the North, both anti-colonial struggles and social struggles, was, in fact, dual: some of its substance was linked to form, in its focus on sovereignty, which it considered to be at the basis of freedoms, and some of its substance was material as it was linked to the creation of wealth on the basis of sovereignty. Such a historically dated optic turns the political into the key for achieving social and economic change. It channels through other means, at least in part, a remarkable denial that governed over colonization: the denial of the social. The market and the state come to replace the social. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon observes that “in its early days the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies with the last stages of the Western bourgeoisie. Don’t believe it is taking short cuts. In fact it starts at the end.”29 To begin with the end is to point to a present, not to a history. Furthermore, is it possible to “tell” the story of decolonization in any other way than as a novel?

Fanon’s analysis does not focus on the international context, or on all its primitive or derivative forms of neocolonialism and imperialism. Rather, he examines the domestic social situation of the countries discussed as well as, specifically, the state of these countries’ authorities. Fanon thus shifts the question: instead of judging (“the great powers”), he puts forth a critique (that of the “new countries”). For Fanon, “national consciousness” is initially an empty shell riddled with fissures and cracks that will gradually grow after independence. National consciousness, as Fanon describes it, is a reactive posture; it is the paradoxically combative expression of alienated consciousness and it is, even more so, the mark of alienation. It is, if I may say, a consciousness and nothing more. This is why the postcolony is plagued with uneven temporalities, to the point that it forgets its living present. Is the colonial “branding,“ its scar, indelible? How could the wound be treated? Can decolonization adapt to cynicism? To the politics of the belly? To the indirect government exercised by the private sector? Internal obstacles pile onto external resistances. It must be repeated: decolonization does not have to do with this or that fragment of a world, but with the real possibilities, symbolic as well as material, in Africa especially, that human beings, a majority of them “black,” could enjoy—human beings who live, now, in the present, after the colonial catastrophe, in time to the time of imperialism and capitalism’s avatars.

The point I am making is not in any way normative. I do not then think it is philosophically wise [judicieux] to conceive of decolonization as a (historical or moral) duty, or as an ideal, or as a prescription, even if we are, in practice, strongly tempted to do so. To proceed in this way would require a good deal of imagination—too much imagination, even. Change is, in itself, always difficult to imagine. For that same reason, it is even more difficult to measure, hence the importance, but also the weakness, of statistics. Any action alters a specific state of affairs. Politics are a negotiation between what can be calculated and what cannot, between autonomy and heteronomy, between what is possible and what is impossible. In the words of a French-Algerian, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), who sought to break with our ways of doing things, with what we could call our folds, the à-venir (that which is to come) will never come. It is not then necessary? It is necessary not to [il ne faut donc pas] build it, nor to await it, nor to foresee it, nor to anticipate it, nor to calculate it. Decolonization, as a decolonization to come, is a true incalculable. In closing, then: to think decolonization is to take on [s’intéresser à] practice and action. All action is the alteration of a state of affairs; in the aggregate it is more or less conservative (reproduces the state of affairs) or more or less revolutionary (transforms the state of affairs). Preferably, it is revolutionary. (As a rational fiction is.) In order to decolonize—to put it on the agenda, to make it the order of the day—we must, in my view, take disagreement—dissensus—and the impossible—a double impossibility—as starting points. It is impossible to decolonize; it is impossible not to decolonize. This is certainly paradoxical, but it is the only conceivable starting point for action here and now. Action: a practical imagination, a knowledge that is not one.


Seloua Luste Boulbina is Researcher in the Department of Political and Social Change at Université Denis Diderot.


Published on May 24, 2019

1. Jacques Rancière, Les bords de la fiction (Paris: Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian, 2016), p.37.

2. Henry Fonfrède, “De la Décolonisation d’Alger,” Questions d’economie publique, pt. 2, vol. 8 of Oeuvres de Henri Fonfrède, ed. C.A. Campan (Bordeaux: Chaumas-Gayet, ,1846), pp. 233–49.

3. Manabendra Nath Roy, “Socialism and the Empire,” Labour Monthly (Feb. 1928).

4. This footnote was missing from the translation. Was this intentional? Here is my lay translation: In 1927, in Brussels, the prior year, the League against Imperialism [Ligue contre impérialisme et l’oppression coloniale] was founded. The initiative emanates from the North-African Star of Algeria and the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa.

5. Julius Moritz Bonn, “Imperialism,” in vol. 7 of The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. Edwin R.A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson (New York: Macmillan, 1932), p. 612.

6. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961), trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005), p. 2.

7. Xavier Yacono, Les étapes de la decolonization française (Paris: PUF, 1991).

8. Sahil Mohamed, Décoloniser l’histoire: introduction à l’histoire du Maghreb (Algiers: Éditions ANEP, 2007), p. 6.

9. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, ed. R.D.Laing, (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p.229.

10. “L’objectivité chez l’historien, c’est l’interversion des rapports du vouloir au savoir, et c’est, du même coup la croyance nécessaire à la Providence, aux causes finales et à la téléologie” (Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, la généalogie, l’histoire,” Hommage à Jean Hyppolyte (Paris: PUF, 1971), p.165.

11. Jean-François Lyotard, L’Inhumain, Causeries sur le temps (Paris: Galilée, 1988), p.34.

12. James Anaya, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People: Addendum,” “The Situation of Indigenous People in the United States of America,” United Nations A/HRC/21/47/Add.1 30 August 2012.

13. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translation Henry Reeve (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2002), vol. 1 chap. XVIII, p.363.

14. In South Africa, the 1913 Natives’ Land Act comes to mind.

15. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: J.Currey, 1986).

16. Within that context, France supported the majority Christian population of the Igbos in the struggle to obtain the secession of an oil-rich region.

17. Need we recall that “the inalienable right of each State to determine freely its political, social, economic and cultural system, without any kind of interference whatsoever from any other State,” put forward by the Non-Aligned Movement and reaffirmed in 1970s by the United Nations’ General Assembly in its Resolution 2625 was not ratified by the U.N. Security Council comprised of five permanent members that are China, the U.S., Russia, France, and the UK?

18 Patrice Lumumba, 1925–1961, was murdered precisely for supporting just this sort of pan-Africanism in Congo.

19. Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Political Thought of Patrice Lumumba,” in Colonialism and Neocolonialism, trans. Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer, and Terry McWilliams (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 110; “La pensée politique de Patrice Lumumba,” Présence Africaine XLVII (1963), p.18–58.

20. Sartre, The Political Thought of Patrice Lumumba,” p. 180.

21. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), pp. 11–40.

22. Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” p. 33.

23. Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” 33–4.

24. Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, trans. A.M. Berrett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 9.

25. Jean-François Lyotard, “Universal History and Cultural Difference,” in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989); “Histoire universelle et différences culturelles,” Critique p. 456; “La traversée de l’Atlantique, Minuit (May, 1985), pp.559–68.

26. Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997).

27. Assia Djebar, Les Alouettes naïves (Arles : Babel/Actes Sud, 1997 [1967]), pp. 8–9.

28. Members of the Steering Committee of The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?, ed. Alan H. Gelb (Washington, D.C.,: The World Bank, 2000), p. xi.

29. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2005), p. 101.