The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

Recent commentary on the Eurozone crisis has started to pick up the grammar of colonial rule. The centre for Research on Finance and Money at SOAS, for example, has published an influential report wherein northern Europe (Germany especially) is framed as the core and southern Europe (especially Greece) as the periphery. Meanwhile, Ulrich Beck, European cosmopolitan par excellence, wonders whether the European Union will become “a European Empire with a German stamp”. Beck notes that Merkel’s sense of power “conforms to the imperial difference between lender and borrower countries.” At stake, agree many prominent European intellectuals in the pages of The Guardian, Eurozine and Der Spiegel, is no less than the promise of freedom and democracy immanent to the European project itself. All variously agree that, against the imperial sclerosis spread by capitalist and bureaucratic functionaries at the highest levels of governance, what is needed is a rejuvenation of meaningful democracy at a grass-roots level.

Faced with a dismantling of democracy Jürgen Habermas mounts a plea to save the old “biotope of Europe”. The constitutive components of this threatened ecosystem are freedom and democratisation, and its genesis lies in the Second World War and the fight against fascism and “internal” barbarism. The president of the European Central Bank has himself proclaimed that Europe now faces its “most difficult situation since the Second World War”. Alternatively, for many social democratic and leftist commentators, the danger of the situation lies in the loss of the “internal” struggle of labour and capital that defined the Cold War landscape. In the new context of EU institutional “empire” and its neoliberal tentacles, the defeat of labour quickens the erosion of social democracy, thus deciding the fate of the European project.

Europe, then, is perceived to be “colonizing” itself and in the process destroying freedoms and democratic structures that had been hard fought for by the general populace against political oppression and economic exploitation. But this angst-ridden imaginary of European crisis has very little to say about the substantive historical and global dimensions of European colonialism. Does cosmopolitan and social democratic angst cover these legacies and contemporary effects? In fact, in most recent treatises on the crisis the struggle for decolonization is given no integral status, even though these particular struggles were inseparable to and spanned the formative time period of the European project – the Second World War (and the Cold War). Some do mention current issues of migration and xenophobia. Nevertheless the implication, in general, is that colonial legacies are derivative of, or additional to, the core struggle for democracy and freedom in Europe. Fascism, Cold War, class struggle: yes; colonization, imperialism, decolonization and liberation struggle: not really.

Not all intellectuals suffer from this colonial amnesia. A number of scholars including Robert Young, Pal Ahluwalia, Paige Arthur and Alina Sajed have argued that in some key strands of post-War French thought, the issue of colonialism and decolonization was integral to discussions of European re-democratization and humanist concerns. This engagement reached a peak in the Algerian war of independence in the late 50s before falling into abeyance. And this was precisely the same time, we should note, as the Treaty of Rome, which bound European countries together in a tighter economic union simultaneoulsy sought to re-bind (post-)colonial African polities, peoples and resources into this union.

More generally, there has accumulated a significant amount of scholarship that reveals the colonial influences that shaped and were woven into quintessentially “European” intellectual/political movements such as Enlightenment and modernity. These influences continued to have a generative effect in the interwar period and during World War Two and afterwards. In a soon to be published paper, for example, Sabine Broeck shows how Adorno and Horkheimer’s famous critique of fascism rests upon a refusal to concretise the “auto-aggression” of the modern subject within the history of Atlantic enslavement even though this is briefly gestured to in their text. Instead, the substantive inter-weaving of three continents through slavery is deferred for a mythical Greek heuristic so that the European subject does violence only unto itself. Moreover, a similar deferral occurs in the historiographies of fascism, where the 1904-1907 genocides of Herero and Nama in German South West Africa, bureaucratically planned from Berlin, are removed from narratives of the Shoah and contemporaneous European holocausts.

However, when it comes to the works of “native intellectuals”, the weaving together of anti-fascism and anti-colonialism is even stronger and more intimate. For example, Siba Grovogui has examined the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), a diverse collection of intellectuals and politicians from the French African colonies who contested elections for various bodies of the French Union. One of their members, Gabriel D’Arboussier, the son of a white French colonial administrator and Malian woman, proposed a democratisation générale of the Union in the aftermath of the War, wherein the republican ideal would be shifted to embody principles of sovereign reciprocity, equal competency and non-exclusionary political identity across the various governing entities. D’Arboussier’s post-national republic was buried under de Gaulle’s determination to resurrect the old imperial hierarchy. Habermas supposes that if Merkel has her way, the European project will be transformed into its “opposite” and “[t]he first transnational democracy would become an especially effective, because disguised, arrangement for exercising a kind of post-democratic rule.” Situated alongside the remembrance of D’Arboussier’s project, Habermas’s current speculations concerning European democracy seem naïve and even bigoted.

We must also remember the Senegalese writer Alioune Diop and his Paris based journal, Présence Africaine. Its pages were open to all who might help “to define African originality and to hasten its introduction into the modern world.” The intellectuals and artists involved in the journal is characteristic of its “catholic” orientation, including prominent white French scholars such as Sartre, Camus, Emmanuel Mounier, and Andre Gide, as well as those of African heritage including, of course, Richard Wright, Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire. Sartre’s proclaimed desire for Présence Africaine was neither melancholy nor paternalistic. He hoped that it “would be among us, not like that of a child in the family circle, but like the presence of a remorse and a hope”.

Alioune Diop also planned for a Black Writers and Artists Congress, to be convened in 1956 in the heart of the intellectual colonial-metropole, the Sorbonne’s Descartes Ampitheatre. The president of the conference, “elder” Haitian writer Jean Price-Mars, alongside a front table of Wright, Diop, Senghor, Césaire, and Haitian novelist Jacques-Stephen Alexis, began proceedings in a packed room decorated with portraits of Descartes, Pascal and other enlightenment figures that now had to share their wall with Picasso’s stylistic “negro” head that he had drawn for the Congress poster. However, the presence and voices of women were almost entirely missing, save for a supportive yet cryptic letter from an undefined group that read: “according to a tenacious legend, the black woman is just a slave of her husband and her children. But black women exercise moral leadership within families”. It should be noted that, although not present on the front bench, Alioune Diop’s wife Christiane had undertaken crucial work, behind the scenes, for the successful publication of her husband’s journal and the organization of the congress.

Aimé Césaire at the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> (Paris 1956) Brimming, then, with the stuff of politics – discord, solidarity, difference, absence, presence, testimony, anger, hurt, pride and ethics – (mostly) men of various African heritage were discussing with themselves – and to/with others – their cultural contributions to reclaiming humanity from within one of the metropolitan centres of knowledge production.

The participants did so, moreover, in a decolonial political and philosophical register, rather than through colonial ethnographic and comparative frameworks, and with an intention to self-determine despite the geo-politically mediated Cold War economy of knowledge production. James Baldwin’s report of the congress noted that “hanging in the air” were the spectres of America and Russia, especially when W.E.B. Dubois’ message, read out at the beginning, contained an apology for his absence due to his being unable to get a passport (on account of his recent Communist Party membership). Nevertheless, Alioune Diop proudly proclaimed that while “it can be said that the Bandung Conference was the most important event … since the end of the war, I believe that this first world congress for men of black culture will be the second major event of this decade”. Both Alioune Diop and Senghor baptized the event as the “cultural Bandung”.

Moreover, although focused on black and African culture and arts, the congress was framed as a contribution to the general post-war intellectual project of retrieving humanism from the fascist barbarism of the war. Alioune Diop, for example, exhorted the congregation to remember that they were not the only victims of racism, and that tribute had to be paid to “Hitlers victims”. Levi-Strauss, who, like Andre Breton, had touched down in Césaire and Fanon’s Martinique during the War en route from fascist Europe to the United States, sent a letter addressed to the congress that “there can be no true humanism if it excludes any part of humanity” and that therefore “your humanism is democratic, not only in purpose, but also in its method”.

Baldwin noted that the participants finally emptied out onto the streets wherein the general population of Paris were focused on finding bread. And this raises the question of how we remember the year, 1956. The bread shortage was caused in large part by escalating financial costs of fighting the Algerian war of independence. Amongst political circles at this point in time there was fear that Nasser’s recent nationalization of the Suez Canal would inflame further anti-colonial sentiments in the Maghreb. Meanwhile the French Communist Party was struggling to suppress Kruschev’s “secret speech”. Soon after the Congress, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in part causing Aimé Césaire to resign from the Party, citing its stubborn resistance to attribute specific forms of oppression beyond class exploitation to the colonial condition. One year later, in 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed; and the same city hosted the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists two years after that. Remembering the 1956 Congress provides access to a radically different biotope to the one bleached by Habermas’s (and others’) colonial amnesia. However, the French press chose the bread shortage as front page news, while the Congress was marginalized to a few lines. Shall we remember the bread alone?

No. We must expose and resist the colonial amnesia that so regularly and instinctively accompanies angst over the direction and fate of the European project. We must retrieve another past of intellectual work and debate on freedom and democracy that understood the European metropoles and colonies to be tied together in a community of fate. We must subvert the understanding of old Europe’s “biotope” as consisting of enclosed, emergent democratic matter bleached of colonial power and peoples. We must challenge cosmopolitanists, social democrats and critical thinkers to narrate the current crisis in a way that treats the colonial dimension as formative, present, integral and persistent. Deconstruction of discourse is not enough. Neither is melancholic allusions to absence or lack. We must positively retrieve the memories, peoples, relations, ideas and effects of a colonially mediated discussion on European democracy and freedom. This positivity can be a great pedagogical aid to sense out a more adequate politics of resistance to the fascism – molar and molecular – quickened by current austerity policies.

6 thoughts on “The Crisis of Europe and Colonial Amnesia

  1. Great stuff, Robbie; “shall we remember the bread alone?” strikes me as a great title for what should be a paper.

    Your discussion takes me right back to a conference on the “global impact of 1956” I attended a few years ago in Ohio: (there is a related book, I think, published in Leipzig). Also, there has been some great work on the so-called spirit of Bandung in recent years, reviewed by here by Vijay Prashad: And for a corrective on some glorifications of Bandung, I must draw attention to Robert Vitalis, “The Midnight Ride of Kwame Nkrumah and Other Fables of Bandung (Ban-doong)” (available thru What interests me is how this “cultural” business worked at the first summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in September 1961 in Belgrade. Does anyone know any good work on this?


  2. Great piece. What do you think could be said about the evolutionary linkages to the term biotope [a term notably having German origins] and in what ways might that affect the implications of its use ?


    • Thanks! Like all terms that have a biological referent but are used as metaphor they arise out of evolutionary developmentalism, and that itself is heavily imbued with racially coded stages of development, usually from child upwards (e.g. freud’s unconscious) and also at the more collective social darwinian level too. but i wouldn’t mind habermas using biotope too much, its what he (doesn’t) fill it with which is the issue!


  3. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

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