African Philosophy, Politics, and the Division of Labor:
Reading Essential Readings

by Ralph Dumain

Reading African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, edited by Tsenay Serequeberhan (New York: Paragon House, 1991), was not a very edifying experience, but it had its moments. The continuing project of African philosophers trying to define their identity is a dead-end bore, and so I am not inspired to read or re-read the position papers even of those philosophers to whom I am sympathetic, such as Paulin Hountondji or Kwasi Wiredu. I would be far more interested in reading the substantive works on logic and ontology by Wiredu and others such as those listed in passing on pp. 104-105.

At this stage, I am not satisfied to remain at the level of defending correct and attacking misbegotten philosophical positions per se. Rather than taking philosophy prima facie for what it claims to be doing, I am much more interested in delving beneath the practice of philosophy to question the very nature of its existence, whatever the race, ethnicity, or nationality of the intellectuals who practice it. In this regard, only two of the essays stand out.

* * *

Let me briefly dispose of the first. Lansana Keita in "Contemporary African Philosophy: The Search for a Method" (pp. 132-155) gives a few noteworthy suggestions for the institutional practice of philosophy. Keita first makes some observations regarding the career of European philosophy, to the effect that European philosophers appropriated what they needed, for which ancient Greece was more important to them than the indigenous folk traditions around them (p. 146). Keita suggests that the organization of philosophy in universities ought to be changed so that the philosophy of the various natural and social sciences be studied not outside of but from within the various specialized disciplines, so that philosophers of physics, for example, be actually trained to the level of practicing physicists so that they could philosophize competently with the appropriate knowledge base (p. 150). There are those in the West who believe philosophers of science should receive such specialized training, but in Africa the opportunity of organizing university studies accordingly should be seized, Keita suggests. Research into traditional African thought systems should be undertaken not to prove something to Europeans, but rather in light of the contemporary technological, natural and social scientific needs of African societies (p. 151).

* * *

More fundamental is the final essay in the book, "Philosophy in Africa: Challenges of the African Philosopher" by E. Wamba-Dia-Wamba (pp. 211-246). That this essay raises the most fundamental issues that interest me, and that it could in the end fumble them so badly, merits the most scrupulous investigation. The bibliographical citations alone make one's mouth water: one expects deep things from someone who would cite Georges Labica, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and Theodor Oizerman. The author does question the nature and mission of philosophy at various points. Right after mentioning Hegelian dialectics, Wamba-Dia-Wamba asks what African philosophy can do to "incarnate the disalienated future" (p. 227). He even asks why the philosopher or philosophy should exist, and why the masses cannot engage in theoretical debates. Finally, he brings in the most radical question of all: how does the division of labor justify the existence of specialists in theoretical questions (p. 232)? This is the most radical question about African philosophy -- about any philosophy -- that can be raised. With this single question, the author leaves the entire history of the identity crisis of African philosophy in the dust.

As it happens, this theme of philosophy and the division of labor is close to my heart. One of my many projects is to study Ludwig Feuerbach, for Feuerbach was a pioneer in calling into question the existence of philosophy as a form of alienated consciousness. So to find someone within African philosophy who is asking the same questions I am is just too fortuitous to believe. The author even criticizes Hountondji by comparing him to the Young Hegelians (p. 234). Does it get any better than this?

Sadly, no. For Wamba-Dia-Wamba's resolution of the problem of the division of labor is to define the validity of African philosophy in terms of its usefulness to the African freedom struggle. Therefore, because the Ghanian philosopher Amo who lived in Germany in Kant's time was not part of the African resistance movement, his philosophical contributions do not matter to Africa (p. 235). Wamba-Dia-Wamba uses the language of dialectics and Marx, but Marx would not have written such rubbish.

Wamba-Dia-Wamba, in searching for criteria for the historical and comparative evaluation of philosophies, settles on the formulation that "it is necessary to study African philosophers in relation to the theoretical requirements of the self-organization of the African masses for the social transformation of their dominated societies and for real national liberation in Africa" (p. 236). This sounds like a noble goal, but what does it say, what can it say, about the nature of philosophy, what it does and can do, the range of problems it works upon, and its ability to fulfill the role assigned to it? What does an abstract principle of utility (to the struggle), however concrete such a slogan may appear as a propaganda device, have to say about what is useful to what particular aspect of human existence? If one reads Marx's thesis eleven with greater care than is usually done, one will see that Marx is not making the kind of assertion that is made here. Keep an eye on this formulation, for here you will see the ideological underpinnings of third world Stalinism.

For the author, the model of the authentic African philosopher is Amilcar Cabral, who was an organic intellectual in the way that contemporary purveyors of authenticity are not (p. 237). Unfortunately, Wamba-Dia-Wamba does not specify what makes Cabral a philosopher but is sensitive to the needs of the masses and is wary of neo-colonial elites that comprise the educated classes and finds them suspect as the bearers of rationality (pp. 238-239). So far this viewpoint appears to be resolutely anti-Stalinist, and the notion of the self-organization of the masses is congruent with the ideas of people who really did venture into the realm of philosophy, such as C.L.R. James. Furthermore, Wamba-Dia-Wamba is sensitive to the divorce between theory and practice, and finds the theoretical monopolization of "authenticity" by African philosophers an expression of their class interests as a neo-colonial elite (p. 240). He is also suspicious of the teaching of philosophy in university departments. Is a critical view of the philosophical heritage, such as Marx's critical view of Hegel, inculcated in the university environment? From the viewpoint of African resistance, the correct understanding of Plato means taking the standpoint of the ancient Greek slave (p. 241). While I surely agree with the author here, I am still frustrated by his failure to pursue his own suggestions and explain how Plato's metaphysics should be interpreted in the light of the slave viewpoint. For what Plato represents is what happens when the ruling class discovers the power of abstraction. What does it mean intellectually for the oppressed classes to confront this power and appropriate it for themselves? Nowhere does the author address this question, and hence his call for the unity of theory and practice in philosophy remains mere propaganda.

The one specifically philosophical point Wamba-Dia-Wamba makes here concerns the relation between the universal and particular (p. 242). Then he traces the historical role of philosophy, of which the Christian missionaries were the bearer, as an oppressive imperialist force. Tempels' "Bantu philosophy" was an expression of this. However, there is anecdotal evidence of the scorn with which individuals from the African masses greeted highfalutin Christian ideas (p. 243). In rounding out his essay, Wamba-Dia-Wamba advocates a partisanship in philosophy -- either for or against imperialism -- that could make Lenin blush (p. 244).

Wamba-Dia-Wamba's general objectives are unimpeachable, until one asks the question, but what does philosophy have to do with all of this, and is it possible under any given set of circumstances whatsoever to overcome the division of mental and manual labor? Philosophy is the methodological construction of systems of abstract concepts. To demand that philosophy should serve the cause, or that mathematics, physics, literature or theater should serve the cause, says nothing of how this is possible, because such a prescription has nothing to say about the intrinsic, objective characteristics of the enterprise which itself must determine how it could serve some instrumental goal.

And here we come back to the misunderstanding of Marx's thesis eleven for which we can thank a century of Stalinism. For when Marx writes that philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it, "the point" does not refer to philosophy. Marx says nothing in this phrase about the role of philosophy in changing the world. Philosophy can only do what philosophy can do, and if we analyze what Marx went ahead and did, we shall see that it consisted of a mix of philosophical (ideology critiques and general methodological disquisitions), scientific (analysis of political economy), and revolutionary political activities. However, there is no indication anywhere of what any branch of intellectual or cultural activity, outside of the areas in which Marx himself worked, ought to be doing to serve the revolution. Some have even argued that Marx abandoned philosophy altogether for science, but even if we reject that view, we are left with the fact that Marx acted philosophically the only way anyone could, which means to analyze critically mystified systems of ideas and to put forth the correct scientific method as an alternative.

The unity of theory and practice as a program for intellectual work, and the de-alienation of all branches of intellectual activity, is a project that has not even begun to be understood even after a century and a half of Marxism. The attempts to put this ideal into practice have resulted only in ideology with disastrous practical results. Under Stalin, the unity of theory and practice served as the ecclesiastical cover for naked pragmatist productivism, where every idea or cultural endeavor was adjudicated by the instrumentalist goal of its value for "socialist construction" (crash industrialization). History has proved that the naked subjective pragmatism of this approach was not even practical, for only objective reality, not subjective desires, can dictate the value of ideas. Maoism was an even more debased, nihilistic, and openly irrationalist version of Stalinism, with results just as horrendous. When one looks at the implementations of these ideas, all of which have occurred in industrializing peasant societies, is there any thing about these crude ideologies that can serve anything but the causes of third world dictators?

At least Stalin and Mao had the discretion to disguise their nationalistic state capitalist ambitions under the guise of universal rationality and proletarian internationalism. Presenting their crudely formulated ideas as dialectical materialism mitigates the mediocrity of their thought somewhat. But what could be more insipid and pretentious than open nationalists concocting and purveying their own brand name tinhorn philosophies to serve their particular geographic domains? If Stalin or Mao were intellectual mediocrities, what does that make Nkrumah? "Consciencism"? -- I feel to spit. What does Wamba-Dia-Wamba have to say about this?

Stalinism itself is third-rate, but there is no intellectual activity more banal than that inspired by naked nationalism. When it comes to low-rent mentation, nothing gets lower than nationalism. However, nationalism does recapitulate Stalinism in its dictatorial implementation in theoretical activity, literature and the arts. There are some people who lived long enough to be harassed by both Stalinism and nationalism, such as Ralph Ellison, who was as abused by the Black Arts movement as he was by the Communist Party, for not conforming to instrumentalist dictates on theory and practice.

I am not indicting Wamba-Dia-Wamba, or Cabral for that matter, as Stalinists, but Wamba-Dia-Wamba's crude formulation of philosophy as that which serves the people and anti-imperialism indicates a backwardness and instrumentalism which should be held suspect. Because his program is so vague and propagandistic, one can suppose his essay was chosen as a suitable concluding chapter for Serequeberhan's book. Serequeberhan too believes philosophy should serve the African revolution, only he thinks that hermeneutics is revolutionary. I have experienced Serequeberhan whine and squall about Marx's Eurocentrism while promoting the philosophical ideas of the Nazi Heidegger. Now which system of ideas has more of value to say about explaining the world and changing it; which set of ideas has been associated with what kind of social movements over the long haul? Do the pale abstractions of hermeneutics or the entire reactionary heritage of lebensphilosophie have what it takes to reproduce conceptually the concrete social totality? Or is there something about detached abstractions concerning concrete life-world experience that are eminently suitable as propagandistic covers for the continuing production of mystifying ideology under the guise of serving the people, be they Aryans or Africans? The intellectual ghetto of African philosophy is suffused with backwardness and mediocrity from start to finish. Mediocrity is a crime. What can be said about an intellectual milieu that seems so bent on reproducing an intellectual culture of failure and resentment?

Written 13-14 October 1996, edited 10 September 2000

© 1996, 1997, 2000 Ralph Dumain

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