It is fitting that Socialism and Democracy initiates its engagement with Africa through, in part, a philosophical prism. Our thanks for this go to Teodros Kiros, but our appreciation runs deeper. In the anguish of reflection on the African crisis, we find etched in extreme form preoccupations that are universal.
African philosophy, more than its northern academic counterparts, is steeped in preoccupation with political struggle — with the need to surmount the chaos and corruption implanted by centuries of colonial pillage. The fight to secure an independent identity has given rise to a distinctive blend of commitment to innovation with a search for what may be of value in ancient ways of doing things. The drive to find new solutions links up with a respect for scientific inquiry and a corresponding rejection of postmodernist eclecticism. At the same time, however, the continuing trauma of subjugation prompts an effort to reconnect with customs of a much earlier period. Such a process of retrieval does not have to be uncritical or anti-scientific; indeed, it can inspire a penetrating critique of allegedly superior structures imposed from abroad. To the imperialists’ notions of democracy, for example, we thus find counterposed an exploration and potential revival of pre-colonial practices of consensus, with all the implications this might have in terms of defining the new conditions that would be required in order to make it work.
There is thus taking place in Africa — sporadically and without yet the power to overshadow the continuing effects of pillage and subjugation — a certain awakening to the possibilities of a radical alternative. One finds this not only at the level of philosophical reflection, but also in the blunt popular defiance — exemplified by Durban’s shackdwellers — directed at political leaders who have done too little to distance themselves from colonial patterns of power. Both in the Durban experience and in others discussed below, there is a noteworthy level of communication between intellectuals and grassroots activists. Given the social awareness shown by the philosophers, this should not be surprising. That it is harder to find in countries of the north tells us something about the latter; it underlines the degree to which a privatized commercial culture can supplant universal human sympathies. The African experience — not alone but in a distinctive way — reminds us of basic human capacities that in the “advanced” capitalist world seem to have atrophied.
This special number on Africa also includes, because of its timeliness, an article on the creation of communal councils as part of the revolution currently going on in Venezuela. The communal councils are a major step toward establishing a new institutional structure grounded in popular participation. The Venezuelan process is in the forefront of popular mobilizations taking place in many parts of Latin America. Of particular interest to us here is its focus on the need to develop a new, non-capitalist morality. The Moral y Luces (“ethics and knowledge”) campaign initiated by Hugo Chávez can be seen as integral to the search for moral grounding that is being called for throughout the Africana world — of which Venezuela is indeed a part. The moral component exhorts people to leave behind the aggressive/competitive habits instilled by capital; it challenges the community to reject the notion that private profit-seeking can advance the common good.
By Victor Wallis
We pay tribute to the late Annette Rubinstein, exemplary teacher, writer, and fighter for a better world. Her histories of English and American literature became classics; she distilled her wisdom for us in an essay entitled “Fundamental Problems in Marxist Literary Criticism: Form, History and Ideology” (S&D #21, 1997).