Uncovering the ancient origins of emancipatory political thought – Fellows’ seminar by Michael Neocosmos

13 September 2021

“Already in 1961, Frantz Fanon, faced with neo-colonialism making its appearance in Africa, exhorted us to abandon Eurocentric thinking and to reconnect with dialectical thought in order, as he puts it, to ‘work out new concepts’, and he insisted that ‘if we want humanity to advance a step farther … then we must invent and we must make discoveries’. He stressed at the time: ‘Today, we are present at the stasis of Europe. … let us flee from this motionless movement where gradually the dialectic is morphing into a logic of equilibrium. Let us reconsider the question of mankind’. His comments are even more relevant today when the dialectic has largely disappeared from thought,” said STIAS fellow Michael Neocosmos, Emeritus Professor in the Humanities, Rhodes University. “I propose in my current work to take Fanon at his word and to return to the dialectic precisely in order to foreground again the universally human.”

STIAS fellow Michael Neocosmos during his presentation on 9 September 2021

Neocosmos’ current book project begins from the understanding that it is imperative today to develop new concepts for the thinking of an emancipatory politics on the African continent. It will focus on dialectical thought as the core subjective feature of all emancipatory political experiments on the continent and will trace such dialectical thinking to its origins in Ancient Egypt that predates and influenced Plato.

“Dialectical thought is associated with Marxism and Hegel and was not extensively discussed in the West except by Sartre. It’s now back in fashion,” he explained. “Dialectic thought is a core feature of the politics of emancipation which propose an alternative to capitalism which in Africa especially has caused massive impoverishment and repression.”

He explained that his understanding of the dialectic of politics is as a uniquely subjective collective political thought-practice rather than as founded in the idea of the natural motion of history; a specific rare and exceptional political subjectivity.

“It was starting with Hegel (usually considered the prime modern theorist of the dialectic), that human freedom was understood as the product of an objectively dialectical and necessary development as he saw history as progressing from absolute unfreedom to absolute freedom, guided by the spirit within the bounds of order, of the state. Marx then uncovered the ‘rational kernel’ from Hegel’s ‘mystical shell’ but largely retained a historical dialectic. Unfortunately today we can no longer maintain that history is on the side of freedom, rather history has led most people in the world to unfreedom. History as human progress is problematic for most of the human population. The outcome of history must no longer be considered as a necessity but only as a possibility.”

An Ancient tale

His seminar presentation, which focused on the Introduction to the book, offered a close reading of a 5000-year-old text from Ancient Egypt – The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. “I propose to argue that we can find in this text the core ingredients of dialectical thought as it pertains to politics understood as a collective thought-practice, an emancipatory politics.”

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (translations usually date it from 3000 BCE) constitutes probably one of the earliest known narratives concerned with the core problem of the thought of all politics, namely the relationship between justice and truth, on the one hand, and state power, on the other,” he continued.

Neocosmos believes the Tale holds value for the contemporary world as it outlines the conditions necessary for a just state – including justice, truth, balance, and the living of an ethical life without which society would descend into chaos. “Not utopia, but order without which the world is uninhabitable and peaceful existence impossible.” It also emphasises that politics are not just about the exercise of power but also about relations to power and the risks involved in ‘speaking truth to power’. In fact the idea of ‘truth’ is central to the Tale.

“The Tale offers a critique of power as well as a prescription for what a just society should be like. It is concerned with the insistence on truth – because ancient Egyptians believed that the absence of truth and justice leads to social disintegration. It poses the conditions necessary for a society based on truth and justice. Yet, at the same time, the peasant’s eloquence is seen as exceptional, the narrative does not result in a change in power relationships and we can assume that society was not transformed.”

He explained that in the Ancient Egyptian imaginary, justice and truth referred to and were embodied in the idea of Ma’at both in social life and in the afterlife and were irreducible to power. “Ma’at, represented by a Goddess, was a central idea of Egyptian thought. It was concerned with guaranteeing justice, truth and societal balance in conformity with nature. Ma’at was seen as life itself.”

State power, on the other hand, was embodied in institutions that legitimated dominance over society by stressing the godly being of the Pharaoh and by proposing that, because of this, it alone could guarantee justice as only a godly state could ensure justice and social balance. The result was inevitably that truth was compromised by interests around which power is always structured.

“The central question posed by this Egyptian text is to what extent is it possible to reconcile state power with a fundamental universal conception of justice that must necessarily imply that all must be treated equally in society, for any hierarchy of interests undermines universal truth and hence justice and thus the foundation of society itself?”

“The Tale also shows the risk of speaking truth to power as the peasant is highly critical of the corruption of those in power.”

Neocosmos pointed out that although the text is well known it has not been interpreted as outlining a dialectical argument. “Previous interpretations tended to emphasise the rhetorical nature of the narrative not its political character. Plato’s ideas in The Republic address similar issues. Truth is not simply given, it is something you have to discover – that is what dialectics does. I would therefore suggest that the text is one of the earliest known examples of dialectical political thought emanating from the continent of Africa.”

“However, the text is not solely of interest to Africans but to humanity as a whole,” he continued. “It raises several questions – is state power compatible with justice?, what about law versus justice?, can the state embody human universality?, does the state relate to all people equally?, and, how is the state to be addressed politically?”

“The unavoidable conclusion of the tale is that human emancipation is not compatible with state power.”

The final book proposes to trace and analyse a number of emancipatory historical political events and their attendant narratives, proverbs and sayings which Neocosmos believes provide ideas for thinking emancipatory politics today. In addition to The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (4000 BCE), Neocosmos proposes to discuss the Donsolu Kalikan (from the Manden/Mali, 1222), the Antonian Movement (in Kongo, 1684-1706) and its continuation in the Lemba Movement, the popular inventions of the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804 (undertaken primarily by slaves born in Africa), some of the thinkers of the national liberation struggles of the 1960s in Africa, as well as the contradictions of mass popular struggles in South Africa in the 1980s. The effects of the collapse of dialectical thinking will be traced into the neocolonial character of the current state form on the continent.

In discussion he addressed a question on how these ideas fit into current thinking on decoloniality, responding that the “Decoloniality critique tends to be uniquely negative and not affirmative enough. Further I think that it’s possible to think about decoloniality beyond a critique of academic discourse in a way in which ordinary people’s thinking can be taken into account, hence my emphasis in the book on popular sayings and proverbs. If we wish to think emancipation anew, we must start from popular struggles and listen to what people say when they contest dominant thought.”

“European civilisation was not just determined by notions of reason from Ancient Greece. In any case the latter was clearly influenced by different forms of thought from many sources,” he concluded. “We need to make visible practices and beliefs that Western theorists may be unaware of or choose to ignore. There are many ancient texts from which we can learn and draw lessons for today on the African continent and for thinking emancipatory politics in general.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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