Thinking with Aimé Césaire

Response by Gary Wilder

[Prompt: Whither or Whether Postcolonial Sovereignty?]


Following are general reflections on five key terms through which I have found it useful to think with and through Aimé Césaire about the problem of freedom (“poetic knowledge” is the only of these that Césaire himself used). I hope that they may help us to recognize what made Césaire a distinctive political thinker of his time and how his postwar interventions might speak to our times.


Between 1946 and 1960 Aimé Césaire hoped to find a way to overcome colonialism without falling into the trap of national autarchy. His postwar political projects for Antillean emancipation proceeded from a belief that late-imperialism had created conditions for new types of postnational and transcontinental political association. He thus hoped to fashion a legal framework that would recognize the history of interdependence that bound metropolitan and overseas peoples to one another, and which would protect the latter’s economic and political claims on a metropolitan society and state that their labor, resources, and struggles had helped to create. This, I believe, is the perspective from which we should treat his work on the journal Tropiques in Martinique during the war; his vision of departmentalization between 1946 and 1956 (as mediated by the spirit of Victor Schoelcher and the 1848 abolition of slavery); and his subsequent rejection of departmentalization and embrace of cooperative federalism or federal autonomy (which was mediated by the Legacy of Toussaint Louverture and his 1801 constitution).

Throughout this period Césaire attempted to pursue what I call an “untimely vision” of self-determination without state-sovereignty. This project, which he called “abolition through integration,” changed over time – from the pursuit of political assimilation through departmentalization to the pursuit of political autonomy through cooperative federalism. But in each instance his overarching political aims remained the same: substantive emancipation for Antilleans in the new postwar Cold War order based on self-management, political autonomy, and economic self-sufficiency as well as full French citizenship and financial solidarity with the metropole. For pragmatic and principled reasons he determined that a territorial national state was not the best way to realize these aims at that time.

1. Political Pragmatism

Césaire’s postwar anticolonialism began with the recognition that colonial emancipation posed a genuine problem whose institutional solution was not self-evident. For him, a national state was only one of many possible frameworks within which self-determination could be exercised. He saw no necessary relationship between colonial emancipation and national liberation. He thus developed a pragmatic relationship to the problem of freedom. With the term “pragmatism,” I am not referring to the political moderate’s willingness to compromise principles in order to achieve something rather than nothing. Nor do I use pragmatism as either a synonym for opportunism or realism or an antonym for utopianism and idealism. Rather, I am using pragmatic in the philosophical sense to signal an anti-foundational, non-dogmatic, and experimental approach to truth and politics that refuses ready-made a priori certainties about necessary means to desirable ends. To say that the pragmatist focuses on what works is not to say that he or she settles for what can be got. The point is not that a pragmatist is willing to compromise on ends, but that he or she does not presuppose the necessary route to reach any given end. This type of pragmatism, at least as Césaire practiced it, is consistent with principled, ethical, and utopian orientations.

His pragmatism, which might better be called utopian realism, was evident in his transformative hope, nourished by the unrealized legacy of Victor Schoelcher, that departmentalization might set in motion a dynamic process that would lead from formal legal liberty to substantive economic emancipation and then to significant social reorganization within the Antilles. The very process of integrating former colonies into the unitary republic would in turn reconfigure the French state in far-reaching ways.  Twelve years later, Césaire’s pragmatism also propelled his qualified support for the French Community, nourished by the unrealized legacy of Toussaint Louverture, as a framework for transforming Martinique from an assimilated department to a self-managing autonomous region, a development that would also help to elevate imperial France into a post-national socialist federation. Césaire praised Schoelcher for not being a “prisoner” of his own former acts. And he admired Louverture’s ability to recalibrate his revolutionary strategy in relation to a fluid political terrain. Césaire (too) proved capable of reorienting his projects as his political experiments failed or conditions changed.

2. Radical Literalism

 Insofar as Césaire’s pragmatic utopianism (or utopian realism) led him to try to recognize the possible within the actual, it was inseparable from what I call his commitment to a politics of “radical literalism.” Césaire was less interested in rejecting, than in reclaiming and refunctioning the categories and forms that mediated Antillean subjection. He called on compatriots to “de-rust” in order to “cherish” terms like freedom, justice, and humanity. He spoke of his aim to “inflect” and remake the French language in ways that might be frightening and unfamiliar to metropolitans. He demanded that the French state accommodate itself institutionally to the cosmopolitan realities that imperialism itself had created. His aim was not simply to negate colonialism by abandoning the republic but to sublate both by re-constituting the imperial republic into either a multinational state or a democratic federation. And rather than counterpose autarchic notions of Antillean society or Africanity to a one-dimensional figure of France, he claimed within both “France” and the Antilles those transformative legacies to which he believed Antilleans were rightful heirs. Césaire’s “radical literalism” was thus a form of immanent critique. And insofar as it attempted to awaken unrealized potentialities that he saw sedimented within existing forms and actual arrangements, it was also an aesthetic operation, one that regarded existing objects as multifaceted and self-surpassing images whose significance was neither self-evident nor static.

3. Poetic Knowledge

Politically, critically, and aesthetically, Césaire pursued transformation through radically literalist practices of inflection and refraction whereby multilayered and polysemic images disclosed themselves to contain, or be, more, or other, than they first appeared. Confessing his preference for the richness of ancient poetic images to the poverty of modern logical concepts, Césaire sought to identify within European, African, and Antillean European history vital possibilities through which modern alienation could be overcome and a lost poetic relationship to knowing and being could be recuperated.

Césaire contrasted the “fulfilling” knowledge rooted in the “nocturnal forces of poetry” to an “impoverished” knowledge of rational judgment and scientific enumeration. This was an epistemological argument, not a cultural one; his goal was to criticize abstract reason and instrumental rationality, not to reject reason as such. He identified “poetic knowledge” and “poetic truth” as alternative modalities of knowing and more elevated forms of reason that could overcome the alienating antinomies that impoverished modern life in metropolitan and colonial societies. In Césaire’s rendering, poetic images enable a revolutionary form of knowing that unsettles conventional coordinates. Yet this is not simply a nihilistic or apocalyptic vision of chaos and catastrophe. For Césaire poetic knowledge moves through, and moves us through, a state of violent upheaval the other side of which is a prophetic vision, an illuminated world, an elevated truth – and, therefore, alternative forms of exchange, law, and democracy. His “poetic knowledge” also reveals how past and future, heritage and destiny may be contemporaneous with one another … even as it also produces such contemporaneity.

4. Untimely Vision

 If Césaire’s radical literalism was bound up with poetic knowledge, insofar as both sought to identify transformative possibilities crystallized within given objects, it was also bound up with what I call untimely vision. Here I use “untimely” to refer to ways that the historical present is not, or no longer appears to be, identical with itself. This may entail processes of temporal confusion or illumination when conventional distinctions between past, present, and future no longer obtain, when tenses blur and times (seem to) interpenetrate. Untimely processes also lead social actors either to misrecognize or deliberately conflate one historical period for another, to act “as if” they inhabited an epoch that had already passed or had not yet arrived. These untimely practices, unconscious and symptomatic or intentional and strategic, could serve either transformative or conservative ends.

During the period of decolonization, Césaire’s political and poetic sensibilities were finely tuned to ways that the problem of freedom intersected with the politics of time. He employed untimeliness as a political strategy, by conjuring predecessors and addressing them as contemporaries, and by reclaiming unrealized possibilities within seemingly outmoded projects. His initiatives were refracted through previous world-historical turning points when the problem of freedom was an open question. At the same time that he sought to recognize or awaken the possible that dwelled within the actual. Césaire’s projects were also prefigurative and proleptic. They did not only envision a future that had not yet arrived but acted “as if” it had.

Césaire combined a practice of radical remembrance to proleptic anticipation. Rather than mourn a lost past, these verses anticipate an alternative future that signals not simply the end of colonial domination but the inauguration of a new humanity that has recovered its poetic relationship to knowledge and life, that has reconciled human, natural, and supernatural realms, and that has re-conjugated the relation between painful histories and possible futures. Decolonization, for Césaire, was as much about creating temporal as spatial solidarities. This meant, on the one hand, interrupting the apparent historical destiny of colonized peoples as subject peoples by transforming Antilleans into creative history making actors on the stage of world politics. On the other hand, he called on black artists and writers to reestablish the spatial and temporal continuities that colonialism had “ruptured” when “imperialism divided history” and  “balkanized” the time of overseas peoples.

5. Situated Humanism

Of course Césaire’s “poetic knowledge” and “untimely vision” were elements of his radically literalist and utopian realist attempts to secure Antillean self-determination (without state sovereignty). But for Césaire, the latter was bound up with a world-historical understanding of decolonization as a planetary opportunity and responsibility to de-provincialize Africanity, to remake the world, and to redeem humanity. His desire “to live a true humanism à la mesure du monde” was not only calling for a truly global humanism that would fit the size of the world, it envisioned a humanism that would be fitting for the world.

Césaire sought to envision a form of decolonization that would not only abolish colonialism, but would transcend the alternative between abstract humanism and territorial nationalism, while retaining the universalism of the former and the pluralism of the latter. He hoped to fashion a political form that would allow colonizers and colonized to recognize their entangled history and build a common future without recourse either to the humanism that authorized colonialism or the parochial nationalism or culturalism that would obstruct the creation of those solidarities that both Antillean freedom and a new planetary politics required. For Césaire, in other words, a true humanism made to the measure of the world would have to be a concrete or situated humanism – one that worked through Antilleans’ lived experience. Rather than a humanism that searches for aspects of a pre-defined universal within particular peoples or societies, he believed that particular peoples and their situated thinkers could offer their concrete forms of life as universally human ways of living a human life in a properly human fashion. And rather than a universal humanism that abstracts from differences to find some underlying or overarching sameness, he envisioned a humanism that joins particular peoples within larger forms or frameworks of transcontinental solidarity, planetary networks composed of and inflected by the intersection of plural life worlds.

At the same time, from his Caribbean or black Atlantic vantage, he questioned a view of world history or global politics that ontologized distinct forms of life. His situated humanism was founded on the recognition that entangled histories of slavery, imperialism, capitalism, republicanism, and modernism had bound metropolitan and Caribbean, if not all colonized peoples, to one another within a shared if asymmetrical modernity. Thus his situated humanist refusal to relate to French history, modernity, or modernism from the outside, as a foreigner. Thus the facility with which he claimed as his own proper inheritance those radical intellectual or political traditions that were conventionally figured as “French,” “European,” or “Western.”

In his radically literalist fashion, Césaire reclaimed, de-rusted, inflected, and refunctioned “humanism” and “universalism.” For him the problem was not merely that in the hands of Europeans these were hypocritical claims and ideological screens, selectively enforced broken promises, or that these were provincial cultural notions born in the West and imposed on the world. Rather, he criticized these concepts for being abstract, empty, disembodied, unmediated, and non-dialectical. It wasn’t humanism or universalism as such but their actually existing liberal, republican, and socialist forms that were the problem.

For Césaire, decolonization imposed a “human duty” on black artists and writers to be accountable to the question: ‘What kind of world are you preparing for us?’” He insisted that black self-determination be related to human self-realization:

By articulating our effort with the effort of the liberation of colonized peoples, by struggling for the dignity of our peoples, for their truth and for their recognition, it is by definition for the whole entire world that we fight, to liberate it from tyranny, from hatred, and from fanaticism. Beyond the struggles of the present, circumstantial as they are … we want, a rejuvenated and re-balanced world, without which nothing will have any meaning … not even our struggle today … not even our victory tomorrow. Then and only then will we have been victorious and our final victory will mark the advent of a new era. We will have contributed to giving a meaning … to the most overused yet most glorious word: we will have helped to found a universal humanism.
— Aimé Césaire, “L’Homme de culture et ses responsabilités”

He fashioned a radically humanist form of anti-colonialism that called on the colonizer to act in partnership with colonized peoples to create a plural postnational democracy that could model and enable new types of planetary solidarity. Between 1946 and 1956 he hoped that that departmentalization could be a means to this end; after 1956, he placed his wager on autonomy and cooperative federalism.


I believe that this constellation of key terms helps to delineate what distinguished Césaire as a political thinker and actor whose public interventions between 1946 and 1960 help to illuminate the postwar period and the politics of decolonization. Explicitly and implicitly, they have informed the ongoing struggle to fashion substantive forms of human emancipation in the Caribbean and across the Global South at a moment when de-linking has become a practical impossibility. More broadly, Césaire’s reflections on freedom as a problem appear timely in light of the contemporary challenges of plural or postnational democracy and transcontinental solidarity. They intersect with recent theoretical attempts to reconsider politics in relation to ethics and aesthetics, and they invite us to decolonize intellectual history and de-provincialize Antillean thought.


☞ See the counter-response by Yarimar Bonilla and/or leave your own response below!


19 thoughts on “Thinking with Aimé Césaire

  • Gary and Yarimar:

    Thank you for two fascinating and important essays on (post)-colonial sovereignty and the Césairean political legacy in the Antilles. Reflecting on the idea of futures past and its relationship to the Antillean political project, whether incarnated in Césaire’s 1950s pragmatism or the social struggles directed by LKP since the early 2000s, got me to thinking about the question of temporality and political regimes. Since I will, sadly, not be able to attend the Dec. 5th dialogue, I wanted to ask what relationship, if any, you see between the radical literalism and pragmatism of Antillean activists and some of the arguments figures like Mignolo/Quijano/Dussel have made about ‘coloniality?’ Because it strikes me that French Antillean activists’ perception that decolonization was not just a matter of Antilles-France, but Antilles-France-World, is reminiscent of the Latin American theorists’ arguments about the ‘coloniality’ of the world system and the ‘time’ of colonialism.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts,
    Andy Daily

    • Hi Andrew, that is a great question! Indeed MiIlery Polyné makes the connection between Césaire and Mignolo in his contribution to the forum: Quid Proprium: Aimé Césaire, Nature, and the Revolutionary Americas I am not sure to what extent the writers you mention have taken on Césaire as a reference point, or what they would make in particular of Césaire’s ideas of radical literalism. However, you might want to check out this piece by Nelson Maldonado-Torres about Césaire and the decolonial turn: Césaire’s Gift and the Decolonial Turn.

    • Thanks Andy,
      I will leave it to others to speak more knowledgably about possible links between Césaire and Mignolo, Quijano, and Dussel (especially since I only know the latter two through Mignolo. There do seem to be a number of points of possible convergence between Césaire’s political thinking and Mignolo’s insistence on the coloniality of modernity, the fact that modernity was never a strictly European phenomenon, and his conception of “border thinking.” On the other hand, and I may well be misreading/misremembering him here, my sense is that in his focus on global designs being elaborated from and enacted in local histories Mignolo does not allow for how someone like Césaire ambitously formulated something like “global designs” of his own — a phenomenon that recent theorizing has had a difficult time addressing. Moreover, and this is more about the ways that Mignolo’s thought has been taken up or has filtered to me in various discussions, the “decolonial” discourse seems often to focus on a culturalist understanding of alternative epistemologies, other logics, countermodernities, and irreducible differences that, in my view, do not align easily with what I’m callling Césaire’s radical literalism. But, really, I can’t speak about Mignolo and co. with any confidence and it sounds like you have much more to say about this than I would.

  • Two excellent pieces, thanks for both.

    My question picks up on Gary’s mention of the “unrealized legacy of Toussaint Louverture,” and the ways in which the example of Haiti (which he, of course, visited in the mid 1940s) shaped Césaire’s thinking on questions of sovereignty and freedom.

    Thanks for any thoughts on this.

    • Well, I am sure Gary will have more to say on this, as he has written extensively about the importance of Haitian Revolution, and specifically the figure of Touissant, for Césaire’s thinking! But, indeed, it is important to think about how Césaire engaged with Post-independent Haiti as well. Most of the writing I’ve seen on the topic has focused on how he viewed the socio-economic difficulties in Haiti as a cautionary tale for political independence but I think it is important to think about how he engaged with other aspects of Haitian sovereignty – for example, how the Duvalier regime might have impacted his vision of the role of an Antillean state, or how he viewed Duvalier’s brand of Negritude and the ways in which the history of revolution and marronage was put to use… I think we also need to think about how the Cuban Revolution shaped his thinking as well as the Grenadian Revolution… unfortunately when it comes to Césaire’s political thought most people stop at 1945. His later twists and turns, his move towards autonomy, his moratorium in the 1980s, his views on armed struggle and on the limits of independence from the perspective of the post-independence/post-revolutionary moment have yet to be fully assessed…

      • There would be much to say about Haiti as a longstanding reference point for Césaire — while he was composing his Cahier beginning in the late 1930s, following his trip to Haiti in 1944 as a reference point for the fact that state sovereignty could not guaranteee real freedom, and above all in the 1950s when he embraced cooperative federalism and regional autonomy as a political project — and engaged most intensely with the legacy of Louverture. Yarimar raises excellent points about how postwar developments in Haiti, under Duvalier for example, may have inflected his political thinking in the 1960s and beyond. I haven’t seen him engage Duvalier or the Cuban Revolution, but I haven’t looked for such references either! The key point seems to be his claim at the beginning of the Toussaint book that Haiti was the place where the colonial problem first knotted itself. It seems to me that Haiti in this sense served Césaire as a concrete and historicall specific reference point that also crystyallized the deep and broad challenges of sorting out the “problem of freedom” after the end of slavery or the end of empire. Haiti thus staged both the necessity and limitations of territorial sovereignty as ground for colonial, let alone human, emancipation.

  • Reading again Gary’s extremely rich piece–I don’t think I have read a more convincing and concise description of the paradoxes of Césaire’s politics–it struck me that, at least in his poetry of the early 60s, Césaire seemed to celebrate the more “straightforward” move from colony to nation in certain African states.

    Did he have a different vision of African independence and its particular stakes? If so, what accounts for this difference?

    • I think he saw different possibilities for Africa. This was partly due to the struggles local populations were willing to wage, in the sense that he never felt that Martinicans were willing and ready to pay the price of armed struggle and nationalist revolution. (Nor did Fanon, of course, who never felt that an Algerian-style revolution could have been waged in the Antilles). It also had to do with the local elites – integration into France was the best chance he saw of carrying out agrarian reform in the Antilles through the nationalization of agricultural lands (this is written into the departmentalization report and its failures were at the root of his rupture with the communist party). Lastly, I think he felt the imperial presence of the United States placed a particular constraint on Caribbean sovereignty… it’s hard to say that he was wrong on any of these counts…

      • Thanks Yarimar, that’s very informative.

      • This is a prescient point, Yarimar, and can perhaps be seen in the (at first) strange, even contradictory, juxtaposition of Césaire’s 1958 about-turn campaign in favor of a Yes vote on the 1958 Constitutional referendum (after a personal appeal from De Gaulle delivered via Malraux) and his 1959 article in Présence Africaine praising Sekou Touré and Guinée’s No vote on that same referendum. Thinking, as Gary and Yarimar do, of Césaire as a very situated and pragmatic thinker, decolonization for Césaire – and, I’d argue, for Antilleans more generally – was a heterogeneous term that embraced multiple liberation strategies.

        And, America’s imperial presence is a vital context. As Kristen Childers pointed out in a recent article (, worries about the US and Jim Crow drove many Martinicans to embrace French hegemony as preferable to America.

    • Thanks Martin!
      I would stress my point about Césaire being a political pragmatist — he was not anti-nationalist in some kind of programmatic way, he was simply opposed to the idea that there could be a ready-made institutional solution to the problem of freedom. He thus supported Algerian independence without question. For him, i would suggest, the task was to sort out what the best means, and most favorable institutional framework, for achieving the desirable end in a given conjuncture might be. They key was that this could not be known in advance, it could only be worked out practically, experimentally, provisionally, contextually. Their were no formulas or recipes.

  • Dear Gary and Yarimar,

    I, too, would like to thank you for such nuanced, insightful contributions. Given that much of these conversations concern the question of Césaire’s legacy, that is, in part, what what succeeding generations have learned from him and how they have transformed his political vision (as you two discuss in your analyses of the 2009 strike), I wonder what you would make of Glissant’s take on Césaire and Fanon, in his famous conception of the retour and détour in Le discours antillais? Glissant writes that both “the poetic word of Césaire and the political act of Fanon have brought us somewhere…neither Césaire nor Fanon are ‘des abstracteurs'” (56).

    I realize I’m citing this without much, if any, context, but I think that it could be fruitful to rethink/reread Césaire through a comparison with Fanon and Glissant and their legacies today.

    • This is a great question, though one that is hard to respond to briefly. I will say however that I think the break between Césaire and the later generations of writers is often over-stated. Hopefully, a renewed vision of Césaire and a better of understanding of the relevance of his political project for the present can help us move beyond the vision of Césaire as paradoxical (in his thought vs his politics) or as standing in opposition to these other projects of Caribbean thought.

    • Thinking Césaire with Fanon and Glissant is certainly important, and exciting. They are each singular, complex, and powerful thinkers that warrant close readings. They also share, beyond geographical origins, a set of related concerns and Césaire served as a very explicit reference point for Fanon and Glissant — so there are many reasons to bounce among them. But I would also add two crucial points. First, among scholars (especially in the U.S.) too many discussions of Césaire are mediated by Fanon’s and Glissant’s evaluations of his work or are simply overdetermined by their understandings of Fanon and/or Glissant which become implicit or explicit metrics for understanding Césaire’s politics. Second, for all kinds of historical, political, generational, locational … and existential/psychic) reasons, Fanon and Glissant often developed strong misreadings of Césaire and the negritude project more generally. Misreadings that, whether intentionally or not, have often served as starting points for subsequent scholars/critics. The result, as Yarimar suggests, is that the supposed break between Césaire and subsequent thinkers is often overstated. There are of course many differences among them, and the younger figures offered many useful criticisms of Césaire, but it is also often the case that Césaire himself already developed this or that idea that one of his subsequent critics supposedly developed to counter or correct Césaire’s thinking. As all the participants in this forum know, he was not nearly as one-dimensional as his has often been made out to be by many of his ambivalent heirs.

      • Thank you – again! – for your thoughtful answers and suggestions here. I really think this kind of interactive forum/symposium should be a model for future events. I’ve already used a few of these exchanges in class yesterday and the students have really taken to your responses and your passion for these topics.

        I couldn’t agree more with you both about the problem of reading Césaire through Glissant and Fanon. It is quite a challenge (both mentally and practically) to work through the misreadings or at the very least truncated readings of Césaire that Glissant, for example, carries out in the Discours. To reread Césaire on his own, “local”, historically specific terms, that is so important to being honest about his legacy.

    • So, for example,
      Glissant’s discussion of retour and détour, while fascinating as a way to stage displacement, creolization, and poliitcal identity contains all kind of problematic assumptions about Césaire specifically and, I would argue, politics generally. As if Césaire’s youthful concern with calling for Martinicans to identify with their disavowed African heritage exhausted his thinking about the complexities of empire, culture, civilization, subjectivity, and political identity, as if his thinking did not evolve in the subsequent decades, as if his interwar interest in “African” forms of life or ways of knowing actually constituted a detour away from Martinique or was somehow at the expense of being present in or engaged in the immediate problems of Antillean decolonization or was a way to evade such problems. We could reflect on how Césaire’s interntionalist concern with transcontinental solidarity is read here as an act of denial or displacement, how “place” is figured in a very local way, how Césaire is identified with words and Fanon with acts (as if Césaire was not consistently engaged in political action) and “action” is defined as rupture and complete break etc. etc. Of course all these claims need to be understood in relation to the critical work Glissant is doing in this powerful essay, but these kinds of assumptions and assertions have long shaped received wisdom about Césaire in ways that, I would suggest, have obstructed understanding and substituted for close reading of Césaire’s thought and acts.

      But, I’m certainly not a Glissant expert (just a fan) and I am sure others in the mix here can speak in a more nuanced way about him.

  • First of all let me say that I am very sorry not to be able to join in the “live” discussion later this week since I am away. I know it will be an engaged affair.

    As always Gary’s thinking on Césaire is provocative, and this elegant and succinct little essay is no exception. Reading Césaire into the present conjuncture or problem space is of course a complex matter because of being obliged to sort out as far as possible the contrast between the questions to which he was responding at various moments across his many cultural-political interventions, and the questions to which we are responding — here that of the conundrum of “postcolonial sovereignty”. We already know, from the anglo-creole Caribbean world, the “deadend” of nation-state sovereignty; and we live in a moment in which, from various perspectives the language of a politics and poetics of non-state-sovereignty self-determination has emerged and is gaining some traction. This is why, as Gary suggests, Césaire’s intuitions and speculations were “untimely”. But the anti-colonial sovereignty project wasn’t simply a mistake or opportunism of nationalist elites (though there was plenty of that). The norm of self-determination (legally and politically) was articulated as a demand for the state-form of the nation. So I wonder whether it isn’t going to be crucial to set out the contrasting problem spaces (Césaire’s and Gary’s/ours) more concretely so that we are better able to discern what is prompting Césaire to a form of political thinking that appears to answer questions we are now posing to ourselves. Gary, this is splendid work!

    • I agree fully with your comment, David. Indeed, I myself have been writing about how we need to understand the idea of national sovereignty as what Trouillot would describe as a “North Atlantic Universal” – a modernist norm, or imperative, as you suggest. Indeed, as we assess the Césarian project it would be useful to keep in mind Todd Shepard’s claim that in the context of France the concept of decolonization, as a logical historical stage, was “invented” only after the Algerian revolution… Moreover, we must also think about how contemporary narratives of failed states and waning sovereignty make Césaire’s vision more appealing to us today — though I think we should not readily accept these claims at face value but rather ask ourselves to what end the discourse of failed states and waning sovereignty is being put to use today…

    • David:
      Yes, yes, like Yarimar, I agree with you about the need, at all costs, to avoid the kind of smug presentism about which your work has often warned us (as if we know better, or would have known better etc.) I fully agree that anticolonial nationalism was not simply a function of bad thinking. As I mention in one of the comments above, my aim is not to offer a critique of nationalist thinking or a defense of federalism, but to follow Césaire’s pragmatic (pragmatic utopian, utopian realist) lead and challenge a priori thinking about (colonial) emanicpation. I am not interested in criticizing postwar nationalists. I am interested in challenging subsequent generations of critics and who have discounted Césaire’s political project simply because it was not nationalist. I am thus following Césaire’s lead in insisting that there is no necessary relationship between self-determination and state sovereignty. I fully agree that we need to understand why, at a certain moment, the national social state was regarded by most anticolonial militants as a necessary component of colonial emancipation. And we need to resist the temptation of imposing our contemporary concerns on past historical actors, let alone evaluate them according to anachronistic metrics. At the same time it is also important to remember that in 1946 a range of approaches to decolonization were envisioned and pursued, each of which attempted to create favorable conditions for substantive freedom, each of which needs to also be grasped (and criticized) contextually, on its own terms, and not simply measured against what we would like, or what we expect, anticolonial actors to say or think or do as if the solution to the problem of freedom is (institutionally) self-evident.

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