Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Revolution 1/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“The generalized abolition of the colonial system and the definitive and universal eradication of racism”

— Final Resolutions, Closing Session, First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, Paris, September 22, 1956.[1]


Sixty-five years ago to the day, September 22, 1956, the Congress adjourned its first gathering—perhaps the very first international gathering of Black writers and artists—on the theme of abolition: the abolition of the colonial system and of racism.

Yes, we are in direct continuity with last year’s 13/13 seminar series on Abolition Democracy. We are still dedicated, perhaps more than ever, to the abolition of the punitive society and to the work of achieving a just society.

With those ambitions clearly in focus, we turn this year to the critique and praxis of “worldly philosophers”—of revolutionary philosophers who collectively contributed to transformative social movements—in order to glean, in conversation with them, ideas and practices on how to revolutionize society. We begin in conversation with Biodun Jeyifo, more specifically in conversation with his thesis about the central importance of the collectivity for the production of critique and praxis. We turn first to the remarkable conferences and gatherings at Bandung, Paris, and Rome during the 1950s.

With the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, held at the Sorbonne in Paris from September 19 to September 22, 1956, we are face-to-face not just with the writings and works of discrete and particular worldly philosophers—including Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Léopold-Sédar Senghor, Richard Wright…—but, more remarkably, with a conversation, confrontation and contest of their ideas and practices. We are immersed in their debate, thrown in the deep end.

Not that their praxis was unimpeachable. No, it was not a perfect model. It too was flawed. There was not a single woman who presented a paper. The principals were all male. They were aware of this omission. They failed to rectify it. “There have been no women functioning vitally and responsibly upon this platform helping to mold and mobilize our thoughts,” Richard Wright observed, in his final presentation.[2]

And even those observations and reproaches remained tainted with patriarchy. “Black men will not be free until their women are free,” Wright added—my emphasis.[3] No, that was not right either.

We are so often prisoners of our own illusions. As we unveil some, we create new ones. That is practically inevitable. It is what calls for a radical theory of illusions.[4] In this, Wright seemed to agree. “We are human; we are slaves of time and circumstance; we are the victims of our passions and illusions,” Wright noted.[5] And so, he added: “The most that our critics can ask of us is: Have you taken your passions, your illusions, your time, your circumstance into account? That is what I am attempting to do. More than that no reasonable man of good will could demand.”[6]

“No reasonable man”: Wright trips again, as we all do, practically always. Cognizant of the absence of women, Wright fails with the reference, again, to a “reasonable man of good will.” Reasonable persons, perhaps; but even there, though more inclusive of gender, the very notion of “reasonable” serves always to exclude viewpoints… The reasonable, the rational, they serve to parse the good from the bad in a silent and hidden manner. They too need to be examined and deconstructed.

But let’s move on, because what is so compelling from the transcript of the First Congress is the way in which we can see before our very eyes how the dialogue and confrontation among worldly philosophers transformed their own critique and praxis. As Biodun Jeyifo notes, “Frantz Fanon’s mature political thought in fact developed in between the vigorous debates that took place in these two Congresses.”[7]

This we can see, directly, in the intervention of Richard Wright on September 22, 1956 at the Sorbonne. A year earlier, Wright had travelled to Indonesia for the Bandung Conference and written about it in The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference. He was immersed in the Bandung Conference, and then in the first Congress in Paris. There, in the final session, Wright presented his prepared remarks—but what is so interesting, and telling, is that he interspersed his prepared remarks with fresh comments (mostly published in parenthetical in Présence Africaine) that challenged, revised, and questioned his own earlier understanding and thoughts.

Wright recognized his intersectionality, almost avant la lettre. “My position is a split one,” he stressed. “I’m black,” he said first. But also, “I’m a man of the West.”[8] And it was his Western identity that, for Wright, led him to edit, on the spot, as he spoke, his planned and written intervention.

Wright’s own “Westernness” (in his own words[9]) nourished a staunch secularism and visceral opposition to the mention and role of religion in the other participants’ interventions. It made him bristle—and revise on the spot his own thesis.

“Irrationalism met irrationalism.”[10] That was his original, proposed thesis: “The irrationalism of Europe met the irrationalism of Asia and Africa, and the resulting confusion has yet to be unraveled and understood.”[11] In other words, he planned to argue, unselfconsciously, that there was an irrationality to Africa, tied to its religious traditions, that the irrational Europeans had undone by means of conquest. The native African irrationality had been attacked. It had been crushed. “What rivets my attention in this clash of East and West is that an irrational Western world helped, unconsciously and unintentionally, to smash the irrational ties of religion and custom and tradition in Asia and Africa! THIS, IN MY OPINION, IS THE CENTRAL HISTORIC FACT!”[12]

(James Baldwin, in his characteristic way, would call this “a tactless way of phrasing a debatable idea.”)[13]

This led Wright to his originally planned central intervention: his call, to the white men of Europe, to give the new, rational, freedom-loving elite of Asia and Africa the tools to finish the job of conquering irrationality and achieving autonomy.[14]

(In case you are wondering, Baldwin called this “a notion which I found even stranger.”)[15]

But after hearing “delegate after delegate rise and speak,”[16] after “listening to the gentleman of the cloth who spoke here this morning describe the African as being incurably religious,”[17] Wright questioned his own assessment. “Again I must check and correct my perceptions against the reality, mainly religious in nature, that has emerged from this conference,” Wright noted in parenthetical.

To the assertion that the Europeans had freed Asians and Africans “from the rot of (their) irrational traditions and customs”[18]—a provocative statement if there ever was one—Wright took a step back, or sideways, again, in parenthesis to his audience:

(Now, at this point, I shall begin some self-criticism. I wondered at this conference, when I heard delegate after delegate rise and speak, if we were sufficiently beyond the situation in which we have been hurt to permit my making an ironic statement of that sort. I wrote this paper up in the country, projecting an ideal room filled with secular-minded Africans more or less like myself in outlook. (I am trying to bring my paper into focus with the reality that has emerged from this conference.) I felt that I could easily make a statement like that. Being an American Negro with but few lingering vestiges of my irrational heritage in both America and Africa, I felt that I could be intellectually detached. But I place a question mark, in public, behind that statement.)[19]

Wright placed a question mark in parenthesis. But despite the parenthetical question mark, despite the doubt, perhaps caught in the dramatic moment, Wright nevertheless concluded his talk as planned, with a call to freedom. This is how he ended his intervention: “Freedom is indivisible.” [20] Those were his last words.

“The problem is freedom from a dead past,” Wright had explained. “And freedom to build a rational future. How much are we willing to risk for freedom? I say let us risk everything. Freedom begets freedom. Europe, I say to you before it is too late: Let the Africans and Asians whom you have educated in Europe have their freedom, or you will lose your own in trying to keep freedom from them.”[21] “Men of Europe,” Wright exclaimed, “give that elite the tools and let it finish that job!”[22]

But the confrontation at the first Congress had unsettled Wright. The tension would shape Wright’s ongoing thought. It ultimately led to the publication, in 1957, of his book, White Man, Listen!

(Although designated to the executive committee during the Congress of 1959, Wright did not have a presentation published in the annals of the Congress. His intervention from 1955 would continue to have repercussions and ripples in 1959 at the second Congress. Abbé Sastre, in particular, would pick up his challenge, in a talk on “Theology and African Culture.”[23] Wright died only seven months after the second Congress, in November 1960, at the young age of 52.)

As Adom Getachew and Biodun Jeyifo suggest, the Black writers and artists gathered at the Sorbonne in 1956, as well as the African and Asian political leaders assembled at Bandung a year earlier in April 1955, were engaged in a radical project to make a new world—in Getachew’s words, drawing on Hannah Arendt, a project of “worldmaking.”

This project of worldmaking was a collective endeavor, shaped by their many interactions and conversations. Biodun Jeyifo writes, and in this, entirely corroborates Adom Getachew’s argument about worldmaking:

that nationalism and the national liberation movements had no choice but to be internationalist, had no option but to forge links between the various peoples of the world under imperialist domination on the basis of shared histories and common aspirations for the future. This idea was clearly spelt out in the four‐point statement of purpose which was issued at the end of the meeting in Colombo in December 1954 of the Prime Ministers of Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan to finalize plans for the Bandung conference.[24]

This was reflected in the declarations throughout the Bandung conference, from the very first to the very last. The Indonesian president, Sukarno, opened the conference on those notes. The Bandung conference, Sukarno emphasized, had the ambition to demonstrate “that Asia and African have been reborn, nay, that a New Asia and a New Africa have been born!”[25] Sukarno underscored: “And let us remember, Sisters and Brothers, that for the sake of all that, we Asians and Africans must be united.[26]

The conference closed on the resounding theme of coöperation—specifically, “economic, cultural and political co-operation.”[27] Coöperation was the organizing principle of the entire final communiqué at every level, in practically every header.[28] Insofar as there were strong strands of nationalist anti-colonialism, those were shot through with forms of internationalism. As Biodun Jeyifo remarks, “the Bandung conference, among other things, represented a form of radical anti‐colonial, anti‐imperialist nationalism that was profoundly internationalist and universalist.”[29]

This was true as well of the two congresses.[30]

To more fully explore the collective conversation at Bandung, Paris, and Rome, let me now invite Biodun Jeyifo to present his paper.


[1] Le Ier Congrès international des écrivains et artistes noirs : Paris, Sorbonne, 19-22 septembre 1956 : compte-rendu complet, Paris, Présence africaine, no 8-10 (numéro spécial) (juin-novembre 1956): 326 (my translation).

[2] Compte Rendu Complet, 347.

[3] Compte Rendu Complet, 348.

[4] See Bernard E. Harcourt, “Chapter 10: A Radical Critical Theory of Values,” in Critique & Praxis (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 256-268.

[5] Compte Rendu Complet, 349.

[6] Compte Rendu Complet, 349.

[7] Biodun Jeyifo, “Inside and Outside the Whale: ‘Bandung’, ‘Rwanda’, Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies,” 2002 Annual Invitational Lecture, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, February 26, 2002, 9.

[8] Compte Rendu Complet, 349.

[9] Compte Rendu Complet, 350.

[10] Compte Rendu Complet, 353.

[11] Compte Rendu Complet, 354.

[12] Compte Rendu Complet, 354.

[13] James Baldwin, “Princes and Powers,” in The Price of the Ticket, 59.

[14] Compte Rendu Complet, 360.

[15] Baldwin, “Princes and Powers,” 59.

[16] Compte Rendu Complet, 355.

[17] Compte Rendu Complet, 356.

[18] Compte Rendu Complet, 355.

[19] Compte Rendu Complet, 355.

[20] Compte Rendu Complet, 360.

[21] Compte Rendu Complet, 359.

[22] Compte Rendu Complet, 360.

[23] Deuxième Congrès des écrivains et artistes noirs : Rome, 26 mars-1er avril 1959, tome 1 : L’unité des cultures négro-africainesPrésence africaine, no 24-25 (numéro spécial), février-mai 1959, 136.

[24] Jeyifo, “Inside and Outside the Whale,” 7.

[25] Asia-Africa Speaks from Bandung (Djakarta: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1955), 28.

[26] Asia-Africa Speaks from Bandung, 29.

[27] Asia-Africa Speaks from Bandung, 161.

[28] Asia-Africa Speaks from Bandung, 161-169.

[29] Jeyifo, “Inside and Outside the Whale,” 9.

[30] Jeyifo, “Inside and Outside the Whale,” 9. (“As Jeyifo notes, “I would also point to the two World Congresses of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris 1956 and Rome 1959 for which we have rich documentation of the scope and significance of the deliberations at these conferences and their impact on the future course of the national liberation movements.”)