Amilcar Cabral’s Revolutionary Anti-Colonialist Ideas

The writings of revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral provide key insights on the importance of culture in the contemporary struggle against neoliberalism.

Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon are among the most important thinkers from Africa on the politics of liberation and emancipation. While the relevance of Fanon’s thinking has re-emerged, with popular movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa proclaiming his ideas as the inspiration for their mobilizations, as well as works by Sekyi-Otu, Alice Cherki, Nigel Gibson, Lewis Gordon and others, Cabral’s ideas have not received as much attention.

Cabral was the founder and leader of the Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde liberation movement, Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). He was a revolutionary, humanist, poet, military strategist, and prolific writer on revolutionary theory, culture and liberation. The struggles he led against Portuguese colonialism contributed to the collapse not only of Portugal’s African empire, but also to the downfall of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal and to the Portuguese revolution of 1974-’75, events that he was not to witness: he was assassinated by some of his comrades, with the support of the Portuguese secret police, PIDE, on 20 January 1973.

By the time of his death, two thirds of Guinea was in the liberated zones, where popular democratic structures were established that would form the basis for the future society: women played political and military leadership roles, the Portuguese currency was banned and replaced by barter, agricultural production was devoted to the needs of the population, and many of the elements of a society based on humanity, equality and justice began to emerge organically through popular debate and discussion. Cultural resistance played a critical role in both the defeat of the Portuguese and in the establishment of the liberated zones.

Cabral understood that the extension and domination of capitalism depends critically on dehumanizing the colonial subject. And central to the process of dehumanization has been the need to destroy, modify or recast the culture of the colonized, for it is principally through culture, “because it is history”, that the colonized have sought to resist domination and assert their humanity. For Cabral, and also for Fanon, culture is not some aesthetic artefact, but an expression of history, the foundation of liberation, and a means to resist domination. At heart, culture is subversive.


The history of liberalism has been one of contestation between the cultures of what Losurdo refers to as the sacred and profane spaces. The democracy of the sacred space to which the Enlightenment gave birth in the New World was, writes Losurdo, a “Herrenvolk democracy”, a democracy of the white master-race that refused to allow blacks, indigenous peoples, or even white women, to be considered citizens. They were regarded as part of the profane space occupied by the less-than-human. The ideology of a white, master-race democracy was reproduced as capital colonized vast sections of the globe. Trump’s victory in the US and the establishment of his right-wing, if not fascist, entourage, is in many ways an expression of the growing resentment and antagonism among significant sections of white America towards the perceived invasion and defiling of the sacred space by indigenous people, blacks, “latinos”, Mexicans, gays, lesbians, organized labor, immigrants and all those profane beings that do not belong in that space. We can safely predict that Trump’s presidency will see efforts to mount an assault on the cultures, organizations, and organizing capacities of those they view as the detritus of society, to remove them from the privileges of the sacred space and to “return” them to the domain of the dehumanized. At the same time, we can predict that there will be widespread resistance to such attempts, in which culture will be an essential element.

In this context, Cabral’s writing and speeches on culture, liberation and resistance to power have important implications for the coming struggles not only in the US, but also in post-Brexit Britain, and in continental Europe, where fascism is once again raising its ugly head in several countries. Drawing upon Cabral’s works, I look at how colonialism established and maintained its power through attempts to eradicate the cultures of the colonial subject, and how culture as a liberatory force was essential for African people to reassert their humanity, to invent what it means to be human, and to develop a universalist humanity. I discuss how neocolonial regimes have attempted to disarticulate culture from politics, a process that neoliberalism has exacerbated. But as discontent after nearly forty years of austerity (a.k.a. “structural adjustment programs”) in Africa rises, as governments increasingly lose popular legitimacy, there is a resurgence of uprisings and protests, and once again culture is re-emerging as a mobilizing and organizing force.


The philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Hegel, considered that Africans had no history. But what was the “African” that they were referring to? It was only in the 15th century that Europeans began to use the term “African” to refer to all the peoples who live on the continent. The term was directly associated with the Atlantic slave trade, and the condemnation of large sections of humanity to chattel slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. To succeed in subjecting millions of human beings to such barbarism depended on defining them as non-humans.

The process of dehumanization required a systematic and institutionalized attempt to destroy existing cultures, languages, histories and capacities to produce, organize, tell stories, invent, love, make music, sing songs, make poetry, create art — all things that make a people human. This was carried our by local and European enslavers and slave owners and all those who profited from the trade in humans, not least the emerging European capitalist class.

In essence, the word that encapsulates this process of dehumanizing the people of this continent is African. Indeed, anthropologists, scientists, philosophers and a whole industry developed to “prove” that these people constituted a different sub-human, biological “race”. Africans were to be considered as having no history, culture, or any contribution to make to human history. As slaves, they were mere chattel — property or “things” that would be owned, disposed of and treated in any way that the “owner” thought fit.

This attempt to erase the culture of Africans was a signal failure. For while the forces of liberalism destroyed the institutions, cities, literature, science and art on the continent, people’s memories of culture, art forms, music and all that is associated with being human remained alive, and were also carried across on the slave ships to where African slaves found themselves, and where that culture evolved in their new material conditions to become a basis for resistance.

The Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery were the cornerstones of capital accumulation that gave birth to capitalism, as were the concurrent genocides and mass killings of indigenous populations of the Americas and beyond. The systematic dehumanization of sections of humanity — racism — was intimately intertwined with the birth, growth and continued expansion of capital, and remains the hallmark of its development.

Cabral understood that separating Africa and Africans from the general flow of common human experience could only lead to the retardation of social processes on the continent. “When imperialism arrived in Guinea it made us leave our history … and enter another history.” This process was to continue from its origins in the European enslavement and forced removal of people from Africa to the expansion of Europe’s colonial ventures to the present day. The representation of Africans as inferior and sub-human justified the terror, slaughter, genocides, imprisonments, torture, confiscation of land and property, forced labor, destruction of societies and cultures, violent suppression of expressions of discontent and dissent, restrictions on movement, and establishment of “tribal” reserves. It justified the division of the land mass and its peoples into territories at the Berlin Conference in 1884-’85 by competing European imperial powers.

The faith in the superiority of the culture of the sacred space combined with Christianity’s missionary zeal laid the foundations for empire and the spread of Christendom. “After the slave trade, armed conquest and colonial wars,” wrote Cabral, “there came the complete destruction of the economic and social structure of African society. The next phase was European occupation and ever-increasing European immigration into these territories. The lands and possessions of the Africans were looted.” Colonial powers established control by imposing taxes, enforcing compulsory crops, introducing forced labor, excluding Africans from particular jobs, removing them from the most fertile regions, and establishing native authorities consisting of collaborators.

Cabral pointed out that whatever the material aspects of domination, “it can be maintained only by the permanent and organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned.” Of course, domination could only be completely guaranteed by the elimination of a significant part of the population as, for example, in the genocide of the Herero peoples in southern Africa or of many of the indigenous nations of North America, but in practice this was not always feasible or indeed seen as desirable from the point of view of empire. In Cabral’s words:

The ideal for foreign domination, whether imperialist or not, would be to choose: either to liquidate practically all the population of the dominated country, thereby eliminating the possibilities for cultural resistance; or to succeed in imposing itself without damage to the culture of the dominated people — that is, to harmonize economic and political domination of these people with their cultural personality.

By denying the historical development of the dominated people, imperialism necessarily denies their cultural development, which is why it requires cultural oppression and an attempt at “direct or indirect liquidation of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people.”

“Of the African population of Angola, Guiné and Mozambique, 99.7 percent are classified as uncivilized by Portuguese colonial laws,” wrote Cabral in an assessment of the Portuguese colonies. “The so called ‘uncivilized’ African is treated as a chattel, and is at the mercy of the will and caprice of the colonial administration and the settlers. This situation is absolutely necessary to the existence of the Portuguese colonial system. He provides an inexhaustible supply of forced labor for export. By classifying him as ‘uncivilized’, the law gives legal sanction to racial discrimination and provides one of the justifications for Portuguese domination in Africa.”


The use of violence to dominate a people is, argued Cabral, “above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least neutralize and to paralyze their cultural life. For as long as part of that people have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be assured of its perpetuation”.

The reason for this is clear. Culture is not a mere artefact or expression of aesthetics, custom or tradition. It is a means by which people assert their opposition to domination, a means to proclaim and invent their humanity, a means to assert agency and the capacity to make history. In a word, culture is one of the fundamental tools of the struggle for emancipation.

Haiti’s slave revolution in 1804, which established the independent black republic, constituted one of the first significant breaches against racial despotism and slavery. Toussaint Louverture, the first leader of the rebellion, drew on an explicit commitment to a universal humanism to denounce slavery. In Richard Pithouse’s succinct summary: “Colonialism defined race as permanent biological destiny. The revolutionaries in Haiti defined it politically. Polish and German mercenaries who had gone over to the side of the slave armies were granted citizenship, as black subjects, in a free and independent Haiti.”

In Guinea-Bissau, Cabral was commissioned by the colonial authorities to undertake an extensive census of agricultural production, enabling him to gain a profound understanding of the people, their culture and forms of resistance to colonial rule. He recognized that building a liberation movement required a “reconversion of minds — a mental set” that he believed to be indispensable for the “true integration of people into the liberation movements”. To achieve that required “daily contact with the popular masses in the communion of sacrifice required by the struggle”. PAIGC cadres were deployed across the country to work with peasants, to learn from them about how they experienced and opposed colonial domination, to engage with them about the cultural practices that formed part of their resistance to it. “Do not be afraid of the people and persuade the people to take part in all the decisions that concern them,” he told his party members. “The leader must be the faithful interpreter of the will and the aspirations of the revolutionary majority and not the lord of power.” And, “To lead collectively, in a group, is to study questions jointly, to find their best solution, and to take decisions jointly.”

For Cabral, culture has a material base, “the product of this history just as a flower is the product of a plant. Like history, or because it is history, culture has as its material base the level of the productive forces and the mode of production. Culture plunges its roots into the physical reality of the environmental humus in which it develops, and reflects the organic nature of the society.”

Culture, insists Cabral, is intimately linked to the struggle for freedom. While culture comprises many aspects, it “grows deeper through the people’s struggle, and not through songs, poems or folklore. … One cannot expect African culture to advance unless one contributes realistically to the creation of the conditions necessary for this culture, i.e. the liberation of the continent.” In other words, culture is not static and unchangeable, but it advances only through engagement in the struggle for freedom.

National liberation, says Cabral, “is the phenomenon in which a socio-economic whole rejects the denial of its historical process. In other words, the national liberation of a people is the regaining of the historical personality of that people, it is their return to history through the destruction of the imperialist domination to which they were subject.”

Or, as Fanon put it: “To fight for national culture first of all means fighting for the liberation of the nation, the tangible matrix from which culture can grow. One cannot divorce the combat for culture from the people’s struggle for liberation.” Furthermore: “The Algerian national culture takes form and shape during the fight, in prison, facing the guillotine and in the capture and destruction of the French military positions.” And, “National culture is no folklore … [it] is the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remain strong.”

If being cast as African was originally defined as being less than human, the resounding claim of every movement in opposition to enslavement, every slave revolt, every opposition to colonization, every challenge to the institutions of white supremacy, every resistance to racism, every resistance to oppression or to patriarchy, constituted an assertion of human identity. Where Europeans considered Africans to be sub-human, the response was to claim the identity of “African” as a positive, liberating definition of a people who are part of humanity, “who belong to the whole world,” as Cabral put it. As in the struggles of the oppressed throughout history, a transition occurs in which terms used by the oppressors to “other” people are eventually appropriated by the oppressed and turned into terms of dignity and assertion of humanity.

It was thus that the concept of being “African” became intimately associated with the concept of freedom and emancipation. The people “have kept their culture alive and vigorous despite the relentless and organized repression of their cultural life,” wrote Cabral. Cultural resistance was the basis for the assertion of people’s humanity and the struggle for freedom.

With the growing discontent with the domination of the colonial regimes, especially following the second world war, many political parties were formed, many of which sought to negotiate concessions from the colonial powers. Colonialism had been reluctant to grant any form of pluralism to black organizations, but as popular protests grew, so there was a grudging opening of political space, often involving favors to those who were less threatening to colonial rule.

But such associations with freedom were, tragically, not to last for long beyond independence.

Source: Black Educator