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Remembering Cabral


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In the final essay to mark the fiftieth anniversary of national revolutionary leader AmílcarCabral’s murder in 1973, first published in the ROAPE journal thirty years ago, Basil Davidson provides a personal portrait. Davidson’s piece contains fascinating detail and insight on Cabral’s principles of organising, as well as how Cabral and his comrades started their successful anti-colonial struggle in the early 1950s, all of which retains its relevance in the context of ongoing struggle and revolt across the continent today.

By Basil Davidson

It becomes tempting to wonder, in this period of moral reduction and political decline, just what it is which causes positive change to begin, and then enables this change to become a route of escape so manifestly valid and worthwhile that persons — ordinary persons, everyday persons, persons such as myself — will follow that route as though it might be as dear as life itself.

I was pondering this elusive question while present at Eritrea’s celebration on 24 May 1993 of the winning of its independence after 30 years of anti-colonial struggle. For the winning of this freedom, so vividly felt in Eritrea now, was the work of a remarkable self-mobilisation in sacrifice and effort for the common good. But how did this come about? Leave aside the instrumental explanations — the traditions of Eritrean social solidarity, the pressures of a malignant and ferocious enemy (as the Ethiopian dictatorship had long become), the brilliance of individual leaders, the courage of those countless volunteers who made the army of the EPLF, much else besides — and the elusive question still remains: just what it is that set this people on its route of escape?

The question is by no means new to readers of this journal, and various answers have come to hand. Addressing it on Eritrea’s smiling day of independence — formal independence, for the reality had been reached in 1990 — President Issaias Afewerki told us that they had been able to win only by having evoked ‘a solidarity of effort’ across every rivalry (in Eritrea) of religion, ethnicity, or other claims on installed privilege. And the facts bear him out. The Eritreans have won against odds piled mountains high against them because they have been able to reach a nationwide unity of effort and objective. In their recent and internationally supervised referendum (see ROAPE 57), 98.52 per cent of registered voters used their vote, and of those who used their vote 99.805 per cent voted for independence. No one from any quarter of opinion has doubted the honesty of that vote.

How this unity was achieved through many years of difficult and often violent conflict — conflict also among Eritreans themselves — is part of a history that now awaits to be told. Excellent books could be written about that history, and we can hope that they will be. When they are they will have much to say about the means and methods of mass mobilisation: about just what it is that leads a people to become able to save itself from grim disaster. While thinking about this in Asmara, I was led again to thinking about another liberating figure whose name and achievement are known and respected by Eritreans, and not least because of his wisdom and leadership precisely in the means and methods of mass mobilisation.

It is just over twenty years since the death of Amílcar Cabral; and ROAPE’s initiative in celebrating this anniversary makes a fine occasion to celebrate Cabral’s achievements. And to note, moreover, that Cabral and what he achieved has not become lost in the turmoil of the passing years. I see, for example, that Edward Said gives due recognition to Cabral in his deeply impressive Culture and Imperialism (1993). Or else, for the English-reading academy worldwide, there is Horace Campbell’s still more recent memorial of Cabral in The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World(1993), where Cabral is defined as ‘the pre-eminent theorist and guerilla fighter in the period of the decolonisation of Africa’. Cabral’s achievement, writes Campbell, ‘sped the decolonisation of Africa in a very fundamental way’. Beyond that, ‘Cabral’s writings and speeches have provided the basis for a new direction in the study of Africa’.

These are sound judgements; and yet the question remains as to how it became possible for Cabral to be given the loyalty of a ravaged people, whose level of literacy stood at about one-half of one per cent, in a colony where the authority of power had long become synonymous with contempt or indifference, and where law had appeared and usually had been a force of blind oppression. Where any sense of patriotism was a bad joke, and social solidarity outside the family or clan an empty form of words.

Cabral and his handful of companions, four decades ago, had to find answers to despair. Where should they start, what should they do? Cabral started with five others in the Portuguese colony of Guine. That was in 1956, long before they had a party or a movement in anything but name, or any detailed programme, or any clear perspective. What they had, very consciously, was a burning sense of the justice of their anti-colonial cause, and a conviction that others would recognise this justice once the embers of revolt could be brought alight. What they also had, above all in Cabral’s unwavering clarity of mind, was the advantage — the very dangerous advantage — of an implacable enemy. Compromise with colonialism might be attempted; it would fail. Reconciliation might be wished for; the fascism of Portugal, whether at home or in the colonies, knew no such thing. So that there must arise for everyone — everyone regardless of preference or opinion — an unavoidable choice: are you for us or are you against us?

Any revolt would have to be the product of profound conviction. Any war of liberation, if it could come to that, would have to be a long one fought through ‘to the end’. It came to that in 1963, seven testing years since the six beginners had found each other, and had opted for a resistance that might have to become an armed resistance; and the core of their later success is to be found in those seven years. It turned, as would be seen later, upon a single principle of action and organisation: colloquially, in Guine Creole, que povo no mania nasi cribeca (meaning that people have to do it for themselves, you have to do it for yourself). Otherwise there is no self-development, there is only a calculation of personal gain, a squabbling bid to jump the queue.

Statue of Amílcar Cabral at the Amílcar Cabral International Airport in Sal, Cape Verde (19 December 2015).

That may sound so very obvious, now in the aftermath. But in those years, it could and did sound revolutionary. Rebellious thought in those times — creative thought, contestatory thought — still carried old burdens: from one source, a severely condescending Eurocentrism that had shuffled down the decades from the slaving years, and then, from another source not much less unhelpful although more recent, an authoritarian Marxism — or ‘Marxism?’ — according to which an effective blueprint for action must be handed down to actors as holy writ, without which those actors would be helpless. In their various ways these legacies would be tremendous handicaps to innovating thought and action, and Cabral had to measure himself against them: whether as a schoolboy in Cape Verde, where a primitive racism governed by way of pigmentational absurdities; or later as a university student in Portugal itself, where creative thinking had been crushed out of existence save for a clandestine communist party within which, however, the rigours of secrecy had duly opened the gate to the rigidities of a kind of Stalinism. Cabral and his handful of like-minded friends rejected both the racism and the Stalinism. Standing in a void, as it were, they looked for a posture of their own, and this they found in a deliberate process of re-Africanisation from the alienations of Portuguese colonial culture. Their Angolan comrade, Viriato da Cruz produced his masthead slogan, vamos descobrir Angola, and it became for all of them a whole programme of self-development. Let’s discover ourselves!

This was certainly the message that Cabral took back with him to Africa early in the 1960s, and what he afterwards taught, using whatever different ways and words, to all who would listen to him. Even in this tensely distraught territory of Portuguese Guine, lost somewhere between Senegal and Liberia and deprived in every conceivable dimension, the blacks could and would save themselves if only they themselves were led to take the saving work in hand. ‘Were led to take’, I think, was the kernel of Cabral’s ideas on political mobilisation. For this was the accent of his teachings in all the obscure and lonely years — the 1950s — when he was finding out ‘how to begin’ and with whom to begin. Later, when the beginning was well and truly made, he formalised these ideas and his teaching of them in his handbook for militants, the Palavras de Ordem Geraiscomposed in 1965, and then, orally and variously, in a series of forest seminars. These evolved as intimate ‘conversations’ when no limits were set to what could be raised and argued (partial texts of some of these seminars will be found in Cabral’s collected writings published as Unity and Struggle, London and New York, 1980, in an excellent translation by Michael Wolfers).

To the moral thrust of Cabral’s ideas on revolutionary change, in short, there was added this severely practical stress on the analysis of immediate reality and circumstance. It was to be one of his strengths that he knew his country and its peoples thoroughly, and usually better than anyone else: those early years which he had spent as a government agronomist, tramping from one region to another and living in their villages, at home within languages that others seldom spoke save in fragmentary phrases, became for him a living source of encouragement and inspiration. When he said que povona manda na si cabeca he was speaking, one can say, from inside the heads of the peasants from whom the slogan had initially come.

This was no doubt what gave his programme its simplicity of conviction. Facing a barbaric colonial oppression, always coercing or corrupting as it was, Cabral presented the ‘simplistic’ belief that humankind is good by nature, a view of things so outrageously stupid in the eyes of a distant Europe, as to set him beyond the boundaries of orthodox notice. Yet that is what he believed: so much so, I think myself, that he would never have been murdered if he had believed otherwise. For it stands sorely on the record that at least three among his murderers were men punished for one or other crime inside the fighting movement (PAIGC) but forgiven and released from prison by Cabral and kept close to his person, ‘so that they could make good their errors’. His chief bodyguard, whom I knew myself, was one of those three; afterwards, this man shot himself in horror at what he had helped to do.

The principles of Cabral’s organising action can be studied in the published writings (Wolfers, 1980). Their practicality had to depend on the sufficient recruitment of fighting personnel, and stiff training in the military disciplines of what had to be done. Here there was nothing new or original! – successful guerilla warfare having few and simple rules. The real — and enormous — difficulty came at the point where sufficient fighters had to be accumulated: precisely, that is, in the actual process of mobilisation. His practice in this respect, I think, can be boiled down to a broad conclusion: political mobilisation is always specific to time and circumstance. But it is a process; it has stages of development: essentially, two stages. One stage is to evoke sympathy with what you mean to do, overcoming (in this case) the deep ingrained scepticism of this rural audience — ‘you want to throw out the Portuguese, but you can’t even make matches’ — with its contempt for its own abilities: ‘Take up arms against the Portuguese? But what fool was ever going to do that?’

This was where the young ‘fighters of the first hour’ came into their own, attacking a police post, destroying a bridge: small actions, but successful ones. Sympathy with anti-colonial sentiments could then be got to take a step further: into feeding these young fighters — maybe a dozen in number, or fewer still — and then hiding them, bringing them useful information about the nearest garrison, or something of that kind. All this was possible and was done. But all of it would end in flight or extermination at the hands of the colonial state if this first stage were not followed by a second. Sympathy must be developed into participation. ‘People must do it for themselves’.

This second stage was entered at the end of 1963 and increasingly established in the year or so after that. In 1967, as we were coasting by night along the southern fringe of that country’s mangrove creeks, Cabral recalled for me the meaning of this crucial achievement:

First of all, as you know, we liberated the southern and a little part of the north-central regions of our country. Then, in 1964, we began to say to our guerilla fighters in the south that the time had come for them to go into the eastern region. Otherwise, we said, if the struggle remains only in the south and north, the Portuguese will be able to concentrate on those regions and eliminate us there. But we found that our guerillas were not at all of this opinion. We’ve liberated our own country, [they said to us], now let those others [in the east] liberate theirs. Why should the Balante go and help to liberate the Fula? Let the Fula do their own work…

We didn’t force the issue. We waited until the Portuguese did in fact begin to redouble their attacks in the south, just as we’d said they would, and then we argued our case all over again. This time it worked, and we could form a regular army that would move, and not stay, like guerillas, in their home zones. We said, free uniforms, better arms, good equipment and so on for everyone who joins; but everyone who joins will go where he’s sent. Two thousand young men volunteered. For a start, we chose 900 (Davidson, 1969).

Once sympathy had developed itself into participation — social and political as much as military participation — then it began to be seen, and Cabral made sure that it was seen, that the struggle against oppression had become a movement with its own inner dynamism.

Party HQ of PAIGC, situated at the central Praça dos Herois Nacionais square in Bissau (3 November 2017).

Then it became a matter of persistent leadership in the sense of ensuring that the currents of self-development should stay unclogged (as little clogged as possible; Cabral was no Utopian) by collapsing into this or that personal vanity or distraction, while, at the same time keeping up the pressure for onward action. The general and in the end overwhelming success in these tasks was what the history of this liberation war would demonstrate, but it should go without saying that the success could never be invariable or complete. Here was a leadership — as I think must always happen in enterprises of this kind — that could never be free of personalist distraction and corruption, if only because these failings feed upon success. But the general success in this context of mobilisation was high, even as I think extraordinarily high. I used to walk about that country of forests and creeks and hillside pastures with a handful of fighters bent on this or that objective, or on simply looking after me; and the success was patent. Here you would find a peasant guarding or watching all canoe traffic on the waterways, quite by himself and usually keeping out of sight, unsupervised, unwatched, unguarded; but his work was to know about and report on everything that moved on the water, and this work he simply carried out. Here was a school in dense bush with two or three young teachers responsible literally ‘for everything’. Here was a makeshift ‘hospital’ for a clutch of wounded, with an itinerant surgeon who was virtually a saviour for these wounded but himself depended for food and safety on the nearest village activists. And so on up and down the line of useful action.

Once the movement could impose its own self-discipline — roughly, sometime after early disasters in 1963 — there thus evolved a community across age, or across age-groups in these often age-defined societies, that was in evolution from colonially oppressed objects to socialised — self-regulating? — subjects: at various levels of consciousness, with various back-slidings into self-inflation, of course. But very much had been done to promote an essential unity of attitude and action by the time, late in 1973, that the Portuguese dictatorship was faltering to its fall. A fall, one can add, that was crucially accelerated by the achievements of Cabral and his movement, the PAIGC. It was certainly the case that the young Portuguese officers who would bring about that fall, in 1974, had learned their own lessons from those same achievements. “The colonised peoples and the people of Portugal are allies”, ran one of those young officers’ pronouncements of 1974. “The struggle for national liberation has contributed powerfully to the overthrow of fascism and, in large degree, has lain at the base of the armed forces movement” (which overthrew the dictatorship) (Davidson, 1981). The smooth men and women who would come to govern the Portugal of the 1980s would offer a very different view; the fact remains that overthrow of the colonial dictatorship in Africa was an essential preclude to overthrow of the dictatorship in Portugal itself.

Yet if much had been done to promote a post-colonial society in Guine, much else remained to be done; and there were those at the time (myself among them, if I may add) for whom the liberation war was at a level of virtual standstill (so far, that is, as major hostilities were concerned) but might have usefully continued for a few more years. As others have explained, what remained to be done, even to be launched, were transformations in the sphere of economic reorganisation. These could not be tackled while the Portuguese were still able to fight on offensive positions; but they might have been tackled after 1973 when the Portuguese were fighting in retreat. As it was, things fell out differently and by 1978, in peacetime, ‘doing things to people’ had taken the place of ‘people doing it for themselves’ (Dowbor, 1977).

In remembering Cabral, however, one thinks above all of the process of social change set in motion during the years of political innovation and expansion. One thinks, in Cabral’s own phrasing, of the armed liberation struggle not as a mere instrumentality, much less as an adventure, but as a ‘determinant of culture’, a penetratingly social determinant of cultural progress that ‘is without doubt, for the people, the prime recompense for their efforts and sacrifices.’ For

the leaders of the liberation movement, drawn from the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ (intellectuals, employees) or from the background of workers in the towns (labourers, drivers, salaried workers in general), having to live day by day with the various peasant strata among the rural populations, come to know the people better. They discover, at its source, the wealth of their cultural values (whether philosophical or political, artistic, social or moral). They acquire a clearer awareness of their country’s economic realities. They see the difficulties, sufferings and aspirations of the mass of the people… the leaders thus enrich their culture: they cultivate their minds and free themselves from inhibitions (imposed by colonial history). So they strengthen their ability to serve the movement in service of the people.

Meanwhile, the same cultural determinant had another field of action ‘out there in the bush’ about which the leaders who had mostly derived from the towns had known little or nothing, and had feared much:

On their side, the mass of labourers and, in particular, the peasants who are generally illiterate and have never moved beyond the confines of their village or region, come into contact with other categories; and in doing this they shed the inhibitions which had constrained them in their dealings with other ethnic or social groups. They understand their position as determining elements in the struggle. They break the fetters of the village universe. They gradually integrate with their country and with the world. They acquire an infinity of new knowledge useful to their immediate and future activities within the framework of the struggle. They strengthen their political awareness by absorbing the principles of national and social revolution postulated by the struggle.

Summarising, Cabral went on to say in one of his well-remembered phrases that ‘the armed struggle therefore implies a veritable forced march along the road to cultural progress’ because:

We should add these inherent features of an armed liberation struggle: the practice of democracy, of criticism and self-criticism; the growing responsibility of populations for the management of their own life; literacy teaching; the creation of schools and health care; the training of peasant and other cadres. And this is how we find that the armed liberation struggle is not only a product of culture, but also a determinant of culture (Endnote 1).

Looking back from these our 1990s [this article was written in 1993], when banditries and corruptions and vile external interventions have gone far to wreck or utterly destroy the harvests of progress that Cabral and his companions were able to promote and produce, I am sometimes met with reproaches by those, today, who tell me that Cabral and his companions failed. To those who tell me this from an honest standpoint, and not from any mealy-mouthed or merely calculating collapse into reaction, I can reply that the charge of failure is morally and historically baseless. I respect their prudent scepticism but ask them to think further. For the record shows that the principles upon which Cabral and his companions acted remain as valid today as they were valid thirty years ago and more. They are the same principles and ideas that may now be heard expounded, in a score or more African languages and as many different African situations, with the terminologies of democratic decentralisation, mass participation, cultural renewal, post-colonial restitution. New men and women will apply these principles and ideas, no doubt with the genius of creative innovation that history will unfold. But the same mandatory directive will apply. Que povo na manda na sicabeca.

Basil Davidson was a founding member of ROAPE, and a historian of Africa. He died in London in 2010 (read Lionel Cliffe’s obituary here). Mike Powell was the editor of the original special issue in 1993 which can accessed here.

Featured Photograph: Cabral’s birthplace in Bafatá in Guine Bissau (13 October 2019).


  1. These extracts are from one of Cabral’s principal political lectures, National Liberation and Culture, 1970, and available in the Unity and Struggle volume.

Bibliographic Note

Many and some of the most important of Cabral’s writings are in English in Unity and Struggle, translated by Michael Wolfers (Heineman, London, 1980/Monthly Review Press, New York, 1979); French readers have the advantage of being able to refer to a wider selection in two volumes of Maspero’s Cahiers libres, (Paris, 1975); Basil Davidson, The Liberation of Guine (Penguin, London, 1979:74), long out of print but since reprinted in an enlarged volume, No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky (Zed Books, London, 1981:74,161); For a valuable retrospective of what happened after 1977, see Ladislau Dowbor, Guine Bissau: a busca da independencia economica, (Editora Basiliense, Sao Paulo, 1983) and specifically on Cape Verde, Basil Davidson, The Fortunate Isles(Africa World Press, Trenton, NJ and Hutchinson, London 1989); Edward W Said, Culture and Imperialism, (Chatto & Windus, London/Knopf, New York, 1993).

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