P125 – African and African American Intellectuals and the Communist Countries after 1945
10 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Katsakioris Constantin / Elitaf FMSH/University of Bayreuth


During the Cold War many African and African American intellectuals expressed their interest or their admiration for the model and the culture of the communist countries. They spent long periods of time there, often for training, attended conferences and festivals, had their books translated and published and kept close contacts with their counterparts on the East side of the “iron curtain”. This panel will revisit these relationships through a number of prominent intellectuals and militants, communists or fellow travellers, for which the USSR and the communist countries became an inspiration, a resource or a tool in their struggle against colonialism and apartheid, for human rights, social justice and development. At the centre of our attention will be African American activists such as Angela Davis, the South African writer Alex La Guma, the Nigerian scientist and political activist Abdou Moumouni, as well as the filmmakers Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako. The aim of the panel is to re-examine the attraction of communism, the use by those intellectuals of the communist platform as a tribune, a refuge or a base of political and material assistance. Finally, we will conclude with rethinking the impact of the communist countries on the African and African American cultural and political struggles.

Les intellectuels africains et afro-américains et les pays communistes après 1945

Tout au long de la guerre froide plusieurs intellectuels africains et afro-américains exprimèrent leur intérêt ou leur admiration pour le modèle et la culture des pays communistes. Ils y effectuèrent de longs séjours souvent de formation, participèrent à des conférences et des festivals, leurs livres furent traduits et publiés et ils maintinrent des contacts avec leurs homologues du côté Est du « rideau de fer ». L’objectif de ce panel est de revisiter ces relations à travers un nombre d’intellectuels et militants, communistes ou compagnons de route, pour lesquels l’URSS et les pays communistes sont devenus une source d’inspiration, une ressource ou un outil dans leur combat contre le colonialisme et l’apartheid, pour les droits de l’homme, la justice sociale et le développement. Au cœur de nos réflexions, des figures comme, la militante américaine Angela Davis, l’écrivain sud-africain Alex La Guma, le scientifique et militant politique nigérien Abdou Moumouni, ainsi que les cinéastes Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé et Abderrahmane Sissako trouveront une attention particulière. Le but est de réexaminer l’attrait du communisme et en même temps l’usage de la plateforme communiste, comme tribune, refuge ou base de soutien politique et matériel. Enfin, de repenser l’impact des pays communistes sur les combats politiques et sociaux en Afrique et aux États-Unis.

Paper 1

Lee Christopher J. / Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research

Dreamworld and Catastrophe: Political Travel to the Soviet Union during the Twentieth Century

This paper examines political travel by African and African American writers to the Soviet Union during the long twentieth century. It specifically considers the ways in which travel writing by activist-intellectuals like Alex La Guma of South Africa conceived the USSR as a “dreamworld” (to use a term of Susan Buck-Morss’s) that offered paradigms of social conviviality and economic development that contrasted with the “catastrophes” of the colonial and postcolonial worlds. This history of image and knowledge-making has since become marginalized in political narratives of South African history, reflecting the neoliberal present which post-apartheid South Africa has embraced. This paper concludes by arguing for the importance of these “lost futures” and how they might challenge prevailing narratives of South Africa’s past, by situating them within a deeper history of black radicalism during the twentieth century.

Paper 2

Matusevich Maxim / Seton Hall University

“I Have the Feeling That I Have Known Her a Long Time”: Angela Davis and the Soviet Dreams of Freedom

In the 1970s, the case of a radical black American academic Angela Davis, accused by the state of California of being an accessory to murder, captured the imagination of the millions of Soviet citizens as well as the residents of other Communist nations. The virtual cult of Davis in the Soviet Union was to a large extent the product of the massive efforts exerted by Soviet propaganda which for decades had been taking full advantage of the ugly reality of Western (and especially American) racism. Yet the preeminence of Angela Davis as a cultural symbol on the “other side” of the Iron Curtain also reflected on the eagerness of Soviet citizens to engage in a discourse on freedom. For the majority of Soviets receptive to the official propaganda, the persecution of Davis in the United States presented another vivid example of the capitalist machine of racial and economic oppression in action. For others, this tale of guns, hostage-taking and daring escapes became an extension of the familiar Hollywood-fueled American myth of the Wild West, rough justice, and a free-wheeling and gun-toting pursuit of liberty. But the dissidents within the Soviet imperium (Alexander Solzhenytsin among them) took a far less charitable view of Angela Davis, often arguing that her celebrity in the USSR and beyond not so much promoted as undermined the cause of freedom.

Paper 3

Chomentowski Gabrielle / EHESS

From the East to the West. Educational, Intellectual, and Political Trajectories of African Filmmakers

Thanks to a new international cultural policy inaugurated by the PC of the USSR, from the 1960s to the 1980S a small number of young and talented African artists from countries such as Senegal, Mali, Burkina-Faso and Mauritania, received Soviet scholarships to study at the famous Moscow Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). For the Soviet hosts, cinema had to play a concrete political role: to disseminate the communist message beyond the Soviet borders, to help the struggle for independence against imperialism and capitalism, and to demonstrate the sympathy and the friendship, as well as the interest and the spirit of tolerance of the Soviet Union towards the postcolonial friends. Yet who else could disseminate those ideas better that the Africans themselves? Obviously, many of those students became the filmmakers who latter marked both the national and the African cinema with their aesthetics and militant spirit. This paper aims, on the one hand, to examine the Soviet aid for the development of the African cinema and, on the other, to explore the mobility and the intellectual trajectories of a group of African filmmakers, in order to map out the political, ideological and cultural transfers that took place through the so-called “iron curtain”.

Paper 4

Smirnova Tatiana / EHESS

Abdou Moumouni Dioffo: An African Scientist and Intellectual Between Soviet Union and France

The aim of this paper is to examine the appeal and impact of the communist example on the transformation of ideas regarding educational policies and scientific research in Africa and in Niger in particular. The Nigerien Professor Abdou Moumouni Dioffo is one of the key figures in order to explore these transformations. Founding member of the communist FEANF (Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique Noire en France) and of the Marxist-Leninist PAI (Parti Africain de l’Indépendance), Moumouni traveled first to China and then to the Soviet Union, where he spent more than two years (1962-1964) studying solar energy. It was also during this period that he wrote his study-manifesto “L’éducation en Afrique”, in which he denounced the colonial legacy and introduced a project of educational reforms inspired both by the African cultures and by the communist example. His book influenced the educational agenda led by UNESCO in Africa in the 1960s-1970s. Advocate of the development of scientific research, Moumouni headed the Niger Solar Energy Office from 1969 to 1985. Yet, during this period his ideas seem to undergo some change. In this paper we suggest to examine Moumouni’s trajectory and the evolution of his thought in order explore both his relationship with the communist countries or ideas and what seems to be his detachment from them.

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