The role of culture in the struggle for independence by Amilcar Cabral

The struggle of people for national liberation and independence against imperialist domination has become an immense progressive force for mankind and doubtless constitutes one of the most essential features of the history of our times. An objective and impartial analysis of imperialism as a “natural” – in that it is necessary – historical fact or phenomenon within the broader context of the economic and political development of a major segment of mankind will show that for all the excesses and misery, pillage, crimes, and destruction of human and cultural values it has left in its wake, imperialist domination was not just a negative thing. The immense monopolistic accumulation of capital by a half-dozen nations in the northern hemisphere through piracy, pillage of the goods of other people, and indeed the very growth of capitalism on the basis of untrammeled exploitation of the labor of the people of these countries did not mean solely monopoly over the colonies, partition of the world, and imperialist domination.

Imperialist capital, in its insatiable quest for surplus value, release in the accumulating countries new energy for man’s creatives capacities; it effected a profound transformation in the means of production (the material productive forces), with accelerated progress of science, techniques, and technology, accentuated by the socialization of labor, and enabled vast segments of the population to move a long way up the social ladder. In the dominated countries, where in general the historical development of the dominated people was arrested by this process, where they were not simply directly or by degrees exterminated, imperialist capital imposed new kinds of relations on the indigenous society, imparting to it a more complex structure, and engendered, fostered, sharpened, or resolved contradictions and social conflicts; it introduced new elements into the economy through the circulation of money and the development of domestic and foreign markets, and in the guise of a new type of class domination (colonialist or racist), it gave birth to new nations based on human groupings or people at different stages of development.

To be sure, imperialism, as capital in action, did not achieve I the foreign lands under its domination the historic mission it accomplished in the accumulating countries. It is not a defense of imperialist domination to recognize that it charted out new horizons for the world, reduce the world’s dimensions, opened up new stages of development of human societies, and, in spite of because of the prejudices, discrimination and crimes to which it gave rise, helped us to acquire a more profound knowledge of mankind, as a totality in movement, as a unity within the complex diversity of its development.

Imperialist domination over several continents bred and deepened the clashes between both people and societies, sometimes gradual, sometimes abrupt, and on many different fronts. It was partly the physical traits of the populations which set off such conflicts, but they also stemmed from the stage of type of their historical development, the level of their productive forces, and the basis features of their social structure and culture. The practice of imperialist domination, whether it is affirmed or negated, required (and still requires) a precise knowledge of the dominated object and of the real historical (economic, social, cultural) conditions of that object. This knowledge must necessarily be formulated in terms of a comparison with the dominating object and with its historical reality. And such knowledge is an urgent necessarily for the practice of imperialist dominant, a need resulting from the clash, generally violent, between two identities which are distinct with regard to their historical content and antagonistic in their functions. The quest for such a knowledge, whether for the purpose of affirming or segregating imperialist domination, has contributed to a general enrichment of the social and human sciences, despite the one-sided, subjective, and prejudice-ridden character of most of the approaches and results obtained in this research.

Indeed, never has man been so interested in learning about other men and other societies as during the course of this century of imperialism and imperialist domination. Information, hypotheses, and theories in unprecedented number were accumulated in history, ethnology, ethnography, sociology, and culture on people or human groupings under the imperialist yoke. The concepts of race, caste, ethnicity, tribe, nation, culture, identity, dignity, and so many others attracted the growing attention of those who study man and so-called primitive or development societies.

More recently, spurred by the liberation struggle that is the negation of imperialist domination, one need became more acute: namely, to analyze and understand the characteristics of these societies as a function of struggle: to determine the factors that spurred them to struggle or restrained them from it, thereby exercising a positive or negative influence on their development. In general, all agreed that culture had a special role to play in this context, and one may affirm that any attempt to shed light on the true role of culture in the development of the liberation (pre-independence) movement should be a useful contribution to the general struggle of people against imperialist domination.


The fact that independence movements are generally marked from the very outset by a flurry of manifestations of things cultural has led to the observation that these movements are preceded by a cultural renaissance of the dominated people. The argument is even taken one step further, and it is said that culture is a method for collective mobilization, a weapon, that is, in the struggle of independence.

But in our opinion this concept, which we have formed on the basis of the experience of our own struggle, and, indeed, of Africa’s struggle, is too limited, if not wrong, view of the fundamental role of culture in the development of the liberation movement. And we think that this limitation or misconception derives from an unwarranted generalization from a real but circumscribed phenomenon located at one specific level within the vertical structure of the colonized societies: namely, among the colonial elites or diasporas. A generalization of this sort overlooks or ignores one essential fact in the problem: the indestructible character of the cultural resistance of the people – the popular masses – in the face of foreign domination.

It is a fact that for its own security imperialist domination requires cultural oppression and endeavors to liquidate directly or indirectly the cultural fabric of the dominated people. But the people are able to create and develop the liberation movement only because they have kept their culture alive and vigorous despite the relentless and organized repression of their cultural life; with their resistance at the political and military levels destroyed, they continue to resist culturally. This cultural resistance will at certain point, determined by internal and external factors governing the development of the dominated society and its relations with the colonial power, assume new forms (political, economic, armed struggle) to directly challenge foreign domination.

Except for cases of genocide or the violent reduction of native populations to cultural and social insignificance, the epoch of colonization was not sufficient, at least in Africa, to bring about any significant destruction or degradation of the essential elements of the culture and traditions of the colonized peoples. The colonial experience of imperialist domination in Africa shows that (with exception of genocide, racial segregation, and apartheid) the only purportedly positive solution found by the colonial power to break the cultural resistance of the colonized peoples has been assimilation. But the total failure of the policy of progressive assimilation of the native populations is patent proof of the falseness of this theory, as well as of the capacity of the dominated peoples to resist attempts to destroy or degrade their cultural legacy.

On the other hand, even in settlement colonies, where the vast majority of the population remains composed of natives, the sphere of colonial occupation and, in particular, of cultural occupation is generally restricted to the coastal areas and a few circumscribed areas in the interior. The influence of the culture of the colonial power is almost nonexistent in the horizontal structure of the dominated society outside of the capita and the other urban centers. Its impact is significant only in the vertical structure of the colonial social pyramid, which colonialism itself created, and affects, in particular, a group we may call “native petite bourgeoisie,” in addition to a very small number of workers in the urban centers.

Thus the great rural masses, along with a considerable percentage of the urban population (on the whole more than 99 percent of the indigenous population), remain untouched, or almost untouched, by the cultural influence of the colonial power. This is due partly to the necessarily obscurantist nature of imperialist domination, which demonstrates contempt for and endeavors to repress the culture of the dominated people and, indeed, has no interest in promoting the acculturation of the popular masses, which are a source of manpower for forced labor and the major victims of exploitation; but it is also partly due to the efficacy of the cultural resistance of these masses, who, subject to political domination and economic exploitation, find in their culture the only defense capable of preserving their identity. In cases where the native society has a vertical structure, this defense of their cultural legacy is further reinforced by the interest of the colonial power in projecting and reinforcing the cultural influence of the ruling classes, who are its allies.

What we have just said means, therefore, that in general there is no significant destruction or degradation of the culture and traditions of either the popular masses of the dominated countries (i.e. the laboring of social strata or classes in the countryside and in the towns) or of the native ruling classes (traditional chieftains, noble families, religious hierarchy). Repressed, persecuted, humiliated, and betrayed by various social groups that have compromised themselves with the foreigner, taking refuge in the villages, the forests, and the minds of generations of victims of domination, culture weathers every storm until, encouraged by the liberation struggles, it can burst forth again in its full flower. This is why the problem of a “return to one’s origins” or a cultural renaissance is not posed nor could it be posed by the popular mases: indeed, they are the bearers of their own culture, they are its source, and, at the same time, they are the only entity truly capable of preserving nd creating culture – in a word, of making history.

To correctly assess the true role of culture in the development of the liberation movement, we must therefore (at least in Africa) draw a distinction between the situation of the popular masses who have kept their culture intact and the situation of the more or less assimilated, uprooted social groups that have been alienated from their culture and whose cultural education has quite simply been stripped of all native elements. In contrast to, or differently from, what occurs among the popular masses, the native colonial elites molded by the colonization live materially and intellectually in the culture of the colonial foreigner (even though they may retain some cultural elements of the native society) and seek more and more to identify with him in their social behavior and even in their attitudes toward the values of the indigenous culture. Over two or three generations of colonization, a social layer forms, consisting of civil servants and employees in various branches of the economy (especially commerce), members of the liberal professions, and a small number of urban and rural property owners. This new class, the native petite bourgeoisie, molded by foreign domination and indispensable to the system of colonial exploitation, is situated between the laboring popular masses of the countryside and towns and the minority of local representations of the familiar ruling class though it may have relatively extensive ties with the popular masses or with the traditional chieftains, the native petite bourgeoisie generally aspires to a way of life similar to, if not identical with, that of the foreign minority; at the same time as it limits its relations with the masses, it tries to integrate itself with this minority, often to the detriment of family or ethnic ties and always spurred by individual ambitions. But it is never able, despite a few obvious exceptions, to surmount the barriers imposed by the system, it is prisoner of the contradictions in the social and cultural reality in which it lives, for it cannot flee, in the colonial peacetime, its condition of a marginal or marginalized social layer or class. This marginality is the stage on which the sociocultural drama of the colonial elites or native petite bourgeoisie is played out, both in the colony and among the diaspora, a drama experienced more or less intensely according to material circumstances and the level of acculturation, but always individually, never as a collective thing.

It is within the context of daily life and it dramas, against a background of confrontation, generally violent, between the popular masses and the colonial ruling class, that a sense of bitterness and frustration complex begins to thrive and grow among the native petite bourgeoisie at the same time as it begins to feel a pressing need, which grows little by little in its consciousness, to contest its situation of marginality and to discover an identity for itself. As a result of the failure of its efforts to identify with the foreign ruling class, toward which it is impelled both by the essential aspects of its cultural education, as well as by its social aspirations, this need for liberation from frustration and marginality turns the native petite bourgeoisie toward the other pole of the sociocultural conflict within which it lives (i.e., the indigenous popular masses) in its quest for identity. As we have seen, the dominated society (dominated because it has been beaten, oppressed, and repressed both economically and politically) preserves the core of its culture despite all attempts by the colonial power to destroy it and continues its cultural resistance, which cannot be broken. The cultural domain is the only domain where the native petite bourgeoisie is able to satisfy this need for liberation and to find an identity, hence the “return to one’s origins,” which appears to be all the more urgent the greater the isolation of the petite bourgeoisie (or the native elites) and the more acute its sense or complex of frustration, which is the case for the African diasporas in the colonial or racists metropolises. It is no coincidence, therefore, that theories and movements such as Pan-Africanism and Negritude, two characteristic examples of the “return to one’s origins” that rested on the postulate of a cultural identity among all black Africans were first conceived in cultural spaces remote from black Africa. The quest of North American blacks for an African identity is another more recent and perhaps desperate expression of an attempt to return to one’s origins, though it is also clearly influenced by a new reality, namely, the gaining of political independence by the vast majority of African peoples. At the level of outward appearances, this aspiration is marked by the display, often ostentatious, of a more or less conscious desire for cultural identification.

But a return to one’s origins is not, nor can it be, in itself an act of struggle against foreign domination (colonial and/or racist), nor does it necessarily mean a return to traditions. It is the native petite bourgeoisie’s negation f the dogma of the supremacy of the culture of the ruling power over the dominated people, with whom it needs to identify in order to resolve the sociocultural conflict within which it is foundering in search of an identity. The return to one’s origins is therefore not a voluntary gesture but the only viable answer to the imperious challenge of concrete, historical necessity, determined by the irresolvable contradiction that opposes the colonized society to the colonial power, the exploited popular masses to the exploiting foreign class; every indigenous social layer or class is obliged to define its position in terms of this contradiction.

When the phenomenon of “returning to one’s origins” [retour aux sources] goes beyond the individual case and begins to be expressed by groups or movements, the factors responsible for it, both internally and externally, the political and economic development of society will already have reached a level where this contradiction is transformed into a conflict (concealed or open), a prelude to the pre-independence movement or the struggle for liberation from foreign yoke. Thus a return to one’s origins is historically consistent only if it entails not only a real engagement in the struggle for independence but also a total and definitive identification with the aspirations of the popular masses, who contest not only the foreigner’s culture but also his rule. Otherwise the return to one’s origins is no more than a solution aimed at securing some temporary advantages and an expression, whether conscious or some temporary advantages and an expression, whether conscious or unconscious, of the political opportunism of the petite bourgeoisie.

It is inequality that lies at the basis of the division of the native petite bourgeoisie into three distinct groupings with regard to the liberation movement:

  1. An initial minority which, even if it wants the end of foreign domination, clings to the ruling colonial class and openly opposes this movement in defense of its own social security;
  2. A majority of vacillating or undecided elements;
  3. A second minority whose members take part in the creation and leadership of the liberation movement and are its main source of life.

But this last grouping, which plays a crucial role in the development of the pre-independence movement, is not able fully and truly to identify itself with the popular masses (with its culture and its aspirations) except through struggle, and the degree of this identification depends on the form or forms of the struggle, the ideological content of the movement and the level of moral and political consciousness of each individual.

Excerpt from:

Cabral, A. (2016) Resistance and Decolonization. Rowman and Littlefield International.