Aristide Zolberg and African Studies

In a 2010 interview, Aristide Zolberg—the pioneer Africanist political scientist who died on April 12 at the age of 81—described his early interest in the politics of a continent in the first throes of independence: “India was a beacon of the future, and of the triumph of the powerless over the powerful. Africa, and in particular French West Africa, where decolonization was already in progress, was India on the horizon. African decolonization was also tied to the United States, where the study of Africa signaled solidarity with nascent civil rights movement … studying Africa was not about choosing a case; it was about making a normative statement of solidarity and resistance, and of the triumph over imperialism.” Zolberg’s remarks do more than conjure a fleeting moment of post-colonial optimism. They recall an unrealized program for African studies.

Decolonization appears here as a global project: less about individual states than the future organization of resources and power on a planetary scale, and its possibilities appear most clearly through the prism of an Afro-Asian political dynamic. This radical break demands new forms of knowledge, which are also implicated in a transnational politics of racism, diaspora, and struggle. Most crucially, such knowledge defies the circumscriptions of area studies. It’s predicated on solidarity rather than objectivity. It transects the conceptual schism between the First and Third worlds. It requires a mode of theory that respects multiplicity and historical conjuncture. Africa, Zolberg suggests, is neither a case nor country, but a demand for new ways of thinking about the future.

Among scholars of sub-Saharan Africa, Zolberg will be remembered primarily for two ground breaking books on West Africa politics, One Party Government in the Ivory Coast (1964) and Creating Political Order (1966). It’s not just that these works remain engaging and thought-provoking almost half a century after their publication—no small feat as several schools of African political science have swelled and crashed in their wake. It’s that Zolberg’s scholarship combines an effort to analyze African political parties in universal terms (that is, as politics, confronting some of the same dilemmas as mass movements or machine politicians anywhere) with deep suspicion towards the universalizing theories of 1960s social science and their pseudo-biological notion of development. He was a scholar of politics in West Africa, eschewing the single concept, magic bullet explanations of “African politics” that would mar even some of the best research of later decades. The African regimes of the early 1960s varied enormously in colonial background, political structure, and ideology. Zolberg understood that it was their commonalities—especially the emergence of the single party state and the salience of ethnic politics—that required explanation. And explanation required exhaustive field research and comparative analysis.

His early life informed this intellectual trajectory. He was born and raised in a Belgium divided between French and Flemish speakers in a 19th century episode of imperial state building. His parents were Polish Jews who assimilated into the French-speaking, and staunchly secular, middle class. As a result, his childhood fed an awareness of the complex disjunctions between nation, language, ethnicity, and religion. He survived the Second World War by living as a Catholic School boy under the name of Henri Van den Berg, and, for a period of time, accepted the faith as his own. His father died in Auschwitz; his mother escaped to the United States. At the age of 16, Zolberg moved to Brooklyn, where he finished high school while living with Orthodox relatives. The new environment was an uneasy fit. Disjunction once again. If Zolberg later wrote in the crisp voice of a political scientist, the questions of migration, racial violence, and ethnicity were near indeed.  He planned to entitle his unfinished memoir on the war years Games of Identity.

Within a year of moving to the United States, Zolberg finished high school and began studying at Columbia University, where he wrote extensively for the Columbia Daily Spectator and learned how to interview. Like many immigrants of his generation, he viewed university as the gateway to the professions and began his studies in pre-law. In short order, he grew frustrated with institutional approaches to government that floated above the realities of American racism and inequality. For his first major research paper, Zolberg interviewed the Moroccan Istiqlal delegation when it visited New York to argue against the French mandate at the United Nations. Family again fed into his interests. Zolberg’s uncle, a Communist who had been imprisoned in Algeria, had introduced the young man to the literature chronicling North Africa’s struggle for independence. Romance was also at work. At Columbia, Zolberg met his future wife Vera, and declared that he planned to work on West Africa as a courtship gambit. Vera, who studied French and later earned a MA in African Studies as well as a PhD in Sociology, was thrilled by the idea.

After beginning a program in African Studies at Boston University, Zolberg was drafted in 1955 and served in Dixie during the period of the U.S. military’s racial integration. Afterwards, he moved to Chicago to pursue a PhD under the aegis of the newly formed Committee for the Study of New Nations. Zolberg’s supervisor, David Apter, suggested that he pursue a dissertation on the Ivory Coast—by his own admission, Zolberg had never heard of the country–and he departed with Vera in 1958 to live above a Lebanese grocery in Abidjan. On the way to the Ivory Coast, they spent several months in Paris waiting for a visa and passed part of their time hanging out at the legendary publishing house Présence Africaine. Before the Houphouët-Boigny government declined to renew their visas, Zolberg managed to interview every current and past member of the Territorial Assembly and scoured the debates in the assembly in the run-up to decolonization.

This research would later form the basis of basis of Zolberg’s first book, the classic One Party Government in the Ivory Coast. Focused on the problem of national integration, the work provided one of the first analyses of ethnicity in post-colonial Africa politics, but it did so through the remarkably prosaic comparison of the Ivorian government and the Mayor Richard Daley’s machine politics in Chicago. Zolberg set aside both the left’s Marxist orthodoxies and the right’s Weberian dichotomies in order to provide an elucidation of the actual challenges Houphouët-Boigny faced in consolidating power and governing. The polemical dimension of this argument was largely implicit, but nonetheless remarkable. The domain of politics, he demonstrated, only became visible after breaking free from universalizing schemas of development and modernization.

Zolberg expanded these arguments in his second book, Creating Political Order, a comparison of the regimes and ruling ideologies of five African countries (Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana, Guinea, and Senegal). Documenting the process by which the ideology of the party-state emerges in West Africa, Zolberg unraveled how anticolonial nationalist movements—often fragile, heterogeneous blocs of local and regional interests—assumed power over highly differentiated societies and then presented themselves as the one unifying element of nations in the process of becoming. As a result, the party, nation, and state became fused in the person and ideology of the post-colonial ruler. Opposition, especially regional or ethnically-based, was therefore antinational and served the machinations of imperialism. Ironically, the reality behind the totalitarian façade was a weak state with quite limited reach and capacity: its unstable power rested largely on symbols of rationality and control. Creating Political Order underlined the failures of transporting normative (that is, Eurocentric) concepts of  state, society, and democracy to West Africa, and urged greater attention to micro-politics and the popular culture surrounding government. At the same time, it forcefully challenged a generation of Western and African thinkers who concluded that Africa’s “underdevelopment” necessitated state authoritarianism. False particularisms, he suggested, could easily be as dangerous—and racist—as a self-serving universalism.

Other tributes have noted Zolberg’s important scholarship in the field of migration studies, his long and industrious teaching career at Chicago and the New School, and his generosity as mentor and colleague. For us, his death is an important reminder of the radical visions that challenged area and development studies from their inception, and the range of personal, intellectual, and political experiences that animated some of the earliest research on African politics in the U.S.

This piece draws on the special issue of Social Research dedicated to Zolberg, especially the wonderful interview with Zolberg by Courtney Jung. My thanks to Bill Freund and Marty Klein for sharing their reflections on Zolberg’s life and work.


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