A handbook for revolution

Demonstration against the murder of Amilcar Cabral at the Portuguese embassy in Den Haag. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

My first encounter with Basil Davidson was in an undergraduate seminar with the Pan-Africanist scholar Pearl Robinson. Resolute in my belief that a colonial-era British secret service (MI6) agent could hardly offer a worthwhile account of post-colonial African life, I was quickly disavowed of my assumptions by the empathy and beauty of Davidson’s prose. In well-known works like The Black Man’s Burden, Davidson’s lyrical language laid bare the savagery of colonial rule and the challenges confronting Africa’s newly independent nation-states.

Over a decades long career that began with the excitement of anti-colonialism and its inevitable backlash continuing through the independence era and past the end of the cold war, Davidson’s oeuvre covers the range of colonial and post-colonial dilemmas confronting the African continent. He was often a first person observer of the events and figures he documented. Yet his analysis is always clear-eyed about the challenges confronting ordinary Africans as well as African leaders, many of whom he knew personally. Deploying both first-person narratives that draw on his experiences on literal and figurative front lines as well as an impressive grasp of both historical and social scientific research, Davidson’s work is intellectually rigorous and emotionally resonant. Moving between different levels and modes of narration, he maneuvers deftly, at one point narrating a casual encounter with a legendary African leader that dismantles the superhuman aura around them while in the next moment withdrawing to consider the scene from a different, more structural vantage point. It is bravura writing and all the more impressive for his ability to make it appear natural.

No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky: The Liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde possesses many of the strengths of Davidson’s best work, as well as some of its excesses. If it appears that Davidson juggles between different narrative modes that is the inevitable outcome of a book written in two distinct time periods with multiple agendas to serve. Conceived as an insider’s look at the fledgling Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC), the first version of the book served two purposes — to offer a compelling and sympathetic account of the PAIGC’s campaign against Portuguese colonialism, especially the thinking of its charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral; and second, to provide support for the ongoing liberation struggle by sharing the PAIGC’s well formulated plans and philosophy with the world. It is simultaneously analysis and a call to action.

Based on three separate visits to PAIGC ruled territory, we see the front lines and liberated zones through Davidson’s eyes. However, the early narrative energy Davidson generates with his first person account of life behind rebel lines is waylaid by the ambitious role he hoped his text could play in supporting the PAIGC, which he clearly admired. This section remains a fascinating trove for scholars interested in the internal structure and behavior of one of the most novel and inclusive armed groups of all time. It also offers insights into a variety of subjects that have emerged at the forefront of social scientific research on conflict over the past decade including the microdynamics of political violence, the ways the group sought to mobilize popular support through establishing autonomous and democratic village governing councils (rebel governance) and relations between the PAIGC and foreign countries (rebel diplomacy). 

Through extensive quoting of PAIGC party positions and rebel leaders, Davidson takes on a central argument that has long defined the strategic choices of would-be violent insurrectionists. On one side, a Cuban style insurgency in which violence triggers an outpouring of latent popular support versus the meticulous person to person outreach that Cabral, channeling Frantz Fanon, championed. In other words, should revolutionaries focus on capturing the state or capturing society? Davidson’s sympathy for the latter is clear. Illustrated by extensive quoting of rebel cadre, we witness PAIGC cadre engaging civilians with patience and foresight. This was the dynamic that the organization rightly gained global attention for, culminating in the famous speech Cabral delivered to the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966, from which Davidson quotes extensively. In front of representatives sent by revolutionary states and armed groups around the world, Cabral argued for the importance of generating popular support during a conflict in order to avoid the post-colonial malaise many revolutionary regimes experienced soon after the heady days of independence.

If this was all the book accomplished, it would remain an important achievement — a first-hand account of the life and work of Amilcar Cabral, especially during the early years of the war that are the focus of the book. But what makes this work stand out is Davidson’s decision to return to the manuscript four years later, beginning in 1972, though the newly expanded version would not appear till 1980. Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde are newly independent nations ruled by the PAIGC, a seeming success story that cements the heroic legacy of Cabral.

We encounter two versions of Cabral — the guerrilla and the prophet. In the first section of the book, Davidson journeys with PAIGC cadre through rebel controlled rural areas meeting local peasants and chatting with thoughtful young rebels. Here is Cabral as brilliant guerrilla strategist, an organic intellectual with deep empathy for the rural peasantry. He hoped to lead them to a better future, one that could reconcile the collapse of the old ethnically defined social order in favor of a modern nation-state defined by its commitment to egalitarian pan-African and socialist ideals. Davidson’s faith in the project is irrepressible no matter how much he tries to present the PAIGC in an objective manner. But his belief in Cabral’s vision is also a blindspot as this part of the book devolves with barely edited statements and quotes from PAIGC members. It is propaganda, in both the original and more common usage of term.

But it is the newer material, where Davidson returns to a newly liberated Guinea Bissau that provides the book with its emotional heft. Rather than presiding over a newly independent state, Cabral is dead, killed by his own cadre in the final days of the independence struggle. Though the PAIGC emerges victorious, Cabral’s premonitions and warnings about the perils of national liberation bedevil his successors. Disavowed of the romanticism that tinges his more adulatory account of the independence struggle, Davidson recounts the events that led to his friend’s death. But instead of lingering in his sorrow, he instead looks for signs of hope amidst Cabral’s successors.

Luis Cabral and Aristides Perreira, Cabral’s confidants and successors, struggle to apply theoretical insights developed in the bush to the actual task of ruling two newly independent states. Amidst a weakening Third Worldism in which institutions of global finance are deployed to bend radical regimes that refused to submit to the emerging neoliberal order, they struggle to heed the warnings Cabral put forward. Instead, both emerge as strongman, ruling their respective countries in ways unrecognizable to their depiction as hopeful revolutionaries in the text. Yet regardless of the disappointing trajectories both Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde have taken, the PAIGC struggle for liberation deserves the attention it is only now starting to receive.

* This is the foreword to a new edition of Basil Davidson’s No Fist Is Big Enough to Hide the Sky: The Liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, 1963-74 (published by Zed Books).

Zachariah Mampilly

Zachariah Mampilly is the Director of Africana Studies and an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Vassar College.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed