Where do just ideas come from

Exploring Senegal’s early post-colonial history, to make sense of the unhappiness with the government of incumbent president Macky Sall.

Photo: Francesca Noemi Marconi, via Unsplash.

Now treated as a prescient representation of the 1968 generation that forever transformed left-wing politics, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise portrays a group of French students forming a Maoist collective and living together in a cosy Parisian apartment where fierce discussions over politics and revolutionary strategy happen with religious devotion. On the only occasion an outsider enters the secret enclave, it’s to deliver a seminar on the “Prospects for the European Left.” The gentleman, introduced only as Omar, is also the film’s only black character. In the seminar’s Q&A, one of the French students asks if a non-socialist revolution can peacefully be changed into a socialist one. In answering the question (“Yes, but under specific conditions”), Omar claims it is based on a false, underlying notion, and asks back: “Where do just ideas arise? Where do just ideas come from?”

Of course, we know that this man is the only true revolutionary in the film because Omar Blondin Diop was a revolutionary in real life. His appearance in the film counts as the only record of him speaking available, and part of a handful of visuals in general. Blondin Diop never had much of a chance to fully announce himself to the world—at 26 years old, he suspiciously died in Senegalese detention in May 1973, 14 months into a three-year sentence handed to him by Léopold Sedar Senghor’s regime. Senghor is equally thought of as a revolutionary, and a significant intellectual for theorizing Négritude. But why would one revolutionary be an existential threat to another?

Writing of the “Senghor myth,” AIAC contributor Florian Bobin notes thatOnce you’ve exhausted all the Negritude quotes, you have to confront the fact that Leopold Sedar Senghor ran Senegal as a repressive, one-party state.” Senghor was the quintessential philosopher-king, and as Bobin further observes, “Under the single-party rule of Senghor’s Senegalese Progressive Union (UPS), authorities resorted to brutal methods; intimidating, arresting, imprisoning, torturing and killing dissidents.” A prime example was when Senghor accused Mamadou Dia, the president of Senegal’s Council of Ministers, of attempting to stage a coup against him. Dia had long been advocating for decentralizing power and vesting it in the hands of peasant communities. Despite being a fighter, moving to wage a military campaign against Senghor’s regime, Blondin Diop was thinking against him too. In his segment in La Chinoise, Blondin Diop (who at 21, was already a student-professor) answers the question he puts to the group by affirming democracy, political and economic. Just ideas come from social interaction, from the fight to produce, and scientific research, but above all, “From the class struggle. Some classes are victorious, others are defeated. That’s history. The history of all civilizations.” Who is victorious in Senegal?

In this AIAC Talk then, we want to investigate Senegal’s post-colonial history, especially to grapple with it in the context of Senegal’s ongoing civil unrest against incumbent president Macky Sall. This will not be the first time a popular uprising has emerged in Senegal’s recent history to resist creeping authoritarianism. On June 23, 2011, the Senegalese people mobilized to challenge former president Abdoulaye Wade’s attempt to change the constitution to permit him to run for a third term and to win elections by securing less of the vote. The moment produced the M23, a broad movement for democratization in Senegal, as well as groupings like “Y’En A Marre”; which means “Fed up” and is a collective of mostly rappers and youth disgruntled with Senegal’s political and economic stagnation. What have become of these movements in the 10 years since their inception? How do we make sense of the fact that, this time round, dissident energy is rallied behind Ousmane Sonko, the opposition leader whose arrest following accusations of rape are what precipitated the current crisis? 

We are joined by Florian and Marame Gueye to help us make sense of all of this. Florian Bobin is a student in African history and host of Elimu Podcast. His research focuses on post-colonial liberation struggles and state violence from the 1960s and 1970s in Senegal. Marame is an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Literatures at East Carolina University. Her work explores gender, verbal art, and migration. She is also an activists of women’s rights in Senegal and its diaspora.

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Last week, we tackled Africa’s long, complicated, and evolving relationship with Asia, from its promising, Third-Worldist past to its present, as both are fully integrated into the world capitalist system. Thanks to Christopher J. Lee, Lina Benabdallah, and Abdou Rehim Lema for being such insightful and provocative guests. That episode is now available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading

Beware of martyrs

The Senegalese state’s quest to crush the opposition has caused massive unrest throughout the country. A regime that blows on the embers fans the flames.

The Senghor myth

Once you’ve exhausted all the Negritude quotes, you have to confront the fact that Leopold Sedar Senghor ran Senegal as a repressive, one-party state.