The most humanistic socialist of our generation

The mathematician Edwin Madunagu, 75 years old in 2021, is one of Nigeria’s foremost socialist intellectuals. Here, his friend Biodun Jeyifo, the literary scholar, pays tribute to him.

Endsars protesters in Nigeria. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Of all such friends and comrades that I have ever met and worked with very closely both in Nigeria and in other parts of the world, Edwin Madunagu stands out in a group comprising no more than two or three comrades who have been consistent in their intellectual and scholarly activism. He is the most humanistic and scientific socialist of our generation.

It is considered very unusual for a socialist to be both a humanistic and a scientific socialist. Without wishing to oversimplify the complexity of this formulation, which contrasts and pits humanistic and scientific socialists against one another, the implied contrast between them can be framed as the conflict between a socialism of the heart and a socialism of the head, or one based on “sentiment” and the other based on “rigor.” As a matter of fact, among all Marxists, this categorical distinction between the two putative “socialisms” has been enshrined in the supposedly fundamental division between the writings of the “early Marx” and the later, “scientific Marx.” On this premise, in the writings of the so-called “early” Marx, the emphasis of the youthful, revolutionary theoretician was squarely on passionate analyses and denunciations of the generalized alienation, poverty, exploitation, and suffering of the working and non-working poor of Europe and the whole world. But in the writings of the older, more mature, and more “scientific” Marx, sentiment and passion gave way to detailed and complex analyses of the objective forces and movements of capitalism, together with the equally objective forces that—irrespective of the subjective desires and inclinations of both oppressors and the oppressed—can be mobilized to bring an end to the terrible state of affairs in the world.

That was and is the received understanding of humanistic and scientific socialism. Though it has largely been revised, it still holds true to this day among many Marxists and socialists. Why is this the case? For me, I start with the elementary but irrefutable observation that to become aware of and concerned about exploitation, oppression, and suffering in the world, you do not need to have read Marx or joined a socialist movement. As a matter of fact, that is how most people in the world become aware of and responsive to terrible conditions of exploitation and suffering in their communities, their nations, and the world. That being the case, “socialism” and “Marxism” are what we might call secondary or additional elements to the foundational status of either personal and collective experiences of exploitation and suffering, or vicarious and solidaristic identifications with the suffering of others. To use this formulation to get to the nitty-gritty of this tribute to Eddie, permit me to draw on aspects of events and realities that brought Eddie and myself together in our youth and shaped our experiences in the Nigerian Left.

Eddie and I first met as undergraduates at the University of Ibadan, and then again in 1976 upon my return to the country after graduate studies in the US; at the time of our second meeting, we were both still “beginners” in Marxism. The Anti-Poverty Movement of Nigeria—which Eddie and others had started and into which I was recruited and became editor of the organization’s magazine, The People’s Cause—was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist organization. The important point is that both of us, having barely started our encounter with Marxism, began what would eventually become our most serious theoretical engagement with Marxism and socialism. There is nothing quite like the exponential growth of knowledge that happens when two or more people grow together, driven by something as elemental as the passion to effectively challenge the scourge of poverty and oppression in the world.

As Eddie and I (and others too) grew in sophisticated knowledge of Marxism and socialism, this passion remained the foundational element in our maturation as Marxists. I will go so far as to argue that we were so driven by this factor that it, and not “Marxism” or “socialism,” became the yardstick by which we measured the authenticity and reliability of all the comrades we came across and worked with. Eddie in particular is very responsive to this factor, without being inquisitorial about it: what people feel, genuinely feel, about needless human suffering and exploitation matters to him immeasurably.

As much as it may seem counterintuitive to most of the comrades who might be reading this tribute, Eddie—more than any other comrade that I know of in the Nigerian Left—is ready and willing to forgive ignorance of, and even indifference to, “Marxism” and “socialism” from any comrade with whom he establishes genuine collaboration, as long as they are irreproachably genuine in their opposition to human suffering and exploitation. This particular observation leads me directly to perhaps the most crucial—and at the same time most debatable—aspect of this tribute, which is the place of Marxism and socialism in Eddie’s lifework.

Although he has never deliberately set out to create the image of an inflexible and doctrinaire Marxist, for many in the Nigerian Left, this is the general opinion of Edwin Madunagu. Ironically, in the mid-to-late 70s, epithets like “romantic,” “anarchist,” and “Trotskyite” were hurled at him (and this writer) by the most orthodox individuals and organizations in the Nigerian Left. Given this background, it seems nothing short of a paradox that it is Eddie who has turned out to be the most dedicated and articulate voice and repository of the Marxism and socialism of the historic founders, both for this generation and the generations before.

Eddie writes almost exclusively for the Left in a resolute move that seeks to establish the fact that the Left not only still exists but must be sustained. Though he and I have never explicitly discussed this “arrangement,” we have perfectly understood its necessity. To this I can only add that what Eddie brings to Nigeria’s national political discourse is incalculable. If you are among those who claim that Marxism and socialism are no longer relevant in Nigeria, even in the face of their resurgence in many parts of the world, all you have to do is read Eddie’s periodic writings in The Guardian; he is undeniably one of the most enlightening columnists on the crises facing Nigeria, Africa, and the world at the present time.

As I think of Eddie’s lifework in relation to Marxists and socialists of the present and past, I think of the well-known African proverb which states that “when an old man or woman dies, it is a whole library that dies with him or her.” Of course, this is a tribute to a still living, still intellectually vibrant comrade and long, long may this continue to be so! But it is Eddie’s great achievement to be the uncontested repository and archivist of the heritage of Marxism and socialism in our country. Thus, I can report here that as far back as the mid-70s, Eddie and I began to plan for the need to produce “information” and “documentation” on the struggles, victories, and defeats of the Left in our country—a major aspect of our work.

I think I can reasonably claim to have met the “information” quotient of this self-assigned task. Thus, to Eddie has fallen the far more daunting task of “documentation.” The first—and perhaps only—free peoples’ library in Africa was established in Calabar by Eddie and his wife, Bene Madunagu. Sadly, that library has closed down due to many factors, chief of which was lack of funds to keep it going. However, what is left of the library is not rubble, and it is not ashes: it is the largest collection of the papers, memorabilia, and published and unpublished writings of past and living generations of the Nigerian Left. This collection comprises leaders of the working class movement, academic socialists and Marxists, women’s organizations, and student and youth movements.

Knowing my friend and comrade very well, I can imagine his surprise at this tribute, surprise that he is being showered with praise for the work of a lifetime which he could not but carry out—which, indeed, he often feels is incomplete. To this, my response is this: Eddie, who else but me can and will say it: that you will never know the number of our youths who look up to you! You have garnered and also planted many seeds. Indeed, your life’s work is like a granary—for those of the present, coeval generations as well as for those who will come hereafter.

One last thing, Eddie, that I have always wanted to say to you over the decades, but which I somehow never brought myself to say: Would you please try to show the humanist side of your socialism more openly, more publicly than you tend to do? You see, all our friends to whom I have tried to reveal this side of your revolutionary subjectivity and identity have always told me that it is nonexistent, that I am making it up!

About the Author

Biodun Jeyifo is Professor Emeritus and Research Professor of African and African American Studies and of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was formerly National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) of Nigeria.

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