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Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross



This article appraises the poetics of two of the foremost African creative writers whose literary sensibilities exhibit conspicuously Marxist conceptual models. The writers have poignantly deployed their creative ingenuities towards raising social consciousness against the bourgeois economy which imposes a politics of asymmetry, parasitism and stratification on the economic thought of the African society that once projected a communal spirit. Considering the precarious conditions of Africa’s economy due to the pernicious effects of capitalism, it is imperative to examine the sordidness of classism, alienated labour, commodification or thingification of the underclass and other bourgeois tensions in African literature, as portrayed by these writers. Marxist theoretical models of economic determinism and historical materialism are discussed as the simulacrum of Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle. Though Marxists are fixated on revolution as the only solution to end the misery of the underclass and terminate the hegemony of the oligarchy that exploits sellers of labour, the paper advocates economic revivalism through the exploration of the opportunities offered by the communal mode of production.
Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi
Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Ekiti State, Nigeria
Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis
of Communal Spirit in Sembene Ousmanes God’s Bits of
Wood and Ngugi wa iong’os Devil on the Cross
is article appraises the poetics of two of the foremost African creative writers whose literary
sensibilities exhibit conspicuously Marxist conceptual models. e writers have poignantly
deployed their creative ingenuities towards raising social consciousness against the bourgeois
economy which imposes a politics of asymmetry, parasitism and stratication on the economic
thought of the African society that once projected a communal spirit. Considering the precarious
conditions of Africa’s economy due to the pernicious eects of capitalism, it is imperative to
examine the sordidness of classism, alienated labour, commodication or thingication of the
underclass and other bourgeois tensions in African literature, as portrayed by these writers.
Marxist theoretical models of economic determinism and historical materialism are discussed as
the simulacrum of Vilfredo Pareto’s 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle. ough Marxists are xated on
revolution as the only solution to end the misery of the underclass and terminate the hegemony
of the oligarchy that exploits sellers of labour, the paper advocates economic revivalism through
the exploration of the opportunities oered by the communal mode of production.
Keywords: Marxism; Sembene Ousmane; Ngugi wa iong’o; capitalism; African literature;
Buržoazne napetosti, marksistična ekonomija in afereza
kolektivnega duha v God s Bits of Wood Sembeneja
Ousmaneja in Devil on the Cross Ngugi wa iong’oa
Članek obravnava poetiki dveh vodilnih afriških piscev, katerih literarna senzibilnost izkazuje
očitne marksistične konceptualne modele. Pisca svoje ustvarjalne sposobnosti usmerjata v
oblikovanje družbene zavesti, naperjene proti buržoazni ekonomiji, ki je v ekonomsko misel
afriške družbe, za katero je bil nekoč značilen kolektivni duh, nasilno vnesla politiko asimetrije,
zajedavstva in razslojenosti. Z vidika negotovosti, ki so jo v afriški ekonomiji povzročili škodljivi
učinki kapitalizma, je v okviru književnosti nujno izpostaviti pokvarjenost razredne razslojenosti,
odtujenega dela, komodikacije in stvarikacije najnižjega razreda ter drugih buržoaznih napetosti.
Marksistični teoretski modeli ekonomskega determinizma in historičnega materializma so
obravnavani kot simulaker Paretovega načela 80/20. Čeprav marksisti izpostavljajo revolucijo kot
edini način za odpravo trpljenja in revščine najnižjih razredov ter uničenje nadvlade oligarhije, ki
izkorišča delavce, se v članku zavzemam za oživitev nekdanjih ekonomskih praks in raziskujem
možnosti, ki jih ponuja skupnostni model proizvodnje.
Ključne besede: marksizem; Sembene Ousmane; Ngugi wa iong’o; kapitalizem; afriška
književnost; komunalizem
2017, Vol. 14 (2), 55-68(122)
UDC: 141.82: 821.42/.45.09-31
56 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and
Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
Ousmane’s God s Bits of Wood and Ngugi wa
iong’os Devil on the Cross
1 Introduction: Poetics of Marxist/Socialist Realist Writers
Sembene Ousmane’s Gods Bits of Wood (Les bouts de bois de Dieu) and Ngugi wa iong’o’s Devil on
the Cross can be described as blueprints for social transformation and enthronement of classlessness
in Africa through a series of planned revolutionary actions (Ikiddeh 1985, 47). e texts are the
chef doeuvre and creative contributions of the writers to polemics on class struggle, bourgeoisie-
proletariat oppositionality as well as the knotty issues of inequality and poverty. rough the texts,
Sembene and Ngugi explore the appropriateness or otherwise of an economic system suitable for
African socioeconomic space and exploitation of the poor by the unscrupulous oligarchy. e
novels reify some conceptual models of Marxism to interrogate the moral philosophy underpinning
bourgeois or laissez-faire economics in a sociocultural space that frowns at individualism, because
its indigenous economics is largely communal-driven. is article, therefore, considers the parlous
state of Africa’s economy and connects its precariousness to the pernicious eects of capitalism.
It examines the sordidness of classism, alienated labour, commodication of the underclass and
other bourgeois tensions as portrayed by both Sembene and Ngugi. Marxist theoretical models
of economic determinism and historical materialism are discussed as the simulacrum of Vilfredo
Pareto’s 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle, just as the article advocates economic revivalism as a possible
panacea to bourgeois tensions foisted on the African economic logic.
Since Marxism is a sociological critical theory (Onoge 2007, 471; Ogundokun 2014, 74) that
negotiates the material/historical relationships among people living in society,1 the tone and mood
of the texts are tense and swing in favour of the oppressed masses in their bid to win the economic
power needed for the control of means of production (Ngugi 2007, 481). rough their poetics,
Sembene and Ngugi have often evinced anti-bourgeois sentiments, and it may be apposite to
regard the duo as combative elements and the “vanguard [of] the revolutionary eorts [for] a better
society” (Olaniyan and Quayson 2007, 461)2. ey actualise these revolutionary agenda through
their poetics, which is a form of social action for whipping up the feeling of the impoverished in
Africa against the “combined forces of bourgeois establishment” (Adebayo 1985, 58). Considering
a number of tropes, imageries, signs, symbols, and metaphors that run through their texts, both
Sembene and Ngugi can be said to have engaged in intertextual dialogism or dialogic intertextuality.3
1 Marxism operates through the complex process of the socioeconomic base and related cultural, intellectual,
legal, spiritual, or ideological superstructures (Tyson 1999). Being “a social, political and economic philosophy
that examines the eect of capitalism on labor, or productivity and economic development,” Marxism gives
prominence to the struggle between social classes, because of the belief that the struggle between social classes
“denes the development of the state, and the bourgeoisie seek to gain control of factors of production from
the ‘masses’ … [and] only by eliminating the control of the economy from private ownership will the economy
continue to grow.” See also
2 A quote from Tejuomola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson’s editorial comment on Marxism in their volume: African
Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and eory (2007, 461).
3 An attempt is made here to combine Mikhail Bakhtin’s and Julia Kristeva’s terms of dialogism and intertextuality,
As Marxist writers who deploy their creativities to “reect social reality or certain aspects of social
reality” (Ngugi 2007, 478) within the African cultural milieu, their poetics clearly reect their
partisanship. eir prejudice is possibly a corollary of their sentiments against the trajectories of the
capitalist mode of production in Africa and the attendant rupture or damage that this economic
system has caused to the African communal spirit. Besides, the intensity of their concern for the
proletariat presents them as tribunes of the underclass and oppressed masses. is thus indicates
that the writers may demonstrate Marxist sensibilities in their works.
To lend credence to the foregoing statement, Ngugi (2007) provides what may be regarded as
the credo of a socialist realist/Marxist writer – to defend the oppressed against destructive and
organised capitalist structures engendered to ensure their alienation. Since capitalism embodies
inhumanity and lacks redeeming features (Adebayo 1985, 59), it is imperative for African writers
to “join the proletarian and the poor peasant struggles against the parasitism of the comprador
bourgeois, the landlords and the chiefs, the big business African classes that at the same time act
in unison and concert with foreign interests” (Ngugi 2007, 481). A socialist realist or Marxist
writer, Ngugi (2007, 481–82) further posits, must:
recognize the global character of imperialism and the global character and dimension of
the forces struggling against it to build a new world. He must reject, repudiate, and negate
his roots in the native bourgeoisie and its spokesmen, and nd his true creative links with
the pan-African masses over the earth in alliance with all the socialistic forces of the world
… He must write with all the vibrations and tremors of the struggles of all the working
people in Africa … He must actively support and in his writing reect the struggle of the
African working class and its class allies for the total liberation of their labour power. Yes,
his work must show commitment, not to abstract notions of justice and peace, but the
actual struggle of the African peoples to seize power and hence be in a position to control
all the forces of production to lay the only correct basis for real peace and real justice.
Sembene’s and Ngugi’s principles for socialist realist literature and writers are dominant in
both Gods Bits of Woods and Devil on the Cross. e texts present an interplay of actions and
counteractions, as well as events or happenings that validate the Marxian/Engelsian materialist
philosophy in Communist Manifesto.4 e materialist philosophical thought reiterates the
hypothesis that the history of all hitherto existing societies is one of class struggles between the
Manichean duality of freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild‑master and
journeyman, oppressor and oppressed, progressives and reactionaries, tyrant and liberator, darkness
and light5 who are often in “constant opposition to one another … [and] a ght that … [may
end up in] either … a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of
the contending classes.”6
respectively. Some scholars believe that the terms can also be used interchangeably, while some believe that
dialogism can also mean auto-textual or intra-textual dialogue, while intertextuality refers solely to dialogue
between a text and its precursors.
4 e version of Manifesto of the Communist Party consulted is Marx/Engels Selected Works (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1969, Vol. 1:98–137, translated by Samuel Moore).
5 is is a quote from the Manifesto of the Communist Party, otherwise known as the Communist Manifesto. e
phrases: “progressives and reactionaries”, “tyrant and liberator” and “darkness and light” are not part of the
quote. I included them to elaborate on the binary oppositional forces struggling against each other in Marxist
6 Ibid.
58 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
2 Towards the Creation of Marxist/Socialist African
Sembene’s text reveals the interpolation of Marxist historical materialism in colonial Senegal,
while Ngugi’s text spotlights the evils of class struggle in post-independent Kenya. Since the
aim of Marxism is to engender a classless society, whereby ownership of means of production,
distribution and exchange is vested in the community and not in the hands of private individuals
(Barry 1995), it is understandable why the writers are xated on creating a Utopian socialist
African society that will tackle the questions of inequity, inequality and corruption. With the
aim of achieving this surreal mission, literature is used as a necessary tool and opportunity to
idealise and build a Utopian African society based on the foundation of Marxist dialectics.
e praxis of Marxism underscores the belief that social consciousness in a society is often
determined by the nature of its economic basis, and that no social reality is left uninuenced
by this. is is called economic determinism in Marxist discourse (Barry 1995, 158). As such,
Karl Marx believes that the chief determinants of a society and its institutions are basically
economic factors (Guralnik 1979, 665). Historical materialism, on the other hand, is the
reication of the belief in Marxism that the most important determinants of society and its
institutions are economic in nature, while dialectical materialism refers to the observable social
and economic processes that an idea or event (thesis) generates its opposite (antithesis), leading
to a reconciliation of opposites (synthesis) (Guralnik 1979, 665). e antithesis as portrayed
in Gods Bits of Wood is the resolution of an anti-bourgeois-capitalist system to revolt against an
oligarchic regime that expropriates the sweat of the poor. e bourgeois establishment nurtures
a warped socio-economic philosophy where 10 or 20 per cent of the population in colonial
Senegal (property owners or bourgeoisie) has access to and enjoys the wealth produced by 90
or 80 per cent of the population – the working class in the Francophone country. is is a
simulacrum of the Pareto Principle7 in Marxist dialectics.
e Pareto Principle – like Marxist dispositions against oppression, injustice and inhumanity –
comments on, but not necessarily condemns, inequality, inequity and exploitation of the poor
by those who control the means of production, distribution and exchange in a society. e nexus
between this concept and Marxism is signied by the evils of expropriation, social injustice, and
oppression or suppression of the working class. e Pareto Principle, like Marxism, calls attention
to the plight of the underclass whose labour is expropriated by an unconscionable oligarchy.
Capitalism is thus erected on a foundation of injustice or criminality. Its coercive structures
(the police, army, and other security apparatuses) and its non-coercive ideological agencies of
school, religion, patriotism, and consumerism (Tyson 1999) work surreptitiously to chain or
imprison the consciousness of the oppressed working class, hence the dogged determination of
the oppressed to end their misery and create a Utopian society.
7 e Pareto Principle, or 80/20 Rule, emphasises the level of asymmetry in a society, organisation or other areas
of human existence. It was propounded by Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) after his realisation that 80 per cent of
wealth in his country, Italy, was owned by 20 per cent of the people. e theory helps to validate the Marxist
concern about inequitable production, distribution and exchange of wealth among people in a capitalist milieu,
and the fact that the bourgeoisie, due to their unfettered access to the means of production and possession of
stupendous wealth, often exploit the proletariat. is theory has also been applied to topics in management
studies, engineering, mathematical science, economics, and so on. For more on the Pareto Principle, see https://
2.1 Marxist Reading of God’s Bits of Wood
A Marxist hermeneutics of Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood brings to the fore the age-long social
conicts that often shape any society torn apart by class struggle and inequality. As portrayed in
the novel, social conict in Senegal pitches two diametrically opposed groups against each other
in a bid to negotiate better economic conditions for the “exploited sellers of labour” (Ikiddeh
1985, 47), that is the working class, against the economic interests of the bourgeois establishment.
Sembene historicises the social conict brought about by the 1947–48 workers’ strike on the
Dakar-Niger railway line, and the economic determinist conditions that necessitated industrial
action. Ibrahim Bakayoko, a hard-headed activist who symbolises self-sacricing leadership in
the narrative, embarks on the mission of economic liberation and restoration of the dignity of
the working class. e workers, who mainly depend on railway work as their only source of
income, have gone on strike to demand a pay rise and better conditions. Dejean, the regional
director of the railway company, scornfully states the workers’ demands as: “A raise in the pay
scale, four thousand auxiliary workmen, family allowances, and a pension plan!” (Sembene 1960,
29). e workers’ demands are not in any way political but economic. is captures the thrust of
economic determinism and historical materialism. To corroborate the foregoing, Bakayoko tells
Dejean not to see their struggle as a politically motivated one, but a class struggle necessitated by
economic considerations: “We know what France represents … and we respect it. We are in no
sense anti-French; but once again, Monsieur le directeur, this is not a question of France or her
people. It is a question of employees and their employer” (Sembene 1960, 184–85).
In her comment on the thematic thrust of Sembene’s text, Adebayo (1985) states that the
desire to restore the dignity of workers, improve their living conditions, and end their misery
is immanent in Sembene’s creative productions. All Marxist creative writers or socialist realist
authors share this passion, as they highlight in their works the desire for proletarian or social
revolution and the conicts birthed by “economic rather than racial or political” (1985, 58)
motives. She believes that the conict between the opposing forces in the text is occasioned by
the “tension … between labour and capital, between the forces of progress and those of reaction
(1985, 62). e struggle, however, results in the loss of lives – a loss which, nevertheless, is seen
as the inevitable price to be paid for the emancipation of the working class. Characters such as
Penda, Houdia Mbaye, Doudou, Samba N’doulogou, Niakoro and others lose their lives in the
process. e workers, through their doggedness, overcome the hardship unleashed on them by
the management of the railway company. ey discover that the massing together of individuals
against industrial capitalism is a prerequisite for their own emancipation (Adebayo 1985, 62).
Sembene perhaps expresses this motif better in his poem “Fingers,” where he calls for a mass
action against the bourgeoisie who neither toil nor spin but control the “wealth of nations”:
Fingers, skillful at sculpture
At modeling gures on marble
At translation of thoughts
Fingers of artists.
Fingers, thick and heavy
at dig and plough the soil
And open it up for sowing.
And move us.
60 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
Fingers of land tillers.
A nger holding a trigger
An eye intent on a target nger
Men at the very brink
Of their lives, at the mercy of their nger
e nger that destroys life
e nger of a soldier
Across the rivers and languages
Of Europe and Asia
Of China and Africa
Of India and the Oceans.
Let us join our ngers to take away
All the power of their nger
Which keeps humanity in mourning8
Sembene’s poem includes two dierent ngers: that of the rich and that of the poor, the oppressor
and oppressed, haves and have-nots. e synecdochic tensions that dominate the poem account
for the representation of human life with ngers. e lexeme, nger, evokes imageries of work,
toil, labour and oppression. Consequently, some ngers only “dig and plough the soil,” plant and
exist at the mercy of other ngers. Some ngers only exploit other ngers and unleash a reign of
terror on them. Sembene, through the poem, exposes the evil of capitalism and its oppressive
structures against the working class. To him, the only way to break down capitalist structures lies
in the hands of the oppressed people who need to unite and join their eorts (ngers) to combat
the combined forces of the bourgeois establishment.
Suce it to say that this poem shares some intertextuality with a work of the Romantic poet Percy
Bysshe Shelley. Entitled “Song to the Men of England,” the poem catalogues the asymmetric and
parasitic relations between the owners of the means of production and the working class. Rather
than having an equitable distribution of wealth and resources, the oligarchic bourgeoisie treat
societal wealth as their exclusive preserve. ey also use such resources to further impoverish the
masses who, in a very real sense, generate the wealth. is disparity and the lord‑serf relationship
are shown by Shelley as the pitiable fate of the working class. e poet calls the bourgeoisie
tyrants, ungrateful drones and bees. He sounds a clarion call to the oppressed masses to come to
full awareness of what Ikiddeh (1985, 38) calls the condition of “sub-human imbecility and
viciousness” to which the bourgeois economy has relegated them. Shelley writes:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
e rich robes your tyrants wear?
8 “Fingers” is contained in Ngugi’s “Writers in Politics: e Power of Words and the Words of Power,African
Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and eory (2007, 482).
e seed ye sow, another reaps;
e wealth ye nd, another keeps;
e robes ye weave, another wears;
e arms ye forge, another bears.9
e imagery of ngers in Sembene’s poem and Shelley’s metaphor, ungrateful drones, are correlates.
Both typify the privileged few who do nothing, like drones (male bees) in a bee colony, but oppress
the poor. Like drones who manipulate queens and worker bees the bourgeoisie hegemonise the
proletariat with a view to exploiting them. e tropes of alienation and revolution that pervade
Shelley’s poem are also noticeable in Sembene’s Gods Bits of Wood, as well as his other works, such
as Le Docker Noir (1956), O Pays Mon Beau Peuple (1957) and his lms. e tropes reect social
disorderliness and a call for proletarian revolution or violent uprising against the oppressors of
the underclass. By telling the oppressed to “Sow seed, – but let no tyrant reap;/Find wealth, – let
no imposter heap:/Weave robes, – let not the idle wear:/Forge arms, – in your defence to bear”
(Miller and Greenberg 1981, 269), the persona in Shelley’s poem projects a Marxist spirit. To
“forge arms” and defend one’s rights is a euphemism employed by the persona to ignite the
proletarians against their taskmasters. e Marxist temper in the text thus underlies the workers’
stand against the bourgeois establishment, hence their desire for social revolution and passion to
overthrow the status quo. Another revelation brought about by the Marxist reading of the novel
is the repressive structure which the management of the railway company fosters on its striking
workers. Peter Barry (1995, 164), while explaining the Althusserian terms “Repressive structures
and ideological structures or [s]tate ideological apparatuses,” notes that they are:
institutions like the law courts, prisons, the police force, and the army, which operate …
by external force … groupings as political parties, schools, the media, churches, the family,
and art … which foster an ideology – a set of ideas and attitudes – which is sympathetic to
the aims of the state and the political status quo.
is conceptual model is evident in the killings and arrests of some leaders of the strike
committee. Fa Keita (the Old One) and Konate as well as other striking workers are unlawfully
arrested and maltreated in prison by Bernadini. Sembene (1960, 236) paints a grotesque picture
of Bernadini’s brutality as a symbol of colonial repressive force against the striking workers:
as Fa Ke’ita began to kneel, the ‘commandants’ boot caught him in the kidney and hurled
him head rst into the strands of barbed wire. Little drops of blood ecked the skin of the
old man’s shoulders and back and sides.
e ideological apparatuses10 used by the state to quell uprising and silence the oppressed are
indicated in the texts. rough the characterisation of Imam, who is pejoratively regarded as
the spiritual guide of the oppressor, futile attempts are made to mue dissenting voices. Gaye,
El Hadji Mabigue and their ilk also use similar tactics to discourage the striking workers from
pursuing their struggle. e Imam uses his religious sermons to discourage the workers. He
9 Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England” is from the anthology Poetry: An Introduction (Miller and Greenberg
1981, 268–69).
10 is term is credited to Louis Althusser, a French Marxist. State ideological apparatuses are structures that
the state uses to oppress the underclass and mue the voices of opposition. Peter Barry (1995, 164) identies
the apparatuses as including “… political parties, schools, the media, churches, the family, and art (including
literature) which foster an ideology … sympathetic to the aims of the state and the political status quo”.
62 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
tells them that their leaders are evil and that the French government has been magnanimous
to them, hence the need for the workers to end their protests. Marxist dialectic materialism,
in which social and economic processes are observed based on the theories of thesis, antithesis
and synthesis, is evident in the narrative. esis is often conceived as a proposition or action
advanced to support a view or perspective, while antithesis presents a counter view or action.
Synthesis is a fusion or syzygy of the opposite positions. e thesis of the narrative is the resolve
of railway workers to down tools in order to demand a pay rise, while the narrative’s antithesis
is generated through the variety of subtle or violent means employed by the management of the
railway company to break the dissidents and their collective will. e synthesis of the narrative
is signposted by the syzygy of pro- and anti-workers’ demands and the eventual acceptance of
key demands of the workers by the management. is signals the victory of collective solidarity
over selsh arrogation of wealth by the bourgeoisie and a possible justication of the view that
the goal of Marxism is not to breed dissidents or die-hard revolutionaries. Instead, Marxism
seeks to create a just and egalitarian society where proletarians do not exist at the mercy of the
2.2 e Image of Woman as Tribune of the Oppressed
Of importance to the victory recorded over the oligarchic bourgeoisie is the invaluable
contribution of women in the text. Without them, the strike would have been quelled without
any positive outcome. e rst man to heed the call for strike says: “We are not ashamed to
admit that it is the women who are supporting us now” (Sembene 1960, 73). Beyond providing
active support and serving as the intellectual force driving the strike, women in the novel, as
symbolised by Dieynaba, Maimuna, Mame So, Houdia M’Baye, Ramatoulaye and Penda,
break the patriarchal barriers and sexist ordering of African society to become leaders and
revolutionary voices. It should be noted, though, that Adebayo (1985, 69) believes otherwise,
stating that “Characters are never perceived in terms of their sex in [Sembene’s] novels. Like the
men, his women are either progressive or reactionary.” However, the roles of female characters
in the text and his other creative productions should not be given a loose or supercial
hermeneutics. eir actions typify an exchange or a swap of roles between the sexes, in such a
way that women assume the position of a provider while men are at the receiving end of their
actions. Mame So’s dialogue with N’Deye Touti on the role of men in the struggle against
their colonial oppressors and mens vaunted claim of superiority over women is revealing. She
tells N’Deye Touti: “You’ll see – the men will consult us before they go on another strike. Before
this, they thought they owned the earth just because they fed us, and now it is the women who
are feeding them” (Sembene 1960, 48). Sembene thus expounds Marxist-feminist ideology
where women negotiate freedom from the inhibiting forces stymieing the actualisation of their
dreams and aspirations.
Sembene – as a rebel-revolutionary and so-called Father of Cinema in Africa – xates on the image
of female-character as a protagonist in most of his works (lmic and non-lmic) to champion
the rights of the oppressed. As female characters dominate his textual narratives, they also do in
some of the lms produced by this self-made literary icon who said in a documentary, Sembene
Across Africa,11 that he took to literature in order to “give voice to the voiceless” and challenge
the warped Eurocentric conception of Africa as a “moribund” and underdeveloped milieu of
11 e documentary was produced by Samba Gadjigo and shown at the Institute of African Studies, University of
Ibadan, Nigeria, on 9th June 2017, as well as in some African countries at around the same time.
sub-humans. e documentary contains snippets of lms made by Sembene with conspicuous
dominant female protagonists. In La Noire de (Black Girl 1966), for instance, the protagonist,
Diouana, is lured into child labour by a French couple who hire her as a maid in Senegal and
take her to France to do home chores “[w]ithout salary or friends, [but] treated as invisible by
her employers, conned to the house except for shopping” (Landy 1982). Diouana eventually
commits suicide to protest against her dehumanised condition and disillusionment. e lm
dramatises how those who control the means of production exploit the vulnerability, ignorance,
innocence and illiteracy of the poor to reap the benets of their labour. With Diouana’s suicide,
however, the heroine buried in her personality is unmasked, and Sembene draws attention
to her strength of character. She refuses to be cowed by the capitalist system typied by her
bourgeois French mistress. Despite her death, she symbolises freedom, resistance and victory
over the inhuman bourgeois social system. Diouana’s death attacks the materialist foundation
of capitalism and exploitation of the poor. is image of a woman as a leader, a tribune of
the voiceless or an activist also features prominently in Sembene’s lmic productions, such as
Mandabi (1969), Emitai (1972), Xala (1974) and Ceddo (1977).
3 Impoverishment of Proletarians through Mercantilism
In Ngugi wa iong’os Devil on the Cross, the post-independent Kenyan society is displayed
for clinical scrutiny. e work presents binary opposites as forces that engage in a struggle for
socioeconomic gain and supremacy. ese social forces include the haves and the have-nots,
centre and margin, core and periphery, oppressor and oppressed, bourgeoisie and proletariat.
Commenting on the forces at work in the text, and, by extension, in post-colonial Kenya,
Muturi notes that:
the force of the clan of producers, (and) forces of destruction, of dismantling, of harassing
and oppression, the builders and the creators, the forces that seek to suppress our
humanity turning us into beasts in order that we should create our own Hell, thus taking
on the nature of Satan – these are the forces of the clan of parasites. (Ngugi 2002, 54)
Ngugi uses the novel to call on Kenyan proletarians – and all the abjected people of Africa
who live in drudgery – to rise against their oppressors. e oppressors promised a prosperous,
egalitarian post-independent Kenya for all during the struggle for independence, but turned
the tables against the cannon fodder who helped in actualising freedom from Britain for
the East African country. e Kenyan masses are thus exploited by their countrymen who
proudly regard themselves as local thieves and robbers, comprising capitalists such as Gitutu
wa Gataanguru, Kihaahu wa Gatheeca, Mwireri wa Mukiraai, Nditika wa Nguunji and
other corrupt Kenyan business owners. ey converge on Ilmorog to attend the Devil’s Feast
organised by the Organisation for Modern eft and Robbery. eir testimonies reveal how
unscrupulous individuals, through carefully designed capitalist ideologies, exploit peasants
without the conscious awareness of the oppressed.
In the text, Mwireri wa Mukiraai calls for the indigenisation of theft and robbery. In other words,
Mukiraai advocates the endorsement of mercantilism – a type of capitalism, which, according to
Landreth and Colander (2002, 45), operates on the basis that the best way to increase the wealth
of the nation is by “encouraging production, increasing exports and holding down domestic
consumption” (Rankin 2011). Mukiraai has a cognate understanding of the change he advocates.
He knows that mercantilism operates on the logic of inequality and impoverishment of the
64 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
working class. In fact, mercantilism is sometimes called a “beggar-thy-neighbour” or “beggar-
thy-competitor” (Steil 1994, 14; Rankin 2011, 2) economic system.
Landreth and Colander (2002) elaborate further on the features of mercantilism. To them, this
economic philosophy increases the wealth of a privileged few through the poverty of many. It
operates on a warped economic logic that supports payment of low wages to workers (Landreth
and Colander 2002), thereby deepening their impoverishment. Mercantilists believe that “wages
above a subsistence level would result in a reduced labor eort … higher wages would cause
laborers to work fewer hours per year, and national output would fall” (2002, 45). With the
foregoing scenario, Kenya and the proletarians in the Devil on the Cross are in the grip of the
worst set of bourgeoisie practices, hence the metaphor of the Devil that the text often returns
to. Ngugi must have chosen it to foreground the atavistic instinct of those who boastfully call
themselves robbers and thieves of the people’s labour. Mukiraai undoubtedly speaks the minds of
other local capitalists when he intones:
I … believe only in the rst kind of theft and robbery: that is, the theft and robbery of
nationals of a given country who steal from their own people and consume the plunder
right there, in the country itself … (Ngugi 2007, 166)
Althusserian interpellation better captures the mind-set of Mukiraai and his ilk in the novel. e
concept, according to Barry (1995, 165), is a web of tricks spun by capitalists to pull the wool
over the eyes of proletarians who they (the bourgeoisie) make believe are “free and independent
of social forces” that hinder their upward socioeconomic mobility. In Ngugi’s narrative, it takes
the intervention of Gatuiria and Jacinta Waringa to expose the precarious state of the exploited
in Kenya. Symbolically, Ngugi seems to say that the exploitation or economic deprivation of the
underclass will persist unless social critics rise up to the challenge. is is because the economic
strangulation of Kenyan peasants by local capitalists operates through some insidious ideological
principles. ese are woven into a tapestry of lies and propaganda and operate through a set of
belief systems that keep the oppressed ignorant of the operation of the socioeconomic forces that
work against them. e economic deprivation of the working class, as reected in the mercantilist
goals of low wages, reduced domestic consumption, ination, scarcity, hoarding of essentials and
high unemployment, enables the oppressors to mue the voices of opposition. Boss Kihara, for
instance, res Jacinta Waringa for refusing to sleep with him. Muturi is jobless for a long time,
and is eventually arrested, while looking for work, for being unemployed! Githai impregnates
Waringa, using money as a tool to deceive her. ese events underscore the economic trajectories
that inuence the larger superstructure in the text.
e fate of Waringa and Muturi is built on the base structure of economic privations that keep
them alienated or abjected. Rather than operating an economic system that ensures equity, the
economics in Devil on the Cross are one-sided, as they only favour the local bourgeoisie in Kenya
to the detriment of the less-privileged. In Marxist dialectics, therefore, Kihara commodies or
thingies12 Waringa. He relates to Waringa the way he would relate to “objects or persons in
terms of their exchange value or sign-exchange value” (Tyson 1999, 59). In his Marxist reading
12 ingify is the verb form of thingication – a term coined by Aimé Césaire in his seminal work, Discourse on
Colonialism (Discours sur le colonialism) (1972, 6). He notes that “colonization = ‘thing-ication’”, because
colonisation imposes “ relations of domination and submission” on the “colonizing man” and turns him “into a
class-room monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver, and the indigenous man into an instrument
of production.”
of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s e Great Gatsby, Lois Tyson (1999, 69) oers a clear interpretation of
commodication through the character of Tom, noting that:
Tom’s commodication of people is his ability to manipulate them very cold-bloodedly
to get what he wants, for commodication is, by denition, the treatment of objects and
people as commodities, as things whose only importance lies in their benet to ourselves.
Ngugi uses the novel to show how social revolution can be used as a weapon to change the
socioeconomic status quo. A long procession of women, men and children in Njeruca, for
instance, is organised by Muturi and a student leader. e procession moves to the cave where
a meeting is on-going, chasing away the thieves. ough ve of the protesters die, they succeed
in upturning the symbol of oppression and capitalism. Waringa also kills Githai, the father of
her ancée, Gatuiria. She shoots Kihaahu and Gitutu too, thus signalling how the force of clan
of workers can subdue and triumph over that of destroyers. e conict in Devil on the Cross is
also both social and economic. It is a struggle that pitches workers against their employers. It is a
struggle to gain access to the control and management of the means of production, distribution
and exchange in order to ensure the economic wellbeing and enhance the social statuses of
people belonging to either the bourgeoisie or proletariat.
e repressive structures theorised by Louis Althusser are fully employed against the opposing
voices in the text. Senior Superintendent Gakono orders his boys to arrest Wangari who has
often deluded herself that she will assist the law enforcement agents in clearing Kenya of thieves
and hoodlums. She asks when ordered to be arrested: “So you, the police forces, are the servants
of one class only?” (Ngugi 2007, 198). Tyson (1999) shares Wangari’s concern as to how the state
apparatuses are used to suppress opposing voices. He believes that “Other elements oppressing
[the poor] are the police and other government strong-arm agencies, who, under government
orders, have mistreated lower-class and underclass poor perceived as a threat to the power
structure” (1999, 52).
3.1 e Hunter and the Hunted Game
e “hunter and the hunted” game played by the Old Man of Nakuru is also symbolic of
oppositional forces that serve as correlates of Marxist bourgeois-proletariat divides. Githai
often carries a loaded gun and pursues Waringa in the bush as though she were a game bird.
Waringa sometimes acts as the hunter while Githai acts as the hunted. e game is a metaphor
for oppositional relationship between the haves and have‑nots. To ensure the continued existence
of capitalism and its implicit ideologies or structures, the proletariat have to be kept in check to
ensure that they do not upset the system. ey seem to say that the best way to keep the working
class down is to make them poor or create inhibiting structures around them that can deepen
or perpetuate their impoverished status. Moreover, since the poor will want to change the status
quo, the stage is set for mutual hostility and struggle. Waringa acting as a hunter is a metaphor
of role reversion with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat in reality. e reversion possibly
fulls the personal unconscious of Ngugi in addressing the inequity and inequality that pervades
the entirety of Kenyan society. In fact, Waringa nearly shatters the head of Githai on one occasion
when she mistakenly pulls the trigger of the rie in her hands. With the foregoing, Ngugi seems
to foreground the collective unconscious of the poor and the desire to end their misery through
armed struggle against their oppressors. It symbolically portrays the agitated condition of the
proletariat in Kenya who will one day turn the tables and eventually hunt the hunted!
66 Emmanuel Idowu Adeniyi Bourgeois Tensions, Marxist Economics and Aphaeresis of Communal Spirit in Sembene ...
3.2 Ujaama Socialist Philosophy and African Society
What Ngugi advocates in the text is a classless society. Capitalism glories classism; it further
uses it as an ideology to insidiously chain the minds of the oppressed by “colonizing [their]
consciousness” (Tyson 1999, 60). Doing this will constantly remind them of their underclass
status and etch on their consciousness their mental, spiritual and cultural inferiority (Tyson
1999, 60). To Ngugi, a society that fails to mutualise love and respect, and thus put humanity
at its centre, is a warped one. Such a community is oiled by the lubricant of capitalism that is
imbued with a “bourgeois passion … [and] bourgeois egoism” (Dada 1985, 31). To rectify this,
Ngugi craves for a society where no one oppresses another, a class-free society where the means of
production, distribution and exchange are not concentrated in the hands of private individuals,
but controlled by the state for the benet of all. is he calls Ujamaa wa Mwafrica. Ngugi thus
envisions a home-grown African socialism that seeks “to recapture and modernize the communal
way of life practiced by the traditional African before the exposure to the world and values of the
white man” (Alofun 2014, 69). His socialism is a domesticated version of European socialism/
communism or an African-based socialist philosophy that leverages the traditional communal
spirit and consciousness of Africans, where everyone is seen in the light of John Mbiti’s (1970,
141) canonical statement: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am”. His Ujamaa wa
Mwafrica forecloses a society ridden with greed, corruption, consumerism, classism, inequality
and other capitalist tensions. It embraces the African communal spirit, and preaches oneness as
well as love instead of the divisions or struggles that attend capitalism.
3.3 Erosion of Communal Consciousness in Africa
e ght for the enthronement of egalitarianism and better economic conditions for the masses
in Senegal and Kenya, as portrayed in the texts analysed in this work, is basically to restore or
revive the lost communal consciousness of Africans. Capitalism thrives on the aphaeresis or
erosion of communal spirit that once dened dierent African cultural groups. It pushes for self-
independence against the foundation of the umbilical, interdependent relationships on which
communalism operates in Africa. Sembene and Ngugi want the dethronement of the status quo,
hence their bias in favour of revolution of the working class as a counter against the oppression
of capitalists. However, the latent content of the texts is not just about revolution, it is probably
a lamentation over the loss of Africans’ communal feelings, and the immorality of the ill-gotten
wealth of the oligarchic bourgeoisie. Current events on the continent perhaps corroborate all this,
since just an insignicant number of wealthy folk control the vast resources of Africa, leaving
millions in the underclass in penury and misery. Mbitis (1970) maxim, therefore, has lost its
relevance, as many people on the continent have embraced the individualistic, self‑centring or
independent lifestyle of the West. is is the dilemma for Africa and its population. e writers
signify this dilemma and project its cataclysmic eects on the social and economic fabric of
African societies. To perhaps prevent total loss of communal spirit, the writers seem to suggest
the need to go back to the old order that guarantees equality and prevents exploitation of the
many by the few.
It is important to note that both Ousmane Sembene and Ngugi wa iong’o engage in
intertextual discourse in their texts, considering the socialist realist mode or literary tradition
that the texts belong to and the distillation of Marxist tropes and tensions in them. e two texts
contain scenes of mass revolt and procession of the oppressed against the forces that suppress
them. e powerful message of mass revolt is perhaps based on the potency of organised struggle
and power of collectivism. Sembene, similarly, expounds this motif in his poem, “Fingers,” while
Ngugi has indicated this belief in both his creative and non-creative texts. To Marxist or socialist
realist writers, mass struggle is the fuel that res the engine of resistance and revolution. As a
weapon used solely by women in God’s Bits of Wood and by both sexes in Devil on the Cross,
the ecacy of this approach with regard to engendering social transformation is astounding.
Sembene Ousmane and Ngugi wa iong’o deploy their creative imaginations to sensitise the
oppressed in the locales of the narratives and, by extension, the whole of Africa, to the power
inherent in revolution. Shelley, in his poem, “Song to the Men of England,” also employs this
revolutionary technique to call on the oppressed to reject their inhuman treatment.
Marxist or socialist realist writers are likely echoing Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion that
a “stationery object will remain stationery unless and until it is acted on by a force or forces
(Farrow 1999, 164). In order words, freedom is fought for and won through the concerted
eorts of the oppressed, not given on a gold plate. e misery of the poor will persist, and
even increase, unless the force of revolution is applied. Revolution is the only language that the
oppressors and thieves of people’s wealth understand. Should the oppressed remain complacent
like the “Men of England” during the English Romantic epoch, their oppressors, the ungrateful
drones or tyrants, will ride roughshod over them. Not only that, they will bleed them dry till the
value of their labour drops to nothing. (Violent) revolution is the sine qua non for the oppressed
people of Africa to take up the reins of economic and political power. It is the only weapon they
are left with in the face of orchestrated violence and wanton exploitation of their labour and
resources. Sembene and Ngugi are conscious of this fact, and thus demonstrate it in their texts
and prove that they are uncompromising spokesmen and consciences of the proletariat, with a
mandate to unfetter the shackles that tie down the consciousness of the oppressed masses. eir
texts, without a doubt, serve as a domain for championing social struggle and revolution.
4 Conclusion
Socialist realist literature, with its Marxist orientation or inuences, has often created platforms
where two opposing forces are brought into contact to enact or re-enact their mutual hostility.
e resultant eect is very often that of revolution and social transformation, in which the
oppressed overturn the status quo to their advantage. However, this is not always the case,
since the bourgeois establishment may use the resources at its disposal to quell any opposition
or uprising against its economic interests. Ultimately, the two texts appraised in this essay are
quintessentially Marxist in nature, and belong to the literary convention of socialist realism.
Apart from having Marxist conceptual models diused in them, they also oer revolution as a
solution to societal problems. e texts have shown how mass solidarity can be used to engender
social revolution. e novelists deployed their creative ingenuities to resist oppression, inequality,
poverty and other denigrating structures that are used for the exploitation of the masses. eir
characters are enormously resourceful, passionate and intuitive. Similarly, the writers covertly
draw the mood of their readers to the loss or aphaeresis of African communalism. ey suggest
that the mode of economic production in Africa needs to change in order to end the misery of
the oppressed population. To realise this, they advocate a return to communal living, and this
communal consciousness is a parallel of Ngugi’s Ujaama socialist philosophy.
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... They link this to the structure of bourgeois social relations and to Vilfredo Pareto's '80/20 Rule' or 'Pareto Principle', which inserts social hierarchy, inequity and the binary schema of haves/have-nots, rich/poor, elite/marginalised into an African society that once manifested communal consciousness. 19 Their musings on the state of affairs of their country reprise Marcellus' cogitation in Shakespeare's Hamlet that 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'. 20 All of this comes on the heels of the nation's heavy indebtedness to the Bretton Woods institutions, which has debilitated Nigeria's economy and led to political, religious and ethnic crises. ...
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