I guess I am supposed to say something about Professor Ngugi's influence upon my field of political theory. I will speak prospectively, instead, about the influence I hope he has some day.
In 1893, Friedrich Engels addressed the Italian readership of the newly-translated Communist Manifesto. “The close of the feudal Middle Ages,” he wrote, “and the opening of the modern capitalist era are marked by a colossal figure: an Italian, Dante, both the last poet of the Middle Ages and the first poet of modern times. Today, as in 1300, a new historical era is approaching. Will Italy give us the new Dante, who will mark the hour of the birth of this new, proletarian era?”
Engels had a remarkable historical sense, but his guess was far off in this case. Dante, possessing all the wealth of the imperial, Latin tradition, left behind that language of popes and emperors and wealthy elites in order to write his greatest works in the vernacular dialect of Tuscany, a region torn by civil wars and invasions. In so doing, he helped to set the path taken by the European renaissance, and helped to create Italian literature.
It is impossible that an Italian could perform this role again, for the modern era has also been the era of European colonialism and imperialism, which have subjugated the peoples of the world. Italy was hardly one of the foremost colonial powers, but, even so, there is no way that any author writing in any European language could signal the postcolonial rebirth of the globe, the renaissance of the invaded and colonized cultures of the global proletariat.
Engels did not live long enough to see the beginnings of the postcolonial transformation. He did not foresee that the watershed moment of cultural rebirth would be when authors of the colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Americas abandoned the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese of the conquerors and colonial administrators in order to tell their stories again in the “vulgar” tongues of the people. He did not foresee that the new Dante might write in Gĩkũyũ.
The relationship of language and conquest, language and domination, has been at the center of Ngugi’s political theory and political practice. If Dante was primarily concerned to insist upon and demonstrate the eloquence of the common tongue, Ngugi has been concerned to demonstrate its power. The “civilizing” mission of the colonial powers has always entailed spreading the masters’ word. To be civilized is to be cultured, to be cultured is to be educated, and to be educated is to learn to read and write and speak the language of civilization and culture – the language of the powerful.
This resonates here, in Québec. And “here” is also unceded Kanien’kehá:ka land, where it resonates again.
An old article from The Spectator can give us the flavor of history. In the midst of curious incomprehension at the phenomenon of Quebecois nationalism, the author notes that, while Montreal was (in 1963) 65% francophone, “only 22% of its economic activity” was run by members of the francophone majority. “Among the more uncouth of the members of the richer race,” he continues, “an exceptionally offensive phrase is not infrequently heard … when a French-speaker is brutally told to ‘talk white.’”
Bosses can no longer issue this command to workers in Québec, thankfully. But this does not mean that the compulsion to use the language of the powerful disappeared. When the conquerors control the wealth, they don’t have to command explicitly the use of their tongue. Speaking the language of the powerful just makes economic sense, as they say. Thus, forty years after the Charter of the French Language, pressure is mounting on Québec to improve and expand English-language education, and de facto anglophone workplaces are on the rise. The imperative is no longer a personal command. It issues from “the way things are.”
Marx called this sort of phenomenon “the fetishism of commodities.” In a society in which goods and services move to the music of market-prices, our “social movement has for [us] the form of a movement of things, and instead of us controlling this movement, [we] are controlled by it.” We bow, of necessity, to the impersonal power of prices. Is our labor-power worth more if we speak English? Then we must speak English. No one has to tell us to do so. We don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
But the wind blows bitter for the smaller communities of the world. Its howling drowns out the small voices of history. The extinction of languages has, by most accounts, accelerated to the point that 60-80% of the languages spoken in the world today will likely not be spoken by any children within a century. The French fact in Québec is not endangered to this extent. The language of the Mohawk people is much more precarious.
There is an irony of history here, though, and a lesson. Kanien’kehá was probably in a more precarious position in the mid- to late-‘70s. Over the prior half-century, most Mohawk families, impelled by their integration into the anglophone labor market, had come to speak English at home. The passage of Bill 101 in 1977 posed an existential crisis for the language, since it introduced new restrictions on instruction in languages other than French. The response among the Mohawk community in Kahnawà:ke was to establish an immersion program for young children.
In other words, it took a political threat to the language to provoke a political effort to safeguard and strengthen it. The open, avowed enemy is easy to recognize. Being easily recognized, it is easily emblazoned on the banners of political resistance. The economic threat is harder to counter, since it seems to operate from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Because the domination of the market is impersonal, it may not evoke the protest that a law or a command evokes.
The project Ngugi has called “decolonizing the mind” is not an idealist “revolution in the mind.” Decolonizing the mind is a political and material project. It means decolonizing the hand, decolonizing the tongue, decolonizing the classroom, and – thereby – decolonizing the imagination. It means destroying the colonial and collaborationist project of mastering the world by mastering the masters’ language.
Ngugi is best known for his work decolonizing literature, orature, and theatre. But decolonizing the mind is also a political practice of theory, and a practice of political theory. Ngugi noted long ago that, while the anticolonial and postcolonial intellectuals “were busy haranguing the ruling circles in a language” – English – “which automatically excluded the participation of the peasantry and the working class,” “the most reactionary African politician, the one who believes in selling Africa to Europe, is often a master of African languages,” and “the European missionary believed too much in his mission of conquest not to communicate it in the language most readily available to the people.”
This is still a problem everywhere. The most sincere devotees of universal liberation couch their arguments in language that is incomprehensible outside the seminar rooms of elite universities, or address themselves – plaintively or legalistically – to those who hold the levers of government. This is not an argument for “dumbing theory down,” or for forgetting that “common sense” is often common nonsense. But Ngugi provokes me to wonder what is gained by speaking the language of power, and what is lost.
Do we believe enough in the mission of emancipation to communicate it in the language most readily available to the people? As Ngugi insists, the alternative to sharing and enriching the common tongue is abandoning it to the most reactionary forces.