Leopold Sedar Senghor: “Let us answer ‘Present’ at the rebirth of the world”

The first was in the early 1930s as an African student leader in Paris, an editor with other students from the colonies of l’Etudient  Noir (The Black Student). France faced the world-wide depression, and there were impassioned debates in intellectual circles concerning the possibilities of re-structuring society.  Fascism had been installed in Italy and presented the outlines of a ‘corporate state’ in which all sectors of the society were to be organized for the common good.  The Nazi party was coming to power in Germany, and the Soviet Union had its followers in France with a strong Communist Party and Communist-led trade unions.

Senghor was active in the Catholic student movements around Emmanuel Mounier, editor of the journal "Esprit," that were looking for a non-capitalist, non-communist "third way" based on the primacy of the multi-dimensional person. Senghor proposed that the communal identity of traditional African society which he saw as classless and non-exploitive could serve as base for a new society – ideas that he later developed as the first President of independent Senegal as "the road to African Socialism".

In the 1930s, in a France where all the political parties, Right and Left, supported the colonial system as part of the ‘civilizing mission’ of France, the idea that African culture had anything to contribute to European political and economic thought was met with scepticism. Therefore Senghor and his friends put their emphasis on the idea that African civilization was equal to that of Europe and could make contributions as an equal.  Stressing equality was also a way of denying legitimacy to the prevailing ideological charters of colonialism. Senghor coined the term "Negritude" for this ideology of Africa’s positive role, somewhat on the lines of "Black Consciousness" in a later South African context.

Public debate on the ways to transform the economic and political structure of France was weakened by the start of the Second World War and the German occupation of France, although discussions in smaller circles continued both around the "National Revolution" of the Vichy government of Marechal Petain and in the different resistance movements.  Senghor spent 1940-1942 in a German prisoner-of-war camp where group discussions were prohibited.  Senghor concentrated in the camp on writing poetry which he started publishing in 1945 as France came out of the war.

The second occasion where Senghor was able to answer "Present" was in 1945 when France was re-structuring itself after the war.  Everything seemed possible.  There was a widely felt need to transform the society.  The old society had led to war and defeat.  A new society was needed, more just, more peaceful and with new political faces.  Senghor was chosen to represent Senegal in the Constituent Assembly that was to write a new constitution for France.  The French political system had developed so that the colonies had representatives in the French Parliament.  A good number of the first leaders of the independent African states had been members of the French Parliament where they had played important roles in French politics.  Since the African representatives had no political base in France, they could be chosen as ministers as relatively neutral figures in the often-changing French governments of the Fourth Republic (1945-1959).

Senghor was elected to the French Parliament from Senegal in 1951 and served as a minister in 1955 in the government of Edgar Faure, one of the most intellectual of the French political leaders who appreciated Senghor as a "fellow intellectual."

The French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954 and the start of the war for independence in Algeria in November 1954 highlighted that the colonial system was coming to an end.  Senghor came to see that his future was not in politics in France as "the voice of Africa" in French politics but in Africa itself. Thus he started building a political base in Africa.  He hoped that a federal structure could keep the French West African states together – the start of a "United States of Africa".  However, the richer states, in particular the Ivory Coast, were not prepared to pay for the poorer states, and in 1960 each colony became an independent state, although the colonies did not correspond to the pre-colonial West African societies.  Senghor had contributed to the restoration and reform of French society.  In 1960, he would have to answer "Present" to his greatest challenge as President of now independent Senegal.

Senghor faced two major challenges.  As President he was chief of a large administration, and he had never been an administrator.  Some French colonial civil servants stayed on, but the politically sensitive posts had to be held by Senegalese. Senghor had stressed in political debates in France that the African farmers were a "revolutionary force" and the building bloc of a new society.  Now he confronted a Senegalese reality where the most productive agriculture (peanut production) was in the hands of conservative Islamic  religious orders called the Mouride who ran a system of work in exchange for salvation, little short of serfdom.

The second major challenge was in developing a common ideology that would mobilize the efforts of the ethnically-divided Senegalese population.  "Negritude" as an ideology had been largely addressed to Europeans in order to stress the worth and dignity of Africans.  Now Senghor had to address Africans, and it could not be in the same terms.  Moreover, many Senegalese had thought that with the end of colonialism wealth which had been going to France would now stay in Africa.  However, Senegal had always been a poor country with few resources for export other than peanut oil and some cotton.  Wealth was not going to come automatically.  The classless and non-exploitive African society of Senghor’s Negritude was in reality one of deep divisions on ethnic and urban/rural lines, and exploitation of the weaker was not a European monopoly.

True to his convictions, Senghor stressed the creation of cooperatives and credit unions in the rural areas and developed village-level training programs based on local leadership.  He asked Louis-Joseph Lebret, a French Dominican monk to carry out the studies which led to Senegal’s first five-year development plan.  Lebret was one of the Catholic intellectuals that Senghor had known in France and who had been the leader of humanist economic planning first in France and after the Second World War in Brazil, Lebanon, South Vietnam, as well as in Senegal.  A book by Lebret "Mystique d’un Monde Nouveau" (The Spirit of a New World Published in 1940) had stressed the idea of "the common good" or "the common welfare" and had a deep impact on Catholics in the resistance movements and in the MRP – the liberal Catholic Party created at the end of the war.

Although Negritude remained the ideology with which Senghor is most associated and which he continued to uphold in organizing Pan-African conferences of artists and thinkers, after 1955 he focused on the " civilization of the Universal" and the application in Africa of the philosophy of the French Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Senghor was introduced to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin in the mid-1950s by Theodore Monod, the director of IFAN located in Dakar, the leading West African research institute in both the natural and the social sciences.  Monod was a biologist with wide interests.  He was a Protestant, his father and uncles having been leading liberal Protestant clergy.  Monod had already quoted Teilhard in an article in "Presence Africaine" in 1950.  In the early 1950s, Teilhard de Chardin was living in New York City, more-or-less in Church-imposed exile.  He had spent most of his working life in China doing research on the remains of pre-historic man – best remembered for his work on "Pekin Man".  Teilhard’s view of a Cosmic Christ, of a new evolutionary stage on human consciousness, of the earth as a single organism brought fear to the dogmatists of his day.  The Jesuit Order prohibited him from publishing or teaching.  Since he spoke little English, the Jesuit authorities felt he would be harmless in New York, and Teilhard lived there in relative obscurity.  Direct obedience to the Pope and discipline are characteristics of the Jesuit order, and he accepted the ban on publishing his writings. 

However, his manuscripts circulated in a relatively small circle, especially among Protestants as Theodore Monod who had no interest in reporting Teilhard to Catholic Church authorities.  Copies of all of Teilhard de Chardin’s manuscripts were given to a Dutch Protestant who had been the Ambassador to China during World War II.  Teilhard believed that obedience ended with death.  Thus after his death on Easter Sunday 1955, his manuscripts started to be published in France.  Teilhard was unable to explain or to defend his writings but his influence has grown steadily.

In Teilhard de Chardin, Senghor found a way to develop a synthesis of the Christian concept of a God who is both the source and the aim of life with the African concept of a universal vital force in all creation.  This vital force is the base for the essential oneness of all life, life coming from a common source, evolving through a multitude of different shapes and forms but called upon to become aware of its oneness through a planetary consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin also provided a framework for a way to understand the contribution of African society and culture to world civilization. "All that rises, converges" is a key concept in Teilhard de Chardin’s thought.  Senghor has been described as the poet and theorist of synthesis against apartness.

It is not clear what Senghor’s philosophical approach has had had on Senegalese political ideology, however, the seeds have been sown.  For he majority of the Senegalese, Senghor was the man who knew when to step aside – one of the few West African leaders not to have been overthrown by a military coup.  In 1980, after 20 years of presidency, Senghor left a multi-party democracy in place with Senegal playing an important role in African and UN efforts.  Other leaders now face the challenges of development and the search for common welfare.

For Senghor’s political thinking on the eve of becoming President of Senegal, see his "Nationhood and the African Road to Socialism" (Paris: Presence Africaine, 1962)  by which he really meant the road to African socialism.

For his appreciation and application of the thought of Teilhard see: L.S. Senghor "Pierre Teilhard de Chardin et le Politique Africaine (Paris : Le Seuil, 1962).

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.