Review: “One-Party Government in the Ivory Coast” – Aristide R. Zolberg

My expectations were not high when I first started to read Aristide R. Zolberg’s “One-Party Government in the Ivory Coast.” Princeton University Press published the book in 1969. Every book I have ever read about Africa—or any subject—that an Ivy League university published during decolonization and the Cold War has been a disappointment. However, the dearth of material available about Cote d’Ivoire means one cannot be too picky about what one reads, so I thought it was worth a read since I know little about this country besides the more recent civil wars.

The book confirmed my expectations, albeit surprisingly less anti-communist than I expected. Zolberg examines the transformation of Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s PDCI-RDA from an anti-colonial mass movement into a pro-French bureaucracy in the service of Western imperialism. However, consistent with the publisher and the period in which the book was published, Zolberg’s liberal ideology clouds his assessment of the PDCI-RDA. Since concepts like “class struggle” and “imperialism” are taboo, Zolberg must construct elaborate sociological theories on state and party formation in newly independent countries to explain social phenomena. But based on Zolberg’s book, a class analysis of the PDCI-RDA seems to be a more valid and fruitful starting point.

Houphouët-Boigny represented the interests of the nascent petty-bourgeoisie in Cote d’Ivoire. During French colonialism, Houphouët-Boigny was aided by the French communists in his struggle for greater Ivorian participation in administration and abolishing forced labour. However, he never claimed to be a communist, remarking, “Can I, Houphouët, traditional leader, doctor, big owner, Catholic, can we say that I am a communist?” Nonetheless, his politics had a distinctly more radical dynamic before independence, and French colonial forces violently suppressed PDCI-RDA activists, with almost the whole leadership arrested in 1950. But as decolonization became an established reality, Houphouët-Boigny increasingly adopted anti-democratic, reactionary, pro-French political positions, suppressing the mass political mobilization his party had initially encouraged to oppose French colonialism. As even a French military report explained, Houphouët-Boigny “conducted his game alone with great flexibility, procrastination, and Machiavellian roueries, refraining from convening either the Coordination Committee or the party congress, which could have opposed this volte-face and gradually became a pro-administrative party.”

Owing to its intermediate economic position, the petty-bourgeoisie vacillates between revolution and reaction in a manner consistent with Houphouët-Boigny. Lenin described in 1918 how the “petty-bourgeois revolutionary wavers and vacillates at every turn of events; he is an ardent revolutionary in March 1917 and praises ‘coalition’ in May, hates the Bolsheviks (or laments over their ‘adventurism’) in July and apprehensively turns away from them at the end of October, supports them in December, and, finally, in March and April 1918 such types, more often than not, turn up their noses contemptuously and say: ‘I am not one of those who sing hymns to ’organic’ work, to practicalness and gradualism.’”

Houphouët-Boigny and the PDCI-RDA followed a similar pattern of vacillation. From an alliance with the French communists to a coalition with Mitterand’s UDSR, from grassroots mass mobilization for greater Ivorian participation in administration to a cult of personality and the repression of everything democratic for three decades, from being a leader of the African anticolonial movement to becoming the showpiece of neocolonialism, Houphouët-Boigny was a petty-bourgeois revolutionary that later formed the nucleus of the Ivorian comprador bourgeoisie.

If Zolberg’s book achieved anything, it confirmed the correctness of Marxist class analysis over abstract sociological theories concocted in the ivory towers of Western universities. Zolberg’s liberal theorizing cannot cope with the analytical task he set himself.

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