Saturday, December 27, 2014

Encounter with Historical Materialism

Discovering Historical Materialism

As I mentioned earlier,  we did only two departmental courses in our first year. The rest were electives and outside, compulsory courses such as foreign languages, and general studies such as  use of English and general studies,  introductions to the social and natural sciences. French was my choice of foreign language. I also opted for electives in the English department that entailed taking courses in spoken English (I had aspirations of becoming a radio DJ or television broadcaster at this time ) and literary appreciation.

However,  it was the social science segment of the general studies courses that proved eye opening for me. It included papers by sociology, anthropology  and political science lecturers that  covered topics such as historical materialism, the family and the forming of classes, socialization and behavior and so on. Prior  to my introduction to historical materialism, all I knew of how the world came to be was based  on the Bible and its creation story. It was just the story of how the Snake deceived  Eve and how she got Adam involved and the rest was history.

As I became more critical, I  began to have problems with the creation story primarily because  it excluded  my kind,  the African, the black man. I only  saw white-looking people as the main cast and characters who now came to save us. The Catholic catechism didn't help matters with its own teachings in prayers such as The Prayer for the Conversion of Africa, whose thesis was essentially that the African was wandering in the wilderness of ignorance, where he would've been lost forever, until the white man chanced on him.

Though the prayer was withdrawn by the 1980s, that idea of white supremacy pushed by European slavers and colonialists, packaged with the Christian salvation message and backed by a superior coercive technology, made quite an impression and its message still deeply ingrained in many Africans. It only served to reinforce  a sense of worthlessness,  of being outsiders in the history of human evolution and civilization - a state of savagery mercifully cut short when the civilizing mission landed on our shores.

Historical materialism was now giving me a different narrative that relied on what was known about the path of transition humans had trodden over time. Therefore, it moves from the earliest known forms of human society,  the hunter - gatherers,  and progresses to the emergence of agriculture and settled societies, through the evolution  of feudalism to the emergence of the modern  capitalist  society. I was also thrilled by the idea that that evolution is driven by dialectics  - the conflict between the old and the new and how it leads to the emergence  of synthesis,  which in time become the thesis  that is confronted by a new anti-thesis over time, to generate  a new synthesis and  so on.

This was further complemented  by the lessons on social stratification and  the emergence of social classes and  social  discrimination, the formation of capital and the crucial role played by the dominant mode of production in a given society in shaping culture and it's expressions. Socialization explained to me the process by which people were assigned their place in society  and  made to accept them happily in most cases.

These  lessons were primarily taught by Professor Ikenna Nzimiro,  Dr Inyang  Etteng and Dr Ada  Mela at different times. They were all sociology lecturers who excited us with new concepts and new vistas on the world. I found Nzimiro the most exciting of them because of the bold and cheeky way he tore down ideas we thought were cast in stone and ridiculed political figures we had come to deify.  That was how I now began to attend his Sociology 101 (introduction to sociology) even though I wasn't offering it officially.  It was very popular, with the Arts Theater venue full on the days  he taught.  I  attended as much as I could and enjoyed them thoroughly.

One day while teaching something  about the family he dwelt on love. Then he made a distinction between love and romantic love, which  he said we young adults were prone to toward the opposite sex. He went ahead to describe some of its symptoms, including  a certain indistinct, feverish feeling of  not knowing quite what was wrong with one, accompanied by fluttering hearts and loss of appetite. It seemed everyone who had once been a teenager was familiar with those symptoms, and he had the class in uproar with laughter.

A self-described Marxist, Nzimiro would on occasions tear at Nnamdi Azikiwe, one of the prime movers of the nationalist movement in Nigeria and across Africa, who went on to become Nigeria’s first indigenous head of state at independence. He denounced the Nigerian elite as a collaborationist class, "a comprador bourgeois clsss" that betrayed the greater destiny of their people for the chance to dine with colonial oppressors and be like them. He held Azikiwe,  who was also known as Zik of Africa,  substantially responsible for this state of affairs. Nzimiro had been a member of the Zikist Movement, a radical and revolutionary group formed around Azikiwe in the 1940s and 50s, denied by their mentor when he thought they were taking things too far.

"That is why he has  declined from Zik of Africa to Owelle of Onitsha," Nzimiro declared to gasps in the hall. "Do you know  the original role of the Owelle in Onitsha monarchy?  He was the person that looked after the king's wives and should normally be an eunuch."

We now burst into real laughter.

Azikiwe himself, who was the university's founder, lived in retirement at the time at his Onuiyi Haven, Nsukka,  sharing a common wall with Zik ' s Flats, our hostel, which was part of his estate. He lived quietly in his large grounds covered by trees through which the imposing three-storied building where he lived was visible. We only saw occasional glimpses of the great man apart from one occasion when he came over to the hostel to remonstrate with us for noise-making.  Otherwise his presence merely loomed, casting it's shadow over the neighbourhood and the wider university town.

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