Le Congo, de la Colonisation Beige À l’Indépendence: Michel Merlier. Francois Maspero, 18.30 NF. 352 pp.

There are two reasons for introducing Merlier’s book to English readers. It is perhaps the finest product of Francois Maspero’s admirable series of Cahiers Libres, which for three years has emulated, and in many ways surpassed in quality, our own Left Book Club of the ’Thirties, publishing attractive editions of Jaures, Nenni, Nizan, Frantz Fanon and others under constant threat of seizure and confiscation. At the same time, Merlier’s book is a model study of the evolution of a colonial system, of a kind that still remains unknown in this country. Our own literature of colonialism has almost never attempted asynthetic account of colonialism as a system. It has fragmented its subject matter into the familiar, evasive categories of “colonial history”, “administration”, “anthropology”, and so on. More recently, there has been a decline to a still lower intellectual level, with the publication of numerous abjectly alphabetical compendia to the continent. Against this background, Merlier’s book has an exemplary value, both as a study of one of the most critical and explosive areas in the Third World today, and as a model of historical sociology.

The trajectory of Belgian colonialism in the Congo was perhaps the most remarkable anywhere in Africa. Beginning with the pillage imperialism of the Leopoidine agricultural companies and the brutal militarized collecting-economy described by Conrad, it ended in the most “advanced” and welfare-oriented colonial economy in Africa, the industrial-extractive complex of the Union Minière and Forminière, Congolese society underwent correspondingly radical transformations making, as Merlier puts it, “le saut le plus rapide sur la distance la plus longue”; while Belgian colonial sensibility passed from the barbaric piracy of the independent Congo State to a distinctive and coherent paternalism.

This colonial “revolution”, which enabled the Trusts, in alliance with the administration and the missions, to valorize the rich mineral deposits in the south, is usually placed in the early decades of this century. But as Merlier shows, it was an intricate and equivocal process. The transfer of the Congo to parliamentary control in 1908 did not entail a sudden and complete abandonment of the preceding colonial regime: the violent methods of primitive accumulation lingered on in the massive expropriations (“concessions”) and successful proletarization of the Congolese (the wage force had already reached 427,000 by 1927). In this phase, the “colonial problem” was seen above all in terms of a “rational” calculus of costs. Thus there was prolonged debate among businessmen and administrators on productivity, labour stability, the desirability of mechanization, incentives, and so on. The essential problem that was being discussed, of course, was the attachment of a proletariat to the system of colonial exploitation by socio-economic rather than by administrative-coercive methods. Over time, the problem of this nascent proletariat seemed to have been temporarily solved: by the 1940’s, Katanga could be displayed as a “model” to other envious colonial powers.

However, concentration on this problem obscured the further crisis latent in the system: the agrarian question and the expansion of the internal market. Merlier’s analysis of this (“La Question Agraire”) is particularly interesting, for it reveals the fundamental instability of even this most evolved colonial economy. The Belgian régime in the Congo was characterized by the advanced concentration in financial control (the Société Générale) and by the extended vertical power of the major trusts (Union Minère, Forminière) over all the interrelated economic processes subsidiary to and supporting the highly profitable extractive sector. Thus the post-1912 agrarian concessions (Comité Spécial du Katanga, Comité National du Kivu, Lever’s, etc.) came under the control of the same banks that commanded the mining companies, or were in any case conceived of as ancillary to mining requirements. These needs were met in the first place by plantation and ranch development in the zonal concessions, and in the second place by the compulsory crop quotas imposed on the rural Congolese. Manufactured by and functioning for Belgian colonialism, Congolese “urbanization” emerged from continuing rural violence. Expropriations, taxes and corvées pauperized Congolese collective agriculture and created the labour required at the minehead or on the plantation. Rural oppression was the basis of industrial growth. The combination of the concessions system, commercial monopoly in crops (Cotonco, etc.), and forced quotas not only pauperized the Congolese peasantry; it also inhibited small colon development. Agrarian crisis, concealed by the depression of rural incomes and a ration system, flared up during the great slump and the Second World War. Rural emigration was on an Irish and Algerian scale. The vast reserve labour force kept rural money incomes greatly below urban and camp levels. Yields per acre fell disastrously. Congolese traditional society retreated into passivity and millenarianism. Exodus restrictions were promulgated but proved impossible to implement. A system which combined urban “stabilization” with rural exhaustion was inadequate even in technical terms. Hence, after the Second World War, there was a significant influx of Belgian colons, and feeble experiments were made in encouraging rural capitalism among the Congolese (the paysannats). But the agrarian problem was still unsolved on the eve of independence.