Jean Suret-Canale, or Suret as everyone called him, was one of the finest Marxist historians and geographers of the last century. A pioneering Africanist, his books on Francophone Africa were translated into many languages and won him a large audience in Africa, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. The lives of most historians are lived in the comfort of libraries and university departments and don’t make for interesting biography: Suret was an exception.
‘I have always lived on the margins,’ he once said. It didn’t help that both his parents were outsiders. His father was Corsican; Bonapartism ran in the family. He was an engraver (the family shop is still there on the quai de l’Horloge in Paris), and I remember Suret showing me with pride the tiny measuring scales his father had used. His mother was German, but was expelled from Germany in 1914 for having married a Frenchman, and was quite unable to reveal her German origins in the Boche-hating France of the 1920s. Suret was a clever but also a sickly child, forced to wear a metal corset. In 1931, when he was ten, he went to the Exposition Coloniale in Paris; utterly fascinated, he returned time and again. His favourite subject at school was geography, especially the geography of what we know now as the Third World.
Georges Mandel, the colonial minister at the time, was determined to endow scholarships that would attract bright pupils to the colonial service. Suret won one in 1938, his prize a trip to French West Africa. The following year he won a trip to Indochina. He couldn’t fail to notice the difference between the two. In West Africa he’d been told by the French, ‘the Africans are good chaps as long as you kick their backsides from time to time,’ whereas in Indochina he found only fear and hatred among the settlers. In the lycées of Saigon and Hanoi the Vietnamese children often came top but the French would tell him, with great vehemence, that this was only because they were cheats, liars and thieves. It seemed obvious that the difference lay in the strength of competition the locals offered to the colonists. For the French in Indochina life was all about opium, keeping multiple mistresses and a general sense that they were in this lotus land for the next thousand years or so. On the way back to Europe, Suret stopped off in Madras, and was amazed to find the English colonists all talking of the days of the Raj as being virtually over. He had just reached Singapore when he heard that the war had begun.
In Paris, Suret had attended the elite Lycée Henri IV, where his philosophy teacher was a communist. He was greatly impressed by him, read up on Marxism and was tempted to join the Trotskyists (‘they always got Stalin and Stalinism completely right’). The trouble was that they were hostile to the Popular Front, which Suret supported as a barrier against fascism. The way he resolved the dilemma was typical. There had been furious communist criticism of Georges Friedmann’s De la Sainte Russie à l’URSS. Suret read it and felt certain that Friedmann was right: Stalin’s cult of personality was proof of the predominantly peasant nature of Russian society, peasants being liable both to personalise and revere political power. Thus satisfied that Stalin-worship wasn’t intrinsic to communism, he joined the Union des Etudiants Communistes, though without telling his father (his mother had died in 1937).
After returning from the Far East, Suret started a course at the Sorbonne, but in May 1940, as the Germans advanced on Paris, he and his student communist friends got on their bikes and went off to the west of France. Back in Paris later that year, Suret was arrested by the Vichy police for posting flyers. Handed over to the Germans, he saw that France too had now been colonised. ‘The problem is that I am on the wrong side!’ He was jailed for three months, given next to nothing to eat, and came out a physical wreck. Happily, the Union des Etudiants Communistes ordered him to Toulouse as an organiser – which meant crossing into the unoccupied zone.
Life there was completely different. He was treated as a refugee. Pétain was popular and everyone talked very solemnly about the ‘révolution nationale’. No one wanted to join the Resistance, for which Suret started recruiting. He continued his studies, writing a thesis on the medieval history of Toulouse, but in 1942 he went underground, working under a variety of other names in Montpellier and Périgueux. He was in a three-person cell that included a Jew, Robert Kirschen. In 1942, the Gestapo pounced on a Resistance network at the Maison de Chimie, and Kirschen’s younger brother André was among those arrested. André, at 15 the youngest of them, was the only one not shot, but in ‘compensation’, both his father and brother were killed for being ‘relatives of the terrorist André Kirschen’; his mother was gassed in Birkenau.
By October 1943, Suret was a full-time instructor in the Jeunesse Communiste with authority over six départements. He had also met his future wife and her family in the Gironde. He was greatly taken with the idea that he was part of a national liberation movement against the coloniser and much affected by the patriotic aura of the Resistance struggle, which he saw as following the rules laid down by Stalin in his essay on ‘The National and Colonial Question’. Decorated later on for his work in the Resistance, he was always reluctant to talk about it, telling me only that when he first went into the Vichy zone it was terribly hard to recruit anyone but that after the occupation of the south in 1942 everything changed. By the end of the war, he said, the Germans had almost crushed the Resistance in the north: ‘It was dying on its feet, but in the south we were going from strength to strength.’
Having somehow completed his teaching qualifications, he got an assistant’s post at the University of Rennes in 1945, but he was desperate to get back to French West Africa – having liberated France, it was time to liberate the colonies. By December 1946, he was a teacher at a lycée in Dakar, an all-white school that began to Africanise at speed. Suret was soon the secretary of the local Groupe d’Etudes Communistes (GEC), a member of the (PCF-aligned) Union Démocratique Sénégalais and on the secretariat of the local CGT union. Before long, the parents of some of the white pupils – all of them old Pétainists – were accusing him of teaching ‘racist and anti-French’ attitudes in his history courses: he had been telling uncomfortable truths about the use of forced labour in French West Africa. The governor instituted an inquiry. Suret provided his sources, which were impeccable (he was a terrier in the archives). ‘Monsieur,’ the inspector said to him when the affair was resolved, ‘you must understand that there are things that you can say in a lycée at Bordeaux or Paris which you cannot say in a lycée in Dakar, and above all not in front of the natives.’
Suret now began a thesis on the peasants of Senegal, a subject for which there were virtually no sources. He roamed the country on foot and by train, consulting any archives he could find and talking to chiefs and marabouts. In 1948, a Cold War split in the CGT saw virtually all the local whites save Suret depart for the Socialist Force Ouvrière, which left him all the more exposed when he played a leading role in a strike in 1949. Once it was over, he was arrested on the governor’s orders, told he had an hour to pack and bundled onto a plane back to France.
After some months he got a job at a lycée in Périgueux, but in no time was in trouble there too. One of his colleagues was sacked after annoying the local mayor, and Suret defended him in the local press. The mayor was upset, and Suret was suspended without pay for two and a half years before the charges against him were quashed. He then got another teaching job, this time in Laval in the west of France, where he began a fresh thesis on Armorican Anjou.
West Africa was barred to him, but what he desperately wanted was a job at the national research council, the CNRS. Every year he was informed that he had missed out by the narrowest of margins but after three years he was told privately that he was blacklisted. He immediately abandoned his thesis and moved back to Paris, where the PCF publishers, Editions Sociales, asked him to write a collaborative work on French West Africa. His collaborators fell away but the first volume of his Afrique noire: Géographie, civilisations, histoire, which took the story of AOF (Afrique Occidentale Française) and AEF (Afrique Equatoriale Française) up to 1900, came out in 1958. The finished work, in three volumes (of which only the second exists in English), is his greatest monument.
It isn’t difficult to see why Suret’s writings outraged the establishment. Pride of place in his story goes not to the mission civilisatrice but to the great trading houses and banks of Paris, Bordeaux and Marseille, which achieved such power over French colonial policy that they could and did effectively issue commands to the governors, who, as Suret showed, typically responded by doing as they were asked. Suret was also thoroughly aware of the raffish lives led by many French administrators – often unfortunate younger sons, misfits, frequently corrupt and almost invariably living with their African concubines. He cites the example of one outpost in French Equatorial Africa where ‘the staff was made up as follows: one administrator, a former pupil of the Ecole coloniale, and three clerks – a former dentist, a former non-commissioned officer of the colonial infantry (who amused himself in the evenings, when drunk, by cutting down the flag with rifle shots) and a young man “of good family”, aged 24, who had been guilty of two murders.’ Such passages made his critics fume, but the larger fact was Suret’s extraordinary scholarship – his books are mines of social and economic information. It was bad enough that he could write so disrespectfully of the colonial enterprise, but quite unforgivable that his books should be so authoritative.
In 1958, Guinea voted no to De Gaulle’s referendum and declared independence. France withdrew all its personnel, teachers included, and President Sékou Touré appealed urgently for Francophone volunteers to replace them. Suret arrived in 1959, combining the headmastership of a Conakry lycée with the directorship of the national research institute. Together with Djibril Tamsir Niane, the Guinean minister of education, he published his large Histoire de l’Afrique Occidentale in 1960, and in 1962 the enormously influential second volume of Afrique noire, which covers the colonial era from 1900 to 1945. However, in 1961, while Suret was back in France, Touré seized a group of left-wing teachers who had opposed him – including Niane. When Suret returned, suspicion fell on him too and he was interrogated by the head of the Sûreté (whom Touré executed not long afterwards). By this time Touré had become the most radical leader in Africa, and increasingly repressive. Relations with France remained icy and in 1963 the French Embassy warned Suret that if he remained in the service of this essentially unfriendly state he would be stripped of his French citizenship. He returned to France, again teaching in lycées and becoming deputy director of the PCF’s Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Marxistes (CERM).
CERM’s director, Roger Garaudy, was a high-profile, very médiatique liberal communist. For a while, he and Suret got on well, but in time his arrogance became too much for Suret. ‘At bottom,’ Suret said later, ‘he wanted to be Sartre, that’s to say, at once a great philosopher, a great political figure, a great man of letters and a great man of the theatre.’ Suret loyally read Garaudy’s bad novel and trudged along to see his play, where ‘there were more people on the stage than in the audience.’ Above all, Suret decided, Garaudy ‘copied himself. He brought out two or three books a year and each of them had at least a third in common with his previous book.’ But he wasn’t copying just himself: in 1950 he was successfully sued for plagiarism. In the end, Garaudy’s large ego collided with the Party, from which he resigned with great éclat on television. In an article for the right-wing paper l’Aurore he traced his difficulties in the PCF to a group around Georges Marchais whose members were all Jews. This was too much for Suret. He rang Garaudy, called him an anti-semite and broke off relations with him.
In 1966, he at last got the attachment to the CNRS of which he had long despaired. He got a research grant to return to Guinea, where he gathered enormous amounts of data and saved many archives from destruction. Unfortunately, the rich ethnological data he gave away to others were hopelessly misused by anthropologists. He wrote a new book on Guinea and, with Ibrahima Baba Kaké, a new history of central Africa. Kaké then became a leader of the conservative opposition to Touré, again placing Suret under a shadow, though he continued to defend the regime. In fact, Touré never seems to have lost faith in Suret, and it was largely on Suret’s recommendation that I was able to gain admission to do research in Guinea in 1968. When I met the president his first words were ‘And how is Suret?’ But seeing was believing: a few months there brought home the fact that Touré was indeed a petty Stalin and his regime truly terrifying.
Back in Paris, Suret was eagerly preparing for further research trips to Francophone Africa, but in 1968 he was told that henceforth the Quai d’Orsay would have to approve such trips and that in his case all visas would be refused. When he asked why, he was told that he was persona non grata in those countries. Which ones? That was a diplomatic secret. So Suret wrote to all the Francophone African heads of state, all of whom replied that he was welcome. When he showed the replies to the authorities at the Quai d’Orsay they said they hadn’t come through the proper diplomatic channels. After four years, he got a PCF senator to intervene personally with the minister, who relented. Back out in Equatorial Africa, Suret discovered that the ban had been the work of Jacques Foccart, De Gaulle’s and then Pompidou’s shadowy arranger of African coups, bribes and fixes of every kind.Foccart worked from the Elysée and many of the French ambassadors worked for him. They were the ones who had vetoed Suret. Worse, many of them made it clear that if Suret was so much as allowed to give a talk or present a paper, it would be seen as a stain on the honour of France and a personal insult to the ambassador.
Suret had got only as far as Brazzaville when he found he had been sacked from the CNRS, an exceptionally rare event. There had been a campaign against him by the Comité de l’Afrique française, which had characterised his books as ‘racist and anti-French’. His chief assailant was Gaston Joseph, who had been secretary-general of the government of Ivory Coast at the time of a major rebellion against forced labour. On Joseph’s orders the rebellion had been ferociously suppressed, with the severed heads of rebels placed at the entrances to many villages. For men like Joseph, who now wanted to talk proudly of France’s mission civilisatrice and of how De Gaulle had liberally granted independence to the colonies, Suret was doing the devil’s work, inflaming African opinion by writing of matters like forced labour, rebellion and severed heads. He was officially informed that his works were ‘not fit’ to be on the university syllabus.
Suret could not bear to return to teaching in a lycée and took the only university job he could, in Oran. By 1978 he had the necessary qualifications for a university post in France, but the only one he was offered was on the bleak, windswept isle of Yeu in the Bay of Biscay, where Pétain had been exiled. This he refused. He was then offered a post at Paris VII but the minister, regarding Paris VII as already quite left-wing enough, intervened. In the end, he taught piecemeal at Paris VII without ever receiving an official appointment. He finished his doctorat d’état (on French trading companies in Africa) in the year of his retirement, 1984. He despaired of publishing it but at last luck broke his way. André Kirschen, the brother of his Resistance comrade, had survived forced labour and jail in Nazi Germany and was now an editor at Armand Colin. He made a point of publishing this new master work, Afrique et capitaux, in two volumes.
A world history followed, then a book on the GECs, articles on 18th-century Anjou, and a translation of Lucian of Samosata, the great debunker who lived under Marcus Aurelius and wrote in Attic Greek. But his latter years were spent back in the Gironde, writing the history of the local Resistance movement that he had led and fighting to ensure that the names of communist résistants were not left off the monuments erected by Socialist mayors. He died in 2007.
Pascal Bianchini, one of his younger academic colleagues, has put this book together largely on the basis of interviews with Suret. The decline of both the PCF and tiers-mondisme meant that he died somewhat forgotten, and many African and left-wing names were missing from among those who paid tributes to him. One reason, Bianchini writes, was that Suret was seen as a ‘Stalinist’ and a defender of Touré. He wasn’t a Stalinist but he was a lifelong PCF member, serving eight years on its central committee and standing several times for parliament in hopeless seats. (When he was offered a safe seat, he refused it.) His life is a reminder that while many intellectuals flitted in and out of the Party, those who stuck with it paid a price. Suret’s intellectual achievement would have been spectacular even for someone in a safe university post, but his enormous research efforts and record of publication were combined with ceaseless schoolteaching and political harassment, as well as the duty (shared by all central committee members) of supervising several départements. He took this very seriously: I remember him telling me in 1969 how energetically he had campaigned for the PCF presidential candidate, Jacques Duclos, his old Resistance comrade. I said I had the impression that with another week’s campaign Duclos would have been in the run-off against Pompidou. ‘Oh no,’ said Suret, ‘the way we were working, we only needed another 48 hours.’
Suret was a loyal member of the PCF but he kept a clear head. He knew that Touré’s regime had ‘its dark side’, just as he knew early on that Marx’s ‘Asiatic mode of production’ was the best description of African economies before colonialism. When he visited the USSR, however, he found this was taboo, implying as it did stagnation and therefore no possibility of revolution. Indeed, the Russians called the description ‘un-Marxist’. Suret merely laughed at that. His attitude was that any party, including the CPSU and PCF, would have its full share of idiots and mistakes and, having made one’s choice, one just had to live with it.
I know only too well what he would have said to such criticisms. You had to decide which was the principal contradiction and in both these cases it was between imperialism and anti-imperialism, so you had to choose the anti- (Soviet, Guinean) side. It’s what any Marxist of his generation would have said. But of course it’s just another formula that lets you out of your duty to think. What sticks in my mind is the fate of Diallo Telli, Suret’s brilliant former pupil who became the first secretary-general of the OAU. Telli finally returned to Guinea but Touré was jealous of him. He was imprisoned in ‘the black chamber’, which is to say, starved to death on Touré’s orders. Whatever formulas Suret held in his mind, none excuses him for not speaking out to try to save his former pupil.
However, an even darker cloud hung over him after he clashed with Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese historian who has achieved a worldwide following among the African diaspora with his claim that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans and the progenitors of all modern knowledge. Suret described Diop’s theories as ‘a slide into demagogy, which is quite understandable but based on nothing solid or serious’. What he couldn’t tolerate was the notion that everything depended on the ancient Egyptians having had black skins, first because the mummies showed they didn’t, and second because ‘one cannot found a civilisation on the colour of a man’s skin.’ Suret had known Diop in Senegal and seen him as an interesting but extreme and marginal figure – which, in his lifetime, is all he was. But after his death his theories spread like wildfire. When I was at the University of Dakar in 1968, Diop was a modest and not very promising researcher. Today, the university is named after him. Suret himself said that ‘it was as if I had attacked the gospel’ but he merely shrugged off the furious assaults that followed. He was used to being on the unpopular side.