The Hungarian Studies Association’s Mark Pittaway Best Article Committee has selected Professor James Mark’s and Dr. Peter Apor’s essay “Socialism Goes Global: Decolonization and the Making of a New Culture of Internationalism in Socialist Hungary, 1956–1989” as the winner in the highly competitive selection that consisted of over a dozen nominated articles published during two calendar years (2014-15) on any theme related to Hungarian Studies.
You can read the full article here free, for the next month.
This is what the awarding committee had to say:
The Committee was very impressed that your research places the post-1956 communist Hungarian period in an explicitly transnational context and in doing so, it successfully moves away from the all too frequent exclusively regional interpretations. You successfully draw on an extremely broad set of sources that included oral histories, popular (TV and print) sources as well as numerous schools of traditional historiographies. Your analysis offers nuanced differentiations on how the statist prerogatives run afoul of popular grassroots appropriations among others, regarding Chile, Cuba, and Vietnam.
In the 1950s and 1960s, decolonization and patronage from competing Cold War powers created opportunities for new alliances among people across the colonial and postcolonial world.
Rather than view this era through the lens of international diplomacy or particular nation-states, the ‘Afro-Asian Networks’ research collaboration explores transnational networks of affinity at the non-state level, through the lived experiences of activist, artistic, and intellectual communities participating in a widening world of global connections. More information here.
Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister Patrice Lumumba was a celebrity in Yugoslavia. Lumumba’s execution in 1961 caused such outrage that the Belgian embassy in the Yugoslav capital Belgrade was ransacked.
Yugoslav leader Josip Tito was himself a regular visitor to Africa – he went to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt 20 times. Tito’s aim was to consolidate the socialist friendship sweeping through the 1960s.
Such connections in the 1960s-70s and their contemporary legacies are revealed in two striking recent cultural seasons: “Red Africa” at the Calvert 22 in London and “The Sixties – A Worldwide Happening” in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum.
“Red Africa” was centred on the “Things Fall Apart” exhibition and accompanying special report of the Calvert Journal. It focused on relations between Africa, the Soviet Union and related socialist countries (1960s-80s). It did so via art, film, photography and architecture.
“The Sixties” and its book was more catholic. It foregrounded the non-Western history of this most iconic liberation era. Through fashion, art and music it stressed the promiscuous connections that pulsed across the world.
Warm clasp of friendship
One particular idea shone through both exhibitions for me: the importance of globally entangled utopianisms for Africa. It was such thinking that embroidered the martyr icon of Lumumba and conditioned the warm clasp of Tito’s hand of friendship.
Utopianism is the imagination and exposition of a society that does not exist. (“Utopia” derives from the Greek “no-place”.) But it has intrinsically more desirable qualities than what persists in reality.
From philosophers like Thomas More to William Morris, the purpose of utopian expression has been to critique existing societies and ideologies. Utopianism gives collective purpose to build a better future, to emphasise the ethical or practical shortcomings of the status quo.
For independent Africans in an era of new Cold War opportunity, utopianism was not ethereal or naive (as the term is commonly understood). It was steeped in a realist understanding of the trajectory of global power. Utopian thinking created new international friendships and would construct a brighter, very possible postcolonial future.
There hasn’t been enough space for utopianism in the consideration of independent African nations and their foreign relations.
We don’t delve enough into the imaginative lives of Africans struggling to build a postcolonial world. Looking backwards, we have tended to dismiss idealised communities of solidarity. The security of “realism” and dark pall of neocolonialism pervade.
Increasingly, however, pioneers – artists, academics and activists from the progressive world – are seeking out what African citizens dreamed at the buoyant moment of independence and its tumultuous aftermath.
They assess how utopian hopes entangled with wider global currents to build a free future in the 1960s. From the 1970s, utopian expression has creatively criticised the very deficiencies of liberation.
As demonstrated at “Red Africa” and “The Sixties”, art is at the vanguard of such real-world concerns.
‘Red Africa’ and ‘The Sixties’: socialism and optimism
Utopianism was under the surface of “Red Africa”. Behind-the-scenes snaps of Tito’s safaris sat next to the beguiling 2016 film “Our Africa”. Here Russian filmmaker Alexander Markov unravels how Soviet filmmakers recorded the “joyous” expansion of socialism. Footage of African leaders dancing Russian jigs on state tours of the Soviet Union illustrates how propagandists presented the Tanzanian ideology of “Ujamaa” and Africa as integral to world socialist development.
Korean photographer Onejoon Che uncovers the fascinating story of the Mansudae Art Studio. Established in 1959, it aided the construction of macho “socialist realist” African monuments as part of North Korea’s controversial charm offensive.
It was an interesting ride. But “Red Africa” prompted me to think more about how Africans themselves shaped and utilised such utopian internationalisms in those heady days of independence.
A visit to “The Sixties” with our new Afro-Asian Networks research group reinforced the feeling. The collection powerfully evoked a moment of intense optimism and global connection. For example, soul superstar James Brown provided the soundtrack for youth in Mali’s capital of Bamako. It got portrayed in the vivacious photos of the late Malick Sidibé.
We were reminded to take seriously those future-oriented visions of the ebullient and utopian 1960s.
Utopianism in Africa: a necessity?
Utopianism is a particularly neglected prism through which to view Africa’s varied independent landscapes.
Through African literature, which leads the charge, academic Bill Ashcroft argues for the very “necessity of utopia” in Africa. Utopia – “the un-place” – is the key space where ideas of colonialism or catastrophe undermining African people can be challenged. Ashcroft says:
What is remarkable about African literature and cultural production is the stunning tenacity of its hope … conceptions of utopian hope – the ‘not-yet’ – is always a possibility emerging from the past.
And it was the global entanglement of varied utopianisms that shone through at “Red Africa” and “The Sixties”.
It was bright in the work of Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks. His collection of Soviet art depicting African and African-American life revealed racism of representation. But Fiks saw, as he explains:
a very complex and contradictory legacy in which there is room for genuine internationalism, anti-racism and solidarity, alongside racial stereotyping and objectification.
That African intellectuals and those in the diaspora found such sanitised images empowering is genuinely important.
But his images point to something unsettling for Angola, that “magnificent and beggar land”. His utopian critique creates “a memorial to a future that never came to pass”, an indictment of an independence failed.
For Henda, there are two things that are of vital interest for Africa:
the ability to know about and write your own history, and the ability to plan for the future.
Looking to utopianism seems one fruitful route for these enmeshed historical and contemporary civil society agendas. We need, ourselves, to be more utopian perhaps.
In April 1966, legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington travelled to Dakar, Senegal, with his orchestra to play at the first World Festival of Negro Arts. Organised against the backdrop of African decolonisation and the push for civil rights in the US, the festival was hailed as the inaugural cultural gathering of the black world.
More than 2,500 artists, musicians, performers and writers gathered in Dakar that month. The event spanned literature, theatre, music, dance, film, as well as the visual arts. Duke’s concerts were a highlight and, several years later, he still recalled them with great affection: “The cats in the bleachers really dig it … it gives us a once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having broken through to our brothers.” Ellington’s visit to Africa gave him the sense of coming home.
An exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris is currently marking the 50th anniversary of the festival, the first state-sponsored showcase of work by black artists. Dakar 66: Chronicle of a Pan-African Festivaltells the story of the event using photographs, rarely seen documentary films and newly filmed interviews with participants. It captures the festival’s idealism and practical successes but does not shy away from thornier issues, such as its entanglement in Cold War politics or the criticism it received at subsequent, more radical, festivals in Algiers (1969) and Lagos (1977).
The participation of artists and musicians from the US was of particular importance to the Senegalese president (and poet) Léopold Senghor. In 1930s Paris, Senghor and fellow French-speaking students from Africa and the Caribbean had been inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz age to launch the Negritude movement, which promoted black pride among France’s colonial subjects. Ellington was therefore among the most eagerly anticipated guests in Dakar, as were Langston Hughes, the elder statesman of African-American literature, and an ageing Josephine Baker, the “black Venus” from Missouri, who had wowed Paris in the 1920s with her sexually charged dance routines. For Senghor, these figures embodied the cultural bond between Africa and people of African descent.
But it did not go unnoticed that participants were largely drawn from an older generation, viewed as politically and aesthetically conservative by younger, more militant figures. The US authorities, conscious that the racism exposed by the civil rights struggle had tarnished America’s global reputation, ensured that no radicals would travel to Dakar to “make trouble”. And the participation of Ellington’s orchestra was in fact funded by the US State Department, which had been using its Jazz Ambassadors programme for over a decade as part of its Cold War diplomacy. They sent black artists around the world to represent the US while, back home, they didn’t enjoy even the most basic civil rights.
Cold War politics
The US also saw the moderate Senghor as a key ally in its struggle for influence with the Soviet Union in West Africa. Without a black diaspora of their own, the Soviets could not play a formal role in the festival, but they did help the beleaguered hosts, desperate for hotel accommodation, by lending them a cruise ship. A New York Times reporter wryly reported:
As the guests sip their vodka on the main deck, they are also treated to an exhibit extolling Russian-Negro brotherhood. Several display boards highlight the fact that the Russians never engaged in the slave trade while guess-who did.
The Soviets also sent their distinguished, charismatic poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who enjoyed rock star status in the mid-1960s. Without any formal role to play, Yevtushenko promptly teamed up with fellow poet Langston Hughes and they spent afternoons driving around town in a limousine, getting drunk on Georgian champagne. So much for Cold War politics.
For Senghor, “the real heart of the festival” was a vast exhibition of “classical” African artworks, entitled Negro Art, at the newly built Musée Dynamique, a monumental Classical structure, perched on a promontory overlooking the sea. Negro Art assembled some of the finest examples of “traditional” African art, almost 600 pieces, borrowed from over 50 museums and private collectors from around the world. These were exhibited alongside a selection of works by Picasso, Léger and Modigliani, borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, in a fascinating contrast between traditional sources and the modern masterpieces inspired by them. Who could imagine Western museums lending such priceless items to African partners today?
Senghor’s idealism about culture may have been largely misplaced — today, the Musée Dynamique houses Senegal’s Supreme Court. But the festival marked one of the high-points of black modernism in the 20th century. In his opening speech, Senghor claimed that the event was “an undertaking much more revolutionary than the exploration of the cosmos”. While the Soviets and the Americans raced to conquer space, the “black world” was gathered together to find its soul.
See how posters from the 1930s, designed to attract Africans and African-Americans to the charms of communism, highlight a fascinating, almost forgotten history. Click here to find out more about the new exhibition of Russian posters at Calvert 22, part of the Red Africa season running from 4 February till 3 April.