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African Hitler

Terror and Resistance

by E.V. Walter
Oxford, 385 pp., $8.50

This book, or something very like it, was accepted for publication about six years ago, and its final, long-delayed appearance is welcome. It is a study of despotic rule by terror and violence, a form of government all too familiar both from the pages of history and the newspapers of our own time. It is a topic which, in recent times at any rate, has received surprisingly little attention from the academic analysts of political thought. On a world scale there have been many famous writers—Kautilya, Han Fei Tzu, Machiavelli, von Clausewitz, to name but a few—who have taken it for granted that a ruler is one who aims at total domination and that he is subject to no moral constraints of any kind. Even Max Weber, the prophet of rational legality, made a point of expanding Trotsky’s formula, “Every state is founded on force (Gewalt)” into “Every state claims for itself the legitimate monopoly of physical violence (Gewaltsamkeit).”

But our softer Western writers, with their utilitarian notions of social contract and of a general will motivated to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number, have tried to sell the idea that, in all “normal” societies, government is by consent. In contemporary newspaper language the word “terrorism” nearly always refers to illegitimate activity. It is assumed that the legal government maintains its authority by cultivating a consensus of respect for established law and order; the terrorist is part of a subversionary organization (such as the Stern gang in mandated Palestine) which tries to destroy that authority by systematic resort to violence. This type of terrorism is quite explicitly not within the field of our author’s present enquiry. It is Weber’s legitimate Gewaltsamkeit that he is after: “The central problem of the book is to find out why some men who already have authority choose to rule by violence and fear.” (p. vii)

However, instead of attempting a close study of despotism in the contemporary world, Walter proposes an extended examination of historical case histories. He envisages a subsequent volume which will concern itself with governmental terrorism in more complex societies, but the present book is designed to illustrate a general theory, and it does this by drawing on European accounts of pre-colonial tyrannies located south of the Sahara. This has the ironic consequence that the role of South Africa’s arch-villain is played not by Dr. Verwoerd but by the early nineteenth-century Zulu King Shaka.

Walter’s choice of materials does not stem from any subliminal bias against “savages” but from a desire to achieve detachment and simplicity. His point about detachment is that Western social scientists tend to be so thoroughly committed to a belief in the moral superiority of voluntary forms of cooperation that they almost take it for granted that terrorism could only be a pathological solution of last resort:

They come up with judgments that resemble the following improvisations: “The crisis in France was so acute that Robespierre had no choice but to initiate the Reign of Terror”; or “The only way for Stalin to modernize Russia and to open the Siberian wilderness was through terror and forced labor.” To the contrary, the argument in this book, based in part on the histories of simple societies, explains the policy of terror as a response to crises of integration and as one social choice among alternatives. The social choice is neither an inescapable event nor a solitary decision. [p. 282]

The case for simplicity is more shaky. Walter claims that:

In that setting [of simple societies] the problem can be stated in plain terms. The variables are relatively easy to grasp, and one does not have to disentangle factors introduced by changing economic forces, elaborate stratification, and other complexities of modern social structure. [p. viii]

There is a touch of Rousseau about this and at least a whiff of Hobbes’s murderous war of all against all. Although Walter is not himself an anthropologist he is impressively well-read and up to date in the literature of that genre. But his interpretation of the evidence is often very different from that of a professional. For example, when writing about West African secret societies he takes his cue from a remark by a heavily biased medical missionary—“the final secret of the Poro was frightfulness” (p. 88)—and then discusses the much more restrained and informative comments of the anthropologists from this orientation. And so it is with the main Zulu case also. Although he has gone back to the original sources for the details, he ends up, it seems to me, by getting a good deal of it wrong.

The view that pre-literate societies are everywhere simple and uncomplicated is, of course, very widely held, but complexity is a relative matter. The surface of the moon is simple or complex according to whether your range of interest is that of a poet or that of an astronaut, and in some contexts the simplicity of simple societies is no more than a convenient fiction for those who do not want to look too closely at the facts. Practicing field anthropologists are all too well aware that the more they learn the more complicated it will all become.

Walter seems to suppose that there is a Weberian ideal type of institution which can be labeled terroristic despotism and that despotism in primitive societies necessarily contains the stark essentials of this institution in more clearly distinguishable form than do the despotisms encountered in more sophisticated contexts. Therefore, if we study Shaka’s Zulu despotism in detail we shall be able to see what is typical of the general case. Unfortunately, although the Zulu case was most certainly a terroristic despotism, it had a number of characteristics which were quite peculiar, so that, by generalizing from this one instance, we can be led on to false conclusions.

Part of the trouble is that Walter shows too great a trust of his original observers, most of whom had only a very impressionistic understanding of the African societies which they were describing. Their contacts were with the leaders of the communities concerned and, for the most part, they worked through interpreters. Even those few who spoke the native languages never moved far from the royal court. Consequently they were particularly ill-informed about precisely those areas of African social life on which the modern social anthropologist has made himself especially expert, namely kinship and the land-rights of the commonality. In these circumstances, the apparent fit between Walter’s model and Walter’s history is simply a by-product of lack of information. The model derives in a quite straightforward way from Weber:

In terroristic states, the agents of violence are structurally detached, often living apart and usually organized as independent social units—armies, corps of executioners, alien mercenaries, special police, etc. In the Nazi state, the SS and the Gestapo were organized as specialists in terror, even dissociated from other staffs of violence such as the army and the police. [p. 342]

and from this Walter infers that:

Therefore, the kind of cooperation in which people associate and work together without being friends or trusting one another in the first place would endure the terror best. Since they are already cooperating without friendship and trust…. Curiously, then, a society in which people are already isolated and atomized, divided by suspicions and mutually destructive rivalry would support a system of terror better than a society without much chronic antagonism. [pp. 342-3]

Now it is apparent from various passages in his book (e.g., pp. 5, 282, 341) that Walter considers that the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba, are all countries in which despotic terrorism flourishes, or has recently flourished, so we must infer that these are societies in which, from the start, the population has been “divided by suspicions and mutually destructive rivalry.” But all the evidence goes the other way. It would be difficult to devise a convincing cross-cultural scale of comparative friendliness and kinship solidarity, but I should myself have supposed that, however such a scale were constructed, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Cubans would be bound to come very near the top. So there seems to be something wrong somewhere.

Walter claims that his African evidence supports his thesis. He admits that the nineteenth-century British description of the Zulu King as a “bloodthirsty, barbarian despot with absolute control of a celibate manslaying machine” “bore scant resemblance to the complex realities of the Zulu state” (p. 234) in the form it had reached by 1879 (about which we know a great deal), but he implies that it might have been quite an appropriate description of the first two Zulu despots who ruled from 1818-1840 (about whom we know relatively little). He claims that these despots “took pains to control sexual behavior, marriage and the family and to reduce the social power of kinship. The later Zulu kings, working in conditions of limited monarchy, cooperated with the pressures to restore the traditional rights to marry. The family eventually returned to the province of custom, and kinship institutions recovered authority” (p. 332). Evidently we are expected to believe that in Zulu history there was a critical period of some twenty years during which the family had ceased to form a part of the “province of custom” but that shortly afterwards the situation was exactly reversed. If Walter’s arguments were correct it is surely very surprising that throughout the whole of the period under discussion the Zulu adhered to a rule of strict clan exogamy, practiced polygamy, and had an absolute prohibition against divorce!

The point is this. In the pre-despotic phase of the Zulu polity, the Zulu political system was much like that of many other African peoples; kinship groupings determined by common descent were co-terminous with political groupings. During the era of despotism this was not the case; the kings recruited their regiments (“armies, corps of executioners, alien mercenaries, special police etc.”) from right across the board without regard to kinship affiliation, and it was these organizations which attracted the attention of contemporary European observers.

During their period of military service the men were not allowed to marry. Their future wives were maintained in “seraglios” in the vicinity of the King’s court, and the sexual favors of the latter were under the strict control of the King and the King’s mother. The age of marriage for both sexes was delayed, but in the case of the males this delay was probably no greater than would normally be the case in any context where men commonly had more than one wife. The “seraglios” of unmarried girls were there to provide the unmarried warriors with some reassurance that the wealthier polygynists were not scooping the whole pool of available women. Indeed, in spite of Walter’s assertions and the misrepresentations of the contemporary chroniclers, there is really no evidence to suggest that in Shaka’s day, in Zulu society as a whole the institution of marriage was under attack.

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