In a relatively chronological look at the works of Olaudah Equiano, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud we can see a historical shift in the role of the individual in feelings of self and selfhood. Viewed through the context of oppressive colonialism, it can be observed that as individuals become alienated from their culture due to the effects of colonization and injustice in the form of slavery and poverty they move towards a collective sense of self that encompasses a entire people.
Unable to reconcile themselves fully with their heritage, they restructure their self-location. By reacting in a constructive way to combat rather than simply live with the changes, they become a part of the whole and the individual self is abandoned for the collective. Equiano is able through the narrative of his life to provide an illustration of the changes, which underwent African slaves permanently displaced by a corrupt form of commerce. It is not surprising that Marx, in attacking capitalism would attack the institution of slavery.
In Equiano’s own history, we see the fruits of communism. Franz Fanon provides excellent insight of the post-colonial state of mind, while from Freud there is the exploration of the turning of the definition of self from an inward and individualistic principle into a communal energy. Olaudah Equiano’s depiction of his life is revealing in how economic and social circumstance greatly affects an individual’s idea of selfhood. More importantly perhaps is how this location of selfhood can affect an individual’s perspective on life changing events.
Born in Guinea, in his early life he was the son of a chieftain and lived in a society based on loose economic principles, where as Equiano notes, “state money is of little use” (Equiano, 1999, p. 18). Had he been left to live out his life in that village and continue the traditions of his forefathers, Equiano would have become a very different man. Instead, as he came to learn, his skin color marked him as an exportable commodity. With each step in his journey, Equiano’s definition of self is forever altered.
At first sheltered within his own family and community, he identified himself as part of this small and distinct community. Enslaved and traveling through Africa to the coast, Equiano finds his self relocated to the larger category of African as he finds himself able to develop a repertoire and understanding with other nations of African, “From the time I left my own nation I always found somebody that understood me till I came to the sea coast.
The languages of different nations did not totally differ” (Equiano, 1999, p. 0). With these other Africans, as displaced in some cases as he, Equiano was able to form a bond beyond what he had previously believed to be possible. Even as a slave, in the first household he is brought to, Equiano’s is able to feel a kinship to the family due to the familiarity of culture and is able to delude himself into believing he will become part of this family. Afterwards, however, Equiano is broken from all that he has known before.
Taken to the coast of Africa and transported to Barbados, his feeling of cultural self-location is permanently damaged. In the horrors of the middle passage, he is bound to the other slaves in the misery and abject cruelty. On the journey, the whites take on a demonized quality that is at odds with Equiano’s later admiration and imitation of whites when he was enmeshed in English society, “I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore had the strong desire to resemble them” (Equiano, 1999, p. 33).
It is interesting that as he became more accustomed to whites through exposure to them in his everyday life, he began to absorb their culture and religion as part of himself. Separated from his own heritage and homeland, Equiano has little alternative but to draw from the slaveholder’s world. The single fact of his role as a slave, circumvents though does not erase his ancestral culture. Slavery as much as any other institution, which arose from it, embodies the absolute destructiveness of colonialism.
Though natives such as Equiano may retain the memory of cultural signifiers such as music, food, and language, his essential self is altered in such a way by his enslavement and the enslavement of his homeland that he will never be able to return to who he once was. This culture, as Franz Fanon explains in his speech “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” “becomes set of automatic habits, some traditions of dress and a few broken-down institutions.
Little movement can be discerned in such remnants of culture; there is no real creativity and no overflowing of life” (Fanon, 1959). The culture itself and the society, which perpetuates it, are also forever changed. For Equiano, to adapt and live in this new environment is to embrace it even as his core self rejects it. He learns to read and write, is baptized a Christian, all in his desire for freedom. Even with these many concessions, he finds himself still an oppressed and wasted commodity. His value in society still lies in the ability of others to buy and sell his person for their own benefit.
He feels that he can maintain a loyalty to his past by remembering but must make concessions to his present situation, as his situation is unchangeable. From this oppressive tradition of slavery, colonization, and the class subjugation inherent in both, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were able to develop a philosophy of economic equality that changed the individual self-unit to a larger, more cohesive group of the working class. As part of a massive movement, the individual slave or worker could topple to oppressive regimes, which enslaved and kept them in poverty.
With the publication of The Communist Manifesto, we encounter a different kind of definition of self than that seen in Equiano’s life story. At its base communism involves the benefit of the proletarian masses over the individual and therefore selfhood is seen as a collective consciousness. This collective is unchangeable in its basic construction of ideology and in its actions as well. Since historically people had been defined by social and economic factors as well as lineage, the masses taking precedence over the individual created a major shift in the way selfhood was viewed.
The compartmentalizing of individuals based on feudal politics directly affected the idea of selfhood as a person’s contribution to society was given value not through labor but favor. With communism, Marx and Engels sought to erase this historically oppressive form of the societal hierarchy. The individual serfs and slaves, freemen and industrial laborers, all fell under one collective unit heading – namely that of the proletariat. In being classified as such their individual selves are stripped of importance and are replaced by a more cohesive though abstract self.
On the flip side of this coin, is the idea of the bourgeois. The bourgeois embodies a selfishness of individual interest, centered on the idea of capitalism; through their actions, the bourgeois as noted in the text “left no other nexus between people but that of naked self-interest” (Marx and Engels, 1998, first couple pages). The individual was of no benefit to the larger society, as acting in the interest of only oneself has led to economic and social inequalities, which are detrimental to the overall society.
With communism the idea of self became almost obsolete, selfhood was of little importance with the context of communism, where the masses held real sway. That communism was able to gain the ground in the preceding decades after the publication of The Communist Manifesto should not be surprising considering the class tensions which have continually erupted throughout history. Sigmund Freud notes in Civilization and its Discontents that while “there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego” (Freud, 1989, p. 3) human beings have largely been immune to this principle in the situation of love.
“Against all evidence of his senses, a man who is in love declare that “I” and “you” are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact” (Freud, 1989, p 14), Freud goes on to explain. While love may be a strong word to use in reference to individual changing loyalties from their government in favor of the people, a humanitarian effort, which seeks to elevate the suffering and restructure an unjust system, is nonetheless loving. When confronted with a wish to help themselves and others, individuals are committed to a loving act.
In realizing this intention, they are able to transcend their own selfish wants and needs to look at the bigger picture of the wants and needs of a larger society. In doing so, they become one with the other individuals within the movement. They all become part of a larger selfhood, based not on individualism but mutual respect and standing. In the changing world represented through these writings, the definition of self is not stationary instead it changes much like the ideologies and politics which caused colonialism, slavery, and the subsequent discontent of the people with these systems.
The self as espoused by communism is a result of the struggle; while the initial drive may be moral the outcome is political. Individuals such as Equianos and others enslaved literally and figuratively by the colonial system, overcome through a merging of an abstracted communal sense. The individual’s projection of self becomes identified through his associations, which with the invent of communism becomes political and economical instead of cultural.