Radical Scepticism: an interview with Jean Copans

In an interview with Jean Copans, ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig asks him about a lifetime dedicated to research, activism and writing on Africa. Determined always to carry out serious investigation in his own research, Copans explains we must ensure that our ‘radical’ understanding is not completely divorced from the real world.    

Can you please give us a description of your early politicization and work in the 1950s and 1960s?

My parents – an American father and a French mother – had been Communist sympathisers since the 1930s, having met and married in France where my father was studying for a doctorate from Columbia University. They returned to the US on the outbreak of war but after 1945 they finally settled in Paris -my father having landed in Normandy in June 1944, serving with the US Army Office of War Information because of his French language skills. This explains why I was born in New York in 1942. My father went on to work initially for Voice of America, then for French national radio where for a quarter of a century he presented programmes on American music – mostly black music and jazz.[1] We always had plenty of newspapers at home and I followed from afar the wars in Korea and French Indo-China, and the early stages of the Algerian War. In May 1958 I also experienced first-hand, you might say, the coup that brought General de Gaulle to power.

With a view to returning to the US, I started my education at the American School in Paris, before moving for my secondary years to the private École alsacienne. The people and atmosphere there were so bourgeois, with very few gauchistes, that I wanted to attend a regular lycée (and one I believed, wrongly at that time, would be more ‘popular’). So, in the autumn of 1959 I started at the Lycée Condorcet, near the Gare St Lazare. There I met Jeunesse communiste (JC) activists, including their leader, Alain Krivine, who was in my class and became well-known in national politics. Alain and one of his brothers had already joined the Trotskyist Fourth International and were pursuing its familiar tactic of entryism. When we started university at the Sorbonne in 1961, in the Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines, we all joined the UEC (Union des étudiants communistes).

During my three years of undergraduate studies (history, geography, ethnology and sociology of sub-Saharan Africa), I spent much of my time campaigning: for an end to the war in Algeria (the ceasefire came in March 1962); against neocolonial interventions in newly independent francophone Africa and the former Belgian Congo (independent since 1960); and lastly, via the very reformist student union UNEF (Union nationale des étudiants de France), for improvements in student conditions.[2]

My activism evolved on several levels, layered one inside another like Russian dolls: the PCF (Parti communiste français), which I subsequently joined for a year in 1964-5; the gauchiste tendency within the UEC; the Fourth International; and from 1961 or 1962 the Pabloite tendency, a splinter group named after the pseudonymous ‘Pablo’ – its Greek founder and leader, Michel Raptis.

The Pabloites adopted a very militant position towards the Third World and its national liberation movements, which I found increasingly attractive as an undergraduate studying these regions. Particularly influential was my Certificate in Human Geography course, which had a strong Third World focus and was taught in part by the geographer Yves Lacoste, author of a title on the Third World for the Que-sais-je? series and husband of the ethnologist and Algerian specialist Colette Lacoste-Dujardin.

Through Alain Krivine and other comrades, I had also become involved in providing clandestine support to the Algerian FLN (Front de libération nationale). This was low-key practical assistance – mainly logistical and financial – and in truth my activities were somewhat limited as my father was still a US citizen. This Pabloite engagement with the FLN explains why my comrades came to play such an active role within post-independence Algeria, remodelling its administration after June 1962. Whatever their precise affiliation, all these militant revolutionaries were known as pieds rouges rather than pieds noirs, the name given to white European settlers in colonial Algeria.

Your first ‘political years’ were spent in the French radical (and Trotskyist) left. You were also inspired by the struggle for national liberation by the Algerian people. Can you speak about your direct experience during this time?

I went to Algeria in July-August 1963 to try and understand what was happening on the ground, but I declined the chance to become a pied rouge. In the months between the ceasefire and the immediate post-independence period of summer 1962, rival FLN factions had engaged in violent ‘military’ clashes, raising doubts in my mind that were only confirmed by my visit. Victory went to the Ben Bella clan, which had long enjoyed Pabloite support for its programme of socialist self-management (the programme that had prompted the Pabloite split with the Fourth International which remained very statist and Leninist). I turned down the offer of a teaching post at the University of Algiers – partly for the reasons given above, but also because I then had only two of the four certificates needed for my degree. Ten years later I made a similar decision in refusing to go and teach at the University of Maputo after the liberation of Mozambique – a state that was clearly part of the socialist bloc and ultra-Stalinist in its administration and ideology (an analysis amply confirmed by my subsequent visit in 1983).

Late 1963 thus saw the end of my period of intense political militancy and the start of my professional career in African studies, ethnology and sociology. I read the works of Georges Balandier, who encouraged me to study for a doctorate under his supervision and in January 1965 appointed me as secretary of his political anthropology research group. Perhaps I should add that on 24 December 1964 I had married a secondary-school teacher who did not work in Paris, which brought some changes to my lifestyle and routines. Through my contacts with fellow researchers – Marxist and non-Marxist! – my engagement subsequently became more intellectual and ideological.

From 1959 onwards I was reading most of the French communist and Marxist journals and frequenting the bookshops that stocked this literature. I was also a regular at the Salons du livre Marxiste – book fairs that were then pretty popular and well attended. The late 1950s and 1960s saw powerful movements of internal criticism growing within the PCF and its academic and trade union affiliates. My new life as a militant intellectual also became public at this time, as in December 1964 when I published my first paper – an extended discussion of two monographs on social class in sub-Saharan Africa, by Jean Ziegler and Raymond Barbé respectively. The paper appeared in Sous le drapeau du socialisme, the new monthly journal of the AMR (Alliance marxiste révolutionnaire), the official title of the [Pabloite] splinter group described above. By then I had been working on AMR publications, in practical and editorial roles, for at least two years. I had discovered my passion for writing and the critique of ideas, and also for the real world of publishing and even printing (in the days of linotype).

How did you move from these interests into research on  Senegal? What explains the ‘emergence’ of these interests and how were they tied to your activism on the left?

In the 1960s the research interests of French Africanists (in ethnology, anthropology and sociology) reflected Anglo-American trends in these disciplines, and the majority of our reading was in English. Contemporary undergraduates and doctoral students had greater expertise in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya or southern Africa than in Côte d’Ivoire or Senegal. In the 1950s French Africanists had really only just begun breaking ground, which is why in 1965 I had neither a field nor a domain for my doctoral research project. The Centre d’études africaines was based at the EPHE (École pratique des hautes études) VIe Section, which in 1974 became the EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociale). There the leading lights were Georges Balandier and Paul Mercier, whose main preoccupations centred on social and cultural change, the political anthropology of Africa (traditional, modern and post-colonial), under-development and current development initiatives.

In late 1965 I spent three months in Côte d’Ivoire, working on an applied social science project for a private research organisation. I was investigating agricultural modernisation initiatives in the peri-urban zone of Abidjan, a topic in line with the dominant theme of contemporary Africanist research – understanding rural societies and the modernisation of the peasant farmers who would be vital to the economic take-off of the new nations. There followed several twists and turns in my professional and personal life before I Ieft for Senegal in January 1967. Among these was my son’s birth in December 1966, which delayed my family posting. My mission came under the auspices of ORSTOM (Office de la recherche scientifique et technique outre-mer) – now the IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement) – a national research organisation founded in colonial days (1943) and active throughout the former French territories worldwide. I had gone to study social stratification in the Mouride Brotherhood, a Sufi confraternity deemed to be hierarchical and perhaps totalitarian in structure – happily a hypothesis that turned out to be completely false!

My move into research was not accompanied by any militant engagement in support of the revolutionary struggles ongoing in Africa in the late 1960s. Several factors were in play here. The intense mobilisation provoked by the Algerian War had not prompted a similar degree of activism in support of newly independent Algeria. Elsewhere in francophone Africa, in countries by then independent for several years, the erstwhile nationalist reform movements that came to power had been co-opted immediately by the French authorities and lost all potential for radical action. The only exception was Guinea, which, despite its geopolitical alignments, had become a dictatorship and was thus socialist in name only. Movements in non-francophone Africa were ‘off-limits’ to French militants who lacked any contacts there. Finally, the focus of the ideological, political and theoretical debates that sprang up around Marxism’s new directions were anti-Stalinism, Sino-Soviet confrontation and the ‘romantic’ opening-up of Cuba. My activism thus became more academic and conceptual, yet at the same time more empirical and practical: how are we to discern the process of class struggle in societies of which we know almost nothing? What do we need to think and do? How are we to conduct the essential fieldwork? And the result was an attitude of radical skepticism towards dogmatic assertions of the theoretical benefits of Marxism, totally at odds with the so-called revolutionary realities of the new Third World nations.

You were researching social and economic change in Senegal in the late 1960s, specifically the Mouride brotherhood. There are a few of questions here. Can you describe life in Senegal (a relatively newly independent country) while you were there? Could you also speak of your impressions of the immense uprising in the country in 1968 and its consequences? What was your direct involvement?

Influenced by my reading, education and early fieldwork, as well as by experienced researchers like Jean Suret-Canale, Maurice Godelier, and especially Claude Meillassoux, I began to rethink the anthropology of pre-capitalist societies, the nature of post-colonial capitalism, and especially the structure of the new ‘nations’ and neocolonial states – social groups, modes of production etc. I believed it absolutely essential to clarify our understanding of these areas before devising any kind of political programme. The extreme numerical and sociological weakness of the working classes, the absence of private agricultural landowners – these were vital characteristics that demanded investigation before committing any serious militant support to parties or groups whose boasted radicalism seemed completely divorced from the real world.

Late 1960s Senegal was still a very colonial society, with a large French administrative and military presence at least 30,000 strong and an export-oriented economy dominated by a groundnut sector in the midst of technological modernisation while remaining within an ostensibly socialist system of cooperatives, rural development and so on! My study of the Mouride Brotherhood prompted me to question the existing Third-Worldist (René Dumont) or Marxist (Samir Amin) approaches, which failed to distinguish between different levels of national political control, market-driven economic exploitation, and religious and ideological submission to religious leaders or marabouts.

While May ’68 in Senegal had some strictly local roots, others were in a sense pan-African through the University of Dakar’s multinational recruitment policy. I was involved very indirectly in these events through contacts of my wife, who was enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Languages at the university (where in 1968 the teaching staff was still all white) and was the only one of the white (French and Lebanese) students to go on strike. I believe there were 5,000 students in all at the time. Of course, I met some of these militants, whose programme combined extreme corporatism (in favour of higher grants) with a highly abstract anti-imperialism. We were careful, nonetheless. At the request of President Senghor, France had repatriated two professors of sociology – Louis-Vincent Thomas, the Head of Faculty, and Jacques Lombard – whose only crime had been to defend their students against violent state repression. By contrast, because I had a reputation as a gauchiste militant, my ORSTOM colleagues came to ask me about the potential impact of May ’68 in France – a May ’68 whose roots I did not fully understand after eighteen months away.

Can you discuss what you did after you returned to France after your period in West Africa? How did your work develop during that period and what was the influence/involvement in France and Africa?

A year after I returned to France in 1970, I secured a post as a tenured research fellow and immediately expanded my politico-professional activities. I popularised the ‘Anthropology, Colonialism and Imperialism’ debate, started in the US by Kathleen Gough and fellow anthropologists, particularly in the pages of Current Anthropology. I edited dossiers for the journal Les Temps modernes, followed by a substantial anthology for François Maspero, the radical gauchiste and Third-Worldist publisher. In 1973 I defended my doctoral thesis from a Marxist perspective, in line with current debates in French Marxist anthropology. Teaching at the EHESS, I also became a very militant trade unionist, leaving the ultra-Stalinist and PCF-controlled SNESUP (Syndicat nationale de l’enseignement supérieur) and joining the SGEN (Syndicat général de l’éducation nationale), which was aligned with the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail) and espoused a reformist Christian left ideology that was shared by three-quarters of the unionised staff.  As an aside: the highly corporatist Communist-leaning labour unions were seeking revenge on the left of May ’68, detesting the wholly exceptional solidarity displayed by the EPHE-EHESS staff. In effect, doctoral students, administrative and technical staff, ‘junior faculty’, directors and professors had all combined to form a single labour union, thereby calling into question the legitimacy and authority of PCF-appointed union bureaucracies. This type of vertically integrated unionism lasted throughout the 1970s, and as a result I led delegations and negotiated with individuals like Fernand Braudel and François Furet, who disagreed profoundly with the staff yet respected us absolutely.

The 1970s were the years of the first great West African droughts, leading to significant urban migration and the onset of famine. In 1973 a group of colleagues signed a petition denouncing France’s neocolonial policies, which were aggravating the situation, and established a Comité Information Sahel (of which I was treasurer). Over the next two years the Comité maintained a high public profile: in 1974 Claude Meillassoux and I edited anonymously Qui se nourrit de la famine au Sahel?, a highly critical work published by Éditions Maspero, while in June 1975 a day of protest in the Bois de Vincennes attracted at least 3,000 people. The book went into a second edition, selling 15,000 copies in two years! Reprisals followed, more or less overt, and unlike other colleagues I received no promotion for the next two years. Alongside the book for the Comité, however, I had also edited a two-volume work for Dossiers africains, a popularising series published by François Maspero and co-directed by Marc Augé and myself. This work, Sécheresses et famines du Sahel, was much more academic in tone and enabled me to expand my contacts among British and American Africanists mobilised by the same topic, especially with regard to northern Nigeria and the Horn of Africa.

This international collaboration was extremely productive, so much so that by accident I became the ‘Mr Famine’ of the French Sahel. While I was working at Johns Hopkins University in 1975-6, I was visited in my office by medical scientists engaged in nutritional research, and I also conducted an active correspondence with British and Canadian anthropologists. I published half a dozen articles or notes in English at a time when, apart from the academics mobilised by the Comité, French institutions and research groups seemed indifferent to the crisis. This apathy confirmed my enduring belief in the need for anthropological and political activism, albeit an activism more analytical in character than ideological or organisational. I would add also that the book’s most active promoters were Catholic associations and NGOs like the CCFD (Comité catholique contre la faim et pour le développement).

The late 1970s saw two further engagements on my part: the first was the study of Africa’s working classes, where for twenty-five years I became the French specialist, again as part of a group of international collaborators – Canadian, American, British, Dutch and African (particularly South African). It was Peter Gutkind who first involved me in this venture in 1975 following our debates in the pages of Cahiers d’études africaines, and I also was engaged with the Canadian journal Labour, Capital and Society with Robin Cohen, Peter Waterman and Edward Webster. For over a decade, ORSTOM hosted a very active research group, my EHESS seminar became the centre for internationalist studies, and a Newsletter was launched which led to the publication of several titles between 1987 and 1997. I published an article in 2014 that explored the reasons underlying this success and its subsequent demise around the turn of the century. In the past year, however, I have noted a revival of interest among a new generation of French Africanists. I have played no part in this new ideological and militant mobilisation but its motivations clearly differs from those of its predecessor thirty years ago.

The second was African political studies, in anthropology as well as political science per se. This was the movement embodied in the journal Politique africaine, which I helped to found in 1980. I also served as a director in 1983-5, before leaving to spend four years in Kenya. I worked very closely with Jean-Franc̜ois Bayart, then known only for his ‘politics from below’, the theory that transformed leftist and also Marxist analysis – initially of state machines and modes of political control, and subsequently of the underlying meanings of popular social movements. Despite all these academic and editorial engagements, my links with African militants – union officials or political activists – have been very few. I limited my contact because nearly all these individuals were assimilated within state or institutional hierarchies, prompting an enduring mistrust on my part. This was true in Senegal but also in Mozambique, where I had several introductions from students or from AMR contacts like Aquino de Bragança, the adviser of Samora Machel. I should emphasise, however, that as a doctoral supervisor, unofficially at the EHESS from 1977 and officially at the University of Picardy (Amiens) from 1990, I have had only one or two African students researching the working classes – tangible proof of the sharp decline in working-class activism since the 1980s.

ROAPE was born from the struggles of a second wave of independence in the 1970s, mostly in Portugal’s ex-colonies, and the hopes of a generation in a more critical and Marxist-inspired independence, leading to a transition to socialism. Where you similarly influenced by these movements-specifically in Tanzania and Mozambique?

I took a very critical view of Portugal’s ex-colonies, despite my contacts with students from these countries and my interests in Africa as a whole, not just its francophone nations. I even published an article, later translated into English, proposing the hypothesis that the old socialist states and Africa’s young Marxist-Leninist states shared a number of similarities in sociological terms. In the case of Tanzania, I knew enough of the researchers published in ROAPE to recognise the need to differentiate between the ideas of its leaders, the prevailing political ideologies, and the everyday workings of African bureaucracies. A first visit to these countries in 1983, before my longer stay in East Africa, confirmed me in my views. In fact, from the late 1970s, it was South Africa and the different anti-apartheid movements that mobilised me in particular. I had some collected papers by Mike Morris, Harold Wolpe and Martin Legassick translated into French and published by François Maspero, but to my regret this evoked no response among French Africanists, nor more generally among Marxist economists specialising in the Third World. When Eddie Webster invited me to defy the boycott and travel to Cape Town for the congress of South African sociologists in 1985, it was 100 per cent Marxist!

My engagement with South Africa took several forms: leading a CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) research group (in succession to Claude Meillassoux) in the 1990s; co-directing an EHESS seminar on southern Africa for twenty years; and in the mid-1990s, helping to establish the Institut français d’Afrique du Sud (IFAS) for research in the social sciences (modelled on identical bodies in Nairobi, which I ran, Ibadan and Addis Ababa, to mention sub-Saharan Africa alone). Yet these initiatives enjoyed only moderate success in mobilising French academics who continue to prioritise the countries of francophone Africa. We can debate how far such institutional and administrative engagement is truly activist and militant, but I have always felt that concrete action is required to extend the professional Africanist culture of my students and colleagues, all too often reluctant to stray beyond ‘their own backyard’. African students in particular are more tightly bound than most by a methodological nationalism with deep roots in the colonial past.

For further information on Jean Copans’ work and publications, see his articles in ROAPE and particularly the most recent issue. See also a long  filmed interview, directed by Frédéric Laugrand for the series Les Possédés et leurs mondes, which explores in greater detail most of the issues cited here (divided into ten separate episodes)

Jean Copans is an Africanist anthropologist, who specializes on Senegal, the social sciences of development and the history and methods of anthropology and sociology. He is a long-standing comrade and collaborator of ROAPE and a member of our International Advisory Board.

This interview was conducted in Dakar, Senegal on 3 November 2019 and translated by Maggie Sumner. 


[1] See Un amour (Les Films d’Ici, 90 mins, 2014) – the very personal film made by my producer/director brother Richard Copans about our parents, in which I do not entirely recognise myself. See also the Wikipedia article on Sim Copans.

[2] The UNEF later helped to spearhead May ’68, but I was not involved as I had been in Senegal since January 1967 conducting my anthropological fieldwork.


  1. For those of us from what was then RAPE, active in trying to bridge the gap between the anglophone and francophone intellectual and geographical perspectives, met in Paris in the 1970s with people like Jean Copans and Claude Meillassoux, this interview is most welcome and important.

    At the time, we had hoped that what became ROAPE would be a bilingual journal. The challenge of bridging linguistic and colonial divides remains as true today for critical political economy analysis concerning Africa as it was then and not only on both sides of the Channel.

    Thank you for this.
    Bonnie Campbell

  2. I posted a number of comments earlier which seem to have disappeared. The main thrust was to welcome this initiative – and remind readers that Jean and I worked together to produce an introduction to the collection of essays by French Marxist anthropologists that I edited and Helen Lackner translated back in the 1970s, as Relations of Production. Like Bonnie Campbell (hello, Bonnie), I recall with great nostalgia the 1970s when the Channel and language differences were not major obstacles to our European links with colleagues and comrades in France, Italy, Germany and other centres of radical analysis of Africa. Lets start it up again, please Jean, are you interested?


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