Tag Archives: revolution

Julius K Nyerere — Ujamaa

41enDxo8l6LUjamaa by Julius K Nyerere, is a collection of essays and pamphlets, a mix of ideals and strategies for establishing the new Tanzania on a socialist foundation of mutual aid and equality. It is a very different kind of work than Freire’s quite intellectual theorisations of the role of struggle and popular education, or Myles Horton’s storytelling, yet all three contain very similar and inspiring understandings of radical and revolutionary change. Perhaps my favourite quote encapsulates for me a key aspect of the world I would like to build, and in doing so highlights one of the things I hate most about the world as we have built it to date:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

Thinking about it, seems like much of the nastiness of rich people comes from the various rationalisations they have invented to avoid feeling this shame.

From the preface:

The primary purpose of this book is to make this material available in a convenient form for use by the leaders and educators of the new Tanzania. Its secondary purpose is to contribute to the growth of a wider international understanding of the aspirations and purposes of the Tanzanian people, and perhaps to promote further discussion about the relevance and requirements of socialism in relation to mankind’s march to the future.
— J. K. Nyerere, July 1968 (viii)

This is an exciting moment where everything is possible, yet an immensely challenging time where everything must be done in the face of great opposition. Nyerere was a teacher before he became prime minister, first of Tanganyika, and then the new formation of Tanzania as it joined with Zanzibar. He held power until 1985 in a one party state, so this post is looking much more at the ideals than at a more tarnished and controversial reality that I don’t know enough about. It does seem though, especially given the failure to transfer power which signals a failure to develop other leaders, that Nyerere’s life did not quite embody these ideals the way that Horton and Freire’s did. I will have to come back to that, and the very real pressures from the U.S. and international lending agencies and the warning to all Socialist leaders through Lumumba’s assasination and etc, but I look forward to exploring more the histories of ujamaa communities. Reading Ella Baker’s biography I found out that Bob Moses of SNCC was there as a teacher for a couple of years, in the early 70s, but I haven’t found out more yet. From Highlander to Tanzania, though I know a lot happened in between.

Here Nyerere describes a process of building socialism on Tanzania’s cultural base,  starting where people are and moving forward, recovering from the past what should be recovered to build a new society. For Nyerere:

Socialism–like democracy–is an attitude of mind. In a socialist society it is the socialist attitude of mind, and not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern, which is needed to ensure that the people care for each other’s welfare.
(‘Ujamaa — The Basis of African Socialism’ – 1)

There is much in Tanzania’s heritage that Nyerere is able to look to in building a better future, and such clear common sense that it makes me even more ashamed of the constant fear-mongering and ever present greed in the US, and growing in the UK:

Apart from the anti-social effects of the accumulation of personal wealth, the very desire to accumulate it must be interpreted as a vote of “no confidence” in the social system. For when a society is so organized that it cares about its individuals, then, provided he is willing to work, no individual within that society should worry about what will happen to him tomorrow if he does not hoard wealth today. Society should look after him, or his widow, or his orphans. That is exactly what traditional African society succeeded in doing. (3)

This sense of community is one key here, of taking care of each other. A second is holding land in common, and understanding its use value above its land value:

And in rejecting the capitalist attitude of mind which colonialism brought into Africa, we must reject also the capitalist methods which go with it. One of these is the individual ownership of land. To us in Africa land was always recognized as belonging to the community. Each individual within our society had a right to the use of land, because otherwise he could not earn his living and one cannot have the right to life without also having the right to some means of maintaining life. (7)

The TANU Government must go back to the traditional African custom of land-holding. That is to say a member of society will be entitled to a piece of land on condition that he uses it. (8)

I quite love his critique of actually-existing socialism, some things never change I suppose — the following quotes are all from The Varied Paths to Socialism (Address to Cairo University, 10 April 1967):

Unfortunately, however, there has grown up what I can only call a ‘theology of socialism’…the true doctrine… (76)

Even better:

It is imperative that socialists continue thinking.  (77)

And best of all:

For socialism the basic purpose is the well-being of the people, and the basic assumption is an acceptance of human equality. For socialism there must be a belief that every individual man or woman, whatever, colour, shape, race, creed, religion, or sex, is an equal member of society, with equal rights in the society and equal duties to it.

A person who does not accept this may accept many policies pursued by socialists; but he cannot be a socialist. (78)

It is perhaps the headings of the various sections that give the clearest idea of not just the vision, but how he believes it can be achieved through flexible, adaptable, place-specific actions holding key principles constant: ‘Socialism is against Exploitation and Injustice’ (79), ‘Group or Communal Ownership’ (82), ‘The Purpose of Socialist Organization must be the Central Factor’ (84), ‘Socialist Policies will vary from Place to Place’ (87). Above all — and this is how it connects with Freire, Horton and others — is that:

First and foremost, there must be, among the leadership, a desire and a determination to serve alongside of, and in complete identification with, the masses. the people must be, and know themselves to be, sovereign. Socialism cannot be imposed upon people; they can be guided; they can be led. But ultimately they must be involved.

If the people are not involved in public ownership, and cannot control the policies followed, the public ownership can lead to fascism, not socialism. If the people are not sovereign, they they can suffer dreadful tyranny imposed in their name. If the people are not honestly served by those to whom they have entrusted responsibility, then corruption can negate all their efforts and make them abandon their socialist ideals. (89)

The USSR showed what such dreadful tyranny could be.

The question becomes then, how people are involved in building Socialism and in public ownership, and what is necessary for that to happen. First, there is a policy of ‘Education for Self-Reliance’ (policy booklet published March 1967). There is a need to reject the current idea of education as preparation for a profession, or to inculcate values of the colonial society, with all of its emphasis and encouragement of the individualistic instincts of mankind where wealth establishes worth. Instead, education should be seen as the way in which we:

transmit from one generation to the next the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the society, and to prepare the young people for their future membership of the society and their active participation in its maintenance or development. (45)

And for the purpose of building a new world, this is what education must accomplish:

The education provided must therefore encourage the development in each citizen of three things: an inquiring mind; an ability to learn from what others do, and reject or adapt it to his own needs; and a basic confidence in his own position as a free and equal member of the society, who values others and is valued by them for what he does and not for what he obtains. (53)

Nyerere looked to the creation of what he called ‘ujaama villages’, cooperative villages where socialism could be practiced and perfected. From ‘Progress in the Rural Area’ (speech to University College branch of TANU Youth league, 21 Jan 1968)

In the past we worked together because that was the custom; now we have to do it deliberately and to do it in such a manner that modern knowledge can be utilized for the common good. (181)

An acknowledgment that people learn through doing, through committing to action and then reflecting on that action:

In villages ‘people must be allowed to make their own decisions; people must be allowed to make their own mistakes. Only if we accept this are we really accepting the philosophy of socialism…

It notes that sometimes people get it right and experts get it wrong.

Progress needs leadership, but not of the bullying, intimidating kind… A good leader will explain, teach and inspire. In an ujamaa village he will do more. he will lead by doing. (183)

More on leadership:

You can lead the people only by being one of them, but just being more active as well as more thoughtful, and more willing to teach as well a more willing to learn–from them and others. (184)

‘Socialism and Rural Development’ (Policy booklet published Sept 1967) outlines the underpinnings of traditional ujamaa living:

The first of these basic assumptions, or principles of life, I have sometimes described as ‘love’, but that word is so often used to imply a deep personal affection that it can give a false impression. A better word is perhaps ‘respect’, for it was–and is–really a recognition of mutual involvement in one another, and may or may not involve any affection deeper than that of familiarity. (107)

The second:

…the second related to property. It was that all the basic goods were held in common, and shared among all members of the unit. There was an acceptance that whatever one person had in the way of basic necessities, they all had; no one could go hungry while others hoarded food, and no one could be denied shelter if others had space to share. (107)

The third:

Finally, and as a necessary third principle, was the fact that everyone had an obligation to work. (108)

These are villages founded on the full equality of all residents, and with self-government in all matters concerning their own affairs. Some issues will have to be decided through cooperation with villages near by, and a few through democratic structures at an even larger scale:

National defence, education, marketing, health, communications, large industries — for all these things and many more, all of Tanzania has to work together. The job of Government would therefore be to help these self-reliant communities and to organize their co-operation with others.  (129)

These communities mast also address the inadequacies of traditional system, especially the treatment of women. Nyerere writes ‘it is essential that our women live on terms of full equality with their fellow citizens who are men.’ The second change is that poverty must be improved, they cannot remain with an equality maintained at a very low level. (109)

Above all people learn by doing, step by step, in their own time.

All of this has to achieved through persuasion and choice, rather than force. Looking at step-by-step transformation, carrying out little by little, testing out, evaluating

Village democracy must operate from the beginning; there is no alternative if this system is to succeed…It does not matter if the discussion takes a long time; we are building a nation, and this is not a short-term thing. For the point about decisions by an ujamaa village is not just whether the members do or do not decide to dig a well or clear a new shamba. The point is that by making this decision, and then acting upon it, they will be building up a whole way of life–a socialist way fo life. Nothing is more important than that, and it is not the work of a few days, nor of a few people. An ujamaa village is the village of the members, and the life there is their life. Therefore everything which relates exclusively to their village, and their life in it, must be decided by them and not by anyone else. (136)

I liked that Nyerere admits mistakes.

This does not mean that the Government should build modern expensive houses and complete villages for the new settlers to move into. that assumption has been our mistake in the past. (137)

For those places where land is no longer available, young people must start new communities elsewhere, but those established can develop cooperative structures where they are:

People move in stages, clear land, build themselves. Should practice working cooperatively, and this may not be in agriculture, but in an industrial or service project that serves good of all. (139)

It is here that the revolutionary learning through collective praxis exists.

To finish on a slightly different note, I also liked the outlining of how development should work in a newly liberated country awake and aware and trying to grow without growing into a neo-colonial relationship. I liked the explanationations and the refinements of the Arusha Declaration from ‘The Purpose is Man’ (Speech given at Dar es Salaam University College, 5 August 1967). It looks back at the Arusha Document, with its policies of self reliance, and outline of self development goals best adapted to their economic, cultural, environmental circumstances. It seems to me these are no bad places to start in thinking about models of support for development today:

We shall remain Tanzanians

Growth must come out of our own roots… (92)

Commitment to a Quality of Life

It is based on the assumption of human equality, on the belief that it is wrong for one man to dominate or to exploit another, and on the knowledge that every individual hopes to live in society as a free man able to lead a decent life in conditions of peace with his neighbours. (92)

Freedom must be maintained (93)

no foreign groups to own substantial industry or land

Progress by Evolution (93)

It does not accept remaining in poverty. ‘What we are attempting is a telescoped evolution of our economy and of our society.’ (94)

Integrated Programme based on Linked Principles (94)

Combination of self-reliance and socialist principles

The implications of self-reliance (95)

…it means that for our development we have to depend on ourselves and our own resources. (95)

Development through Agriculture (96)

And Appropriate Agricultural Methods (97)

This means improvement of the tools they now use and cooperative systems of production — He later expands on these last few points and how by moving little by little to better systems of agriculture and development they remain rooted in people’s skills, will be easier to adapt and retool, and will generate no debt as they would require very little capital up front.

It seems such common sense, yet it is the exact opposite of the decades of advice and demands from the World Bank, IMF and etc…

Small Industries, Factory Sites, Trade with Others, Capital Assistance

Overseas capital will also be welcome for any project where it can make our own efforts more effective — where it acts as a catalyst for Tanzanian activity. (100).

Skilled People are also needed. No False Pride in this Matter.

Human Equality–the Essence of Socialism.

The Challenge

My favourite quote again, just because:

The real question, therefore, is whether each of us is prepared to accept the challenge of building a state in which no man is ashamed of his poverty in the light of another’s affluence, and no man has to be ashamed of his affluence in the light of another’s poverty. (104-105)

He further develops the ideas of self-reliance in ‘After the Arusha Declaration’ (presidential Address to the TANU National Conference, 17 Oct 1967)

In fact, self-reliance is not really against anything or anyone, unless there are people who want to re-colonize us. Self-reliance is a positive affirmation that we shall depend on ourselves for the development of Tanzania, and that we shall use the resources we have for that purpose… (149)

And self-reliance at a local level:

For a community, self-reliance means that they will use the resources and the skills they jointly posses for their own welfare and their own development. They will not take the attitude that the Government, or Local Council, or anyone else, must come and do this or that for them before they make any progress. There will be things for which outside assistance in the form of skilled advice or a capital loan is necessary, but they will realize that this has to be paid for, directly or indirectly, by them and their fellow citizens. (152)

Emphasizing again

Leaders cannot do anything FOR the people. We can only provide the necessary information, guidance and organization for the people to build their own country for themselves. (157)

Just a final quote because I like it…

But works of art and the achievements of science are the products of the intellect–which, like land, is one of God’s gifts to man. And I cannot believe that God is so careless as to have made the use of one of His gifts depend on the misuse of another! (2)

Nyerere, Julius K. (1974) Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism. Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press.

For more on popular education and community development…

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Freire: Finding Voice and Praxis

Paulo Freire - Pedagogy of the OppressedThis second post on Paulo Freire’s thinking is shorter than some of the others. Perhaps just because as a writer I wanted to highlight these beautiful thoughts about words, speech, dialogue — the wondrous space created between us through communication where things can come to life that are greater than the sum of my thoughts or yours. This is the promise of collective thinking and action, and over and over again I have seen it fulfilled. Equally beautiful, equally important, is the necessity for us to name and understand things before we can change them, and of finding our own voice in this process.

Always, there can be no speaking truth to power without a corresponding action:

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world. (87)

He continues:

Human existence cannot be Silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.

But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can she say it for another, in a prescriptive act which robs others of their words. (88)

We all must speak. We all must act. But it is not just the speaking of words, it is the process of it and the underlying principles. Above all, the desire that we collectively realise our own humanity, and that this process demands love. In a footnote, Freire echoes Che Guavara’s famous sentiment:

I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For me, the revolution, which is not possible without a theory of revolution—and therefore science—is not irreconcilable with love. On the contrary: the revolution is made by people to achieve their humanization. What, indeed, is the deeper motive which moves individuals to become revolutionaries, but the dehumanization of people? The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of life. Guevara (while admitting the “risk of seeming ridiculous”) was not afraid to affirm it: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love. It is impossible to think of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.” Venceremos—The Speeches and Writings of Che Guevara, edited by John Gerassi (New York, 1969), p. 398. (89)

Thus love forms one basis for this radical dialogue in which we engage. Another prerequisite:

…dialogue cannot exist without humility. … How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others—mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s? (90)

Another:

Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all.(90)

Out of love, humility, and faith emerges the ideal we strive for, what Freire calls the ‘dialogical man’:

The “dialogical man” is critical and knows that although it is within the power of humans to create and transform, in a concrete situation of alienation individuals may be impaired in the use of that power. Far from destroying his faith in the people, however, this possibility strikes him as a challenge to which he must respond. (91)

He (she) responds through, patience, dialogue, a process of learning and acting together. Through this:

Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in reality—historical awareness itself—thus represents a step forward from emergence, and results from the conscientização of the situation. Conscientização is the deepening of the attitude of awareness characteristic of all emergence. (109)

Freire then writes, summarising for me at least just why this book is so important:

If this view be true, the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character. Thus the road to revolution involves openness to the people, not imperviousness to them; it involves communion with the people, not mistrust. (140)

This also perhaps explains why I wish Freire had had the same impact on European leftist movements that he did elsewhere in the world (though never enough I think, because this is hard). Imagine revolutionary politics based on love, faith in people and humility. Enough to make you weep.

Other posts on Freire:

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Oleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 silent film Arsenal. Amazing.

I loved it, it is something that will haunt me I think. I found it intensely moving and powerful — the images, the anti-war message. I didn’t understand much of what else the hell was going on. Which makes its power all the more epic in a way. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

We saw it at Bristol’s Watershed, Guy Bartell of Bronnt Industries Kapital had composed a new soundtrack for the film. Modern. Evocative. Brilliant. It may have had much to do with the way this film held my heart.

It is the end of WWI. Soldiers fighting. Soldiers returning home.

It is about famine.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalAn emaciated woman stands head down, leaning against a home alongside the street. I saw her standing there, mourned how hunger has stripped her of attractiveness, has reduced her to bones and sagging skin, emptied her of desire. Yet then an officer comes up to casually take her breast in his hand. Everything revolts against it, they way she is thus made into an inanimate sexual object to be dominated by the likes of him.

She does not react at all. He has found her wanting perhaps, he wanders away.

Famine. Hopelessness. Powerlessness. I cannot imagine myself in this.

A woman stands listless and still, her children screaming and pulling at her. They scream. Finally she begins to beat them mechanically. Arm rising and falling.

A man does the same to his emaciated horse. Murderous. Kicking and striking until he falls over in his weakness and rage.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of the hungry. The violence of the powerless against those even more powerless.

This is despair.

The violence of war. Young men. Bright smiles and clean white teeth in rictus grins surrounded by earth and ash.

The survivors have fewer teeth.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of war, the breakdown of mind, the stripping of humanity. Soldiers travel along trains through these particularly Russian montages of faces and spinning backgrounds. They march and march. They pose against the sky in the poses of toy soldiers, faceless, anonymous, placed and ordered by someone above.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalThe violence of them. The killing. The bayonets and the rifles, jagged silhouettes.

Women starving, standing, staring at the ground. Until the soldiers come home and find their wives’ carrying their new babies. Kto….who? Rape you think, loneliness, a favour for a scrap of bread.

The violence against women, children, animals, the earth untended, the men…they all give and take. Those behind it all, those responsible for it you never see, only their representatives in health and uniform. For the rest life reduced to fear and pain and hunger. A clinging to dust.

That is what I understood. And against this background a frenzy of soldiers, of crowds, of soldiers’ return and WWI’s end. The good guy:

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalYou follow him and a kind of narrative emerges around his appearances. A worker. That is all he will answer, from the Ukraine but above all a worker. This, then, is a kind of stand against the nationalism burgeoning here, the declaration of the Ukraine. The nationalists portrayed as silly and weak and bourgeois. But one of the guys yelling at the crowds sure looks like Trotsky. Maybe Trotsky just has that kind of face.

Is it all right to kick and kill the bourgeois in the street? a member of the crowd at a political rally asks.

Later on we receive the answer — why yes, yes it is.

I confess, that was one of my favourite bits. But it all gets confusing here, sides and sides and me sitting there trying to piece together everything I know about that time, Nestor Makhno and his guerilla wars against every army that came against him — in alliance with the Bolsheviks until they wanted to annex the Ukraine, and then fighting against them. None of that is in here. Just wealthy nationalists against whom the workers must unite. Made with Bolshevik money, what else could it be?

But really, the story feels so secondary it does not even need to be there, it is complex and patchy. The rebellion at Arsenal? I had no sense what that was all about (though I acknowledge this would be very different for those who knew, who had lived this context). This feels deeper, more poetic, more thematic than that. A meditation on exploitation and violence and the suffering it causes through technique and through image. Women staring at the earth, uncaring. These tableaux of powerful violence and despair. They felt almost like dance, more than a tinge of expressionism.

Amazing to see it on the big screen with live accompaniment.

Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: ArsenalOleksandr Dovzhenko: Arsenal

There is a great deal more background, history of the film and of Dovzhenko here on this quite amazing site. Me, I just wanted to capture why I found it so compelling, so powerful. But there I found this, an extraordinary painting from Diego Rivera of Frida Kahlo handing out guns at the Arsenal uprising that I too have to share…

ArsenalFactoryriveraSomething to come back to. And the rest of the trilogy to watch.

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Masanobu Fukuoka: One-Straw Revolution

Masanobu Fukuoka - The One-Straw RevolutionThis is a book that is a lot about food, food chains and agriculture, but more about how we live on the earth and the nature of knowledge. It owes much to Buddhism, here is the moment of Masanobu Fukuoka’s initial enlightenment:

One night as I wandered, I collapsed in exhaustion on a hill overlooking the harbor, finally dozing against the trunk of  a large tree. I lay there, neither asleep nor awake, until dawn. I can still remember that it was the morning of the 15th of May. In a daze I watched the harbor grow light, seeing the sunrise and yet somehow not seeing it. As the breeze blew up from below the bluff, the morning mist suddenly disappeared. Just at that moment a night heron appeared, gave a sharp cry, and flew away into the distance. I could hear the flapping of its wings. In an instant all my doubts and the gloomy mist of mu confusion vanished. Everything I had held in firm conviction, everything upon which I had ordinarily relied was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood one thing. Without my thinking about them, words came from my mouth: “In this world there is nothing at all….” I felt that I understood nothing. (8)

Nothing as a positive thing. The thing you reach when you realise how insufficient intellectual knowledge is, and struggle to see everything for what it, learn again. This moment so prized in so many cultures apart from the western, European one — and even then it is well know to some of the meditative strands of Christianity.

He left home to further this insight, share it.

At one stop, I saw a small sign which read, “Utopia.” I got off the bus and set out in search of it. …. (12)

Even in Utopia no one would listen to his ideas of nothingness, so he returned to his father’s farm to practice them. I remember reading about this book many years ago when I was in LA, trying to get it, not being able to afford it given its rarity. It’s affordable now, and quite awesome.

Over thirty years he has worked immensely hard to perfect a system that works with nature to grow as much food as any other farm with immensely less effort.

I fucking love that. You still work dann hard because it’s a farm of course, but the goal is always to work less, to have leisure, to enjoy life and live well and to leave the earth you farm better than when you started.

Masanobu Fukuoka notes that in the traditional farming year, the New Year’s holiday was three months long (though did women ever experience such a thing I wonder?).  He talks about the village shrine, and the many faded haiku villagers had composed and offered. Because they had some leisure. Over time and ‘improvements’ the holiday became two months, and then two days. Poetry is no longer written.

Modernised agriculture has always taken a different route, an arrogant route that demands ever longer hours of work for those who can still make a living through farming, and in solving one problem caused a cascading set of others. And now?

The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them. (15)

Ivan Illich could have written some of what follows, both books contain the same insight that beyond a certain point there are limits on how technology and specialist knowledge can improve our lives, and many points at which it can become damaging. Modern agricultural methods of mass production, mechanization, monoculture and chemicals must be among the best examples:

The path I have followed, this natural way of farming…was first interpreted as a reaction against the advance and reckless development of science. But all I have been doing…is trying to show that humanity knows nothing.

During the past few years the number of people interested in natural farming has grown considerably. It seems that the limit of scientific development has even reached, misgivings have begun to be felt, and the time for reappraisal has arrived. (19)

For those of who who research and write, we know that this should always be true and rarely is:

Before researchers becomes researchers they should become philosophers. They should consider what the human goal is, what it is that humanity should create. (74)

He writes too:

I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence. (25)

In the West natural science developed from discriminating knowledge; in the East the philosophy of yin-yang and of the I-Ching developed from the same source. But scientific truth can never reach absolute truth, and philosophies, after all, are nothing more than interpretations of the world. Nature as grasped by scientific knowledge is a nature which has been destroyed; it is a ghost possessing a skeleton, but no soul. Nature as grasped by philosophical knowledge is a theory created out of human speculation, a ghost with a soul, but no structure. (125)

The argument is not that we should stop trying to understand it or work with it, more that we respect its intricacies, approach learning from it with humility, never assume we can untangle all of the symbiotic relationships developed over millenia, and so tread lightly.

An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.

The difference in the results of respecting, observing and working with nature, and not:

Make your way carefully through these fields. Dragonflies and moths fly up in a flurry. Honeybees buzz from blossom to blossom. Part the leaves and you will see Insects, spiders, frogs, lizards, and many other small animals bustling about in the cool shade. Moles and earthworms burrow beneath the surface. This is a balanced ricefield ecosystem. Insect and plant communities maintain a stable relationship here. It is not uncommon for a plant disease to sweep through this region and leave the crops in my fields unaffected.

And now look over at the neighbor’s field for a moment. The weeds have all been wiped out by herbicides and cultivation. The soil animals and insects have been exterminated by poison. The earth has been burned clean of organic matter and micro-organisms by chemical fertilizers. In the summer you see farmers at work in the fields…wearing gas masks and long rubber gloves. These rice fields—which have been farmed continuously for over 1,500 years—have now been laid waste by the exploitive farming practices of a single generation. (33)

It is the same picture as that laid out by Michael Pollan in Botany of Desire and his other works, by permaculture and organic farming experts. It’s crazy and the toll on the earth, the agricultural workers and those who consume this produce is still not fully known. Except that it is deadly, especially for workers, the soil and the multiple layers of life that once abounded here — those things least valued by capital.

The Four Principles of Natural Farming:

  1. No Cultivation — no plowing, or turning over of the soil.
  2. No chemical fertilizer or prepared compost
  3. No weeding by tillage or herbicides
  4. No dependence on chemicals (33-34)

A rhythm of growing and planting that allows desired crops to establish themselves without need for weeding, grown amongst cycles of clover or other such plants grown to keep down weeds and the use of the straw after the harvest to build the soil and protect the new crop. Companion planting. Allowing monsoon rains to sit for just over a week to kill unwanted weeds, weaken the clover, strengthen the rice. The use of hardy plants without fertilizer other than compost (or ducks loose and nibbling the fields) to grow strong and compact and thus resistant to pests. Allowing the natural ecosystem to flourish that ensures where pests exist their predators do also. Careful attention to weather and soil and plants native to the site. Trial and error.

Instead we kill the earth and everything in it dead, and pour chemicals into it. We eat them on our food, lacking in flavour and vitality, often dyed and waxed and grown only for perfection of form. Its medicinal power is completely lost. The chemicals run off into our waterways and oceans causing blooms of algea, doing god knows what else. Compare these two ways and you wonder what the fuck we were thinking.

Not that Masanobu Fukuoka’s system to grow food with little effort has come easily — like all good things it has taken a long time:

It involves little more than broadcasting seed and spreading straw, but it has taken me over thirty years to reach this simplicity. (45)

And of course, he understands that all of this challenges power and wealth. He describes going to conferences and speaking about it and always and immediately being shut down – ‘To do away with machinery and chemicals would bring about a complete change in the economic and social structures.’ (81)

A problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.

To the extent that the consciousness of everyone is not fundamentally transformed, pollution will not cease. (82)

Much of the philosophy comes at the end, along with some of the most powerful statements. My favourite was: ‘they trapped themselves in the endless hell of the intellect.” (165).

All too familiar, and funny for that reason. The other two are just true and deep:

If we do have a food crisis it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire. (104)

It is said that there is no creature as wise as the human being. By applying this wisdom, people have become the only animals capable of nuclear war. (156)

Depressing. So I will end with an offhand report of a true wonder:

In southern Shikoku there was a kind of chicken that would eat worms and insects on the vegetables without scratching the roots or damaging the plants. (65)

I once accidentally let two chickens in our vegetable garden and they had destroyed the whole of it in about 2 minutes, so this seems to me a most mythical creature.

For more about no-dig agriculture, food chains and permaculture…

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Trouillot’s Silencing the Past

357199I also want to reject both the naive proposition that we are prisoners of our pasts and the pernicious suggestion that history is whatever we make of it. History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots (xix).

I love this book. It is short, poetic, and has been transformative of how I think about history and my own work investigating the past and bringing it to bear on the present. As if that weren’t enough, it helps recapture the brilliance of the Haitian revolution while exposing how and why it has been silenced. That’s not all it does, but I think what it does best.

There is is some really interesting things about language in here, how history and historiography are shaped not just in how we tell the past, but in the very words that we use.

Human beings participate in history both as actors and as narrators. The inherent ambivalence of the word “history” in many modern languages, including English, suggests this dual participation. (2)

There’s a reminder of how language structures the ways in which we think:

The pernicious belief that epistemic validity matters only to
Western-educated populations, either because others lack the
proper sense of time or the proper sense of evidence, is belied by
the use of evidentials in a number of non-European Ianguages.
An English approximation would be a rule forcing historians to distinguish grammatically between “I heard that it happened,” “I saw it happen,” or “I have obtained evidence that it happened” every time they use the verb “to happen.” (7-8)

I also love the expansion of what history means, who makes it and tells it and who impacts on the ways it is understood, the critique of academic historians who tend to limit it.

Such debates suggest that historical relevance does not proceed directly from the original impact of an event, or its mode of inscription, or even the continuity of that inscription.
Debates about the Alamo, the Holocaust, or the significance
of U.S. slavery involve not only professional historians but ethnic and religious leaders, political appointees, journalists, and various associations within civil society as well as independent citizens, not all of whom are activists. This variety of narrators is one of many indications that theories of history have a rather limited view of the field of historical production. (19)

It also tries to shift how we view the ways in which history is made and by whom:

History, as social process, involves peoples in three distinct capacities: 1) as agents, or occupants of structural positions; 2) as actors in constant interface with a context; and 3) as subjects, that is, as voices aware of their vocality.

peoples are also the subjects of history the way workers are
subjects of a strike: they define the very terms under which some situations can be described. (23)

This in turn shifts how we write about it, what we focus on:

Thus between the mechanically “realist” and naively “constructivist” extremes, there is the more serious task of determining not what history is–a hopeless goal if phrased in essentialist terms–but how history works. (25)

Building on this reconceptualising of who makes history and how, is the ways in which so much history is lost, erased, silenced — and how we reclaim them.

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (26)

To put it differently, any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation required to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly. (27)

Thus the presences and absences embodied in sources (artifacts and bodies that turn an event into fact) or archives (facts collected, thematized, and processed as documents and monuments) are neither neutral or natural. They are created. As such they are not mere presences and absences, but mentions or silences of various kinds and degrees. By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun. One engages in the practice of silencing. Mentions and silences are thus active, dialectical counterparts of which history is the synthesis. (48)

One of my favourite sentences? ‘…one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun.’

Deconstruct these silences we must, because above all this is about fighting the power that oppresses and silences, and building out own.

Power does not enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles. It precedes the narrative proper, contributes to its creation and to its interpretation. Thus, it remains pertinent even if we can imagine a totally scientific history, even if we relegate the historians’ preferences and stakes to a separate, post-descriptive phase. In history, power begins at the source.

We can be hopeful, we can find traces of what has been silenced. Not everything is lost, and we can (and must) look to material remains.

What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete–buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries–that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (historicity 1) sets the stage for future historical narratives (historicity 2). (29)

But we must do this well, uncovering the working of power and the larger significance of our work:

The turn toward hitherto neglected sources (e.g., diaries. images, bodies) and the emphasis on unused facts (e.g ., facts of
gender, race, and class, facts of the life cycle, facts of resistance)
are pathbreaking developments. My point is that when these tactical gains are made to dictate strategy they lead, at worst, to a neo-empiricist enterprise and, at best, to an unnecessary restriction of the battleground for historical power. (49)

Silences Within Silences
The unearthing of silences, and the historian’s subsequent emphasis on the retrospective significance of hitherto neglected events, requires not only extra labor at the archives–whether or not one uses primary sources–but also a project linked to an interpretation. This is so because the combined silences accrued through the first three steps of the process of historical production intermesh and solidify at the fourth and final moment when retrospective significance itself is produced. (58-59)

And then there is ‘The Haitian Revolution as a non-event’, an immense and inspiring uprising that shifted global balances of power, yet is treated as peripheral where mentioned at all. There is a powerful discussion of why and how that should be, which explores how limits are created on people’s perceptions and their ability to understand events, and how these limits worked in European thinking.

The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. (73)

Thus the Enlightenment exacerbated the fundamental ambiguity that dominated the encounter between ontological discourse and colonial practice. If the philosophers did reformulate some of the answers inherited from the Renaissance, the question “What is Man?” kept stumbling against the practices of domination and or merchant accumulation. The gap between abstraction and practice grew or, better said, the handling or the contradictions between the two became much more sophisticated, in part because philosophy provided as many answers as colonial practice itself. (78)

Slavery and its foundations are, of course, one of the principal limits, all too obvious in Enlightenment discourse (yet never raised as such):

The Enlightenment, nevertheless, brought a change of perspective. The idea of progress, now confirmed, suggested that men were perfectible. Therefore, subhumans could be, theoretically at least, perfectible. More important, the slave trade was running its course, and the economics of slavery would be questioned increasingly as the century neared its end. Perfectibility became an argument in the practical debate: the westernized other looked increasingly more profitable to the West, especially if he could become a free laborer. A French memoir of 1790 summarized the issue: “It is perhaps not impossible to civilize the Negro, to bring him to principles and make a man out of him: there would be more to gain than to buy and sell him.” (80)

Above all, it is a discourse tied to the practicalities of maintaining domination and Empire:

Behind the radicalism of Diderot and Raynal stood, ultimately,
a project of colonial management. It did indeed include the abolition of slavery, but only in the long term, and as part of a process that aimed at the better control of the colonies. Access to human status did not lead ipso facto to self-determination. In short, here again, as in Condorcet, as in Mirabeau, as in Jefferson, when all is said and done, there are degrees of humanity. The vocabulary of the times reveals that gradation. When one talked of the biological product of black and of white intercourse, one spoke of “man of color” as if the two terms do not necessarily go together: unmarked humanity is white. (81)

This is not to make the demand that people of the past should understand the moralities of the present, but rather what it was about the past that made these moralities almost impossible to imagine:

I am not suggesting that eighteenth-century men and women should have thought about the fundamental equality of humankind in the same way some of us do today. On the contrary, I am arguing that they could not have done so. But I am also drawing a lesson from the understanding of this historical impossibility. The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment. The events that shook up Saint Domingue from 1791 to 1804 constituted a sequence for which not even the extreme political left in France or in in England had a conceptual frame of reference. They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought. (82)

Below are some fragments of how ideology sat uneasily, often contradictory within white understandings, how innocence of Black humanity was preserved ideologically in the pursuit of domination and profit:

Thus, next to a discourse that claimed the contentment of slaves, a plethora of laws, advice, and measures, both legal and illegal, were set up to curb the very resistance denied in theory.

Rather, each case of unmistakable defiance, each possible instance of resistance was treated separately and drained of its political content (83).

Built into any system of domination is the tendency to proclaim its own normalcy. (84)

When the news of the massive uprising of August 1791 first hit
France, the most common reaction among interested parties was disbelief: the facts were too unlikely; the news had to be false. (90)

Worldview wins over the facts: white hegemony is natural and taken for granted; any alternative is still in the domain of the unthinkable.  (93)

The international recognition of Haitian independence was even more difficult to gain than military victory over the forces of Napoleon. It took more time and more resources. more than a half century of diplomatic struggles. France imposed a heavy indemnity on the Haitian state in order to formally acknowledge its own defeat. The United States and the Vatican, notably, recognized Haitian independence only in the second half of the nineteenth century.  (95)

This is important not just to understand how domination worked, but also revolt:

Not only was the Revolution unthinkable and, therefore, unannounced in the West. it was also–to a large extent–unspoken among the slaves themselves. By this I mean that the Revolution was not preceded or even accompanied by an explicit intellectual discourse.

In that sense, the revolution was indeed at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even
among its own leaders. We need to recall that the key tenets of the political philosophy that became explicit in Saint-Domingue/Haiti between 1791 and 1804 were not accepted by world public opinion until after World War II.(88)

By necessity, the Haitian Revolution thought itself out politically and philosophically as it was taking place. Its project, increasingly radicalized throughout thirteen years of combat, was revealed in successive spurts. Between and within its unforeseen stages, discourse always lagged behind practice. (89)

Thus in looking specifically at how the facts and the meaning of the Haitian Revolution have been (mis)understood, Trouillot uncovers two specific processes that he terms ‘Erasure and Trivialization: Silences in World History’:

I have fleshed out two major points so far. First, the chain of events that constitute the Haitian Revolution was unthinkable before these events happened. Second, as they happened, the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants and observers to fit a world of possibilities. That is, they were made to enter into narratives that made sense to a majority of Western observers and readers. I will now show how the revolution that was thought impossible by its contemporaries has also been silenced by historians. (96)

The treatment of the Haitian Revolution in written history outside of Haiti reveals two families of tropes that are identical. in formal (rhetorical) terms, to figures of discourse of the late eighteenth century. The first kind of tropes are formulas that tend to erase directly the fact of a revolution. I call them, for short, formulas of erasure. The second kind tends to empty a number of singular events of their revolutionary content so that the entire string of facts, gnawed from all sides, becomes trivialized. I call the formulas of banalization…Both are formulas of silence. (96)

Thus domination continues on into the present, these interpretations having everything to do not just with the ways in which silences continue, but in the limits this imposes on how we understand the problems facing the present and how we imagine working towards a new future.

Finally, the silencing of the Haitian Revolution also fit the relegation to an historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery, and colonialism. In spite of their importance in the formation of what we now call the West, in spite of sudden outbursts of interest as in the United States in the early 1970s, none of these themes has ever become a central concern of the historiographic tradition in a Western country. (98)

That Hobsbawm and the editors of the Dictionary would probably locate themselves quite differently within England’s political spectrum is one indication that historical silences do not simply reproduce the overt political positions of the historians involved. What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest, the power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention. (99)

Effective silencing does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural. (106)

The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within
a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the
West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated form, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world. (107)

This happens in theory and the terms that we use:

Terminologies demarcate a field, politically and epistemologically. Names set up a field of power.” “Discovery” and analogous terms ensure that by just mentioning the event one enters a predetermined lexical field of cliches and predictable categories that foreclose a redefinition  of the political and intellectual stakes. Europe becomes the center of “what happened.” (115)

It highlights what we must remember in our own work if we are not to reproduce this:

historical authenticity resides not in the fidelity to an alleged past but in an honesty vis-a-vis the present as it re-presents that past. (148)

Authenticity implies a relation with what is known that duplicates the two sides of historicity: it engages us both as actors and narrators. (150)

This is so long and pieces together a sense of his writing about process, while hardly touching the substance of the various histories he reclaims from the silence — as important a project as what I have focused on here. So read it.

For more on race, empire and history…

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Kropotkin’s Memoirs

802268Kropotkin: geographer, former aristocrat, anarchist revolutionary. This is a fascinating glimpse into Russia before the revolution through his childhood, into the intellectual development of someone seeking to understand their own position and privilege in the world, and their attempts to transform it. Also many insights to a branch of anarchism I quite like, and a study of how cooperation is as common as competition in the world. Much of this book was unexpected.

Some quotes:

Besides, I began gradually to understand that revolutions, i.e. periods of accelerated rapid evolution and rapid changes, are as much in the nature of human society as the slow evolution which incessantly goes on now among the civilized races of mankind. And each time that such a period of accelerated evolution and thorough reconstruction begins, civil war may break out on a small or on a grand scale. The question is, then, not so much how to avoid revolutions as how to attain the greatest results with the most limited amount of civil war, the least number of victims, and a minimum of mutual embitterment. For that end there is only one means; namely, that the oppressed part of society should obtain the clearest possible conception of what they intend to achieve and how, and that they should be imbued with the enthusiasm which is necessary for the achievement–in which case they will be sure to attract to their cause which is possessed of historically grown-up privileges.

The Commune of Paris was a terrible example of an outbreak with yet undetermined ideals. (270)

After his escape from Russia:

…later on, when the Russian movement became a conspiracy and an armed struggle against the representative of autocracy, all thought of a popular movement was necessarily abandoned; while my own inclinations drew me more and more intensely toward casting in my lot with the laboring and toiling masses. To bring to them such conceptions as would aid them to direct their efforts to the best advantage of all the workers; to deepen and to widen the ideals and principles which will underlie the coming social revolution; to develop these ideals and principles before the workers, not as an order coming from their leaders, but as a result of their own reason; and so to awaken their own initiative, now that they were called upon to appear in the historical arena as the builders of a new, equitable mode of organization of society–thsi seemed to me as necessary for the development of mankind as anything I could accomplish in Russia at that time. (354)

On the Jura Federation and parties:

It always happens that after a political party has set before itself a purpose, and has proclaimed that nothing short of the complete attainment of that aim will satisfy it, it divides into two fractions. One of them remains what it was, while the other, although it professes not to have changed a word of its previous intentions, accepts some sort of compromise, and gradually, from compromise to compromise, is driven further from its primitive programme, and becomes a party of modest makeshift reform (358).

On the International Working Man’s Association:

The workers of all nations were called upon to form their own organisations for a direct struggle against capitalism; to work out the means of socializing the production of wealth and its consumption; and, when they should be ready to do so, to take possession of the necessaries for production, and to control production with no regard to the present political organization, which must undergo a complete reconstruction. The Association had thus to be the means for preparing an immense revolution in men’s minds, and later on in the very forms of life–a revolution which would open to mankind a new era of progress based upon the solidarity of all. That was the ideal which aroused from their slumber millions of European workers, and attracted to the Association its best intellectual forces. (359)

The conflict between the Marxists and the Bakunists was not a personal affair. It was the necessary conflict between the principles of federalism and those of centralization, the free Commune and the State’s paternal rule, the free action of the masses of the people and the betterment if existing capitalist conditions through legislation–a conflict between the Latin spirit and the German Geist, which, after the defeat of France on the battlefield, claimed supremacy in science, politics, philososphy, and in socialism too, representing its own conception of socialism as ‘scientific’, while all other interpretations it described as ‘utopian’. (361)

The role of science in social change:

anarchism represents more than a mere mode of action and a mere conception of a free society; that it is part of a philosophy, natural and social, which must be developed in a quite different way from the metaphysical or dialectic methods which have been employed in sciences dealing with man. I saw that it must be treated by the same methods as natural sciences; not, however. on the slippery ground of mere analogies, such as Herbert Spencer accepts, but on the solid basis of induction applied to human institutions. And I did my best to accomplish what I could in that direction. (377)

The most fascinating of asides, on Turgenev’s brain of all things:

His fine head revealed a vast development of brain power, and when he died, and Paul Bert, with Paul Reclus (the surgeon), weighed his brain, it so much surpassed the heaviest brain then known-that of Cuvier-reaching something over two thousand grammes, that they would not trust to their scales, but got new ones, to repeat the weighing. (381)

The role of revolutionary media:

a revolutionary paper must be, above all, a record of those symptoms which everywhere announce the coming of a new era, the germination of new forms of social life, the growing revolt against antiquated institutions…(390) As to the criticism of what exists, I went into it only to disentangle the roots of the evils, and to show that a deep-seated and carefully-nurtured fetishism with regard to the antiquated survivals of phases of human development, and a widespread cowardice of mind and will, are the main sources of all evils (391).

And I think what has endured most through the ages, along with the idea that as a species we are more cooperative than competitive (capitalism and its ideologies notwithstanding), is his vision of the future. A federation of local, non-hierarchical associations of human beings, free to change and grow as they desired, as they needed to.

We saw that a new form of society is germinating in the civilized nations, and must take the place of the old one: a society of equals, who will not be compelled to sell their hands and brains to those who choose to employ them in a haphazard way, but who will be able to apply their knowledge and capacities to production, in an organism so constructed as to combine all the efforts for procuring the greatest sum possible of well-being for all, while full, free scope will be left for every individual initiative. This society will be composed of a multitude of associations federated for all the purposes which require federation: trade federations for production of all sorts-agricultural, industrial, intellectual, artistic; communes for consumption, making provision for dwellings, gas works, supplies of food, sanitary arrangements, etc.; federations of communes among themselves, and federations of communes with trade organizations; and finally, wider groups covering the country, or several countries, composed of men who collaborate for the satisfaction of such economic, intellectual, artistic, and moral needs as are not limited to a given territory…There will be full freedom for the development of new forms of production, invention, and organization; individual initiative will be encouraged, and the tendency toward uniformity and centralization will be discouraged.

Moreover, this society will not be crystallized into certain unchangeable forms, but will continually modify its aspect, because it will be a living, evolving organism: no need of government will be felt, because free agreement and federation can take its place in all those functions which governments consider as theirs at the present time, and because, the causes of conflict being reduced in number, those conflicts which may still arise can be submitted to arbitration. (372-373)

Long years of propaganda and a long succession of partial acts of revolt against authority, as well as a complete revision of the teachings now derived from history, would be required before men could perceive that they had been mistaken in attributing to their rulers and their laws what was derived in reality from their own sociable feelings and habits. (373)

social life itself, supported by a frank, open-minded criticism of opinions and actions, would be the most effective means for threshing out opinions and divesting them of the unavoidable exaggerations. We acted, in fact, in accordance with the old saying that freedom remains still the wisest cure for freedom’s temporary inconveniences. There is, in mankind, a nucleus of social habits, an inheritance from the past, not yet duly appreciated, which is not maintained by coercion and is superior to coercion… We understood, at the same time, that such a change, cannot be produced by the conjectures of one man of genius, that it will not be one man’s discovery, but that it must result from the constructive work of the masses, just as the forms of judicial procedure which were elaborated in the early medieval ages… (375)

A fascinating read whatever your political persuasions.

Hamid Dabashi on the Arab Spring

Hamid Dabashi - Arab SpringI found Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring inspiring, even though being written in the moment it might be a little repetitive and a little early in some of its pronouncements perhaps. Yet it captures a feeling — both of the exuberance and hopefulness of the protests that spread around the world at the time (and continue to some degree), and a frustration with old ways of thinking about things. We differ in some of the details of this, but it’s the delicious and productive kind of difference in opinion, not the same old frustrations with small groups stuck in their ways.

But first, to deal with that provocative tagline, the end of postcolonialism. As Dabashi writes:

[T]he major argument of this book is that events in the Arab and Muslim world generically referred to as the ‘Arab Spring [p 75]’ represent the end of postcolonial ideological formations as we have known them for the past two hundred years. By the end of postcoloniality, I mean the cessation of ideological production in colonial contexts and terms — the terms determined by the European colonial domination of the region, and the tyrannical ‘postcolonial’ states left behind when the Europeans collected their flags and left. Anticolonial nationalism, socialism, and Islamism are the ideological formations that historically have confronted European colonialism and shaped the modern nation-states … [p. 139]

The end of postcolonial ideological formations does not mean that colonialism itself has ended or that imperialism does not generate resistance but that the world is no longer trapped in old ways of thinking, trapped in opposition, but free to struggle with itself, move forward into new pathways. [p 140]

Said spoke for an earlier period, but to build on his work we must transcend it:

We need to overcome the anxiety of Orientalism and shift our theorizing lens to our evolving history and stop trying to explain things to that fictive white man who sat in Edward Said’s mind for a lifetime.

Ha. He also answers the ‘outlandish’ question of whether the subaltern can speak with a resounding of course. He questions Hardt and Negri for their Eurocentrism (and the Christianity of their ideals!), draws on Badiou and Hannah Arendt and Agamben and Bishara and poets and writers of Arabic that I do know — in something of a mishmash perhaps, but I think taking what is useful from different places to understand the now is no bad thing. That is not to say he asks that we forget the past, just that we do not allow those old patterns of thought and action to control us moving into the future. There is so much here, so just to focus on what I loved most.

I appreciate his efforts to see the academic/writer as making a conscious choice to join the uprisings, and then what their role can be. He writes:

The task of becoming attentive students of the uprisings and seeing to it that they generate their own knowledge are tasks no less urgent than the revolutions themselves. To be sure, we are fortunately no longer in the age of grand-narrative-based universalist philosophies and sweeping theorizations. Whereas the Left Kantians’ longing for ‘total revolution’ following the French Revolution ended up producing ‘prophets of extremity’ in Nietszche, Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida, I have opted for the idea of open-ended revolutions, work-in-progress, an opera aperta, as a working idea to keep the tenacity of these revolutions alive theoretically.

In terms of the search for a new mode of compatible knowledge, the left is part of the problem, not the solution. The Arab and non-Arab left must shape up and join the revolutions, and cease being an obstacle to them. [241]

I don’t know about the ‘prophets of extremity’ bit, (though I very much look forward to rolling my eyes at the next mention of Foucault over cocktails and muttering ‘prophet of extremity’), but I do agree that the establishment left needs to get its act together and act not as a brake, but as a springboard, isn’t that what we’ve been working and organising and theorising for? Still, the major lack in this book is a thoughtful look at the coproduction of knowledge, participatory research, praxis…just what kind of intellectual work needs to happen in the movement that is building, and how? That is a huge question that people have been working on in other places, people like Freire or Myles Horton, but which I don’t see being picked up or theorised elsewhere which saddens me.

But that said, above all this book made me happy. It does not takes us beyond, but calls for us to go there together with the people in revolt:

In order to reach for the current world, the world we live in, the world in which people revolt, the world in which Meydan Azadi and Tahrir Square have become emblematic of something else, something beyond ‘Western liberal democracy,’ something yet to be named, needs to be imagined. In this world, I suggest, demography, labour migration, gender apartheid, and environmental catastrophe are the key operative factors. In this world, Islam will not disappear, it will be sublimated into a new cosmopolitan worldliness. [p. 118]

I read that list of key operative factors and wanted to do a fist pump, yes I said, yes! That’s it, and that isn’t really what most people are talking about. He continues

…the commencement of the Arab Spring is the inaugural moment of not just a new historical but, more importantly, a new emancipatory geographical imagination… [55]

Again this is a thought that is started, but not really developed – how much exciting work is to be done? But I am fascinated with this idea

A geography of liberation begins with people’s struggles for bread and dignity and builds from there the moral map of their worldly whereabouts to wrap around a fragile planet. On this map there is no East or West, South or North, invested with ideological racialization, one against the other.[57]

I love his acknowledgement of the radical aspects of the civil rights movement, and his effort to recapture that understanding as we watch the renewed struggle. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been poor or oppressed can really understand just how important the struggle for bread and dignity are, the meaning and necessity of a basic level of security and respect in society. I know that I will never understand it fully having been born poor and treated so and still angry, yet white and with all the privileges of an American and European passport. Fundamental changes are needed to win these fundamental demands if we demand them for all.

Like the geographies of liberation, he raises what are for me equally exciting about the connection between democracy – a new, revitalised vision of democracy – and public space.

What the naked military apparatus of these illegitimate states faced was the expanded public space that was now fully conscious of itself…That amounts to the people, hitherto the subjects of a (‘postcolonial’) tyranny, becoming, ipso facto, the citizens of the republic they wish to populate and thus expand into the public space they must thus define and designate. [204]

And

The regime du savoir associated with that politics is being altered, by way of altering the worlds we inhabit, and not merely by way of resistance to power. The transversalism of these revolutionary uprisings, as a result, generates its own synergy by systematically and consistently expanding the public space they implicate for the exercise of civil liberties.

These are all revolts that are fundamentally about the (re)taking of public space, both physical and virtual, the (re)taking of a new kind of citizenship, and I’m following this idea along here, but it is a citizenship not of blood or passports, but of geography and struggle. I love thinking through this, and I love that he did not focus on this as a virtual revolution as it so clearly was not, that was simply one aspect of the millions of people actually physically coming together and demanding regime change, demanding social justice, demanding a new world. A view of this as simply being about twitter and youtube and blogging takes away much of its power and potential as a force for revolutionary change

Thus the middle class and blogging are offered as the explanations for a transnational uprising that was catalysed by a fruit peddler who set himself on fire out of economic desperation. [222-223]

We cannot forget that.

C.L.R. James on History and the Haitian Revolution

775985This is an in depth examination of Haiti and the splendour of its revolution, while at the same time James writes the history of places the way they should always be written, as playing a part on a world-wide stage, deeply influenced by and deeply influencing other countries. France’s wealthiest colony, San Domingo funded the French Revolution, it diverted a sizeable number of (and bested) British forces from the war against Napoleon for years, and in turn decimated the immense flotilla that Napoleon himself sent against it.

To my shame, and a history of willful ignoring by the world, I knew very little about the Haitian Revolution. I had never heard or read of the immense importance this small island played in ‘European affairs’. The other side? “The blacks were taking their part in the destruction of European feudalism begun by the French Revolution, and liberty and equality, the slogans of the revolution, meant far more to them than to any Frenchman.” [198] It makes the key point that to write of a colonial power in the absence of the influence of its colonies makes as little sense as to write of colonies without connecting that history to the struggles within the Colonial power. An insight still ignored by too many who split knowledge and importance, cause and effect, by geography. The slave trade and mercantilism connected the world and its events in ways rarely acknowledged with any depth.

James rarely rises above his text to make this point (or the others), he simply makes the connections in the way he writes history. This is a strength in terms of thinking through how history is studied, but frustrating also, as I wanted a bit more filling out of these more theoretical insights, and the ones that follow, but they must be pieced together.

He is a key thinker on race and colonialism, of course, and here we see him putting together how race was constructed, and it is clearly constructed in his account, and how race and class intersect. The first chapter is titled “The Property” followed by “The Owners”, beginning with the economic relationship of profit, but not ignoring the many factors at play in this complex society. On the class differences between the white settlers:

“This was the type for who race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole of their world.” [34]

“The higher bureaucrats, cultivated Frenchmen, arrived in the island without prejudice; and looking for mass support used to help the Mulattoes a little. And mulattoes and big whites had a common bond — property. Once the revolution was well under way the big whites would have to choose between their allies of race and their allies of property. They would not hesitate long.” [44]

On the mulattoes and free blacks:

“In a slave society the mere possession of personal freedom is a valuable privilege … Behind all this elaborate tom-foolery of quarteron, sacatra and marabou, was the one dominating fact of San Domingo society — fear of the slaves” [38]

“The advantages of being white were so obvious that race prejudice against the Negroes permeated he minds of the Mulattoes who so bitterly resented the same thing from the whites [42-43]

Mulatto instability lies not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society. [207]

This was no question of colour, but crudely a question of class, for those blacks who were formerly free stuck to the Mulattoes. Persons of some substance and standing under the old regime, they looked upon the ex-slaves as essentially persons to be governed.” [166]

A sophisticated analysis of race and class and political expediency, the idea of whiteness as privilege and property, a tale of how racial categorisations and boundaries were devised and then cemented into place. So impressive. A final quote on race and revolution:

Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrection shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.” [106]

Unknown - NYPL Digital Gallery
Unknown – NYPL Digital Gallery

Of course, most of this book is about how Toussaint alone, ex-slave, genius, of inexhaustible physical stamina, and incarnation of the desire for freedom, could have led the struggle to end slavery.

Which leads into James’s thinking on revolution itself, and I suppose that’s where I break with him most. What I most fundamentally disagree with are statements like this, on Dessalines’ betrayal of a fellow commander to the French just before he rose up in rebellion:

“It was a treacherous crime, but it was not treachery to the revolution.” [346]

It’s the old question of ends and means of course, and so what I find most chilling is this combination of ends justifying the means with an emphasis put on individual leadership. But that’s always what I’ve found most chilling about Lenin and Trotsky.

This is activist history, which I much appreciate. I think it’s vital that radical history should interrogate what went wrong and what we can learn, which C.L.R. James does openly (again thinking through race as it intersects with class):

Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course. [282]

It was in method and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. [283] … Whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Workers’ State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense. … and to shoot Moise, the black, for the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime.” [284]

Toussaint’s error in this description was that he lost touch with the masses, which was a tactical mistake. It was not his bid for power. James plays down the constitution that appointed Toussaint governor for life with the power to name his own successor with the curious phrase, “Constitutions are what they turn out to be…”

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean-Jacques Dessalines

I suppose my own belief is that an individual will always go wrong, will always fail, will always make mistakes, will always be corrupted by power. This is a good portrait of a man who was undoubtedly most extraordinary, but I believe revolution has to be a collective activity to continue to be revolutionary. That seems to be just a political difference until you realise how little in this book there is about Dessalines or Moise or any of the other ex-slave leaders, what they thought and how they fought and how they worked together day in and day out with Toussaint (or not as the case was).

Of course, what I love about James is that he seems to be continuously interrogating his own orthodoxies and challenging his own statements, there’s a brilliant footnote on page 338 drawing parallels with a quote from George Lefebvre on the fact that we shall never know the real names of the leaders of the French Revolution, the ones who did most of the work and actually raised the masses far from the orations of the figureheads. James writes that “the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.” [25], the question becomes what that leadership should look like and how it carries out its role.

My last caveat is just that James definitely seems to share some of the Western and white prejudice floating around, although more critical of it than most. He writes:

“It is probable that, looking at the wild hordes of blacks who surrounded him, his heart sank at the prospect of the war and the barbarism that would follow freedom…” [107]

Always he supports and rationalises Toussaint’s own defense, not to say courting, of the whites, his refusal to redistribute land or government position:

“It is Toussaint’s supreme merit that while he saw European
civilisation as a valuable and necessary thing, and strove to lay its foundations among his people, he never had the illusion that it conferred any moral superiority.” [271]

So again you see a very orthodox Marxist sense of civilisation as being European, the march of history in a material though not moral sense. The clear descriptions of not simply the amorality, but the true barbarism of the Europen slavo-owner, the stripping of that moral superiority is incredibly important however, and undeniably differentiates him from almost all other historians. I think there is plenty of places in the rest of the book where James arguably undercuts some of these same ideas on progress and civilisation as well to some extent.

A classic. Just a couple more choice quotes to end with, not because I necessarily agree with them, but because they are both punchy and provocative, and a final rumination on the character of Toussaint that I’m not quite sure I understand and am still pondering:

That calm confidence in its capacity to deceive is a mark of the mature ruling class. [294]

The rich are only defeated when running for their lives. [78]

But in a deeper sense the life and death are not truly tragic. Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, Phedre, Ahab, assert what may be the permanent impulses of the human condition against the claims of organised society. They do this in the face of imminent or even certain destruction, and their defiance propels them to heights which make of their defeat a sacrifice which adds to our conception of human grandeur.

Toussaint is in a lesser category. His splendid powers do not rise but decline. Where formerly he was distinguished above all for his prompt and fearless estimate of whatever faced him, we shall see him…misjudging events and people, vacillating in principle…

The hamartia, the tragic flaw…was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error, a total miscalculation of the constituent events. [291]

Save

Du Bois, the Black Panthers, and the lumpen

Came over to Norwalk today to hang out with Meo…the parents of small children really do fall asleep early! To get here of course, it takes two trains, I almost miss taking the train. The blue line was actually full of camaraderie today, and the blind guy who always comes on the train to ask for change actually took out one of his fake eyes. He did quite well. And I got some reading in.

I was reading Cornell West and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – The Future of the Race. I picked it up in the library on a whim. It is Gates and West essentially reacting to W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “The Talented Tenth.” And I believe I read this in college, when I was just angry and not politicized. It shocked me reading it again, Du Bois says:

“Can the masses of the Negro people be in any possible way more quickly raised than by the effort and example of this aristocracy of talant and character? Was there ever a nation on God’s fair earth civilized from the bottom upward? Never; it is, ever was and always will be from the top downward that culture filters. The Talented Tenth rises and pulls all that are worth the saving up to their vantage ground.”

Which is, of course, pretty much the absolute antithesis of everything I believe. They idea of anyone deciding who is worth saving actually makes me want to throw something. I do not believe that “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its great men.” Or even women for that matter. Of course, I suppose Du Bois makes sense if you conserve the framework of capitalism.

Funny that for Du Bois, change comes from the top tenth. For Marx, the middle-lower bit, the industrial workers…was it ever as high as 60%? In a world with ever more lumpens the workers are shrinking I believe. And for the Black Panthers it was the bottom…how many are at the bottom now? 20%, 40%, 50%? It all depends on your definition I suppose. I wonder about Mao’s peasants, and who comprises the anarchist’s masses. I’m reading Elaine Brown’s autobiography now as well…it’s big and hardcover and not at all portable. And it is astonishing.

I don’t really have anything thought out today, these are just things I was thinking on the train.

Questions

Questions

Halloween, no fantastic west hollywood costume parade for me tonight cause my friends are rankers…the american ghetto equivalent of wanker, I wonder which came first and if they’re related? This brings me to the subject of tonight’s exposition, which is written to rid my mind of fears and ghosties since I just watched sixth sense…it was that, jeepers creepers 1 and 2, or Friday the 13th so I settled for the least frightening and bloody but I am a scaredy cat and required covers and a pillow.

So I was thinking about life, and realized that even after years of living and breathing and reading and watching television and talking to people I still have more questions than answers. Some of these questions are very large ones that I have asked before and doubtless shall ask again, such as why am I here? What do I want to do with my life? What is love and where is it found and how do you keep it? I’m a bit tired of thinking about those questions, so have decided to embark on a series of slightly easier questions, the kind that pop into my mind regularly throughout the day, such as why do armenian gangsters love tracksuits? Why must cats jump into empty boxes? What is so extraordinarily nice about tea? Why does buying things make me feel better despite my political beliefs against rampant consumerism? What is the swedish chef from the muppets actually saying? Where do oboes come from? Does playing Beatles songs backwards actually result in satanic messages? Did Elizabeth the 1st really die a virgin? Why doesn’t John Bastow get a haircut and better music for his infomercials, and exactly who buys those excercise videos? Why do British kit kats taste so much different than American ones? Do I prefer curly fries to regular ones?

I’m going to take a bubble bath, eat a bowl of mocha almond fudge ice cream and ponder the answers…who knows how many more I shall think of before breakfast tomorrow.