Tag Archives: colonialism

Writer as Witness, Words as Struggle: Mouloud Feraoun

783373I wish I could clearly state what this book has meant to me, the twisting thought trails and brambled thickets surrounding writing and struggle and humanity it has uncovered, the old sadnesses it has opened and the new ones it has instilled. It is a gift, and one that came at great cost to its author.

The older I get the more I realise that saying things out loud or writing things down does not always help you. These pages were not for Feraoun, they were for us.

I have only scattered ways of marshaling my thoughts, they do not do justice to the ways that we have traveled together, Feraoun’s words and I. His pain shared at one remove as the days of this first Algerian war for independence progressed. I was thinking about grouping things thematically, but this progression over painful time must be honored I think.

1955

arton8671-2ae1fReading this after Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, what first emerged most strongly to me was the necessity of freeing oneself inside and out from the conquerors, but god the complexities of this. The tragedies. The grief at watching the abyss between peoples grow, knowing it must in the cold light of that original colonial relationship translated into years of continuous oppression. Watching, without turning away, the damage it causes to those inflicting as well as receiving it.

There is also the distance between himself as an intellectual, a writer, a teacher and others — a distance that many of us must try and manage to some extent. He writes:

This time I saw clearly the glint of malice in his eyes that is so typical of the fellagha in our region. For them, the teacher is both educated and naive, a man with good advice who can inform you about laws and regulations and yet believes everything that you tell him.
–November 13 (18)

On the widening distance between the Kabyles and the French, the essentialising of identities that happens through violence, struggle and war:

…as soon as it is legitimate to judge them as a group, it is no longer troubling for anyone to point out their faults. It is no longer a question of Mr Eugène or Jojo but of the triumphant Frenchman who has taken over his place and gotten rich off our backs. Once you buttress yourself with generalities, you are amazed to discover some very broad horizons.
–December 18 (31)

This emerges among his fellow teachers:

…there is now an impassable breach between us; a rupture that both sides deplore but also endure, knowing that it is inevitable. We avoid talking politics. Our French colleagues are, however, quite tactful. When they comment on a crime, a bomb, an attack, or when they speak about their fears, they always assume that we are on their side, that our fates are identical, in short, that we are just as French as they are. We tolerate the assumption, and everyday life remains bearable.
–December 18 (37)

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But I love this description of the meaning of the uprising for the people:

You feel that this crowd is wrapped in a new dignity as stiff as a new suit. A suit cut and made to measure, for which everyone is determined to pay the price.
–December 18 (38)

We come to the crux of the things, the reason for the abyss and this struggle itself, what Horne just did not quite understand and Feraoun struggles to express in this summation of the why and the how of the war at the end of 1955:

How does a European define a native? A common labourer, a maid. A bizarre creature with ridiculous customs, peculiar dress, and an impossible language. A more or less dirty, tattered, and unpleasant character. At any rate, a person on the fringe, quite alone, and let us leave him where he is. It is almost childish to revert to these clichés so quickly.  We have been co-existing for a century without the slightest curiosity. The only thing left to do is harvest this mutual indifference that is the opposite of love. (42)

It is still bad faith to talk about their mistakes. From the very beginning they knew what had to be done in order to be on good terms with the natives. they also knew what was required in order to be the only ones to benefit from colonization, much to the detriment of the native. They had to exploit him, make him sweat, beat him, and keep him ignorant. In the beginning there was still a choice to be made, and they made it. Why talk about mistakes at this point? Because now we are demanding accountability? Come on, accountability is more than confessing one’s guilt…By accountability, we mean recognizing our right to live, our right to learn and make progress, and our right to be free….So the positions are quite clear: the fight between two different peoples has begun — the master and the slave. That is all there is to it. To talk, like the press, about an awakening of the Algerian consciousness is frivolous….The Algerians did not wait for the twentieth century to realize that they were Algerians. the best proof of this is that right away they got together behind the liberators. They gathered together because they thought that they were strong enough to fight or die a meaningful death. They united because they expected to success. There were no miraculous phenomena… (43)

More than ever, we are secluding ourselves within our respective worlds, both of which are distinct and hostile. They have their nostalgia for the past, for which they have decided to fight. We maintain the crazy hope of a better future, for which we have decided to die. But as their confidence wavers and discouragement sets in, our self-assurance and courage get stronger. (46)

And this, when will this ever cease to be true?

These people are politicians. Given that we are living in an era in which they are carving words into the flesh of men, this word politician makes us feel like vomiting. (50)

1956

Never for a moment does Faraoun cease to take the side of the rebels in this conflict, and there is never an alternative discussed to the FLN. This does not mean he is not highly critical, or deeply troubled by their strategies while recognising it is hardly his place and feeling guilt over this very critique as he is not the one carrying out this war with a gun in his hands. Still, he writes his thoughts:

The rebels’ expectations are both excessive and disappointing. They include prohibitions of all kinds, nothing but prohibitions, dictated by the most obtuse fanaticism, the most intransigent racism, and the most authoritarian fist. In a way, this is true terrorism. There is nothing left for the women of T.A. [ referring to the mosque which this story is describing] except to shrill with enthusiasm in honor of the new era of freedom that they seem to perceive beyond the foggy horizon that our dark mountains inexorably obstruct.
–January 8 (53)

He relates a story about the fellagha — they stop a jeep carrying a commander and his aide, demand their guns and ammunition and when they are handed over release them and say ‘Thank you sir. Have a good day.’ Faraoun writes

There are several stories like this one that are making the rounds. In the future they will be worthy of becoming folk stories. This is how people create History.
–January 11 (56)

Another trail leads from this along the tracks of history and its makings, but this is already too long.

The abyss between French and Kabyles has been long opened, yet the pain continues as it stretches wider and deeper, he describes his French Colleagues after another ‘terrorist’ arrest:

I read anger and hatred in their eyes. there they were, all four of them ready to contradict me, all four ready to insult me with their arrogance, all four of them ready to put me in that category that they despise, that they exploit, that they would massacre, and that they fear. A crazy fear.
–January 30 (65)

Here insights into village life, the need to know what is happening in this place you belong in a sense, for all the complications of that and even if you are far away.

I have received news from back home. Amar spent the night here, and we talked. He began talking, going back in time, one day at a time…I was happy. There are no more empty moments in my mind, and I am able to imagine what it is like without any difficulty.
–February 2 (66)

I love this critique of the French Left, this seems to hold true always and everywhere where histories of race, class, gender and colonialism hide the true nature of oppression from those on the other side of it:

I could say the same thing to Camus and to Roblès. I feel a lot of admiration for the first and brotherly affection for the other. But they are wrong to talk to us when we are waiting for generous hearts if there are any…It is a hundred times better that they remain quiet. Because, in the end, this country is indeed called Algeria and its inhabitants are called Algerians. Why sidestep the evidence? Are you Algerians my friends? you must stand with those who fight. Tell the French that this country does not belong to them, that they took it over by force, and that they intend to remain here by force. Anything else is a lie and in bad faith. Any other language is criminal because, for several months now, crimes have been committed in the name of the same lies…
–February 3 (71)

This…this exposition, a day’s entry written entirely in the voice of a French settler, it is so chilling. Both for what it meant for Algeria, but for how precise an echo it is of U.S. whites, whether on African Americans or Indigenous peoples and whether two hundred years ago or today.

All I do is ignore them — well, almost. Why are they now rising against me? All they had to do was get themselves a job, just like I did. They are unhappy, they are always unhappy. Is it my fault, damn it? I agree that I have always been aloof with them and that, in my mind, I cannot get used to the idea that they are my equals. I have to admit this with total sincerity, and admit just as sincerely that, deep down, we settled here as winners, that consequently we are the race that rules, that must serve itself first. Why deny it? And, in all modesty, I never display this attitude, and generally we all have enough tact so that life is bearable for the Arabs, and we all deal with enough good faith to give to the best of them almost everything they deserve, especially the more obedient ones. But these people want everything….
–February 15 (75)

And back to the abyss still growing between two peoples:

Will they be trapped in one or other of two molds that are separated by an abyss from which one can only escape as a traitor?

I am reading a few notes about the torture methods used by the Algerian police. I got this from a reliable witness, an intelligent and idealistic young man who looks a bit weary and carries in his eyes the immense distress of those who suffer, of those who have stopped calling for help because they know they are wasting their time. However, they still have hope of finding justice by their deeds.
— March 31 (103)

I sat on the bus with tears rolling down my cheeks reading of the torture. I cannot bear the thought that one human can do these things to another. Working with refugees from Central America all those years ago, I know the marks it leaves. I still see their faces whenever I read these things and my love for them chokes me.

And still Feraoun charts the changes inside of him, the changes he see in others:

Up to now the rebels were aiming to right wrongs; now they are claiming to defend great principles.
–April 6 (106)

We have been relieved of the heavy burden that was choking us: the burden of our common hypocrisy, which is as old as our common history.

We are gradually becoming insensitive, just like those who, privilged by fate, become luckily immune to contagion while providing devoted care to others who suffer from them. We may well be spared from the epidemic, but we will not be grateful.
–May 10 (110)

This now, is what the war feels like, how it shapes lives, destroys families and villages:

The village [Tizi-Hibel] has lost almost all of its young men…People are leaving in anticipation of another police sweep, and able-bodied men no longer dare to sleep at home. They leave at sunset.
–May 11, Aïd (111)

I no longer dare to go out for news. We are all suspects.
–May 21 (114)

I came back from Algiers with Djidj the day before these assassinations. Before reaching Tizi-Ouzou, we were checked six times. From the turns in the road shaded by eucalyptus trees extending from Haussonvillers toward Camp-du-Maréchal, one could see three villages that were burning on the Bou Segza-Sidi Ali Bou Nab. Old and young Kabyle women and children were waiting on the side of the road with shapeless bundles at their feet. They have evacuated the population over there in order to fight a real war. The spring sky cannot dispel the sadness from these drab images.
–May 27 (115)

On men from his hometown hanged by the FLN:

It is difficult to condemn or approve the dispensers of justice. It is just as difficult to expect a kind of infallibility that is not within man’s scope. The heart bleeds, however, when it witnesses this kind of spectacle: today’s executioner inescapably becomes tomorrow’s victim, and this, in turn, will call for another executioner.
–May 31 (117)

He returns from a month in his village, Tizi-Hebel, tries to understand what he has seen and learned:

I wanted to know, once and for all, what dangers were threatening me. I wanted to form my own personal opinion about the mind-set of the liberators. I have returned with my doubts, but I have left my illusions and my candor behind. I discovered much suffering and little enthusiasm, much injustice and little devotion, and cruelty, egoism, ambition, arrogance, and stupidity: a people that is used to being beaten, that continues to take it, but is tired, very tired and on the edge of despair. My people from back home inspire pity, and I am ashamed that I have peace of mind. What follows is a series of events that I witnessed and that may help to explain my overall dismay. But from the start, you must renounce any formal condemnations and look for the source of the evil. There are only victims; there are only guilty people; there are only dispensers of justice. At any time, you could be one or the other. There is no other alternative. (133)

Will I ever be able to say all that I have felt and all that I have promised myself I would say? Where would I find the necessary patience to do all of this? How will I sort out my conflicting feelings without forgetting about the victims themselves or the cruel God or the human beast? Why not forget all of this just as the dead are already forgotten? (135)

A friend Moubarek tells him of his cousin’s death, another view into speaking, bearing witness, telling stories, remembering:

I listened to him as he told his story for the hundredth time. He feels that, as long as he lives, he has to tell it. It is as if he now has nothing else to do in this absurd world where our lives have no more value or meaning than those of wild beasts in the eyes of well-equipped hunters.
–September 9(136)

Faraoun’s view of his own role as witness, his fatigue:

It has been a year since I started writing down my feelings. God knows that I did not lack material, but I was short on desire, taste, and drive. I did not write down everything, of course. Only guide posts, so that later, if my life is long, I will still be able to fee the sad memories of the dark years, of the gloomy days.
–November 2 (145-46)

This. This sentence true of so many peoples in so many places.

Each one of us is guilty for the sole reason that we belong to a category, a race, a people. you fear that someone will make you pay with your life for your place in the world, pay for the color of your skin. You fear that someone will attack you only because nobody has done it yet.
–November 2 (146)

2This one ray of light, this one possibility of the human heart being big enough to transcend all of this at some level at least:

I receive letters from Roblès on a regular basis. At a time when a sense of camaraderie and friendship is failing me, his has remained fraternal and strong. Roblès is more than just a friend or a Frenchman. I cannot connect him to any motherland because he is from everywhere, and that is exactly where I come from, poor friend.
–November 2 (147)

1957

There are more and more gaps now, years marked by a handful of words as though everything has been said. There is a litany of incidents. Then these thoughts on strategy, the UN, the role of Nationalism — these echo so strongly with the African American strategies of the same period, and Black Nationalism as it would grow inspired by such independence movements:

The UN conference on the Algerian question will open in a week. Here in Algeria, and insurrectionary strike — one that the French are trying to quell — will start simultaneously. We understand the sacred character of this strike. The Algerians must proclaim their suffering and anger to a world that hesitates to believe them. Those sickly sweet and hypocritical voices that will protest their innocence and will overwhelm us with imaginary kindness–fanatical and ungrateful that we are–must be drowned out by our shouts, the shouts of those who are skinned alive, the shouts of those who are afraid, and the groans of those who are dying. The best possible scenario would be if all our dead crossed the Atlantic so their sinister laughter might be heard at the tribune of the UN, behind the Parisian sirens who already flatter themselves with having seduced Uncle Sam.

I wish my people–my country–all the happiness of which it was deprived and all the glory it is capable of achieving; when I have witnessed its blossoming, its joy and pride, I will be able to despise my patriotism just as I despise other examples of patriotism.
–January 16 (170-71)

Another curious phrase on the distance imposed by intellect:

I am one of these complicated people who learned a lot of useless things in school. These useless things make me, as well as others like me, physically ill, and all of us together become strangers in our own land.
–January 24 (173)

This paradox of heroes of the French resistance against fascism using their experience to in turn oppress another people is not something Faraoun explores, cares much about, but there is this:

I had already encountered another SAS officer a long time ago who, acting on the same prejudice, wanted to deny us everything. This particular wretch would talk every chance he got about his exploits in the French Resistance in an effort to persuade us that our situation was not the same.
–December 25 (230)

1958

It has been a month since I last opened this notebook in which, for three years, I have made a practice of writing about my anxiety or my confusion, my pain and anger. In truth, I believe that I have said and rehashed absolutely everything about the subject. What good does it do to repeat and reframe the same matters one more time? What else has happened during this past month of war except what could have happened during other months? I am overwhelmed, and I live here as though in another world…
–April 1 (241)

It sometimes happens that some poor fellow’s nerves suddenly snap, and as he becomes submerged in a state of lucid madness, he begins to talk and talk and talk. At the djemaâ, in the cafes–everywhere–he says exactly what he thinks about “his brothers”. The people watching him become alarmed and try and feel sorry for him. They know that it is futile to try and stop him. If they enjoy listening to him, it is because, in a sense, he reads his words from their hearts…No, it will not last long. One fine morning, he disappears.
–April 3 (243)

1959

…it is always the fellagha who, no matter what they do, inspire confidence and win hearts. No matter what they do, they are still soldiers fighting the enemy, soldiers doomed to a certain death because they are defending the country.
–April 26 (265)

1960

So today, I had to get back to this notebook, which I abandoned several months ago. It is not that I had nothing to record concerning myself or anyone else, but the gap is always easiest to bridge when there is nothing special about the details…all this is sad, really too sad. So I say to myself, “What good will it do?”

I think that I am content to limit myself to an objective reporting of the facts as I see them unfolding in front of my eyes. Later on, this will allow me to recreate the atmosphere. Of course, that is if I live long enough.
–January 25 (272)

1961

To Horne the youyous were a signal of otherness, of eerie disregard, I knew they were not.

A rational fellow told me that the rage of the French in Algeria is out of control. Their rage is filled with hatred and fear, but not madness. They have money, and they use it to pay ruthless commandos to go terrorize the Arabs at night during curfew: they bang on doors, brutalize or kill people, and start fires. They must have lists and get specific orders. These people are killers. The Arabs fight back by yelling youyou and counterattack with bottles filled with water, pebbles, and sticks. As soon as someone knocks on your door, start youyouing but do not open your door; your neighbors will cry youyou also, and then others will do the same. When the alert has been heard everywhere in the vicinity, you must come out and make threats. Then the black 403 Peugeot or the D.S. Citroen of the same color will hightail it into the night, with its cargo of rowdies wearing civilian clothes or paratrooper outfits.
–January 16 (287)

This reminded me of El Salvador again, the precise descriptions of the vehicles carrying death squads, the assumption that everyone knows the meaning of the Ford Bronco pulling up to your door and me knowing the immigration officer would require more proof as a political matter.

And these, almost his final words, so much more meaningful here at the end of this war and just before the end of his life rather than pulled out of context and quoted as they so often are:

I have spent hours upon hours rereading all of my notes, newspaper articles, and small clippings that I have kept. I have become reimmersed in a sad past, and I am leaving it overwhelmed. I am frightened by my candor, my audacity, my cruelty, and, at times, my blind spots and prejudice. Do I have the right to tamper with what I have written, to go back, to alter or rectify it?

Did I not write all of this day by day, according to my frame of mind, my mood, the circumstances, the atmosphere created by the event, its reverberations in my heart? And why did I write it like this, bit by bit, if it was not to witness, to stand before teh world and shout out the suffering and misfortune that have stalked me….

If all this is printed and published, as I believe that it must be, if this publication incites even the least bit of anger or hatred, if it increases by any amount the misfortune of an individual or the community rather than comfort, rehabilitate, and instruct, this work will be futile and detrimental. I will regret having completed it. At least I will not have evaded my responsibility by remaining silent. This would be even more reprehensible…
–August 17 (294-296)

He was killed by the fascist OAS on March 15, 1962 but he is not forgotten. Mouloud Feraoun, presente.

Mouloud-Feraoun

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A Savage War of Peace

A Savage War of Peace - Alistair HorneI knew almost nothing of the war of liberation in Algeria, and Horne’s A Savage War of Peace was an enormous introduction (624 pages worth), bringing immense satisfaction at finishing it. It is brilliantly crafted history, slow going but fairly enthralling none the less, and a wonderful management of detail. It is as balanced and critical as the author can make it I think, exploring the critical events and the political machinations of the war on both sides. For an aerial view of everything that happened, explored with all the benefits of both hindsight as well as the immediacy of interviews with almost all of the key figures surviving on both sides, this is a good place to start in understanding the conflict. And it is full of sidelights of the humorous and pulpy details of plots and spies and bungling that I confess with a sense of almost shame, I enjoyed immensely.

For all that it is written by a European (of neither France nor Algeria), and despite his best efforts and his deep critique of France’s role, it is still the French and the pied noir that A Savage War of Peace understands best, while Algerians themselves remain for the most part inscrutable and ‘other’. I am reading now the journal of the author Mouloud Feraoun, which has broken my heart in two and left me far more critical of Horne’s account because it exemplifies what is missing — the understanding of a colonised people finally standing up, along with the day to day fear, violence, death, descriptions of torture, hunger, loss, conflicted feelings about the FLN even while fully supporting their struggle.

Three things primarily struck me in reflecting back on it. First, how little I know of French history and how hugely important Algeria was in its history, as Horne summarises:

The war in Algeria — lasted almost eight years, toppled six French Prime Ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

The second is how closely it parallels the settling of the United States, and how much the white mobs in defense of their land and their privilege reminded me of the white mobs I have studied in the US…defending their land and their privilege. On the French policy of ‘pacification’:

Said Bugeaud in a renowned statement before the National Assembly in 1840: “Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colons, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong. (30)

That is the foundation of it all, conquest and a refusal to give up its fruits. Part of that was the destruction of anything Algerian that could offer up resistance, primarily the policy of breaking up great traditional families

because we found them to be forces of resistance. We did not realise that in suppressing the forces of resistance in this fashion we were also suppressing our means of action. The result is that we are today confronted by a sort of human dust on which we have no influence and in which movements take place which are to us unknown.
— Jules Cambon, governor-general 1894 (p37)

This quote struck me, both in its poetic racism and in the sad reality of colonialism that seeks to destroy any sense of strength and sociality with such a tremendous human cost. Dust in the eyes of the oppressor, a terrifying analogy, for who cares what you do with dust? Lives shorn of culture and mutual support and richness in the experience of the oppressed, though of course they strive to conserve, protect, rebuild what they can.

The third is how this conflict, and that in Indochina, flowed naturally from World War II and calls into question much of what I thought I knew. It reverse polarities, putting people who might have been my heroes for their role in the resistance, for their sufferings in the concentration camps, in an alliance with fascists. I cannot fundamentally understand it, just as I cannot understand the oppression of the Palestinians by Israelis.

The list of generals — paras from both Indochina and Algeria — all heroes of WWII, leaders of resistance, many in concentration camps:

Ducournau, Trinquier, Bigeard, Brothier, Meyer, Jeanpierre, Fossey-François, Château-Jobert, Romain-Defossés, Coulet.

This is a long list. They took what they had learned in fighting fascism in Europe and applied it to the oppression of both the Vietnamese and the Algerians fighting a war of liberation, and they were both efficient and murderous.

One of the key figures of the revolt and attempted coup against de Gaulle was:

The slender St Cyrien, Jean Gardes…The only son of a Parisian heroine of the Reisistance, who had run a cell through her well-known Restaurant des Ministères on the Rue Ministères on the Rue du Bac, Gardes himself had won no less than twenty-four citations for bravery and been severely wounded with the Tiralleurs Marocains in Italy. (354)

He worked in Indo-China and Algeria, and was put in charge of the Cinquième Bureau, with its ‘potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare’…

It is not just that they were heroes of the resistance, these men appropriated symbols of uprising from their history, drawing parallels from the French Revolition and the Paris Commune. In describing the brains behind the fascist OAS (Organisation de l’armée secrète), Pierre Serjent writes of him: ‘rigid comportment and incisive speech, Jean Jacques Susini evoked in me … the image of St Just.’ (482)

Of the uprising led by the FNF (Front National Français — it would later fold into the OAS), Horne writes (and is he prompted in this by interviews with the men or simply on his own? It hurts me to think of the Commune in this fashion):

At Ortiz’s “command post” there was chaos reminiscent of the headier days of the Paris Commune; everybody talked, gave orders and made speeches in an atmosphere dense with Bastos cigarette-smoke, the smell of sweat and beer. In the street below some young members of the FNF began spontaneously to prise up paving-stones and create a barricade… (361)

With the same results:

With remarkable speed, army pioneers got to work, bulldozing the barricades, replacing the pavé and covering it with a thick, prophylactic layer of bitumen — as Paris had done after her “troubles” in the nineteenth century (373)

It was not just the French who were decorated war heroes in this conflict. In thinking about the turn to armed uprising as opposed to non-violence (which I think we tend to support more now on this end of history, both for philosophical and well as very practical reasons as the terrain of war has shifted), for those emerging from the celebrated armed struggle against German fascism, what could be more obvious or natural? How could they just return to be oppressed by the same people they had fought alongside of in a war for freedom and justice? This is again another parallel with returning soldiers of colour to the US no longer content to put up with second-class citizenship.

Just one example: The FLN’s external campaign to influence the United Nations was led by M’hamed Yazid and Abdelkader Chanderli —  Chanderli had fought in the French campaign of 1940, escaped to Britain to join de Gaulle, in 1948 a reporter on Palestine, and in 1954 he was working for UNESCO.

This same war created a wave of displaced Nazis seeking to occupy themselves, some of them, for money I am sure, ended up on the side of colonised peoples as arms-dealers:

On the ground floor were a group of ex-Nazis who had found refuge in Cairo and had made themselves useful to Nasser; among them a former S.S. man called Ernst-Wilhelm Springer, who had helped form the pro-German Muslim Legion in the Second World War… (262)

Racism and colonial struggle have clearly wrecked havoc on the ideology, on the sense of what is just and an instinctive knowledge of which side is the right one that is usually portrayed as being so clear in WWII. Obviously, it was not.

Horne also quotes Marighela, Brazilian revolutionary, and his ideas of destroying the ‘soft centre’ thus forcing the authorities to negotiate with the revolutionaries — a tactic used both by the FLN (learning from the use of Bao Dai to undercit Ho Chi Minh in negotiations in Vietnam) and the FNF in their khaki shirts.

Heading one of the chapters is this interesting quote:

No, all Algeria is not fascist, all the French are not “ultras”, all the army doesn’t torture. But Fascism, the “ultras”, and torture, they are France in Algeria (Pierre Nora, 1961)

Krim Belkacem, negotiating for the FLN in Switzerland, helps understand why.

A European population has been created, heterogenous in its origins, but soldered together by its integration within French nationality… It has benefited from exorbitant privileges … Independence is going to pose the problem of these Europeans. (471)

It is not until reading Feraoun that I have gotten the full sense of these privileges, you cannot from Horne.

Nor is he able to explain why the same men who had fought the fascism of Germany could fight on the side of fascism in Algeria, but there is one fascinating quote from him:

To begin at the beginning, in November 1954 France was caught at a major disadvantage because, in contrast to Britain over India, no French politician, not even Mendes-France or Mitterand, let alone the Communists, could contemplate any kind of French withdrawal from Algeria. Mollet the Socialist echoed Mendes-France the Radical: “France without Algeria would be no longer France.” (545)

It is a repetition of France and Haiti which I find so immensely chilling. How, you wonder, can entire peoples replay over and over again the same inabilities? To turn to Trouillot’s discussion of why France of the period of Enlightenment and the revolution would oppose to its last breath the revolution of Haiti and its struggle for freedom:

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)

There is no such historical distance for France of 1956-1962. How was Algerian freedom after WWII still unthinkable?

Horne keeps returning to this phrase — Algérie montait à la tête
(Algeria goes to the head, Louis Joxe). Perhaps there is something to this, given how hard men fought to keep it when they had no prior roots or connection there. But I think most of the answer lies in the pattern of settlement — dense and deep-rooted as it was in the U.S., South Africa, Australia… I imagine what US history would have been if the genocide of Native Americans had not been quite so effective, if enough had survived this horror to outnumber white settlers and they had been able to carry out a struggle for liberation with such armed effectiveness. The reaction might have been even more violent than that of the French. The ongoing abolition-civil rights-black lives matter movements have been enough to inspire lynchings, riots and massive destruction.

The countries that the right — composed as it was by heroes of the resistance — considered sympathetic? Portugal, Spain, Israel, and South Africa.

Nor were the French restrained in their violence or determination. This included a policy of massive resettlement beginning in 1957:

This was regroupement, or resettlement, which — to rephrase the oft-quoted axiom — aimed at emptying the water away from the fish by isolating communities from the FLN and thus denying it refuge and supplies. It involved the resettlement of over a million peasants from ‘exposed’ communities to barbed-wire encampments, which often looked horribly like concentration camps (220)

When de Gaulle finally decided he would allow Algeria independence it was only a signal to increase terror. This declaration of the OAS shows that some of the settlers were willing to destroy everything to stop the peace process moving forward. Their goals as they articulated them were:

to paralyse the powers that be and make it impossible for them to exercise authority. Brutal actions will be generalised over the whole territory. They will aim at influential personalities of the Communist Party, at works of art and all that represents the exercise of authority, in a manner to lead towards the maximum of general insecurity and the total paralysis of the country. (516)

When peace talks began in Evian, the OAS assassinated the mayor and declared it an act of ‘national sulubrity’ (467).

Over the years French policy had also included a wide use of torture. Again, it is only in Feraoun that you get a sense of what this actually meant, but an interesting aside is the sense that torture is something the police do, not the army. I feel there is something psychologically important here to understand about oppression, but I am not sure what it is:

Certainly the pernicious effect on the French army as a whole lasted many years after the war had ended, and many officers came to agree with General Bollardie in condemning Massu for ever having allowed the army to be brought into such a police action in the first place, thus inevitably exposing it to the practice of torture (206).

The most pernicious effects, in reality, were suffered by Algerians, throughout the war and long after the war was over. On the situation of Algerians in France:

by 1973 they were close on 800,000. For the most part these Algerians lived like third-class citizens, their plight concealed from the eyes of other Frenchmen. Existing in rat-infested bidonvilles, or six to a tenement room, without women and on the poor food that their rock-bottom wages would provide, over eighty percent of the Algerian workers performed the traveaux pénibles; generally the heavy, dangerous or distasteful labour eschewed by Frenchmen…

In the summer of 1973 a bus driver had throat slit by an Algerian and terror was renewed:

whites machine gunned Algerian cafes in the city and threw Molotov cocktails into their lodgings; a sixteen-year old boy was shot down by men in a moving car. In Toulouse fifty paras rampaged through the streets on a ratonnade, beating up any North African they encountered. (550)

Just a final note before getting to the spy-novel details in which fascists are humiliated (a nice way to end), I was saddened (though not surprised I suppose) at the role ethnologists played in this. Jacques Soustelle was first an ethnologist, and then governor-general. Originally of the left, he soon shifted. Ethonlogist Germaine Tillion was part of the resistance, tortured by the Gestapo. She took the part of Algerians but was still instrumental in forming the policies of government support that formed the carrot that Soustelle hoped would neutralise the uprising for freedom when carried out alongside armed repression and torture. Another ethnologist Jean Servier, in 1957 started developing the harki units — light companies of Alegrian muslims that exploited the divisions between tribes, between Kabyles and Arabs and tried to attract FLN defectors.

There is one bright spot of academic solidarity, however:

…on hearing of his death [Ali Boumendjel] his former mentor, René Capitant, Professor of Public Law at the University of Paris, informed the Minister of Education that he was suspending his courses.  (233)

So now, some of the dark humour to be found in this terrible place:

 Bigeard had that particularly French quality of allure essential to an outstanding commander. He seldom did anything without panache. Instead of arriving by staff car or even helicopter, his favourite manner of inspecting a unit was to drop by parachute, arm at the salute as he touched down

The footnote is even more ridiculous:

This nearly ended in disaster when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior genera;, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him. (168)

They should have left him to the sharks, the poetic justice in that is almost unbearable.

The Algerians ran guns using the Queen of Jordan’s private yacht.

On the French Foreign Legion (actually mostly German apparently):

As an elite body it still enjoyed the best food in the army and was accompanied wherever it went by its own mobile brothels — “le puff”. (169)

There was an attempt by the right to blow up Salan (a key figure in all this, who would move as far right as anyone) with a bazooka, the conspirators? ‘Dr Kovacs, the ex-Hungarian doctor and hypnotist…and George Wattin, alias “The Limp”‘ (182)

The bad-assness of Algerian freedom fighters:

Azedine had had his right forearm shattered by a 50 mm. calibre bullet. For two days he lay in a coma, apparently half-blinded with pain, buy had refused the ministrations of even the primitive A.L.N. field hospital, dressing and removing splinters of bone from the wound himself. (252)

On Pierre Lagaillarde, fascist student leader (and by god, the French students were all fascists in this tale):

the forebear with whom Lagaillarde liked most to identify himself was his great-grandfather, an obscure deputy and revolutionary called Baudin who had found immortality in the 1851 uprising against Louis-Napoleon. Leaping on top of a barricade and crying “I’ll show you how one dies for twenty-five sous a day,” he had been promptly shot. (278)

I don’t know why that made me laugh out loud. But it did. Another interesting note, as part of the mob action on 13 may 1958 that seized the government, and the Gouvernement-Général…the students led  by Lagaillarde hurled down the bust of Marianne in the foyer. I can barely handle the symbolism.

Horne uses the expression to ‘cock a snook’. I have no comments on that.

A dude calling himself ‘Le Monocle’ was put in charge of the OAS terror campaign in Paris.

During the attempt at a putsch on Thursday, 20 April 1961:

Godard, the master intelligence operator, in the excitement of arriving had mislaid in a public corridor his briefcase containing all details of the putsch (448).

And again

…some of the waiting putschists apparently unaware even of the codeword Arnat… Once they were rendered leaderless by Faure’s arrest, no orders came through until a detachment of gendarmes appeared in the forest and gave a brusque order to disperse with which the powerful body of paras sheepishly complied. (454)

There were a few bright spots in the struggle to make our world bearable.

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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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A License to Trade (and thus conquer the world)

I am going to try to evoke the excitement and fascination of the rise of chartered companies. Awesome you say. But really, this is how England became an Empire.

I am slogging through it. Writing because that helps me understand.

To do it, I am going to depart slightly in interpretation from the dull and very partisan book I am basing all of this on and quoting from, A License to Trade: The History of English Chartered Companies by Sir Percival Griffiths (1974, London: Ernest Benn Ltd).

These companies were experiments beginning mostly in the 16th century but stretching back long before. They were slightly revolutionary, emerging in a time when the crown had enormous power and its subjects had none. Griffiths writes of the reasons that this form of organisation was necessary:

A charter was necessary in the first place because associations of individuals had no inherent right of meeting or electing officers or framing regulations. Without royal sanction the members of such an association would have been at continual risk of being punished as an unlawful assembly [I see why it was included in the U.S. Constitution]. Even the administration of oaths, or the export of goods, or the departure of an individual from England might require royal permission… (x)

So they had to invent something that would allow the pooling of resources necessary to carry out trading expeditions and explorations and that could meet regularly as a group with the crown’s permission, that gave them jurisdiction over their employees while they were abroad (again, normally a right belonging entirely to the crown), and at the same time had proof that the crown was backing them up. With force.

That’s exciting.

The charter was the outward sign to the foreign government that the company operated under the aegis of the English Crown and that injuries to its members would be resent by the Crown and might provoke retaliation (xi).

And finally, the wet dream of all capitalists everywhere, monopoly.

No body of individuals would have been prepared to accept all the risks then attendant on opening up overseas ventures without some assurance that others would not enjoy the fruits of its labours and all the early charters, therefore, conferred exclusive trading rights against all other Englishmen (xi).

I spy a hint of the classical economist’s assumption of freeloading here, which I hate, and that stupid idea that people are only motivated by profit, but I will let it slide. Particularly as on this occasion, most of these men were in fact motivated solely by profit, and did not let a single moral qualm stand in their way. It’s like free-market economics were invented entirely to describe them.

But what I find most interesting is that from their earliest beginnings, these chartered companies that sent out trading, exploratory and colonising expeditions around the world, were a strange mix of public and private, an uneasy combination of   individual and collective and national interests, and a part of the crucible that created the very ideas of free trade and rights that are so familiar today. Though they were all decrepit and bailed out in the end, or just used as the vehicle for crown rule.

Wow.

In thinking about that crucible, we must remember that while determining their rights and ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ they were also extorting vast wealth and embarking on policies of conquest, slavery and genocide. This book doesn’t get into any of that however. At least, not where it can avoid it.

It mostly started with the merchant adventurers — who I shall hate forever for stealing the joy of the word adventure. There are mentions of merchant groups back in the 1200s, but in 1485 the English cloth merchants petitioned the crown as ‘Merchant Adventurers, Citizens of the City of London, into the parts of Holland, Zeeland, Brabant and Flanders’.

It’s not surprising, but interesting that they style themselves ‘Citizens of the City of London’, and set up branches in other cities. Citizens of London, not England.

There are few light notes in this tome, I admit. But here is one. These merchant adventurers had apprentices who misbehaved as apprentices will do, ‘liable to fines for immorality or drunkeness, or for playing cards for excessive stakes…”knocking and ringing at men’s doors, beating at windows and consuming the master’s goods”‘ (11).

Another ‘fun’ fact: members often traded individually but divided up the total trade. The portion belonging to each was known as his stint.

I won’t go too much into each of the companies, but I hadn’t realised quite how many there were, quite how early they were, nor how different they were. It’s interesting to see them all together and realise the scale of this early stage of building the Empire. Also interesting is that before the beginning of accounting (or perhaps in spite of it), it is hard to gauge actual profits and losses. The wealth of England shows that there were profits, company members seemed to continuously pay themselves large dividends completely unrelated to actual profits and losses, but they all in the end seemed to have received subsidies from the crown (though that went both ways) and most were eventually fully taken over by the crown. As we know. That Empire over which the sun never set.

I’ve pulled out exciting quotes — there were a few. Honest. Well, enraging really. But there’s some good gossip about Ivan the Terrible and a visionary named Wakefield.

Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.
Seal of the Muscovy Company, showing the date 1555 above an escutcheon of arms.

The Russia Company:

Beyond theories of the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and daring ‘…it is clear that the driving force behind the pioneers of the Russia venture was the need to find markets for the newly created surplus production of England’ (19). So early, it seems too early, does it not?

Circumstances were thus propitious when, in 1553, two hundred and forty ‘grave Citizens of London and men of great wisedome, and carefull for the good of their Countrey’ banded themselves together under the governorship of Sebastian Cabot to promote a voyage for the discovery of a North East passage to Cathay and for the establishment of trade wherever possible (20)

I love this description of the Tsar Ivan the Terrible, pioneer of multiple costume changes, from pilot Richard Chancellor:

Before dinner hee changed his crowne, and in dinner time two crowns; so that I saw three severall crownes upon his head in one day (21).

In return for their trading rights to Russia, the crown extorted from the company a few things. Not that they pay a portion of their earnings to the crown’s overseas creditors (as many other companies were required to do), but instead that they provide all of the wax required by the Royal Household and all the cordage required by the navy. They could not sell either of these two commodities until the crown and the navy had had enough.

A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company's arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687
A gold beaker bearing the Levant Company’s arms, presented to Katherine, Lady Trumbull, in April 1687

The Levant Company:

Ah, Turkey and Venice…and the companies formed to ‘wrest from the Venetians the existing trade between England and the Levant’ (42).

In 1581, Elizabeth I granted ‘letters patent’ to the Turkey company that ‘authorized them to make laws and ordinances for the government of the Company, and prohibited English subjects from even visiting Turkey without permission of the Company’ (46) and renewable after 7 years.

The Levant Company received its letters patent in 1592, and was entitled to also appoint an Ambassador to Turkey to represent both crown and company.  After some prosperity it received a few infusions of cash from the crown, and failed.

God, this is a little boring. Except you wake up and realise the company was appointing ambassadors to represent England abroad, and you’re like what? There was a bit of struggle over this, but still…

The African Companies:

Of the great charter companies established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the African companies alone can be regarded as, on the whole, unsuccessful. From 1588 to 1672 a succession of companies chartered to trade to the Guinea Coast went out of business, and even the Royal African Company, chartered in 1672 to exploit what was thought to be the very lucrative slave trade, enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity and eventually found itself unable to compete with private traders.

This is real banality of evil stuff, in presentation, not in subject.  He discusses lightly the three phases: trade by private individuals with or without permission, trade by the companies focused mainly on gold, and from 1660 (what ho restoration and the joys it brought the rest of the world), companies were chartered mainly for the slave trade.

A quote from J.A. WIlliamson that gives the lie to all of the later quotes about civilization and for people’s own good and etc:

The Guinea traffic of this period is one of the fundamental transactions of British expansion…it produced an oceanic war with Portugal…and it occassioned the formulation of a British doctrine which was never afterwards abandoned, the doctrine that prescriptive rights to colonial territory are of no avail unless backed by effective occupation.

The first English slave raid on the Guinea Coast? John Hawkins, 1562.

eastindiaThe East India Company:

Chartered in 1600. I am reading tons about them (see another post here), so I am going to be brief here.

Young men went to India in the eighteenth century to make a fortune and since they were grossly underpaid they relied for this purpose on private trade–a practice at times allowed and at other times connived at by the Directors (97).

Like a swarm of jackals really…I’m mixing my metaphor there, but I like it. Griffiths skips lightly over this, as he does the horror-filled famine in Bengal in 1769 onwards, though he has to note Pitt’s Act of 1784 which arose to control the company’s abuses that gave rise to it.

It is only in thinking of profits that this makes any sense:

The China trade presented the brightest aspect of the Company’s affairs in the late eighteenth century. It consisted of the export of opium from India to China and the export from China of tea, silk and spices (104).

No mention of Opium Wars of course.

Heraldic achievement of Hudson's Bay Company
Heraldic achievement of Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company:

The 1670 charter granted it:

The sole trade and commerce of all those seas, straits, bays, rivers, lakes, creeks and sounds, in whatsoever latitude they shall be, that lie within the entrance of the straits, commonly caled Hudson’s Straits, together with all the land and territories upon the countries, coasts and confines of the seas, bays, lakes, rivers, creeks and sounds aforesaid, that are not actually already possessed by or granted to any of our subjects, or possessed by the subjects of any other Christian Prince or State (112).

Thus they bring god into it robbery and theft. Their first sales in London were by

‘inch of candle’ at Garroway’s Coffee House on 24 January 1672. It was not a financial success–of between 2,700 and 3,000 lb of beaver put up for sale, only 789 lb. were sold, realizing £282 4s 0d.

Breaks my heart that does.

There’s more, like this:

Wedderburn had also shown much interest in land settlement as a means of providing for the Company’s retired servants and their half-breed offspring, and also of making servants and labourers available for the Company’s needs (126).

I almost ripped that page out of the book, but I didn’t.

It was unthinkable that the great prairies, large areas of which were believed to be fertile, should remain almost uninhabited. The only question was as to who should colonize them (131).

The Virginia Company:

They settled Virginia, most of them died, blah blah blah.

The Plymouth Company:

We’ve heard lots about them before.

The Massachusetts Bay Company:

This differed from the rest in that the government of the company was not required to remain in England. Good for founding theocratic states.

The Newfoundland and Guiana Companies:

The Darien Company:

A Scottish chartered company, but it didn’t quite get off the ground.

By the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these companies were still being formed, but intellectual fashion had ‘swung strongly against monopolies’, so they didn’t have that going for them. The reason I am reading this book at all was the little I have found out about the

g161Sierra Leone Company:

When Griffiths writes this it is without sarcasm, but not when I copy it:

Even before the news of this disaster had reached London, it had become apparent to Sharp that philanthropic motives were not always by themselves sufficient for the maintenance of a colony and that commercial interests must be attracted to it (219).

The Governor was fortunate in the choice of his two Councillors — Zachary Macaulay, a leading member of the Clapham Sect, and William Dawes, a former marine officer at Botany Bay (221)

An evangelical abolitionist and the warden of a prison colony. Jesus.

I don’t even know where this comes from:

Like most visionaries, Wakefield was unbalanced and in his early days found himself in trouble with the law as a result of abducting an heiress (226).

Niger_Coast_Scott_44The Royal Niger Company:

Prepare yourself for some truly righteous anger…

The determination of the British Government to suppress the slave trade led, in 1851, to friction with Kosoko, the King of Lagos. When he attacked the British settlement at Badagri, he was driven out and his successor, Akitoya, entered into a treaty for the abolition of the slave trade. He was succeeded by Docemo, who genuinely sought to observe the treaty, but opposition from his subjects was too strong and it became clear that nothing except direct British control would achieve the desired result. In August 1861, Docemo was therefore pursuaded to cede his kingdom to the Britain and was given a very adequate pension (238).

The pension is a nice touch.

…in the Delta, where many of the tribes keenly resented the presence of the Company. Its activities not only undermined their position as middlemen but also threatened their way of life, since the Company was determined to put an end to slavery and to suppress the barbarous customs of cannibalism and human sacrifice…bit by bit, either by peaceful treaty or force, the Company established its ascendency and within a few years the Delta was fully under its control (241).

In the words of a writer in 1898, unconsciously giving a better angle on what it really was all about:

The West Coast of Africa at the present day resembles a huge estate that has been split up into building lots, with desirable frontages on to the Atlantic, and boundary fences running back on either side of each lot, but in many cases having no fence at the end of the back garden… (A. F. Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, London: 1898. p 411)

The British North Borneo Company:

Never concerned with trade, this company just governed Borneo. You know.

The Imperial British East Africa Company:

As a Chartered Company, however, they were considered to have responsibilities almost as agents for Her Majesty’s Government and so had to undertake an unprofitable advance into territories from which that Government wished to exclude the Germans. As a result, the shareholder received no dividends and lost much of their capital (263).

The British South Africa Company:

Ah, South Africa, a monument to the benefits of Empire.

There were a host more of smaller, less important, more prone to failure companies. In spicing this post up with pictures I found stamps and coins…which demands a whole other post really. Of course they had stamps and coins, but I still ask myself, did they really have stamps and coins? Seriously?

I mock these things, but I know this is a history of conquest and slavery and a destruction of lives and cultures and languages and traditions and knowledges. Unimaginable horror. Driven by greed. Hidden behind discussions of chartered companies and their legalistic language and reasonings.

Which is why I am learning more.

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Black Skin, White Masks

274392Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon ([1952] 1986)

Another classic I am long overdue in reading, though I loved Wretched of the Earth and it’s now higher on the list to be read again.

There is a controlled anger in his writing, made possible by distance.

This book should have been written three years ago. . . But these truths were a fire in me then. now I can tell them without being burned. These truths do not have to be hurled in men’s faces. They are not intended to ignite fervor. I do not trust fervor (11).

I like hurling truths, but laying them out eloquently and  clearly often works better. I feel that rage demands at least this clarity, perhaps this is why much modern theory frustrates me. As for fervor, I don’t always trust it either.

I enjoy the occasional burst of a lyrical passage:

There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born. (10)

But above all I love tying psychological analysis to material conditions. Seems to me another form of oppression to deny the role (and thus culpability) that conquest, physical oppression and racism have played in forming our psyches.

If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process:
— primarily, economic
–subsequently, the internalization–or, better, the epidermalization–of this inferiority.

The black man must wage his war on both levels: Since historically they influence each other, any unilateral liberation is incomplete, and the gravest mistake would be to believe in their automatic interdependence (13).

Seems to me we need to think about how we reclaim this, heal this. On both levels.  It affects everyone, the violence of this relationship does not harm only those on the receiving end of it.

The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation (60).

I was thinking this when reading Virginia Woolf, and this brought to mind Faulkner, who has always epitomised to me the terrible harm that a slave-owning society causes to those supposed to be its beneficiaries. Fanon picks up on this later, this connection between the colonial and the familial writing

In Europe and in every country characterized as civilized or civilizing, the family is a miniature of the nation. As the child emerges from the shadow of his parents, he finds himself once more among the same laws, the same principles, the same values (142).

The horror of Colonial laws, principles, values. Greed mostly. Fanon goes on to quote work by Joachim Marcus who finds that conflictual family structures produce social neurosis, ‘abnormal behaviour in contact with the Other’ (158, footnote 23).

This does not shift where the greatest pain and damage lies.

what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact (16).

Let us have the courage to say it outright: It is the racist who creates his inferior. (93)

As everyone has pointed out, alterity for the black man is not the black but the white man. (97)

The ways in which colonialism have twisted worth up with language and skin. There is great insight here into words, the ways that power relations warp language and our appreciation of it, the meaning we give it.

The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter–that is, he will come closer to being a real human being–in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with Being. A man who has language consequently possess the world expressed and implied by that language (18).

The ways that this also marks ‘rubes’ from the country vs the city. England is perhaps the prizewinner in building hierearchy by accent, but the level of English spoken too often seems to define the respect granted to others wherever I have lived. Or traveled. Another terrible kind of violence, as is talking down:

To make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible (34)

But this is not simply to be accepted.

From the moment the Negro accepts the separation imposed by the European he has no further respite and “is it not understandable that thenceforward he will try to elevate himself to the white man’s level? To elevate himself in the range of colors to which he attributes a kind of hierarchy?” (quoteing Claude Nordey, L’homme de couleur (Paris, Collection “Presences,” plon, 1939)

We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies a restructuring of the world. (81-82)

Isn’t about damn time we restructured the world? Who can bear it as it is?

There is a long quote from Karl Jaspers, (La Culpabilite Allemande, Jeanne Hersch’s French translation, pp 60-61 — reading Hannah Arendt put him on my list of things to read many years ago, but he is hard to track down). It’s a quote I think at the end of the day I agree with, but don’t know what to do with exactly, apart from choose my battles and fight them to the best of my ability…

There exists among men, because they are men, a solidarity through which each shares responsibility for every injustice and every wrong committed in the world, and especially for crimes that are committed in his presence or of which he cannot be ignorant. If I do not do whatever I can to prevent them, I am an accomplice in them. If I have not risked my life in order to prevent the murder of other men, if I have stood silent, I feel guilty in a sense that cannot in any adequate fashion be understood juridically, or politically, or morally . . . . That I am still alive after such things have been done weighs on me as a guilt that cannot be expiated.

Somewhere in the heart of human relations an absolute command imposes itself: In case of criminal attack or of living conditions that threaten physical being, accept life only for all together, otherwise not at all. (89)

I want to accept life only for all together. I want to make this world. Sadly the world as we have created it now is one of the exploitation of the many, the destruction of the natural world. These things demands solidarity for each and all in their oppressions, as much as we can give. Fanon recognises this, taught me that in the French colonial hierarchy a native of the Antilles was higher than an Arab– another marker of the shifting boundaries of race, religion and hierarchy–and makes his stand:

Whenever I see an Arab with his hunted look, suspicious, on the run, wrapped in those long ragged robes that seem to have been created especially for him, I say to myself, “M. Mannoni was wrong.” Many times I have been stopped in broad daylight by policemen who mistook me for an Arab; when they discovered my origins, they were obsequious in their apologies…every citizen of a nation is responsible for the actions committed in the name of that nation (91).

I do not mind the humanism, the affirmation, the search for hope

I said in my introduction that man is a yes. I will never stop reiterating that.
Yes to life. Yes to love. Yes, to generosity.
But man is also a no. No to scorn of man. No to desegregation of man. No to exploitation of man. No to the butchery of what is most human in man: freedom. (222)

Homi K Bhabha in his forward (‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche and the Colonial Condition’ (London 1986)) is a little more skeptical of this life affirmation, this humanism. I like how his thoughts build on Fanon, however, how they situate it in relation to theory now:

He nails the London left here I’m afraid:

When that labourist line of vision is challenged by the ‘autonomous’ struggles of the politics of race and gender, or threatened by problems of human psychology or cultural representation, it can only make an empty gesture of solidarity. Whenever questions of race and sexuality make their own organisational and theoretical demands on the primacy of ‘class’, ‘state’ and ‘party’ the language of traditional socialism is quick to describe those urgent, ‘other’ questions as symptoms of petty-bourgeois deviation, signs of the bad faith of socialist intellectuals. The ritual respect accorderd to the name of Fanon, the currency of his titles in the common language of liberation, are part of the ceremony  of a polite, English refusal. vii-vii

These speak far more eloquently than I do, I think, about what Fanon has brought us:

He may yearn for the total transformation of Man and Society, but he speaks most effectively from the uncertain interstices of historical change: from the area of ambivalence between race and sexuality; out of an unresolved contradiction between culture and class; from a deep within the struggle of psychic representation and social reality (ix)

In his desperate doomed search for a dialectic of deliverance Fanon explores the edge of those modes for thought: his Hegelianism restores hope to history; his existentialist evocation of the “i” restores the presence of the marginalized; and his psychoanalytic framework illuminates the ‘madness’ of racism, the pleasure of pain, the agonistic fantasy of political power (x)

Remembering Fanon is a process of intense discovery and disorientation. Remembering is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present. It is such memory of race and racism, colonialism and the question of cultural (xxiii) identity, that Fanon reveals with greater profundity and poetry than any other writer (xxiv).

Again, as always, we come back to the past, to the ways it continues on into the present recalling CLR James a little, Trouillot a whole lot. In just a fragment of a sentence the geographies of the colonial project are invoked, ‘the validity of violence in the very definition of the colonial social space’ (xiv) but I would argue it is as much physical, material space: The arbitrary delimitations of nations, the segregation of living spaces.

To end with this final farewell and celebration of his legacy:

The ‘social’ is always an unresolved ensemble of antagonistic interlocutions between positions of power and poverty, knowledge and oppression, history and fantasy, surveillance and subversion. It is for this this reason — above all else — in the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, that we should turn to Fanon.  xxv

For more on race and empire…

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Orientalism

OrientalismEdward Said ([1978] 1991)  Penguin

This is one of those foundational texts that I had never read and quite embarrassed about that and always meaning to get to next… Because this was so groundbreaking and has been used and quoted by so many others, it is hard now to fully grasp how challenging it must have been when it was published, and probably for that reason it also enters into an incredibly detailed engagement with a whole shelf of literature I am not sure anyone bothers much about today. They don’t have to, because Said did. I might have nodded off a couple of times, but these sections are worth the slog.

To do so he employs Michel Foucault’s notion of discourse (The Archeology of Knowledge, Discipline and Punish), a difficult task he does well I think, and not one many succeed in. I am mostly going to let him speak for himself:

My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage — and even produce — the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the Post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and tehrefore always involved in) any occassion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question. How this happens is what this book tries to demonstrate. It also tries to show that European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self (3).

And this:

To believe that the Orient was created — or, as I call it, “Orientalized”–and to believe that such things happen simply as a necessity of the imagination, is to be disingenuous. The relationship between Occident and Orient is a relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony… (5)

I like Foucault all right, though I was happiest going back to Gramsci:

It is hegemony, or rather the result of cultural hegemony at work, that gives Orientalism the durability and the strength I have been speaking about so far. Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hays has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” Europeans as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures … (7)

Following on from how categories of  ‘us’ and ‘them’ are created with one dominating over another, I think the below opens the door in an interesting way to think about racial hierarchies (which he doesn’t really go through, I think most of the work on that which has come long after Said wrote this):

In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand (7).

As a writer, and in thinking about other writers and their work, I am fascinated by this:

This influence upon culture is not to demean or denigrate, rather my whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not universally inhibiting. It is this idea that Gramsci, certainly, and Foucault and Raymond Williams…have been trying to illustrate (14).

I confess to have not really considered hegemony as productive, rather have only sought it in limits…limits are what you hit when you try and change things, make it better. (Said working more from Foucault, seems to have as default the opposite understanding, so he later feels called upon to clarify that ‘Orientalism is better grasped as  a set of constraints upon and limitations of thought than it is simply as a positive doctrine’ (42). ) But when you try and create something…the danger is how your work shaped, produced through these dominant systems. More familiar again is the way that hegemony defines usefulness and quality:

In other words, Lane’s authority was gained, not by virtue simply of what he said, but by virtue of how what he said could be adapted to Orientalism (158)

Still, it is in hegemony’s productiveness that where we come from, where we stand is so important. Said brings to the intro a personal dimension, being raised in two British colonies, Palestine and Egypt, educated there and in the U.S. An amazing quote from Gramsci: ‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving and inventory’, but Said finishes this quote with the last sentence which had not been previously translated: ‘therefore it it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’ (26)

I like the idea of compiling such an inventory, as much as acknowledging the personal and the intellectual:

The nexus of knowledge and power creating “the Oriental” and in a sense obliterating him as a human being is therefore not for me an exclusively academic matter. Yet it is an intellectual matter of some very obvious importance (27).

How the ideological connects to the material, and the vastness of the colonial project — something that can never be forgotten:

The period of immense advance in the institutions and content of Orientalism coincides exactly with the period of unparalleled European expansion; from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it. Every continent was affected, none more so than Asia and Africa (41).

Why is Said beloved by geographers? The chapter called ‘Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental’ points the way, a critique of how our discipline has participated in this system of domination:

As a discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, Orientalism thus comes to exert a three-way force, on the Orient, on the Orientalist, and on the Western “consumer” of Orientalism (67).

Though I found later quotations about space more useful, like this one about the construction of colonial space:

In the classical and often temporarily remote form in which it was reconstructed by the Orientalist, in the precisely actual form in which the modern Orient was lived in, studied or imagined, the geographical space of the Orient was penetrated, worked over, taken hold of. The cumulative effect of decades of so sovereign a Western handling turned the Orient from alien into colonial space (211).

and this: ‘the Orient as a geographical space to be cultivated, harvested, and guarded.’ Said goes on to quote Leroy-Beaulieu on the true nature of the project of empire in space:

‘Colonization is the expansive force of a people; it is its power of reproduction; it is its enlargement and its multiplication through space; it is the subjection of the universe or a vast part of it to that people’s language, customs, ideas and laws (219).

Above all, reading this for me clarified the essence of what happens when we essentialise through a use and abuse of stereotypes that are wielded so casually, above all when this is connected to a larger project of domination:

Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into  a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq, or Arabia (96).

What I found to be the most useful definition of it is quoted from Anwar Abdel Malek:

a) On the level of the position of the problem, and the problematic…the Orient and Orientals [are considered by Orientalism] as an “object” of study, stamped with an otherness — as all that is different, whether it be “subject” or “object”–but of a constituitive otherness, of an essentialist character…This “object” of study will be, as is customary, passive, non-participating, endowed with a “historical” subjectivity, above all, non-active, non-autonomous, non-sovereign with regard to itself: the only Orient or Oriental or “subject” which could be admitted, at the extreme limit, is the alienated being, philosophically, that is, other than itself in relationship to itself, posed, understood, defined–and acted–by others (97, ‘Orientalism in Crisis’).

There is a critique of assembly, of the ways that this essentialising takes place through cobbling bits and pieces together into a new, more convenient whole:

Not only are Oriental literary publications essentially a lien to the European; they also do not contain a sustained enough interest, nor are they written with enough “taste and critical spirit,” to merit publication except as extracts…Therefore the Orientalist is required to present the Orient by a series of representative fragments, fragments republished, explicated, annotated, and surrounded with still more fragments (128).

I was glad to see an interrogation of Marx, the way modernist ideas of progress (even when sympathetic) folded in to a larger project of domination. This quote exemplifies everything that needs to be challenged in them

Now sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities…had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting toll of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? (Marx, Surveys From Exile)

It’s probably because I don’t have a background in Colonial studies that I wondered at Said’s not choosing more of the very obvious quotes about colonial power and white supremacy that I did not know but imagines must exist in abundance, but there is this poem by Kipling:

Now, this is the road that the White Men tread
When they go to clean a land–
Iron underfoot and the vine overhead
And the deep on either hand.
We have trod that road–and a wet and windy road–
Our chosen star for guide.Oh, well for the world when the White Men tread
Their highway side by side! (226)

Some disturbing quotes from Orwell I will hunt down, in an essay called ‘Marrakech’ when he finds it hard to feel that brown faces represent human beings. I liked how he traced the changing face of Orientalism over time, however. I think his argument that the new Orientalism from America based on strings of facts, statistics, which are disturbed by literary texts has some truth to it, though it seems that all of these ways of creating and imagining the other are currently at play side by side.

Here is a summation not so much of what has been argued as the where this book might be taking us. This is where I feel a little out of my depth and need more reflection about just how this fits in with a politics of liberation and a theory that supports it:

…as this book has tried to demonstrate, Islam has been fundamentally misrepresented in the West–the real issue is whether there can be a true representation of anything, or whether any and all representations, because they are representations, are embedded first in the language and then in the culture, institutions, ans political ambience of the representer. If the latter alternative is the correct one (as I believe it is), then we must be prepared to accept the fact that a representation is eo ipso implicated. intertwined, embedded, interwoven with a great many other things besides the “truth,” which is itself a representation (272).

Beyond A Boundary

imagesC.L.R. James ([1963] 1996) Serpent’s Tail, London

I enjoyed this immensely. I know just enough about cricket that it made some kind of sporting sense — though I confess that there’s was an entire chapter on Bradman and the body-line where I really had no idea what the hell James was talking about. Mostly though, James’s enthusiasm carried me along the crest of a lyrical use of words in unfamiliar contexts and meanings, descriptions of overs and strokes and other barely understood marks of poetry and genius. Growing up with three brothers made this a familiar sensation, and I let the minimally understood words carry me along to more familiar territory. Historiography, politics, colonialism and its legacies, ethics, the relationships between a people and their popular heroes, the relationships between popular heroes and the spirit of the time and place.

These things are beautifully explored, and impossible to sum up. Strange growing up in Arizona playing soccer I was inculcated with many of the same values of fair play, and it’s not a bad code to live by. Certainly conflicted, as James says, by where that code comes from and how it has been wielded.

This is partly why I appreciated his statement of the importance of remembering the past and understanding it in the present for both  colonised and the colonisers. It is not about catharsis, but about understanding how we have arrived where we are so that we can shape where we are going. The demand to forget the past so often comes from those who benefit, even if unconsciously, from such forgetfulness.

There are the people who, having enjoyed the profits and privileges of racialism for most of a lifetime, now that racialism is under fire and in retreat, profess a lofty scorn for it and are terribly pained when so much as refer to it in any shape or form. Their means have changed, not their ends, which are the same as they always were, to exploit racialism for their own comfort and convenience. They are a dying race and they will not be missed…

There is a less obvious fraternity. They not only understand, but sympathize. When you delve into your own history they see in it a search for catharsis! You are getting the poison out of your system.

Here he quotes T.S. Eliot: ‘This is the use of memory…liberation, From the future as well as the past.’

That is exactly what I do not think about memories. They do not liberate me in any sense except that once you have written down something your mind is ready to go further. I do not want to be liberated from them. I would consider liberation from them a grievous loss, irreparable. I am not recording tragedy. I do not wish to be liberated from that past and, above all, I do not wish to be liberated from its future. … I speculated and planned and schemed for the future; among other plans, how to lay racialism flat and keep stamping on it whenever it raises its head, and at the same time not to lose a sense of proportion — not at all easy. (59)

And this is a book about both the coloniser and the colonised, a look at what cricket has meant in England and how that has been exported to the West Indies to take on its own life and meaning. The connections between the two as they continue to meet. The playing out of emancipation through the politics of sport. A use of sport as a prism to understand national movements and hopes and anxieties. It feels more nuanced than a traditional economic base and ideological superstructure analysis, though it contains some of these elements. On the Victorian middle class, as it appropriated cricket to ‘convert it into a national institution’, James writes:

It was accumulating wealth…More than most newcomers it was raw. Unlike the French bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, it had no need to create a new political and philosophical system to prepare itself for power. Its chief subjective quality was a moral unctuousness. This it wore like armour to justify its exploitation of common labour, and to protect itself from the loose and erratic lives of the aristocracy it was preparing to supplant… (161)

Seeing sport as culture:

The world-wide renaissance of organized games and sports as an integral part of modern civilization was on its way. Of this renaissance, the elevation of cricket and football to the place they soon held in English life was a part; historically speaking, the most important part…The only word I know for this is culture. The proof of its validity is its success, first of all at home and then almost as rapidly abroad, in the most diverse places and among peoples living lives which were poles removed from that whence it originally came. This signifies, as so often in any deeply national movement, that it contained elements of universality that went beyond the bounds of the originating nation. It is the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general ideas of Western civilization (166).

It is, however, a universality this particular form of which came into being through certain economic changes. James describes that following the Factory Act of 1847, ‘there had come into existence an enormous urban public, proletarian and clerical lower middle class. They had won for themselves one great victory, freedom on Saturday afternoon. They were ‘waiting to be amused’ (170).

W.G. Grace became my hero (though later conversation with people who know about these things tore him down again, forcing me to make a separation between personal life and public — one that I am never ever comfortable with). I learned a new word as well:

Prolegomena is a tough word, but my purpose being what it is, it is the only one I can honestly use. It means the social, political, literary and other antecedents of some outstanding figure in the arts and sciences. Grasp the fact that a whole nation had prepared the way for him and you begin to see his stature as a national embodiment (170).

I think there is something important here about how we study history, how we understand people and movements:

But the passions and the forces which are embodied in great popular heroes — and W.G. was one of the greatest of popular heroes–these passions and forces do not yield their secrets to the antiquated instruments which the historians still cling to. Wilton St. Hill and Learie Constantine were more than makers of runs and takers of wickets to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period. I have indicated what I think W.G. signified in the lives of the English people, not in what politicians did for them or poets wrote of them or what Carlyle and Ruskin preached to them, but in the lives that they themselves lived from day to day. We shall know more what men want and what they live by when we begin from what they do. They worshipped W.G. That is the fact. And I believe we have never given this fact the attention it deserves. Some day we shall. Of that I have no doubt. For the time being it is enough to say once more: he brought and made a secure place for pre-industrial England in the iron and steel of the Victorian Age (182).

All of this should shape how we work to change our future. Constantine, St Hill, Worrell become heroes as well. The struggle for Worrell as a Black captain clearly a most important one, though clearly a struggle that many on the more dogmatic left believed a waste of time.

I also quite loved the chapter on cricket as high art, the beautiful lines of the play and players themselves, the aesthetics. I chuckled at some of the homoerotic nature of classic descriptions of player form, style and beauty. But I would be the last to deny that this beauty is there.

I think the true skill and beauty of cricket is impossible to fully grasp for anyone who hasn’t followed it for a long time, and better yet played and played well. But its meaning, its greater cultural meaning is something we should work to understand.

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Albert Memmi on Racism

565510([1982] 1999) University of Minnesota Press
(Original review from 14 June, 2013)

A brilliant, short and deceptively simple exposition on the nature of racism and what anti-racist struggle should look like. It was written by Albert Memmi, a novelist and intellectual who participated in the Tunisian struggle for independence from France but was forced to leave his home country in 1956 after their victory, suspect due to his studies in France and his Jewish heritage. An outsider, neither Arab nor French, he yet remains committed to struggle and thus I think, to a reduction of complexity, a focus on essence and concrete ideas about how change can happen. This is a treasure really, and a book I wish I had read long ago, during my first attempt to look at race and racism intellectually rather than a few years down the line.

It makes me want to re-read everything in its light as there is so much I love about it but I worry about this very absence of complexity. But I think its structure is sound, and so much else I’ve read simply fills in details and particularities, gives it nuance and shading.

A common core to everything of course, is that racism is not based on any fundamental characteristics of the group discriminated against, it is not rational in that way, it is culturally constructed but it is a practical construction, and thus often contradictory. Memmi writes:

The thinkers and militants rely on logic and reasoning because they believe they are dealing with an opposing logic and reasoning. But racism is not simply of the order of reason; its real meaning does not reside in its apparent coherence. It is a discourse, at once both functional and naïve, that is called forth and maintained, in its essence and its goals, by something other that itself.

What is that other reason? ‘Whatever its little detours may be, ultimately, the goal of racism is dominance’. [55]

I like his distinction between his own line of thought and Marxism – recognising the great (and increasing) diversity in Marxist thinking

An objection that Marxism might raise, should perhaps be addressed. For most Marxists, the diversity of racism’s social advantages is a deception, in the strong sense of the term. “Man” is, essentially, an economic animal, driven principally by economic needs. The rest is diversion, ruse, and ideology. In these terms, racism is fundamentally an economic weapon. Racist discourse becomes an alibi disguising an interminable appropriation of natural resources and, more to the point, the “exploitation of man by man.” According to the familiar formula “economics is the ultimate motor of history.”

I am in partial agreement with the Marxists here. They are right to suspect that racism seeks another end, behind all its disparagements and attacks. I am quite convinced that there are usually two levels to a discourse — an explicit content and a hidden meaning. …

The Marxists are not wrong, either, in suspecting contemporary racism of economic motivation. …

My agreement with Marxists ends there. I think they are wrong to think that privilege always reduces itself to economic advantage–even as “ultimate determinant,” according to their customary expression. only [61] … Human reality is more complex; pne could not know for certain what unique factor governs all the rest, nor could one know even if such a thing exists. Human needs are multiple, even if they are not endlessly multiplied. Priorities are variable and fluid. The need for security or the need for love, is often as important as the need for nourishment. In short, one might adopt a racist stance for many different reasons, and not simply for calculable economic return — even though, for all, the mechanism whereby those gains are achieved may be the same. [62]

Thus Memmi demands that we always look for the work that racism does. This is one way it can work:

To exteriorize evil by incarnating it in another separates it from society and renders it less threatening. It can be manipulated, managed, destroyed by fire. The common denominator must be understood: fire purifies all, including ourselves … but only by burning the other. That is where it is most economical. [64]

And of course, one of its foundations: colonialism:

The boundary between colonization and premeditated murder is created and sustained by the needs of the colonizer. Without that, it reduces to death and genocide. For example, the first European settlers in the Americas decimated the Indians because they did not have a way of using them …

This is why, to understand any given form of racism, one must inquire into what benefit a particular racist group gains over the particular group they have picked as a target, as their prey. That is, beyond general mechanisms, what does the anti-Semite seek in anti-Semitism, the masculinist man through masculinism, the colonialist through colonization? And what is each of them looking for at any particular historical moment? [70]

This is the key social and structural foundation of racism. But Memmi also looks at how it works and functions on an individual level, and how this interacts with the larger collective feeling. He recognises within human beings an innate fear and distrust of difference, and sees racism as only one aspect of this larger heterophobia, one based on some kind of visible difference such as skin colour or something such as the shape of the nose. It is not intellectual, but lived, and he argues:

It is easier to contest an argument than an emotion; it is much easier to refute a discourse than an experience. That racism finds its genesis and its nourishment in ordinary experience should not be reassuring. On the contrary, its opacity and tenacity are enhanced by the banality of its sources. [22]

Thus, it is natural to notice difference, people then assign values to these differences, ‘Ultimately, one becomes racist only with the inclusion of the third point: the deployment of a difference to denigrate the other, to the end of gaining [37] privilege or benefit through stigmatization.’ This is a tricky point for me, this point of where exactly racism starts. This is where I need to think more about it. But it seems that this might be a good start towards being able to think through how difference works, and how differences can work together. We need to become a society that can thrive in difference, can celebrate it, while also eradicating racism. It reminded me of an essay by Stuart Hall contrasting the essentialisms of the 1960s and 70s struggles and Black Power, which really needed to embrace difference, yet through embracing difference have seemed to lose something of their strength and power for resistance against racism that we need to find and build in another way.

That is something that needs building collectively I think, but I like this line of initial thought:

In effect, the real stakes against racism, which must also inform anti-racism, do not concern difference itself but the use of difference as a weapon against its victim, to the advantage of the victimizer. [51]

At the end, after iteration and iteration, he comes to his clear definition of racism:

Racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the on subjected to that act of definition, whose purpose is to justify (social or physical) hostility and assault. [100]

He also manages to see this as a pyramid, not black and white but multicultural – he uses the phrase of ‘pyramid of tyrannies’ [106] where groups jostle for position always setting themselves above the group beneath them.

So in a nutshell slightly larger than the definition (the way this book always seems to circle around and expand upon the essences of the thing):

Though racism has some roots in a person’s emotional structure and sensibilities, its basic formulation is social. Racism is a cultural discourse that surrounds each person from childhood on, in the air one breathes, in parental advice and thinking, in one’s cultural rituals. One is exposed to it in school, in the streets and the newspapers, even in the writings of people one is supposed to admire and who might otherwise be admirable… [112]

Thus, racism is always both a discourse and an action; it is a discourse that prepares an action, and an action that legitimates itself through a discourse. [142]

Racism is a form of war. And there we glimpse its real face behind all of its shadowy disguises. Up to now, we have disregarded the innateness of agressivity. We can no longer afford to do that if we wish to look to the future. [144]

And even better, it contains some thinking of what must be done in a beautiful section so lacking in so many academic works — Practical lessons:

1. First and foremost, we must be conscious of racism, not just in others but in ourselves, individually and collectively. [146]
What is needed is an exercise of empathy, which means training ourselves in the difficult task of participating in the other. [147]

2. The struggle against racism requires a continual pedagogy, from infancy to death. [149]
Since the apprehension on real or imagined evil is one of the ingredients of aggressiveness, anything that diminishes fear will have a beneficial effect.

3. The core of all teaching is an individual relation to the student, even when the teaching occurs in large groups. But teaching must also address itself to the social, to the collective, and that is the role of politics. Politics is a collective form of behaviour in the name of certain values and in view of greater efficacy. [151]

The struggle against racism coincides, at least in part, with the struggle against all oppressions. There will always be the necessity for struggle. Racism is a perverted sentiment that is the result, the expression, and the matrix of real situations that must be changed if it is to be brought to an end. In order for racism to disappear, it will be necessary that the oppressed cease to be oppressed, that is, recognised as the convenient victim, as the incarnation of an image the [154] oppressor had invented. But it will also be necessary that the oppressor cease to be an oppressor, cease to require that others be under his thumb… [155]

The political fight must be planned around a separate analysis of each context. Who benefits from the arguments justifying racism? What privilege or act of aggression does it prepare for or conceal? Then, if we really want to get at racism, we must tackle this concrete relationship, this implicit or explicit oppression [182]

Is this how I understand politics? I’m not sure? But I think this is a good way to start looking at racism in any given society with an aim to eradicate it.

The final paragraph of this short book I found surprisingly provocative. It summarises much of what has come before, but is perhaps at Memmi’s most clear in terms of human nature and what we are really up against. He writes

How is one to struggle effectively against racism? Moral indignation and attempts at persuasion have shown themselves to be clearly insufficient. One must take full account of racism’s roots in fear, in financial insecurity, in economic avarice, which are in humans the sources of aggressivity and a tendency toward domination. One must struggle against such aggressions and dominations, and prevent them. It is racism that is natural and anti-racism that is not; anti-racism can only be something that is acquired, as all that is cultural is acquired, at the end of long and arduous struggles, which are never free from the possibility of being reversed. [196]

Is racism natural, anti-racism unnatural? I’ve been thinking about that, I’m still not sure of where I stand. But unquestionably, the way in which our society has developed and is structured, particularly in the United States which is where I grew up, and Britain where I live, racism is in the very air we breathe. But like Gilroy in his work on Post-Colonial Melancholia, I see great hope also – in London much more than anywhere I have lived. Just walking around the street you can see the lines of race breaking down in beautiful ways, the rise of a working class conviviality where mixed race couples almost seem to be the rule and so much daily life is shared. The splits are still there and racism is still there, but what I see makes me believe we can actually get past it in the future, a different world is possible. This seems a most organic thing the way it is happening, one that seems to show racism is perhaps not so natural a thing. But I wonder if it could be reversed, if one group could suddenly be rejected the way a new Tunisia rejected some of its freedom fighters…

This is a book to come back to more than once, I feel this is something of a jumble of thoughts that need a lot more going through, particularly in application. But I love that intellectually I can see where to apply them in my work, I can see how, and I can see that it will improve what I do…

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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]

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