Remember back when Jacobin was promoting Vivek Chibber? Interviewing Walter Benn Michaels? Publishing articles by Adolph Reed? When Bhaskar Sunkara first introduced the journal in 2011, he explained that while “Jacobin is not an organ of a political organization nor captive to a single ideology,” its contributors could all generally be considered “proponents of modernity and the unfulfilled project of the Enlightenment.”
How distant those days seem now. Lately, the semi-quarterly periodical has taken more particularist turn. Today, it published a piece by the “decolonial” critics Houria Bouteldja and Malik Tahar Chaouch, representatives the Party of the Republic’s Natives [le Parti des Indigènes de la république] in France. Bouteldja and Chaouch condemned the “vague humanism, paradoxical universalisms, and the old slogans of those who ‘keep the Marxist faith’,” saying that these fail to grasp the new material reality of race’s intertwinement with religion in the West. Essentializing indigenous difference, and blasting the establishment politics of the so-called “white left,” the authors resuscitated the worst of 1960s Maoist rhetoric regarding not only the Third World — this relic of Cold War geopolitics — but also marginalized peoples of Third World descent living in First World nations. (A hyperlink embedded in the article refers readers to a collection of essays by all the usual suspects: liberals and ex-Maoists such as Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Jacques Rancière).
Calls for “national unity,” especially of the sort called for by the French state following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are no doubt reactionary to the core. It is important not to lose sight of this fact when raising criticisms of Bouteldja and Chaouch’s argument. This is not what is at issue. What is at issue here is rather the compatibility or incompatibility of revolutionary Marxism with their decolonial worldview. Framing their activism in terms of a rupture with the status quo, the authors wrote:
Despite its marginalization and relative weakness, political anti-racism has succeeded in giving rise to a significant Palestine solidarity movement, putting Islamophobia at the heart of public debate and building various mobilizations of the descendants of postcolonial immigration. This marked a break with the ruling parties and in particular the white left.
Adolph Reed has already convincingly demonstrated the poverty of anti-racist politics, so I won’t reprise his argument here. More pertinent, at present, is the way Bouteldja and Chaouch characterize their relation to the “white left,” and to the radical Left more broadly. Jacobin, which once saw its mission as bringing about “the next left” (echoing Michael Harrington), presumably provides a platform for leftist discourse and debate — everyone from Marxists to anarchists to left-liberals and market socialists. Do Bouteldja and Chaouch really fall along this end of the political spectrum, however?
Not if you ask them. To her credit, Bouteldja at least harbors no illusions when it comes to her convictions. (One cannot say the same of Jacobin’s editors, who chose to publish her coauthored piece). She rejects the Left-Right distinction, an inheritance of the French Revolution, as a colonial imposition. “My discourse is not Leftist,” Bouteldja declared in an address last year. “It is not Rightist either. However, it is not from outer space. It is decolonial.”
Politics proposing a “third way” — a supposed alternative to the venerable categories of Left and Right — is nothing new, of course. Third Positionism has flourished for over a century now, from fascism to Peronism and beyond. Nevertheless, there is a certain novelty to Bouteldja’s claim that Left and Right are inapplicable to indigenous politics, as a foreign set of values foisted upon them from outside. Indeed, this is a rhetorical gesture several times, with respect to a number of different political and intellectual traditions.
Marxism? Enlightenment? Universalism? Rationality? All inventions of the decadent bourgeois West, apparently. Bouteldja situates her own indigenous perspective somewhere in the rarefied epistemic space of radical alterity. Decolonial thought, she contends, “defied the imposed margins: the margins of enlightenment thinking, of western rationalism/rationality, of Marxism, of universalism, of republicanism.” She therefore implores her fellow indigènes to “resist the ideology of White universalism, human rights, and the Enlightenment.” In Bouteldja’s view, the “the cold rationality of the Enlightenment leads…to the fanaticism of market and capitalist reason,” and engenders an “outrageous and arrogant narcissism to universalize historical processes (i.e., secularism, the Enlightenment, Cartesianism) that were geographically and historically located in Western Europe.” Karl Marx himself was nothing more than a white, Eurocentric chauvinist when he dismissed religion as the opiate of the masses. “There are societies which don’t need the separation between the Church and the State, and for which religion is not a problem,” Bouteldja has written. “Religion is not the opium of the people.”
Such deeply anti-Marxist, anti-Enlightenment proclamations seem not to bother Jacobin’s editors. Bouteldja can hardly be held to the same standard as other authors, after all, as her way of thinking is so utterly alien to Occidental minds (“inscrutable Orientals,” innit?). For her, decolonial thought is above all a mentalité, “an emancipated state of mind” available only to those of colonial origin. Perhaps this is why white leftists don’t get the French comedian Dieudonné’s hilarious brand of antisemitic humor, she suggests. In a remarkable speech translated for Richard Seymour’s Leninology blog, where she is introduced as “the excellent Houria Bouteldja,” she admits:
I love Dieudonné; I love him as the indigènes love him; I understand why the indigènes love him. I love him because he has done an important action in terms of dignity, of indigène pride, of Black pride: he refused to be a domestic negro. Even if he doesn’t have the right political program in his head, his attitude is one of resistance. Today, if we were to strictly consider the political offer that Dieudonné and [Alain] Soral embody, it is currently the one that best conforms to the existential malaise of the second and third generations of post-colonial immigrants: it recognizes full and complete citizenship within the Nation-state, it respects the muslim character within the limits and conditions put forth by Soral. It also designates an enemy: the Jew as a Jew, and the Jew as a Zionist, as an embodiment of imperialism, but also because of the Jew’s privileged position.
While Bouteldja has in the past condemned Dieudonné’s rapprochement with the far-right nationalist Alain Soral, it seems to be more on account of the fact that Soral is part of the white establishment than anything having to do with his serial vilification of the Jews. It’s just a decolonial thing, immune to Western criticism, that we as “white leftists” must simply learn to accept. Secularism is a mode of colonial domination, as is homosexuality. Denouncing “gay imperialism,” Bouteldja writes: “The homosexual way of life does not exist in the banlieues, and that’s not entirely a bad thing.” Homosexuality has been “imposed” as an identity in countries where it did not exist [L’homosexualité est imposée comme identité dans des contrées où elle n’existerait pas]. One recalls the infamous remark made back in 2003 by the SWP organizer Lindsey German, leader of the RESPECT antiwar coalition in Britain: “[S]ome Muslims are anti-gay…Now I’m in favor of defending gay rights, but I am not prepared to have it as a shibboleth, [created by] people who…won’t defend George Galloway, and who regard the state of Israel as somehow a viable presence, justified in occupying Palestinian territories.”
Vivek Chibber warned in a Jacobin interview a couple years ago that “[p]ostcolonial theory discounts the enduring value of Enlightenment universalism at its own peril.” The same might be said of decolonial theory today. Not everyone on the communist left has placated this reactionary pseudo-radicalism, however. Aufheben’s critique of Cliffite accommodationism in “Croissants and Roses: New Labour, Communalism, and the Rise of Muslim Britain,” is as relevant today as in 2006. Same goes with the French left communist website Mondialisme, which besides publishing translations of Loren Goldner and Grandizo Munis has released this scathing polemic against Bouteldja’s indigenous party.
Jacobin would do well to revisit its own founding documents, to see whether these still accurately describe its political project.