“Decolonial” dead-end: Houria Bouteldja and the new indigenism beyond Left and Right

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.

22 thoughts on ““Decolonial” dead-end: Houria Bouteldja and the new indigenism beyond Left and Right

  1. Btw, just on the article and the Left Right divide, I quote Bouteldja here: “I am inclined to say that, after I finish, it would be up to you to decide if it is leftist or not, or in other words whether it could belong to you, or in other words whether you think it can be incorporated in the political programs of the radical Left.”

    This is up to you then. I made my choice: Bouteldja’s antiracism is rooted in a tradition of radical transnational anticolonial antiracism, which is pretty much what was once coined “Black Marxism” by some.

      • She’s much more of a cheap Marcus Garvey than she is a WEB Du Bois. I make that more-flattering-than-I-want comparison for a reason, she treats the french far-right the same way that Garvey did the KKK, and she truly believes that racial consciousness precedes the social struggle, that racial identities should be preserved, separated, etc. Her whole philosophy is anti-universalist, she thinks all universalisms are colonial and that there is only freedom in “indigenous autonomy”, without specifying what it means in the french context of 2015 beyond a (legitimate) struggle against islamophobia. Socialism is essentially a universalist project, this is where the line is drawn. Of course it does not mean that nationalism is always reactionary, anti-colonial nationalism has some progressive quality to it. Reading her party’s website will not leave you with the impression she’s much of a Leftist, but their political family branch certainly is inspired from the Maoists and autonomists groups of the 1970s, which was a petty-bourgeois movement

        To qualify her more broadly, to call her anti-racist is a stretch, she is against some racisms, sure, but she is racist herself other times (hence her sympathy towards Soral/Dieudonne). Insulting is her style more generally. For a religious person, paradoxically, there isn’t much love in her politics, if at all. She is liked by some intellectuals, but her political project can only grow alongside the progression of the most radical far-right. Let’s hope it does not come to that, because I believe it would create a great confusion (very much like Garveyism was) among working people as to how anti-racism and anti-capitalism can improve today.

  2. Not just her, the le Parti des Indigènes de la république’s basic principles contain this demand, for “la reconnaissance par l’Etat de ces différentes langues, cultures et spiritualités comme autant de besoins sociaux et comme des composantes à part entière de la communauté politique et culturelle et des institutions qui la constituent.”


    Recognition of the different ‘spiritualities’ of people as “needs (besoins) means giving them *authority* endorsed by the state.

    Some critic of laïcité!

    What kind of leftist wants the government actively endorsing religious institutions?

    We can get a pretty good idea from the participants in this event, including Houria Bouteldja and organised by a body not too distant from the Iranian theocracy.

    Islamic Human Rights Commission, Charlie Hebdo, Richard Seymour and the Indigènes de la République:


    • The text you link to, their “principles”, is vague (dignity, independence, etc) and full of contradictions. It has passages where it is against the Republic (as a whole, as a system, since it is to them a racist construction in the French colonial context), and others in which it aims to gain a political majority and “control of the institutions” for goals that are undefined (she never explains how to take the colonial out of the French state, and what it should be if the Republic is a colonial creation). You are right to insist that she is against the separation of church and state, and there is a reason for that, she argues that the religious experience in France is a manifestation of class and racial resistances.

      In her latest text written in January 26th, Bouteldja argued that Islam is the religion of the “wretched of the Earth” (seemingly talking about both colonized and workers). At the core of her argument is the idea that religious identity in France is the very expression of class-consciousness, class interests and indigenous national-consciousness against imperialism. Marx argued that religion ressembled the aspirations of the people that had a liking for the mythical promises of their church, but that it is a double-edge sword with potential reactionary outcomes. For Bouteldja, religion is the very manifestation of an anti-colonial struggle.

      It’s easy to figure out why.

      Because otherwise there wouldn’t be a colonial fight in France. Just believers, but no political activity. If believing makes you a fighter, then the Party of Natives can aspire to lead a nascent movement.

      It is similar to Leftists who think that “tout ce qui bouge est rouge” (all that moves is red).

      I find it all based on half-truths. Lots of people of colonial descent, once in France, do not turn to religion and the majority of the youth in France is atheist. People still suffer from the remnants of colonialism in France, very much like racism persists in the United States, but the struggle against racism does not have to precede and take over the social struggle.

      You know how people like to say that the Old Left used to simply things by saying class first, race and gender second, and that it is more complicated? Bouteldja is a case of race first, class and gender second.

      An example of that lack of sensibility towards gender issues is her comment in the past when she refused to take a stand on gay marriage, and she would rather speak like Alain Soral at times (a neo-nazi), as she talked about the impossible “universal gay political identity”. Basically, gay rights is an issue for the “white left” (her words), not for her and who she claims to represent.

  3. Gabriel Lattanzio, I agree with the general thrust of your critique of Houria Bouteldj and the Indigènes, although they have had some activity – shouting down and harassing gay feminist, and secularist, Caroline Fourest, and turning up at pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

    They also claim to be inspired by Frantz Fanon – an interesting choice for those looking for a united identity for the indigènes,

    Fanon, as described in Frantz Fanon: A Biography. David Macey (authoritative enough to be translated into French) never learnt Arabic despite his active support for the independence of Algeria. He faced a degree of suspicion, as a black antillais, from traditionalist Arabist sections of the FLN.

    The colonial legacy’s effects on France are pretty complicated, as a moment’s direct acquaintance will show. The famous ‘banlieue’, apart from including very prosperous suburbs, has a very varied population. Apart from a wide variety of those from a Muslim background, notably Magrebians, there are those from the Mashriq (Egypt and Middle East), and black African Muslims (Senegalese). Not to mention a substantial Turkish immigrant population…

    I could go on lecturing on this well-known point but it is not acknowledged by many of the instant commentators on the topic,- post-Charlie massacre, and certainly not by the Indigènes’ ideologues.

    And, apart from so-called ‘white’ French people (including descendants of immigrations from other European countries) there are large numbers of people from the Antilles and Sub-Saharan Africans. Many of them are members of Charismatic Christian churches. These are numerous – as they are in the East End of London.

    So, apart from the existence of strong secularist and (more commonly) simply religiously indifferent people, the Indigènes have a weak case *even if we accepted their own terms of reference.*

    It remains strange why a journal called ‘Jacobin’ publishes Houria Bouteldj and friends.

    Perhaps they should do some rebranding, and call themselves Les Chouans.

  4. I think I’m quite happy to be a white leftist. On the understanding, of course, that not all white leftists are actually white. The term is merely used to mean real left wingers.

  5. I’m guessing that the Jacobin editors didn’t do a background check on the writers. And they read paragraphs such as this:

    “In this sense, our struggle for liberation is also the condition of the emancipation of whites, particularly those who have the least to gain from the order that this vicious cycle perpetuates and the effects that it produces. As against the lies of national unity, we can build a decolonizing majority that breaks with the racist, imperialist, and capitalist system, and instead offers a solution that can liberate everyone.”

    …and said “OK, no problem with posting this piece.”

    I must admit that the piece itself doesn’t seem that problematic until one reads about the writers themselves.

  6. “To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).”

    – Marxist John Molyneux

    • I don’t see either Zionism or Islamic fundamentalism as progressive. Anyway, I see yr John Molyneux and raise you a Lenin:

      With regard to the more backward states and nations, in which feudal or patriarchal and patriarchal-peasant relations predominate, it is particularly important to bear in mind:

      first, that all Communist parties must assist the bourgeois-democratic liberation movement in these countries, and that the duty of rendering the most active assistance rests primarily with the workers of the country the backward nation is colonially or financially dependent on;

      second, the need for a struggle against the clergy and other influential reactionary and medieval elements in backward countries;

      third, the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc.

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  14. The irony is nothing Is more colonialist or “white” than obsessing over race and ethnic identity. A lot of actual indigenous cultures actually get the universality of humanity better. Some hot garbage nonetheless. It seems like leftists are under an incredible pressure to succumb to the identitarian post modern intellectual PC left. They want to still be Marxists but start to adopt that dangerous “we can do both”. Neoliberalisms a hell of a drug.

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